World Trade Center: an interview with firefighter John Picarello

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

Eleven years have passed since 9/11, and to preserve the memories of that day Undicisettembre is continuing to collect direct accounts.

Today we are publishing an interview with New York Firefighter John Picarello, who was deployed to the scene on the morning on the attacks.

Picarello vividly recalls the chaos of that morning, and explains how the collapse of the Twin Towers can appear to inexpert eyes as if it was caused by synchronized explosions.

We thank John Picarello 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?

John Picarello: That morning was like the morning we have today, it was beautiful and even though it was September it was like a spring morning. It was about 70 degrees with blue sky. I was working in the 40 Battalion, which was located in the Sunset Park Section of Brooklyn. We were watching the news as every morning at the change of tours, we had that flash with the plane hitting the North Tower. We knew right away that our unit was going to go there. The only reason why they would send us from Brooklyn, being the World Trade Center in Manhattan, is because we were on the south end of Brooklyn and we could get through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and arrive on the scene faster than a lot of the units that had to navigate the heavy traffic in Manhattan.

So we were sent and we arrived on the scene just minutes after the second plane had hit the South Tower. When we arrived on the scene there still was some debris falling. We had to find the Command Post which would give us our assignments for the day. I was working with the Battalion Chief, Edward Henry. He had some forty years of experience in fire fighting. I only had fifteen years of experience at the time.

We were on West Street, which was in front of the Towers, and Liberty Street. The Chief went into the lobby of the Marriott Hotel, which used to be right between the Towers, to get the assignment. I had to pull aside our Suburban to get it out the way, then I would have to meet him inside. Being outside you could see those two gaping holes in the Towers, debris was still falling, there were car fires around us and unfortunately the most difficult part was seeing people jumping from the upper floors. It was very difficult.

I got inside and we received our assignment which was the seventy-fifth floor of the North Tower. We were in the lobby of the Hotel, we had some units with us and we were going through the walkway that used to connect the lobby of the Hotel to the lobby of the North Tower. We got our units ready and we took maybe four or five steps to exit the Hotel when we heard this rumbling sound. We looked at each other. With us there was a Battalion Chief who was part of a Safety Battalion and he was going to come with us to the upper floors, his assignment was to monitor the structural stability of the building. So if anything didn't look good he would warn the units out. So I looked at him and I realized he had this troubled look on his face, and right away I thought: “If he's troubled, then it's not good.”

The rumbling was getting louder and we realized something was collapsing. We thought it was the Hotel at first, we didn't know it was the South Tower collapsing. It only took a few seconds, it got really loud. The lobby started to vibrate as if it was an earthquake, we run to take some cover. Just a few seconds later, this thing came crashing down. There was a full collapse in the inside of the lobby where we were.

In a few seconds it was just pitch black and quiet. Very quiet.

I remember opening my eyes and I was on the floor on top of that Battalion Chief of the Safety Battalion: his name was Lawrence Stack.

I couldn't see anything, even with my eyes open it was pitch black. I realized I wasn't trapped, I could move around. We switched on our flashlights and then I realized that everything had collapsed around us. Less than three feet behind me there was a wall of debris from the floor to the ceiling that cut us off from the rest of the lobby. I had to help the Chief to get out of his turnout coat because the corner of his coat was pinned under a wall that had shifted in the collapse.
Behind me there were maybe 10 or 15 of us. You couldn't see very clearly because it was still pitch black, there were just flashlights.

We broke up into two groups. The first group went to look for a way out, because you couldn't get through the walkway as it was all collapsed in and there was no way to walk to the North Tower. I stayed behind with the second group. There were two firefighters who were trapped, so we were just pulling debris out of the way to get them free. To my knowledge they both survived, I know we got them out and took them with us. We followed the first group after about twenty minutes.

One of us felt a cool breeze on his face and we realized it had to come from outside, so we followed it and we came to an opening. We forced the door and we could see down this opening; there was daylight at the end of it. I don't know if it was a service entrance, we didn't know what it was but we went down there. We took several people with us. There was one huge guy who was about 6 foot 5, maybe three hundred pounds: he had a head injury, he had a very severe leg injury. We tried to hold them up and walk with them as slow as we could.

We got to West Street and saw that it was total devastation. Debris as far as you can see, fires, there was an ambulance that was on fire across the street. There was the Chief of the Department, Chief Peter Ganci, standing there: he was looking at firefighters who would come to this opening and look outside, he would wave them out. They would go out and they would go to the left. That is, South, towards Liberty Street.

I turned around to the other Chief and to the other guys and I said: “I'll stay with you till we get some help to get these people out of here”, since we couldn't get them over the ledge, they were injured too badly.

And the Chief of the Department began to motion to me to come to him, he wasn't just telling me to get out, he wanted me to come to him. So the Chief I was with told me: “You had better go see what he wants you to do.” So I made my way out. I went to Chief Ganci and he told me that he needed four ladder companies, another squad company and a rescue company. “Go find them and have them report to me immediately”. He told me the Command Post had been moved, North of Vesey Street. I still didn't know the South Tower had collapsed, I didn't look behind me.

I started to walk and I arrived underneath the North Bridge. I stood there for a few seconds trying to take a breath because I was exhausted. And as I started to walk again I heard a rumbling sound, and this time I looked up and I saw the big aerial that was on top of the North Tower swaying a little bit. I thought to myself: “I know, that's 300 feet high and if that thing falls off the Tower it's going to be catastrophic.” As I was looking at that, the North Tower began to collapse. I thought in my heart at that moment: “This is it. I'm not going to survive. This Tower is going to collapse and I'm dead.” Inside of me I felt this pull and I said to myself: “This is not a dream, you've got to run.” I turned around and I started running. I ran across Vesey Street and West Street and there was a big open lot, there was nowhere to hide, I could feel this behind me, the pressure, it was like a wind.

You could hear the collapse, it was like “pa-pa-pa-pa-pa” as each floor was collapsing on the next one, and I looked up over my shoulder, and I could see just this big plume of smoke developing as I ran. I just remember this thing getting right behind me. Everything was getting grey. There was a truck in front of me and I thought: “The best that I can do is jump behind this truck.” So I dove behind the truck, I covered up as fast as I could and when this big black and greyish cloud passed over me it was like a hurricane. I couldn't believe the power of this thing. There was stuff in it that was flying around. I could hear glass breaking, the truck was rocking back and forth as the wind hit it. That lasted, I don't know, I guess a few seconds.

And then it was eerily quiet again. I remember opening my eyes and looking around, but I couldn't see anything, it was like I had my eyes closed. It was pitch black again, I don't know if I got trapped or if something collapsed on top of me. Nothing, I have no way of knowing. It took a few minutes, they say it took 4 minutes for the whole cloud to lift. You know, to me it seemed like forever.

I remember when I took my first breath it was like the air was solid, you could actually feel the air on your face. It was as if someone threw a handful of sand in my mouth, when I breathed in I started choking and vomiting. It took me a few minutes, I got up, I started to walk. I fell down a couple of times. I was still looking for the Command Post and I could see through the cloud, the lights from all the emergency vehicles about a block or so ahead of me, and I realized: “Ok, that is where the Command Post is”. At that time there were other units running towards the scene. I made my way to an ambulance and they helped me clean up my eyes, my ears and my mouth. I couldn't use my face piece to breathe because it was impacted, it was solid with stuff in it. I had to take it off.

After about 10 or 15 minutes I went back to the front of where the Towers were and for the first time I noticed they were gone. I looked around and there were fires everywhere. Each building I looked at had multiple floors with fire in them. I remember thinking: “How would you attack this?” There were absolutely no words to describe this. The debris was probably four or five stories high in some areas stretched for about two or three blocks. The center of the debris, that we called “the pile”, was about ten or fifteen stories high. Huge steel beams sticking sideways.

The North Bridge, where I was a few minutes before, was collapsed and crushed to the ground and it acted like a dam, as it was holding back a huge amount of debris from rolling across Vesey Street. For the first time I was able to hear through my radio the Chief I was assigned to, he asked me if I was okay and I asked him where he was. He said he was all right, he was trying to get his bearings but he survived. But unfortunately most of the others we were with did not: Chief Lawrence Stack didn't survive, the big guy we were with didn't survive. Chief Peter Ganci, who I was with just two or three minutes earlier, died in that second collapse.

I stayed on the scene until about 12 o'clock or so. I went to the hospital, got checked out, I was released at about 3 o'clock. I came back to the scene at around four and I worked till 8 PM when I was so exhausted I realized I needed to leave. So some of us managed to get a Parks Department vehicle and one of the guys drove us over the bridge back to Brooklyn. I didn't get home until about after midnight.

It was a tough day, I didn't know who was lost until a few days later. I lost about 24 friends, the next fire station from us on Fourth Avenue, Engine 201, lost everybody with the exception of the driver, the MPO, as we called him: Motor Pump Operator. Rescue 5, which is in Staten Island, lost part of their night tour and all of their day tour, that is about 10 or 11 guys.

Undicisettembre: Did it take you four hours to get home from Manhattan?

John Picarello: No. It took us from eight o'clock, when we left, about one hour to get to my Fire House. Then I showered, changed and sat for a while. But I didn't get home until midnight.

Undicisettembre: You didn’t realize the South Tower collapsed even after the North Tower collapsed. Would you like to elaborate?

John Picarello: It wasn't until after I had gone to the ambulance. I cleaned up my eyes and mouth and I walked back two or three blocks. I was standing on the corner of West Street and Vesey Street looking up and that was when I realized that both Towers were gone.

So I didn't realize the South Tower had collapsed even when I saw the North Tower collapsing. I wasn't aware that the South Tower was gone already

Undicisettembre: Did you notice anything strange during the collapses, such as explosions? Or were they in your opinion too fast to be natural?

John Picarello: In my opinion there was nothing unnatural. I saw when the North Tower was collapsing and you could actually hear it was one floor collapsing over the next. It was like “pa-pa-pa-pa-pa”. I heard some of my friends describing it as explosions but I think it's normal when collapsing with the pressure and the smoke being kicked out. That's what I saw. So you could see the fire and the smoke being pushed out each time a floor was hitting the next. But I didn't notice anything unnatural.

Undicisettembre: There's one little detail that I would like to stress. You described the noise of the collapses as “pa-pa-pa-pa-pa”, a colleague of yours used the same expression, and some people around the net said this implies he heard explosions, that it was a controlled demolition. Since you were there can you rule out this crazy idea once and for all?

John Picarello: Yes, because I've seen explosions before, like a gas explosion, and I've seen building collapses before. Even wood frame buildings that I've seen collapsing in fourth or fifth alarm have plumes of fire and smoke being pushed out of the building as it collapses. To me it was normal.

I know they said there were synchronized explosions, but to me when floors are collapsing one on the other, it's just the laws of physics that say that fire and smoke get pushed away from them.

I don't believe even for one second that those were explosions or detonations in anyway.

Undicisettembre: You got a chance to walk by the North Tower after the collapse of the South Tower. How would you describe Ground Zero in those moments?

John Picarello: There was some chaos, obviously, I looked around, I could see some of the units running toward the building, others were carrying people away from the building. There were several vehicles, including an ambulance and a couple of rescue vehicles, fully involved with fire.

Building number 6, which was the US Customs House on the corner, had damage too with fires in it. There was debris still falling. Vesey Street had debris in it, also West Street had a lot of debris in it. There was some confusion, but the rescue workers, such as the police, had objectives, so it might have looked like chaos to somebody else, but not to me since I knew what they were doing. They were trying to get people away from the buildings.

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

John Picarello: When I looked at WTC7 it seemed like there was a piece taken out at the lower floors, probably from the collapse of the North Tower. There were several floors that were heavily involved with fires, more towards the lower end of the building. They had cordoned off the area, because they said it might collapse and it collapsed at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon.

The Deutsche Bank building, just across the street from Tower 2, had some huge steel girders, fallen from the Towers, stuck into it. They were about ten, maybe twenty tons per piece. There were also fires in that building.

Directly across West Street opposite the Hotel there was a huge girder stuck on one of those buildings, and there was some fire there too.

The Hotel where I was appeared to be maybe four or five stories high, I think it was 22 stories originally. Aftetotal devastation. Debris as farike a giant “V” [pictured right] cut into it. But after the second collapse it looked like it was a few stories high. Behind it there was what we called the pile, there was a lot of smouldering and a lot of fire.

After the collapse of the second Tower the Customs House had several floors fully involved with fire.

That's basically what I remember.

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

John Picarello: I don't think the entire collapse was expected. I do remember one of the concerns was that the part of the South Tower above the impact zone was notably tilted. You could see it. There was a noticeable leaning.

And one of the concerns was trying to get the units up there and trying to get that fire out and cool the area down because the feeling was that those top stories, those 25 stories, could fall. Our thought was: “Can you imagine something like a 20 storey building falling from the sky, if that topples off the towers?” So I think our concern was that the collapse might be partial and that the top end of the buildings might fall. But I don't think that anyone envisioned that the entire building would have actually come down.

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.

John Picarello: That was an amazing feat to begin with.

Back in 1987 there was a fire downtown at Downtown Athletic Club, we arrived at that scene and I remember having to walk from the Lobby to the seventeenth floor with full gear. That took about thirty minutes. In this case some units made it in the North Tower to the fire zone in forty five minutes, so it took forty five minutes to an hour if you were in good shape. To me that showed an amazing determination. Those guys did an excellent job to make it up that fast.

The only down side for us was that for much of the time a lot of our handie talkies didn't work. Before the collapses there was some communication going on, but after the first collapse I didn't hear anything anymore, with the exception of my Battalion Chief after the second collapse.

Undicisettembre: Did you go to Ground Zero in the following days for the search and rescue activities?

John Picarello: I was there on September 17th, the following Monday. They had Ground Zero divided into zones, so that they were able to keep track of where the units were and what they were doing. I was basically with some units in front of where the Hotel was, by West Street. We discovered remains underneath. Part of the day was being on top of the pile helping the “bucket brigade”, we passed over buckets of debris. A lot of hand digging was still going on, we knew at that point it wasn't a rescue mission but a recovery mission since it was six days later.

The environment was terrible, there was such a stench! It was due to the acrid chemical odor mixed with the decaying remains. There was a stench! It was terrible. Those two mixed together were horrible to breathe. We wore some surgical masks, some had aspirators but none of those really helped much.

So the environment wasn't very healthy in my estimation. But overall it was pretty orderly, getting relief back and forth, taking a break and going back to your zone to continue digging.

The remains we were discovering were maybe from people who were at the upper floors, because they were on the top of the pile of debris. Those who were at lowers levels were discovered after weeks, or even months.

Undicisettembre: How did 9/11 affect your everyday life?

John Picarello: In a lot of ways. First and foremost it was what they called “Post traumatic stress”. While I was coming to grips to what happened, I had nightmares for a few weeks afterwards, which would decrease over time. Since I'm also an ordained minister I have some experience on counselling, so at least I had somewhat of an advantage in the respect that when I was going through the effects of post traumatic stress I knew what it was. I couldn't stop it, I had to go through it, but at least I knew and recognized what was going on, so I was able to talk to some people, to talk through it. Some people think it's not normal, that there's something wrong with them, and don't realize that they have to go through this.

Those effects lasted several weeks. Like if I was sitting at home maybe having a cup of coffee in the morning, and a big truck was running near my house, and I felt some slight vibration, I would have been transported back to Ground Zero.

After that I noticed I became grateful for small things I had taken for granted. Something as simple as my neighbour's lawn. I was looking at his lawn and I was appreciating the way the sun was reflected off the lawn. It was a beautiful green. I must have passed that lawn every day for years, but I'd never thought about it.

The really tough part became about January 2002, that was when I realized I had almost lost my wife because I had almost died. I started to think through what happened, and the first collapse, and I realized that less than three feet behind me, in the lobby, there was this huge wall of concrete and twisted debris, from the floor to the ceiling, so I realized how close I came to being crushed.

And then I thought about standing in front of the North Tower watching the collapse and turning around to run, about to be killed. I thought about how close it was and how easily I could have been killed.

I thought about before Chief Ganci called me, I was sitting on the ledge of that opening before exiting the building, and I had no way of knowing that in less than two minutes, that whole area would be crushed.

So I started to realize how fragile life is: one minute you are here and the next minute you could be gone and you have no control over it.

So 9/11 changed my life in the sense that I became more grateful for the things I have, don't sweat on the little things any more. I became more appreciative of people. You know there are people who take for granted they are always going to be there. I care more about my family, I treat people differently. Because you have no way of knowing.

I thought about Chief Lawrence Stack and those guys in the lobby. I was talking to them and then in less than 30 minutes they would be dead. Usually you don't realize that, but when I did I started to treat people differently.

As far as it's up to me I try to have no enemies. If someone tries to be an enemy to me, it's on them, I try to have as many friends as I can and try to be good to people because the truth of the matter is you are not promised tomorrow, nobody is.

There are more important things in life then getting a raise, getting a better job, moving and getting a better house. For instance, your health! I have friends in their forties who, as a result of 9/11 and months spent at Ground Zero doing search and rescue, now have 25% to 30% lung capacity. And they are people who never smoked a cigarette in their lives. They have an invalidity pension and some think it's good money, but any one of them would trade this money for health in a heartbeat. That gave me a totally different insight on life.

I have to be grateful for what I have. For sure I'm trying to get better things but don't be unappreciative for what you have. It also changed my relationship with my wife, with my kids, how I minister, how I talk to people, even my sermons on Sunday are different.

These are some of the ways, but it changed my life drastically.

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. What's your opinion? How do your colleagues feel about these ideas? Are they irritated, indifferent?

John Picarello: I'm a student of history, and I love history, there isn't a single tragedy that happened in this country that doesn't have its conspiracy theories. For some reason we are drawn to the dramatic and sensational, we like intrigue. And it sells books! In some ways it's good to make you second guess things, that's the only positive I see in conspiracy theories. Unfortunately what conspiracy theorists do is to start off with a theory, and rather than investigating what the facts tell us, they look at the facts through the lens of their theory. So they have the same facts as all other people but they impose their theory upon the facts. This is my view on conspiracy theories; you can take any facts and make them look different very easily and you'll have enough people to follow you.

Undicisettembre: How's life in New York 11 years after 9/11?

John Picarello: It's a very different city. It's also a safer city, much friendlier than it was before 9/11. I would like to tell you that people are also more God fearing but they are not, also because there is a new generation of people that were children on 9/11 and to them it's history, something you read in a book but hadn't actually lived through it. They are more distant from the effects of 9/11. So in that sense there isn't a whole lot of a lesson learned for that generation. But the older generation is more helpful and more friendly and that transformed the city. People gather and help each other more easily and a lot of neighbourhoods are like that now. People take it as personal pride. “This is my neighbourhood, this is where I live and if something happens let's do something together about it.” You didn't see much of this before. People were more inclined to mind their own business. But today it's like “Hey wait a minute, we don't want any of that to happen again”. If they see something strange, it’s “let's look into it, let's make a phone call.”

So in that sense it's different and as far as business in concerned, Ground Zero is not a place you want to avoid anymore. The surrounding area to Ground Zero is more residential than it was. People are rebuilding it and taking personal ownership of the city.

The city has changed tremendously, and it's a change for the better.

Nessun commento: