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Book excerpt: ‘Cornerstones of Leadership’

FDNY Deputy Assistant Chief Frank Leeb details the response to American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed in Queens just 2 months after 9/11

The following excerpt comes from Chapter 7 of Leeb’s book, “Cornerstones of Leadership.” The core tenants of the book (training, teamwork, mentorship and the undeniable value of preparation) are delivered using stories from Chief Leeb’s career that highlight important leadership lessons – lessons that often focus on the soft skills of leadership both on and off the fireground.

On November 12, 2001 – just two months and one day after the September 11th attacks, American Airlines flight 587 departed from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) bound for Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. Shortly after takeoff, the Airbus A300 plane crashed into the neighborhood of Belle Harbor on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens.

All 260 people aboard the plane (251 passengers and nine crew members) and five people on the ground were killed. It is one of the deadliest aviation accidents in United States history. The location of the crash and the fact that it took place so soon after the September 11th attacks created fear and anxiety about another terrorist attack.

I was a firefighter working that day in Squad 270 in South Queens. We had just completed our morning roll call and were scheduled to go down to the World Trade Center site for the day tour to continue the recovery effort. We were preparing to leave quarters for the trip to lower Manhattan.


It was around 9:15 a.m. when a firefighter came running into the firehouse frantically telling us that a plane had just crashed. Soon after, we received a response ticket and were on our way to the crash. The ride from our firehouse to the Belle Harbor neighborhood is about fifteen minutes.

The Queens radio frequency was busy. The Queens dispatchers were continually providing updates and relaying additional addresses to the responding units as many calls flooded in. However, the location was obvious from the plume of thick black smoke rising above where the plane went down. As it turned out, the additional calls were for the locations where the engines fell to the ground, causing damage to nearby structures when they hit the ground. The engines had been sheared off the plane when the pilot and first officer attempted to gain control of the doomed aircraft.

While responding I made a phone call to my wife. When she answered, I quickly said, “We are responding to a plane crash in the Rockaways, I need you to put on CNN and see if there are reports of missing or highjacked planes.”

She soon informed me that there were no reports of hijacked planes, and she also let me know that CNN was reporting that the military had scrambled F-15 fighter jets into the area.

Within minutes of her letting me know this, the roar of the fighter jets could be heard overhead. Seeing fighter jets protecting the airspace above New York City was a surreal moment. I can still remember the mixture of dread and pride that filled my body, a strange combination to be sure. The sight of fighter jets overhead was something I had never witnessed before September 11th.

We arrived at the scene and were soon assisting in extinguishing the fire and searching for survivors. It was overwhelming – wreckage and debris scattered as if a bomb had been detonated. There was also a lot of fire in the area and several homes burning out of control. The entire scene looked far different from the quiet and tranquil tree-lined beach community that Belle Harbor is known for and that I had known from visits there. There were smoldering bodies and clothing everywhere, it was barely registering in my mind that these were the bodies of human beings. The smell in the air was similar to the smell down at the World Trade Center site where we had been for the past few months.

I remember the numbness I felt as we worked that day.

“Cornerstones of Leadership On and Off the Fireground” Independently published © August 2023

Frank Leeb is a deputy assistant chief in the FDNY. During his more than 30-year career, Leeb has held several senior staff positions, including the chief of the fire academy, chief of training, and the chief of safety. Leeb has also been a member of the East Farmingdale Fire Department on Long Island since 1983. Leeb has lectured nationally and internationally on motivation, preparedness, leadership, and strategy and tactics. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire service administration from SUNY Empire State and a master’s degree in security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School, Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS). Leeb has served as an advisory panel member for UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute’s (FSRI) “Study of Coordinated Attack in Acquired Structures” and is the chair for the First Responder Center for Excellence cancer advisory committee. He is also a principal on the NFPA technical committees 420, 1585 and 1710. Leeb authored the best-selling book “Cornerstones of Leadership: On And Off The fireground.” Contact Leeb via email.