"On September 11th": 9/11 in the Words of Firefighter Frank Occhiogrosso

by Frank Occhiogrosso

Note from the Undicisettembre editors: The following text was written by a firefighter who was on duty on September 11 and was deployed to the scene after both Towers collapsed. We firmly believe that precious accounts like this one, full of pain and a sense of helplessness, are the best way to spread the memory of what happened on that day and to ensure it is not forgotten. We thank the author for providing us with this text. His name is Frank Occhiogrosso, quoted with his permission. We thank him for his kindness and willingness to help. An Italian translation is available here.

I have been on the FDNY since July 11, 1981. I was promoted to lieutenant in 1994. On September 11 2001 I was a newly promoted captain with twenty years of experience in the Fire Department. When newly promoted, officers cover any open spots until they are permanently assigned to a company. Just before 9/11 I was ordered to cover a captain’s entire vacation (about three weeks) in an engine company in Harlem. I was thrilled to have a place to hang my hat for a while.

My first day in Harlem was the morning of 9/11. A firefighter ran into my office and told me that an airplane just crashed into one of the World Trade Center. I immediately turned on the TV and saw the horrible image of the burning tower. We watched the TV coverage of the fire and collapse while listening to the Fire Department radio. It was chaos. Multiple alarms where dispatched for each tower. Many companies and hundreds of firefighters were sent to the scene and we were expecting to be sent there any minute.

While watching I had an incredibly strong sense of impending doom. My knees buckled when the second plane hit the other building and the sight of them collapsing nearly knocked me over as I stood, distant from the operation, in my office. It was gravely apparent that we suffered tremendous casualties. I immediately gave orders to outfit a spare engine with every available tool and flashlight that we had on hand. I did this for two reasons; I remembered from the Trade Center bombing in 1993 that flashlights were invaluable for assisting with evacuation, but more importantly, I wanted to get everyone occupied with activity. Keeping busy prevented us from pondering the horrors that our brothers had suffered already and those that still lay ahead for us.

When the Towers collapsed, most of the chiefs running the operation where killed or injured. We could hear the dispatchers on the radio trying again and again to make contact with them but the entire command post had been wiped out. The radio silence was deafening.

A citywide recall of all firefighters was ordered which meant that all off-duty personnel were to report to work and remain on duty until further orders. The firehouse filled up with distressed and angry firefighters. Hours went by. We watched the images on TV, listened to the department radio, and monitored the ever growing plume of smoke that we could see on the horizon as we looked south. Although the regular units assigned in the house were given strict orders not to respond downtown, the department requested the spare engine in quarters to go to the scene. We rounded up as many firefighters as we could fit on that rig with every piece of equipment that we could muster and sent it downtown. The on-duty members were ordered to remain with their regularly assigned company in quarters. “Do not respond to the Trade Center without specific orders” was repeated over and over by the dispatchers on the Department public announcement system. The feelings of anger and powerlessness were overwhelming for those of us who could not respond to the scene immediately, however I was compelled by duty to enforce the order to remain in quarters. This was my first day in this house and I knew that the men weren’t happy with this stranger preventing them from going downtown to rescue their brothers.

Fortunately, a senior captain who was regularly assigned in Harlem for many years rounded everyone up to address the situation. He told the men that he was OK with the Department's order to hold some units in reserve. It made sense. These companies had a proud history of defending Harlem from fire and couldn’t abandon it now. A call could come in at any moment for a fire in our immediate area. It was exactly what we needed to hear and he did much to relieve the pressure of the situation. I am eternally grateful for that captain’s support and his calming leadership at that pivotal moment. It was a lesson and experience that I have recalled on many occasions since.

As the day turned to evening my regular shift ended, however I had to remain in quarters because of the recall. The standing order not to respond to the Trade Center was still being repeated and the battalion chief on duty reminded us of that fact in person—how incredibly frustrated we felt! That evening, around 9:30pm I heard a ruckus on the apparatus floor and went down to see what was going on. There was a group of about fifteen recalled firefighters who couldn’t wait any longer. They were heading to the Trade Center—orders or no orders. I was torn. My heart was telling me to go with them while my brain said, “Follow orders and remain in quarters.” In the end I convinced my brain that it made sense to go. First of all, the company to which I was assigned was now staffed with another on-duty crew and boss. Secondly, there were no other officers in this group of rebels and perhaps I could prevent someone from getting hurt by offering some supervision. Dressed in full firefighting gear, we walked down the block to the avenue and flagged down a regular city bus. We told the driver that he was taking us to the Trade Center and to my surprise he was fine with it! Under the circumstances, this driver was more than willing to be hijacked.

The scene at the Trade Center was completely devastating. It was night and I still remember the giant grid of twisted I-beams rising out of the smoldering pile of debris, all eerily lit by the emergency lights set up around the perimeter. There were still pockets of fire throughout the area in which the carcasses of wrecked fire apparatus and equipment littered the landscape. Hours later, the Department still had not recovered enough leadership to control this huge disaster. Fire departments from all over the region had sent manpower, apparatus, and equipment to help us out and they were scrambling all over the site. Despite their best intentions we were infuriated that while we were being held back from responding here all day, these guys from outside the city were operating as they pleased. Without anyone to tell us otherwise, we spent the next few hours doing whatever we could. We extinguished fires with lengths of hose that we found at the scene. We searched for victims everywhere that we could. As the sun rose on September 12, we found ourselves at the end of a long line of firefighters, cops, and others who were passing debris hand over hand from the big pile to a smaller pile. Those in the front of this line were digging out the only surviving victim that was removed that night. Seeing that injured survivor pulled from the rubble gave us all a lift and sense of accomplishment. Cheers erupted from this line of dazed and exhausted rescuers.

Soon we were getting a lift back to Harlem on a fire truck from Wayne, New Jersey. In the days and weeks that followed I would return many times to the Trade Center site as the FDNY regained its footing and took control, but my memories are mostly of that first night when I got there on a hijacked bus and witnessed the inception of one of the greatest mobilizations of manpower, equipment, and determination that I had ever seen in my lifetime.