Monday, August 15, 2005
9/11: Those Who Were There, Speak 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Recently released by a New York State appellate court order, the transcribed interviews of over 500 firefighters and emergency responders are now available for public viewing at the New York Times September 11th Records website. This excerpt appears in the October 23rd, 2001 interview testimony of NYFD Battalion #1 Chief Joseph Pfeifer who was with the crew (seen many times in news accounts) investigating a gas leak near the WTC:
"...I was working the night before in the 1st Battalion, and sometime about 8:15 or so in the morning we got a call to Lispenard and Church for a gas leak in the street. We were there for a while checking on the gas leak, and then we heard the loud roar of the plane come over, and we turned around and we looked and we saw the plane coming down, heading south towards the Trade Center, and made a direct hit on the Trade Center.

Q. You actually saw it hit?

A. I saw it hit. Within about ten seconds after that or so I gave the first report on the radio and transmitted a second alarm for a plane into the Trade Center, and then shortly after that, the units I was with, I told them all to start in to the Trade Center, and shortly after that I found a radio to transmit the third alarm. I told the dispatcher this was a direct attack on the Trade Center and we had the second alarm coming in on the north tower and to stage the third alarm on Vesey and West. I pulled in front of the building. I looked up and I saw no fire coming out, no smoke coming out, which would have been the west side of the building.
What I find interesting - and I may be reading too much into this language - is where Chief Pfeifer says, "I told the dispatcher this was a direct attack on the Trade Center."

Remember, this was the first of the planes to hit, and at that point in time it was believed the airliner crashed into North Tower 1 by accident. It was not until the second plane struck the South Tower 2 that the deliberate nature of the attack was clear. I think one explanation for his terminology might be that by late October, when Chief Pfeifer was interviewed, his recollection may have been he told the dispatcher the Trade Center was "under attack," or perhaps the term "attack" is specialized firefighter jargon that would have applied in this case regardless of implied intention. From page 4 of the 9/11 Commission Report:
The plane [American Airlines flight 11] took off at 7:59. Just before 8:14, it had climbed to 26,000 feet, not quite its initial assigned cruising altitude of 29,000 feet. All communications and flight profile data were normal. About this time the "Fasten Seatbelt" sign would usually have been turned off and the flight attendants would have begun preparing for cabin service.

At that same time, American 11 had its last routine communication with the ground when it acknowledged navigational instructions from the FAA's air traffic control (ATC) center in Boston. Sixteen seconds after that transmission, ATC instructed the aircraft's pilots to climb to 35,000 feet. That message and all subsequent attempts to contact the flight were not acknowledged. From this and other evidence, we believe the hijacking began at 8:14 or shortly thereafter.
MORE: the official 9/11 Commission Report, 585 pp. (PDF) available from http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report.pdf

There is so much to be learned from these wrenching, uncensored accounts: if you've seen the Jules and Gedeon Naudet documentary, 9/11: The Filmmakers Commemorative Edition, you've seen the sad images of Father Mychal Judge, who just succumbed to a fatal heart attack, being carried out of the building by the NYFD. Chief Pfeifer was the firefighter who found him in the debris:
And that was just in the blackness where at that point we didn't even know our way out. Then Father Judge was there and he was lying on the ground and I went over to him, took off his collar, I opened up his shirt, checked for a pulse, and I knew at that point that he didn't have any.

Q. Where was he?

A. He was with us in the lobby all the time.

Q. In the lobby?

A. Right. He was saying some prayers and he was very anxious in the lobby. I could watch him. He was very concerned, very different, Father Judge, as I know him. Apparently, what it was, it was a heart attack. We didn't know at the time it was a heart attack. We thought he was hit with debris.
The last glimmers of hope and resignation of building collape's finally are evident in this excerpt closing the Times article:
"I think that probably the biggest impression I got out of this whole thing was this is probably as close to being in an infantry unit that gets overrun," said Joseph Cahill, a paramedic. "We are scattered everywhere. Nobody knew where anybody was. Nobody knew who was in charge. It really felt for a moment that I was in 'Apocalypse Now,' where Martin Sheen goes: 'Where is your C.O.? Ain't that you? No. Uh-oh.' "

The first fatality among firefighters had been Firefighter Suhr, hit by the falling woman. As the paramedics who brought him to the hospital headed back to the trade center, a nun and an emergency room doctor climbed into the ambulance. As they drove, they encountered an emergency medical technician walking toward them out of a cloud of smoke. The buildings were now down and he was holding his helmet.

They asked where his partner was, and the wandering medic responded that he had left him. "I'm looking for my father," he explained. "He was in the World Trade Center."

"We said, 'Why don't you get in the back with us?'" recalled Soraya O'Donnell, an emergency medical technician.