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A Decade of Hope

Dennis Smith

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page





  Dan Nigro

  Ray Kelly

  David Prezant

  Jay Jonas

  Ada Rosario Dolch

  Peter King

  Lee Ielpi

  Brendan Ielpi

  Jim Smith

  Dan D’Allara

  Zack Fletcher

  Ken Haskell

  Michael Burke

  Talat Hamdani

  Toni Ann Carroll

  John Vigiano

  Debra Burlingame

  George Siller

  Jay Winuk

  Akiko Takahashi

  Ray Habib

  Robert and Barbara Jackman and Erin Jackman

  Cameron and Ann MacRae

  Rudy Abad

  Sally Regenhard

  9/11 Tribute Organizations Mentioned in A Decade of Hope


  Also by Dennis Smith

  Also by Dennis Smith


  Report from Engine Co. 82


  Dennis Smith’s History of Firefighting in America

  The Aran Islands—A Personal Journey

  The Fire Safety Book

  Firefighters: Their Lives in Their Own Words

  A Song for Mary

  Report from Ground Zero

  San Francisco Is Burning


  The Final Fire

  Glitter & Ash

  Steely Blue


  Brassy: The Fire Engine That Saves the City


  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

  New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

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  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published in 2011 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  Copyright © Dennis Smith, 2011 All rights reserved

  Page 365 constitutes an extension of this copyright page.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Smith, Dennis, 1940-

  A decade of hope : stories of grief and endurance from 9/11 families and friends /

  Dennis Smith with Deirdre Smith.

  p. cm.

  ISBN : 978-1-101-54351-1

  1. September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001—Personal narratives. 2. September 11 Terrorist

  Attacks, 2001—Social aspects. 3. Grief—United States. I. Smith, Déirdre. II. Title.

  HV6432.7.S635 2011

  974.7’10440922—dc23 2011023325

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  For the families of the 2,974 lost on 9/11,

  those men and women and children who endured the suffering

  of that time and who have found whatever it took to integrate

  that day into each following day of the last decade

  And for Lee Ielpi, Rescue Co. 2, FDNY (ret.),

  whose words and actions are invariably inspiring

  . . . we will not fear, though the earth should change, and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. Listen.... the God of Jacob is our stronghold. Listen.

  —Psalm 46:1-3, 7

  I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.

  —John 14:27


  I want to thank and acknowledge the goodwill and the inspiring strength of the twenty-five interviewees within these pages who allowed themselves to speak so freely about their lives and loss. It would be an understatement to say that it was difficult for them to again call upon those memories of the worst times in their lives.

  The president of Viking, Clare Ferraro, has been generous in supporting the efforts of the 9/11 community, and her friendship is much appreciated. Rick Kot is the most reliable editor a writer could possibly have, and I deeply thank him for everything he has contributed to making this a more meaningful book and me a more thoughtful scribe. I appreciate editorial assistant Kyle Davis for his relentless attention. I would like to convey a big thanks to the team of Viking professionsals, from the book designer, Francesca Belanger; jacket designer, Eric White; to all of those who shepherd a book from the initial proposal through the editorial process; and to those whose sales and marketing efforts bring it finally to the public. My agent, Al Zuckerman, has represented giants in the publishing industry, but he, as Vasari said about Raphael, always found time for the common man. Thanks, Al. FDNY commissioner Sal Cassano and NYPD lieutenant Gene Whyte offered good advice and help that are manifested in the pages of this book. Teresa Grogan-Lustberg has again offered consequential direction, this time in suggesting I ask Valary Oleinik to transcribe the recordings of what became more than thirteen hundred pages of manuscript. Thank you, Valary, for enduring the difficulty of listening to these many heartfelt and very moving interviews. Jennifer Adams and her staff at Tribute, the 9/11 families memorial center on Liberty Street, helped to recommend the right balance of interviews among the many thousands of possibilities. I will always appreciate their support. I thank my children Brendan, Dennis, Sean, and Aislinn for keeping me in the front of their collective mind. And, finally, I thank my daughter Deirdre, whose intelligence and writing skill helped me mold these interviews into a coherent whole called A Decade of Hope.

  —Dennis Smith, New York City, May 13, 2011


  Never before in American history had our peace and well-being been so suddenly, fully, and unalterably changed as they were on the morning of September 11, 2001. On that Tuesday morning all Americans suffered, and many around the world suffered with us. The suffering grew more intense as the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, as the powerful images of search and recovery, funerals, and honors were presented to us. Now, as those months have grown into the accumulated years of a decade, most of us are still very much
haunted by the horror of that day, and we continue to feel the pain within that memory.

  But for thousands of Americans—the spouses, children, parents, siblings, and loved ones of the 2,974 men, women, and children killed in the World Trade Center, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and in the Pentagon—memory can be a cruel master.

  How have they gotten through this time, these people who directly experienced the loss of someone vitally loved? How have they dealt with such a public and historically important loss, a loss that they were reminded of each day in newspapers and magazines and on television? How have they faced the absence of a family member at every milestone celebration—birthdays, graduations, engagements, marriages?

  How have they rebuilt their lives? How have they found the inner resilience to transcend the grief of their loss—and the pain of wondering what might have been for the individuals lost that day? I wondered if the suffering of 9/11 became an obstacle for every thought that was meant to be hopeful, every plan to build for tomorrow. Was every thought framed within the shadows of terrible loss? Was peace possible for these families, or was there a continuing maelstrom of sadness?

  I have spent a life working in the emergency services, from a time of great social unrest in the South Bronx to that field of absolute destruction at the World Trade Center on 9/11. I arrived at Ground Zero immediately following the fall of the North Tower, and I stayed for fifty-six days. I attended dozens of funerals through those early months of September, October, and November of 2001, so along with the thousands who lined up outside those churches and temples I came to share as much as was possible the depth of family grief.

  What I sought to discover in the interviews in this book is how these individuals found the courage and the hopefulness to move forward in their lives, to ensure the containment of their families, to grieve and to honor, and to understand the consequence of this very visible tragedy on their future. And, for many, to see how they were able to transform their grief into productive ends.

  Faith, compassion, and charity are required to attain the greatest of virtues—hope. We need to believe that the world of tomorrow will be a good world, populated by moral and well-meaning people. It is why we have eulogies—to celebrate the good of a life, for we rely on the memory of that good to serve us in molding a life of decency as we step into our future.

  It is easy to say that we must believe in the goodness of our future, and that our collective future can be better than our past. But it is not easy to live with the memory of loss even when building a better tomorrow. At the heart of it all, it takes moral character and goodness to go on.

  Dan Nigro

  Dan Nigro was the chief of operations when he drove with Chief of Department Peter Ganci over the Brooklyn Bridge from the Fire Department’s Brooklyn headquarters. “This is going to be the worst day of our lives,” Chief Nigro uttered as they watched the smoke rising from the North Tower. Not long after, Chief Ganci asked him to walk the perimeter of the buildings to do an additional evaluation. The South Building came down when he reached the Church Street side of the complex, and he ran for his life. He never saw Chief Ganci again.

  Before the collapse I was on Church Street. I was heading to the lobby of the South Tower, which was a shortcut back to the command post on West Street. If you went through the South Tower, then through the Marriott Hotel, you could stay fully in the interior as you walked. All I saw on Church Street were pieces of the building and pieces of the plane. I thought that the South Tower would be a safer route back.

  But then a guy came out of the crowd. If this had happened in a movie you would think it was an integral part of the film, because he literally stopped me. I wanted to say “I’m really in a hurry,” but this guy was shouting, “My wife is in the North Tower!” I knew the guy, and knew that his wife had had a baby three months before. These things triggered in me the sense that I couldn’t run away from him, and so I told him, “Nobody’s cell phone works. She’s fine, I’m sure.... Don’t worry, don’t worry.” I didn’t really believe it, not with what I saw all around me. But no sooner did we turn around and begin to walk fifty feet toward the South Tower than the building came down.

  When the South Tower fell, we ran to a big, substantial place, a Starbucks, figuring it would be easy to get into. I grabbed the door handle; it was locked. That was the second time that I felt I was destined to get hit with the building. Once again we were outside, and I thought we were too close to the falling tower to find safety. But we were on Dey Street, midway between the North and South towers, and because of the way that the buildings were laid out, I guess we were far enough inside the doorway to feel that we would be safe. My aide that day was Adam, who is my nephew. He had on only a short-sleeved FDNY shirt and no helmet, typical of the way our aides work. He did not expect to be put into a firefighting position. So we got into a corner, and I got on top of him, and we waited to see what would happen. The sound was a huge, screeching roar. The only thing that landed on us was that thick dust and light debris. There was enough of it, though, to make me feel very worried: When is it ever going to stop? I asked myself, and When will we be able to breathe again?

  The black cloud just enveloped us, and the dust got everywhere—in the nose, the ears, the eyes, every crevice. And then it suddenly stopped. After that extremely loud noise came those unbelievable minutes of quiet—a forbidding silence. We picked ourselves up, and I couldn’t see more than twenty feet. I could see a car parked at the curb, ten or fifteen feet from us, that was half crushed by something. In a moment of dark irony, I was happy that it had hit the car and not us. I didn’t see anyone in our area who needed help. I don’t know what our mental state was at the time, but I would say that we were extremely confused.

  You could say that this guy who stopped me in concern about his wife was a random thing. He came out of the crowd and prevented me from being either in the building or directly under the building, which is where we would have been. People who believe that things are for a purpose would say that there was some other reason for it. Some would say this is how random our life is.

  I do remember clearly that I wanted to get back to the command post. The most direct route there would have been to turn right and try to go through the plaza there that separated the towers, but all that was there now was a mountain of collapse. It dawned on me to go down Broadway and then turn and head over to West Street. A couple of building maintenance guys pulled us into a building—I guess we looked like ghosts—and we were able to wash some of the stuff out of our eyes and ears in their washroom.

  So we continued downtown to try to head west. But suddenly there was that terrible sound again. We weren’t really in a position to see the building coming down, but this huge cloud came and covered us again. Later I saw in some of the pictures how the cloud mostly blew to the south and east, and followed us to where we were.

  When the North Tower fell, it was, at least for us, not as bad as the first time. But it was still frightening to everyone, as it added to the sense of calamity. We waited a short time for the cloud to disperse again, and could see the Fire Department communications van to the south of us. We ran down to it, thinking they had to know what was going on. We saw Dr. [David] Prezant [FDNY chief medical officer; see page 28] standing there with a few firefighters. I said, “What’s going on? You can’t tell from the radio who’s in charge. Where is the command post? Who’s running this operation?” I was really surprised when the guy said that Chief [Thomas] Haring, a deputy chief in the Bronx, was in charge of the command post, which was now on Broadway just south of City Hall.

  I was stunned. Had everyone been killed? Where was Chief Ganci? Commissioner [William] Feehan? Chief [Donald] Burns? The command post, originally west of the buildings was now east, not even on the same side of the buildings. So all of us walked back: Dr. [Kerry] Kelly [FDNY chief of health services], Dr. Prezant, myself, my aide, and a few firefighters who I think were assigned to Engine 10 and Ladder 10.

  We go
t up to the post where Chief Haring was and learned that it was just an operations post, for there were so many fires burning and people hurt, and that the real command post was still at West Street. So we left the doctors there, because they were dealing with some injured people. They had set up a triage center in a drugstore, I think.

  Someone I knew from Ladder 111, Vince Conway, was there, and said to me, “Pete is missing.” I think that’s the first news I got about Chief Ganci. I saw that this then placed me in charge, and I continued to make my way to the command post. On West Street, a few blocks north of the Trade Center, we formed somewhat of a command post setup. Chief [Frank] Cruthers and some of the other staff chiefs were there. They confirmed that Chief Ganci and Commissioner Feehan had been together and were now missing. As we learned later, almost everyone, with the exception of Jay Jonas and those miracle guys in the stairway of the North Tower, was missing, gone, never to be seen alive again. Which was the case with Pete Ganci and Bill Feehan and Donald Burns and all of them. I was the highest-ranking person now operating.

  Thinking about it now, part of what was in my head was disbelief: How could this have happened? The first thought that entered my mind when the building was coming down was disbelief that I was going to be killed by the collapse of the World Trade Center. It just didn’t make any sense to me. Afterward, knowing that both of the towers were gone, I came to accept that it had happened, though it wasn’t really registering in the reality part of my head. It was hard, maybe impossible, to put everything together. Days later I read a lot of the official department interviews, and many people had the events out of sync. They might have remembered they were in a certain location, but we know that they couldn’t have been at that place at that time. The day happened in such a once-in-a-lifetime fashion.