An interview with a New York firefighter: Dan Potter

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

New York firefighters had a key role during the tragedy of 9/11. Their accounts are always very touching and rich in detail.

To achieve a better understanding of what happened on that day, Undicisettembre obtained the account of firefighter Dan Potter (quoted with his permission). Dan is the husband of Jean Potter, a WTC1 survivor, whom we recently interviewed and who published a valuable book, "By the Grace of God", which was reviewed by Undicisettembre here (in Italian), in which she gives a detailed account of her experiences.

As part of our ongoing effort to spread the truth about what happened on 9/11, we offer this interview to our readers.

We thank Dan Potter for his kindness and willingness to share his thoughts.

Undicisettembre: What do you remember, generally speaking, about that morning? Can you give us a brief account of your experience?

Dan Potter: I recall the day was perfect, not a cloud in the sky and the temperature was very comfortable. I was appreciating the fall-like weather approaching.

I woke up and had my coffee with Jean, who started her day a little earlier than usual. I made her an asparagus omelet before she left for work. I showered after her departure and walked to my vehicle, which was parked in the WTC underground parking garage. I was able to park at that location with a “Fire Department” pass. My thoughts were focused on the Fire Lieutenant Promotion course that was to start in Staten Island in an hour. I had a cassette tape of a lecture from one of the previous classes that I had attended and would listen to it during the half hour trip to Staten Island from the WTC.

As I began to answer my practice test questions from last week’s assignment, a fellow firefighter burst through the double door and in a loud voice exclaimed that two planes had struck the WTC. I immediately jumped out of my seat and from the school I was able to look across the water at the two smoking towers. I had no cell phone at the time, but I used a nearby phone to call Jean’s office. The phone rang and rang, eventually going into voice mail. I knew at that time Jean must be evacuating the building.

I began my frantic drive back over the bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn. I drove past a police officer while holding my badge out of the window, he was preventing other cars from entering the highway. I led a race of some seven to eight police cars behind me, and as I drove I took quick peeks at the tower Jean was in. From these quick peeks I thought that the impact from the airplane was below Jean’s office and the only safe place for Jean to be would have to be up on the roof of the tower.

I drove through the tunnel that separates Brooklyn from Manhattan and exited about seven blocks south of the flaming towers. I parked my vehicle and began to run up the West Side Highway towards the towers. As I got within two blocks of the towers, I began to notice various body parts strewn over the street; police officers started to cover the larger pieces and torsos. I cut down a block towards the rear of the firehouse I was temporarily assigned to, Ladder 10. The firehouse was located across the street and directly below the South Tower.

As soon as I entered the rear of the firehouse I immediately went to the front of the building where I could look directly up at the burning South Tower and get a better perspective on what was happening. I noticed an Asian man, who had been hit by airplane debris, lying down on his side in front of the firehouse, not screaming at the moment, but in much pain.

I put on my FD uniform shirt. I did not change my pants, but continued to wear my jeans. I then began to put on my firefighting turn-out gear (helmet, coat, pants and boots). That is when I met a firefighter that I worked with in the Bronx, his name was Peter Bielfeld. I acknowledged him and he said hello to me, I said that whenever he was ready we should become a team and head to the WTC South Tower directly in front of us. As we approached the front of the firehouse, I mentioned to Pete that I was going to grab a forcible entry tool, just in case. I turned to retrieve the tool in a locker, and Pete continued to the South Tower.

Just as I was about to leave the firehouse and catch up with Pete, who was a few hundred feet away, a firefighter standing at the front of the apparatus door holds his arm out to stop me and says: “Holy shit, here it comes”. The South Tower started its fall (I later found that Pete had been instantly killed). With me in the front of the firehouse was the Asian man, other firefighters and nurses who all scattered to seek shelter at the rear of the firehouse. I pulled the Asian man back as far as I could until the force overcame us. I hid my face behind a brick wall and covered the Asian man with my legs. When the shower of debris and force stopped, I felt as if I was going to suffocate. The Asian man was screaming “Out, out, out”. That is when I dragged him further to the rear of the firehouse and outside to the street. At this time, people were beginning to come out from their shelters and safe havens. I turned the Asian man over to two paramedics that were coming towards us. (I did not realize at the time, but the Asian man had a briefcase that was handcuffed to his wrist).

After turning the Asian man over to the paramedics, I started towards the North Tower. My experience told me not to stay in the street due to the falling debris from above that could kill you instantly. I darted towards the nearest building, which sustained heavy damage from the collapse of the South Tower. This was the Bankers Trust Building. Entering the building I came upon five or six “walking zombies”, people who were injured and their faces covered in gray dust with blood and sweat streaking down. I ushered them towards the back of the building where I told them they would have been safe. As I did so, they pointed out a nursery room where children were watched while their parents worked. I opened the door and was relieved to see that the children had already been evacuated as the room was severely damaged with heavy steel from the tower.

As I exited the building, I met an old friend of mine, Mel Hazel, that I had not seen in almost fifteen years. Mel was a retired FDNY Fire Marshal and he was wearing a suit. He looked at my fire helmet insignia (that designated the fire company I worked with which is Ladder 31) and said “Hey 31, are you OK?” Mel did not recognize me as I was covered in ash. I said “Mel, it’s me Dan Potter”. Mel was astonished and looked surprised. I told Mel that I needed to get to the North Tower as my wife Jean was up on the roof. Mel said we should have gone. At that very moment a police officer came running by us, and without stopping he yelled that the helicopter above had just informed the police officers on the ground through their portable radios that the North Tower was going to fall at any time.

By the time the police officer finished his warning the North Tower started to crumble and implode. Mel turned to run, I grabbed him by the shoulder and told him to come with me, we crouched in a fetal position up against a cement column just outside the Bankers Trust Building as the roar, wind and flying lethal debris whipped all around us. Again, the air was filled with total blackness and black dust, we could not breath and we both thought we would suffocate. Mel told me “Let’s get out of here”, we both crawled on our hands and knees in an unknown direction, and my flashlight beam was useless. We crawled a short distance and I scratched the surface with my hands. The gray thick dust on the ground revealed blacktop, we were now in a street. We crawled a little further where we encountered two or three cars on fire. They were burning furiously, but undetected because of the dense cloud of black dust. As the air cleared a little, we could finally stand up. We observed paper debris on fire, all the surrounding buildings on fire, the air was deathly silent and nobody was in sight. It looked like the end of a movie where the world ends. I told Mel that I needed to find Jean, and parted from him.

My first thought was to try our home, about two blocks away. I started to walk past flaming cars, fire trucks and overturned ambulances. Once again, no one was in sight. I then began to see a few firefighters. One of them was my boss, Captain Mallery. He was working on getting a hose line stretched from a fireboat on the Hudson River. I told him that I was OK, but I needed to find my wife. He told me to do so. I walked the two blocks towards my home. A shattered door on a small empty and evacuated market allowed me to enter and take a cold “Snapple” soft drink. My throat was completely closed and dry. I left a dollar on the counter and continued to walk. At the front of my building I met one of the regular door-men, who I knew very well. He did not recognize me, he said: “Fireman, do we have to leave?” I told the door-man who I was and he then recognized me. I asked him if he noticed if Jean had came home. He stated that he had not seen her. I then climbed the nine flights of stairs to our apartment, 9F. I had left my house keys at the firehouse and thus was unable to open the door. I knocked and then knocked harder praying that Jean would be on the other side of that door. At that moment, I realized that Jean probably did not survive and was dead. I slumped against the hallway wall and, for the first time, cried.

After a few minutes I composed myself, walked down the nine flights of stairs and sat on the bench across from our home where I usually would wait for Jean to come home from work. I was upset and stressed. I thought: “Where do I begin to look for Jean? How do I tell her parents that she is dead?” At that time, a photographer took a photo of me. As I heard the clicking of the camera, I told the gentleman “Now is not the time, please move along”, and so he did.

After a few minutes my conscious told me to get into our apartment. I saw the building custodian and told him that I needed a chisel and a hammer to force entry through my door and into my apartment. The custodian brought me the tools and I proceeded to force the chisel through the lock and opened my apartment door. As soon as I entered my apartment, my telephone rang. It was Jean's aunt, concerned about Jean's whereabouts. I told her I was not sure and hastily hung up on her. The phone rang a second time; it was my father. I told him:“I am OK, but I do not know where Jean is”. My Dad was crying on the other end, but he stopped and stated that he knew where she was! “Jean is at the Chinatown Firehouse, do you know where it is?” I stated of course I did and with that I hung up the phone and immediately phoned that firehouse. A firefighter answered the phone and I asked him if there was a “beautiful red head in the fire house”, he said: “She is here”.

I immediately secured the lock on my damaged door and ran down the nine flights of stairs without ever touching any of them! I ran to my parked vehicle and drove through the empty streets to the firehouse located on the east side of Manhattan in the Chinatown District. I walked into the firehouse and opened up the television room door and there before me was my beautiful wife, drenched in gray dust and sweat. Jean’s eyes opened wide to see the sorry sight of me. We hugged and Jean asked: “Where were you?” I told her: “You don’t want to know”.

I took Jean by the arm and we got into my vehicle. I asked her where she wanted to go and together we decided the best place to be would be her parents house in Pennsylvania, which was a ninety minute ride away. After stops along the way to flush out my swollen eyes, we made it in record time, as there was no traffic on the road at all. At Jean's parents house we showered and changed into borrowed clothes. This was the first time I was able to see what exactly happened with the airplane flying into the South Tower. That night we did not sleep, we just rested through the night. I did doze off a few times and my eyelids would fuse shut from the dust. I would have to soak my face in hot water to reopen them.

We returned to our apartment the next day to get clothes. Our apartment building did not have electricity and everyone in this zone had been forced to evacuate. Only a small security crew was allowed to stay and secure our building. Even though our apartment was in a closed zone, I was able to pass through with my fire department credentials (with Jean). We collected our clothes and stayed at a hotel in midtown section of Manhattan. We had not been able to return home for three weeks.

Undicisettembre: After the collapse of each tower, did you get a chance to see how severely damaged were the other buildings all around? In particular do you know how were the conditions of WTC7 before it collapsed?

Dan Potter: Building 7 was North of where I was. I did not notice it due to the heavy smoke that lingered in the area. I was at the complete opposite side of building 7. I did notice the other 5 or 6 story surrounding buildings on fire, including the tenements, whose fire escapes were filled with paper before the collapse that were now on fire. I looked up to see all these buildings surrounding me with visible fire.

Building 7 collapsed later in the afternoon on September 11th. Due to the enormity of the collapse field surrounding building 7 by the two towers, the FDNY was unable to get fire crews to the site. In addition the water supply was not sufficient as it was being fed by a fireboat for rescue operations at the WTC site. Building 7 was in part an Emergency Operations Center and stored thousands of gallons of diesel fuel on one of the floors, posing an extreme safety and life hazard. All occupants of building 7 were safely evacuated and with the FDNY dedicated to rescuing over 300 of its own missing firefighters, it was decided to let it burn and subsequently collapse. The FDNY could not endure another catastrophic deadly hit on their personnel.

Undicisettembre: Before collapsing, did the towers give any signs of being on the verge of collapse, or did they just come down at once? Were the collapses expected?

Dan Potter: The buildings gave no warning signs. We (most of the FDNY Officials) never expected the buildings to fail and collapse. I was fortunate to be given the “heads up” from the firefighter when the first tower (South Tower) came down, otherwise I would have been too far into the street for protection. When the second (North Tower) tower was about to come down, a police officer was running by me. He had a radio and he heard the Police Department Helicopter Unit above give a warning and stated “the North Tower is about to come down". A mere second after that warning, the tower started to implode.

Undicisettembre: What is really striking in your account is that you remained underneath both collapses. This is very uncommon, can you elaborate on this?

Dan Potter: I was very lucky. It all mattered where you sought shelter. I was too close to the Towers to run. I don’t have an answer other than that God was protecting me.

Undicisettembre: You were part of the rescue effort. What can you tell us about the rescuers and the work they were doing?

Dan Potter: On the second and third day, we started off by hand-picking debris and removing it via buckets. The process was very tedious and slow. We were mainly trying to hear sounds of any survivors that might be calling out. While doing this, we were warned that one of the surrounding 50 story buildings was unstable and may fall on us at anytime. To warn us a firefighter kept watch on the unstable building with a device that would detect any building movement. If this were to happen he would sound an “air horn” for us to get up and run from the site since the building would crash down on us. The air horn sounded and a hundred or so of us all ran, tripping on the jagged metal and soft soot on the ground. It was a false alarm. We resumed work, then another blast from the air horn sounded again and we all ran like a herd of deer: again a false alarm. We resumed the rescue effort when the alarm was sounded for a third time. This time we did not bother to raise our heads and just continued to do what we were there for.

After a few days, the Captain of Ladder 10 told me he knew where the Ladder 10 fire truck was located under the rubble. I volunteered to put a team together and go find the apparatus. I took a crew of about four firefighters and we found the fire truck. I told one of the firefighters to start digging at this location. He looked at me perplexed and said: “Where is the fire truck?” I told him: “We are standing on it”. The debris had compacted the fire truck to about six feet in height with the steel aerial ladder crushed flat on top of the rig. That morning we hand dug at the rear of the fire truck for hours, moving one piece of compacted fragments and wreckage at a time. Our mission was to get to the ground level and see if any firefighters who may have sought shelter from the collapsing tower were under the truck. Many firefighters did die this way. It took us almost all day to dig the six or seven feet down. Finally we reached the street level with the help of other rescue teams. We inserted a telescopic camera through the rear light (which was melted along with the aluminum ladders carried on the truck). Fortunately, there were no traces of bodies.

For the remaining months, the debris was being cut and removed. Whenever we came across human remains we would call for a GPS unit to come and record the location. We would then hand dig whatever we could recover and place them into a body bag, which was removed to a remote location. When we had several body bags filled, we would remove them all at the same time in an honorable procession where all work around us came to a complete stop. All, including the construction personnel, would remove their hats. If we came upon a firefighter, we would make way for many retired firefighters, who volunteered to dig and assist since many on the scene were fathers with firefighter sons missing. Most times it was not their son, nor did we realize that the remains of almost 2/3 of the victims would not be recovered. Other times, if we found a firefighter's son, we would call the father or the deceased firefighter’s station to respond to the site. We would continue to bag the body remains, but allow his fire company to remove him with an “Honor Guard”.

Many times when we noticed a body, or portion of, but were unable to get to it due to the rubble above. In this case we would mark the location with a bright orange arrow and record it, and come back to it when more of the debris was removed.

Undicisettembre: You guys, together with policemen and other rescuers, are considered the heroes of that day. In my opinion this acknowledgment is totally deserved, since you were all getting closer to a potentially deadly situation while everybody else was going in the opposite direction. What's your opinion about this? Taking into account that many of them also lost their own health, do you also consider firefighters to be heroes?

Dan Potter: Thank you for your kind words. The word “hero” is used too loosely and seems to have lost its true meaning. I am not a hero. The Firefighters and Police Officers that died on September 11th were the heroes. Those firefighters and police officers did exactly what we were trained for. Get to the problem and resolve it by saving lives and then property. If this alarm came in exactly the same way it did ten years ago, the response would be the same. Those who died would do the same job as they did a decade ago. They were fearless, they were heroes!

Undicisettembre: What are your thoughts about your colleagues who climbed the stairs in WTC Towers 1 and 2 during the evacuation? Most of them died, but they died while trying to save people who would have died instead of them.

Dan Potter: I am so proud of what they accomplished. Without hesitation they safely evacuated tens of thousands of doomed souls, including my beloved wife. This is what the FDNY does on a regular basis. I am very fortunate and extremely grateful to be a small part of this magnificent, world-renowned organization.

Undicisettembre: What do you think about conspiracy theories that claim 9/11 was an inside job? Most of these theories believe the Towers were intentionally demolished with explosives, some of them even claim no aircraft ever crashed into the towers and all the videos that show them are fake. What's your opinion? How do your colleagues feel about these ideas? Are they irritated, indifferent?

Dan Potter: Bogus, simply bogus. Has no merit and all of us that were there know the truth. Fire Chiefs witnessed the first and second aircraft strike the buildings. Simply bogus.

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