As they continued to burrow through the mountainous rubble of the World Trade Centre, the teams of firefighters – known as "New York's bravest" in tribute to their professionalism – could be forgiven for being in a state of denial.
Most involved in the rescue operation would have been aware that under the piles of concrete and twisted steel lay not only untold numbers of office workers, but several hundred of their colleagues.
The fire brigade had fought its way through the rush-hour congestion in a mêlée of sirens and screaming citizens on Tuesday morning to face a task even greater than the aftermath of the Trade Centre bombing in 1993.
But when 110 floors of skyscraper came crashing down barely an hour later, even the best training proved irrelevant. By then, many officers were marshalling confused citizens down stairwells or directing operations at street level, where they were directly in the path of thousands of tons of falling debris.
Up to 400 firefighters were feared dead, including Ray Downey, the city's chief of special operations, who had led a team from New York to Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing. Also feared killed were the majority of the élite rescue unit and entire other teams, as well as an estimated 20 officers of the New York Police Department. "It's just a devastating thing," a fire official said. "The fire department will recover, but I don't know how."
Most of the fatalities are thought to be lying under what remains of the twin towers, but scores are also feared dead after the collapse late Tuesday of the adjacent 7 World Trade Centre, which served as the command centre for the Office of Emergency Management.
The officers dashed up the Trade Centre through a cascade of bricks and mortar in search of survivors on upper floors. Many of the rescuers were from six-person units that specialise in building collapses, and many are now missing.
Marite Anez, who was working in an office on the 87th floor of 1 World Trade Centre, said that as she and hundreds of others scrambled down stairways, she passed many firefighters climbing up. She said that when she reached the first floor the building collapsed.
"That's when everyone panicked. Everyone was pushing. The fire people gave us light, showed us the way out. The ones who were going up, I'm sure they died," she said.
One of the fire department's Roman Catholic chaplains, Mychal Judge, had rushed to the scene to comfort victims – he too was killed in the collapse. The cream of the brigade were still missing in action last night.
Michael Carter, vice-president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, who was on the scene, said: "There are entire companies we can't find. At this point, it's less of a firefighting operation and more like a war."
The mood at the fire department's makeshift headquarters was buoyed sporadically by tales of miraculous escapes: co-workers pulled from the wreckage by the light of dawn; up to five colleagues who had survived by being trapped in air pockets. Throughout Tuesday night, fire officials went to firehouses carrying out head counts to determine the death toll. But well before then the realisation had dawned that the fire department was in the midst of its worst disaster.
Their colleagues from the NYPD were also coming to terms with a significant loss of life among their ranks. Police said that many officers and detectives remained missing although most of the sergeants in the area had escaped. When the final death toll is known, the NYPD is likely to mourn the loss of at least 60 officers. "We took some heavy losses," Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said.
Throughout the day the fire brigade was under siege. After the Office of Emergency Management was paralysed, officials set up a mobile unit outside the complex, but that was buried under rubble when the buildings came down. After that, they moved their command to a firehouse in Greenwich Village.
In the thick of it Tony Rodrigo, a firefighter from the Bronx, showed a depressing candour when asked by a television reporter how the rescue operation was going. As he pushed up the peak of his reinforced black helmet, he replied: "It's not. I could see people buried in the rubble – but I couldn't get them."Reuse content