The New York Times, SEP 13, 2001

Department's Cruel Toll: 350 Comrades


They are trained to rush toward disasters, even as others are running away, and so death, in the minds of many New York City firefighters, is a regrettable, but at times unavoidable, part of their difficult job.

But this?

Ladder Company 132 and Ladder Company 105 and Engine Company 33 are missing in action.

So are all five of the elite Rescue Companies that serve the city.

So are all the members of 30 other fire companies that responded to the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center and found themselves caught in the collapse of buildings as they headed up stairwells and through hallways to rescue people.

A total of 350 firefighters, nearly 30 times the number ever lost before by the department in a single event, is missing or dead, officials said yesterday.

Five of the department's most senior officials, including the chief who specialized in directing rescues from collapses of this sort, are also missing or dead, as are a dozen battalion chiefs. At least 10 fire trucks were buried in the rubble.

The wives of some of the missing firefighters have appeared at firehouse doors to see if anyone can help find their husbands.

"I keep looking at the list of people that are missing," Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen said at the scene. "I don't want to talk about all the names. Just a phenomenal group of people. The best of the department. The best Rescue guys are missing. The Squad guys are missing. Terrific units all around here. It's just phenomenal. It's just unbelievable to me. I don't know."

The physical and emotional toll on the Fire Department could be seen yesterday in the strain on Mr. Von Essen's face, in the halting speech of firefighters as they discussed dead colleagues and in the steps the department was taking to ensure that the injured agency, with 11,500 uniformed firefighters, would still be able to provide fire protection for the rest of the city.

With more than 400 firefighters devoted to searching the wreckage, officials said resources were stretched thin and they were sending one ladder truck and one engine to initial reports of fires, instead of the normal two. Response times, they said, will also probably be slower in spots.

But no place has been left uncovered, officials said. Fire companies from Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut, among other places, had arrived to help. "There were Jersey units in a bunch of places in Brooklyn," said Frank Ancona, a retired firefighter who was helping staff Ladder Company 113 in Brooklyn. Volunteers from Sayreville, N.J., had ridden with him on Tuesday night, he said.

Shaken firefighters and officers spent much of the day searching through the rubble for lost colleagues, mourning and rearranging responsibilities as they attempted to deal with the loss of so many senior people. The work served an important purpose even if very few people were found to have survived, officials said, because it helped some of the firefighters move past the horrors of the previous day, when they watched so many get hurt and were then prevented by unstable buildings from embarking on a vigorous search.

"The fireman are glad to be in there digging," said Francis X. Gribbon, a department spokesman. "They were anxious to go."

Officials have estimated that as many as 400 firefighters were at the scene, including several hundred inside the buildings, when the first of the towers fell around 10 a.m. Some have stories of fortunate escapes just before the buildings collapsed. But far more prevalent are disturbing accounts, such as the death of a department chaplain, the Rev. Mychal Judge, who was giving the last rites to a firefighter who had been injured by a falling body when both were swallowed by cascading rubble.

One of those feared lost in the debris was Capt. Timothy Stackpole, who had returned to full duty several months ago after recovering from severe burns he suffered in a fire in 1998. He was off duty when he heard about the terrorist attack but had gone to the Trade Center to help, officials said.

At Engine Company 1 in Manhattan, firefighters recalled how they got out of the north tower when they were told the south tower had just collapsed. Their lieutenant, Andy Desperito, told them to get out, while he stopped to help someone. Several minutes later, they were on the street, when the north tower fell. Lieutenant Desperito's body was recovered later in the day.

Among those caught in the second collapse were three of the department's most senior officials, William Feehan, the first deputy commissioner, Peter Ganci, the chief of department, and Raymond Downey, the chief of special operations, who were directing rescue operations from a command post near Vesey and West Streets. Chief Downey is still missing, as are Chiefs Gerard Barbara and Donald Burns, two of the department's highest-ranking supervisors. The bodies of Commissioner Feehan and Chief Ganci have been recovered.

Commissioner Feehan and Chief Ganci had each served the department for more than three decades. Chief Downey had led the New York team that helped search for survivors after the 1995 terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City.

Mr. Von Essen, after recounting these losses and others on Tuesday night, said, "The Fire Department will recover, but I don't know how."

Families of dead or missing firefighters were are being offered counseling services, officials said, and the department has set up special phone lines for those who have not been able to find a member of the department.

Friends, meanwhile, were doing their best to console families. In Breezy Point, Queens, residents said that 10 firefighters from there were either missing or dead and that so many people showed up for a special Mass at St. Thomas More Church on Tuesday night that the priest ran out of communion wafers.

On Long Island, William McLaughlin, a former secretary of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said: "I have heard that some people are dead. But how do you say that if they are still listed as missing. So you just say: `Keep praying. He's a big guy. Maybe he is in there somewhere.' "

Occasionally, there was good news, as there was yesterday when M. J. Magbanua, after a journey that took her to two firehouses, found her friend, firefighter Daniel Murray, of Squad 18, injured but safe at a firehouse on Lafayette Street.

"I feel guilty sitting here," he told her.

"No, you were out there," she reminded him.

In 1966, when the department suffered what had been its biggest loss of life, 10 of the 12 firefighters killed in a fire on East 23rd Street were buried after a joint funeral Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The logistics this time for the department, which usually helps arrange large, ceremonial funerals, is more daunting, although there was some talk yesterday of a possible memorial service at a large arena, like Madison Square Garden.

Some friends of firefighters have already built a makeshift memorial to their sacrifice out of a damaged truck used by Ladder Company 24 in Manhattan. It was parked yesterday, outside the firehouse on East 31st Street, decorated with floral bouquets and an American flag that flew from its upraised ladder. In the soft gray soot that coated the truck when the buildings fell, friends had written farewells to four people from the firehouse who have not been found.

Steve Wojciechowski, a firefighter at Ladder 24, said the truck would probably be pressed back into service soon., however. Too many other trucks had suffered more serious damage, he said.

Short-term manpower shortages were being addressed, officials said, by having firefighters work extra shifts and by making use of many volunteers. Lieut. Tim Carr. said he had driven 10 hours through the night with two of his colleagues from a 23- member force in the small town of Nelsonville, Ohio. They stood outside the Police Academy at 10:30 a.m. looking for work.

Despite the acts of concern, many firefighters still seemed to be reeling from the magnitude of their losses. Firefighter Paul Mendoza said his unit, Rescue Company 4, in Queens, had just gotten over the deaths of two men in a fire on Father's Day. Now everyone from the unit who had worked Tuesday morning was missing or dead.

"We may never get over this," he said.

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