One year on: The fire chief's story

Commander Richard Picciotto survived the collapse of the twin towers. His courage saved many, and he's still fighting now - for the rights of his colleagues

Liz Thomson
Wednesday 11 September 2002 00:00

"See you at the big one." That's what New York firefighters used to say to each other. Maybe they still say it to each other, though they've surely seen the biggest, which consumed 343 of their brothers. "You say it at a big fire – you know, this one's tough, but there'll be something tougher," says Richard "Pitch" Picciotto, who was leading his men up the stairway in the north tower when, at 9.59am on September 11, "the roar passed through us, like nothing at all". In his heart of hearts, he knew what had happened, but when, after what seemed an eternity, his question was answered over the radio, it still seemed impossible. He and his men were on the 35th floor. If one tower could come down, so could the other. It was unlikely anyone above the fire had survived.

So, at 10.01am, Battalion Commander Picciotto gave the order to evacuate. The rescue was now a retreat – a sacrifice of the few to save the many. "I made a lot of decisions that day and I'd make every one of them the same way," he reflects, amid the calm of an office close to the World Trade Centre site. "That's comforting to me."

As they descended, he and his men "swept" each floor, shepherding workers down the stairwells – one, who had "something important" to do, had to be manhandled from his desk. Something of a rhythm was established until they reached floor 12, where Pitch and his team discovered some 50 souls, too elderly, too disabled to make the descent. The firefighters formed a human chain and they'd got everyone as far as the seventh floor when there was a reprise of the same ghastly thunder heard just 29 minutes earlier. Eight seconds later, the north tower had fallen and Pitch and a handful of survivors awoke buried amid the rubble of its second-floor landing, mumbling prayers unspoken for decades.

Rescue took almost five hours. Pitch pulls out photographs of where he was trapped, and shows how, when he came to, he had to clamber through the hot, jagged rubble to guide firefighters toward signs of life. "Basically, the chiefs left on the outside didn't want to send more people in. The [rest of the] building did collapse a few hours later, so if there were firefighters in there that would have been horrendous," explains Picciotto, whose account of his entombment in Last Man Down makes for a sweaty read.

Born in Staten Island, Picciotto "grew up in a project where the good jobs were policemen and firemen". His father worked for the Department of Sanitation, his mother was a nurse – "public service", he notes. The first in his family to go to college, Picciotto then took all the state and city exams, and the first job that came up was in the police department. "I loved it, but I'm a 21-year-old kid playing cops and robbers for real in the Lower East Side. It wasn't a job that was going to remain fun." So, when the fire department called, he embarked on the basic training and was assigned to his first firehouse, in Harlem. "That was in 1977. It was a great house. Great bunch of guys, lots of experience. I was a company-trained engine chauffeur and then a ladder chauffeur. I loved it." His wife, he agrees, was, like all fire department wives, aware of the danger but put it out of her mind.

Firefighting is, he says, "an adrenalin rush. There's nothing in the world like the feeling of putting out a fire and saving a life. It's a dirty job but a tremendously rewarding one with instant gratification. A lot of people can't do it." So, though he'd just clocked on when the first plane hit, Battalion Commander Richard Picciotto was on his way downtown from his 100th Street firehouse within minutes. "There are about 350 firehouses in the whole city and on that morning they just kept calling more and more."

Picciotto had been at the World Trade Centre fire that followed the 1993 terrorist attack, and he knew the building's layout. Though all New York firefighters study high-rise buildings in much the same way London cabbies do the Knowledge, Pitch saw the damage that was done. "Changes were made, but more changes were recommended than were made, which is always the case – and I understand that. You couldn't prepare for what happened that day, but we could have had better equipment and communications, and we could have had more input on building construction. But that's not cost-effective. From what I understand, they did think about a plane running into the World Trade Centre. But the buildings were designed 30 years ago and the planes of 30 years ago were slower. Less weight, less fuel-carrying capacity – though they admit they didn't consider that, only the impact of the plane hitting and the resulting fire." Ultimately, the towers were designed to pancake rather than topple.

Last Man Down is no polemic, but you do get from it the sense of anger and frustration felt by New York's firefighters. "It's ridiculous," sighs Picciotto. "For years, no one talked about this in public. Other cities and states fund their fire departments better. Now they've put civilians in charge and they're cutting, cutting, cutting – they think that's being a successful administrator. Last year, the budget was $50m, this year it's down to $45m. Well, great! You're providing a service. So how was the service? Oh, it went down, but we saved money.

"We do maybe 60 runs a week, average. Some are medical emergencies, some are water leaks and some are fires. It's like saying to someone, 'You have medical insurance and you didn't get sick, so we're taking it away.' They're talking about closing more firehouses, cutting the staff on firetrucks. God forbid anything else happens."

Given how much Rudolph Giuliani prized cost-effectiveness above everything else, was Picciotto angered by the role he took, the adulation he received? "Yes, a bit. Giuliani was very good for New York City. The changes he made were tremendous. He bought the city back. But for workers, he wasn't good. He'd say you can't have a raise because we're rebuilding. Our salary didn't go up when the economy was doing well. Now it's doing bad, so they can't afford it." Did he make cuts that cost lives? "A little bit. But he was profoundly affected by what happened, and he was sincere. A lot of other people just went through the motions."

When Picciotto was finally dragged from the rubble, he was taken to St Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village. There they dressed his cuts and burns, attended to his torn shoulder, washed out and bandaged his smoke-damaged eyes. Then, after a few hours, he went back to the firehouse. "I didn't want to go home; I wanted to be with firemen. We were getting reports, names... It was devastating. My family wanted me to come home, but they understood." He's had nightmares, had some counselling – had enough. Retirement beckons, maybe a writing and speaking career, maybe politics.

Meanwhile, he's helping those families who lost loved ones on that day – there are nine from his battalion alone. "I've organised a skiing trip for widows and orphans. I feel a responsibility, it's something I want to do." He's also been to lots of funerals, lots of memorials, told his story to lots of people. "People said I should write a book. Firemen want to know what went on inside that building and there are not many first-hand accounts. Once I started I wanted to know the whole jigsaw. But it's just too big a jigsaw. There are 343 firemen and 3,000 people dead and thousands alive. No one will ever know the full story, but I hope it will help make connections."

'Last Man Down; The Fireman's Story' is published by Orion, £6.99

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