‘We stand with the FDNY’: Stagnaro reflects on the NFFF’s role after 9/11
The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation CEO shares his memories from Sept. 11 and beyond, plus the ongoing support for families impacted by tragedy
On September 11, 2001, Deputy Chief Ron Blackwell was to be sworn in as the fire chief of Prince George's County (Maryland) Fire and Emergency Medical Service Department following the retirement of Chief Ron Siarnicki. Chief Siarnicki had stepped into the role of executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) in July 2001.
I was at my desk in the department’s Fire Prevention and Investigations office when a group of investigators rushed into my office, urging me to watch what they were witnessing on TV.
As we watched in horror – naturally, as firefighters, discussing how we would set up command, where we would deploy units, our concerns for a potential building collapse – we also wondered: How could such an accident occur? Then, another plane crashed into the second building, and we all knew this was no accident.
Driving to the County Administration Building, I listened to the radio, getting updates on the situation in New York. Along with my colleagues, we assembled outside the County Council Chambers, where we were told a plane had struck the Pentagon. Wisely, the fire chief’s swearing-in ceremony was canceled. Within hours, Chief Ron Siarnicki called and asked for a small contingent of officers to assist him as he prepared to take the NFFF team to New York.
Having served with Chief Siarnicki, I felt privileged to be asked to be on this team. Like every other American, I wanted to do something to assist – and it was an honor to be able to go to New York. We knew we wanted to help, and we knew our work would have to do with the mission of honoring the fallen and supporting the survivors. However, we didn’t know then exactly how we were going to do it.
We arrived in New York and set up a meeting with the FDNY's Counseling Service Unit (CSU). Chief Siarnicki met with CSU Director Malachy Corrigan in Queens. It was the first time I met Frank Leto, a young lieutenant recently assigned to the CSU. Frank spoke very highly of Malachy as a caring and hard-working man. Frank described Malachy by saying, “New York is a very political city. Malachy is not political, but he knows how to maneuver through the politics.” I remember thinking then, as I do now, what a high compliment this was – and that it was an excellent quality to try to emulate.
In the following days, the NFFF set up a Command Post in the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan as Incident Management Teams and other support functions rolled in to assist with the rescues and recoveries.
We worked 16 or more hours daily, attempting to bring in resources from across the country. We assisted in getting help and equipment to the CSU as they set up satellite locations for families to call and gather while they waited to hear if their loved one had been found. Everything from bunting for the firehouses to U.S. flags for the funerals was being ordered.
In one of the satellite offices, we set up fax machines and cell phones for when a family called to ask about their firefighter. The light-duty firefighter who took these calls was sitting in front of a non-operational computer and monitor with about 30 sticky notes with names on it. The firefighter very professionally and empathetically answered the call. He asked for the firefighter's name and said, "Let me check my computer to see if the name is here." He’d then scan the sticky notes and reply, "I'm sorry, I don't see that name on my computer." It was a moment that taught me no matter how bad things get, you can find ways to make do with what you have and still take care of people.
Being in New York City during those very dark days was an opportunity to see the very best of humanity. The city, the firefighters and the nation all stood together in appreciation of what we had experienced.
In the coming weeks, months and years, the NFFF continued serving our FDNY colleagues.
In 2011, thanks to the foresight of a handful of firefighters from the Denver area, we added the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climbs to our national events. The stair climbs serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made by Americans on that fateful day as we remember the 343 firefighters lost on September 11 and the ones who have died due to 9/11-related disease in the years since, along with the thousands of innocent men and women killed in those horrific attacks. These events allow the NFFF to continue to provide resources to CSU and programs for FDNY and the families of these fallen heroes.
And, in fact, remembering 9/11 and all fallen firefighters is embedded in the mission of the NFFF as we support their families and colleagues, every day and all year long. We stand with the FDNY and CSU in their important work and will continue to be there for as long as needed. And just as I felt during those early days back in 2001, I am forever honored and humbled to do my part.