‘The focus was the job’: 9 months working the pile

Chief Freddie LaFemina recalls the unimaginable scene at Ground Zero and the relentless work to find his brother firefighters


“Where’s my brother?”

FDNY Captain Freddie LaFemina was racing downtown with Squad 270. The FDNY had issued a recall of all firefighters to their firehouses – an act not employed since World War II. All special units except for two were downtown when the towers collapsed. And his brother – a firefighter with Rescue 3 – was supposed to be working that day.

As the dust settled that Tuesday morning, thousands began desperate attempts to reach loved ones, colleagues, anyone. Such panicked pursuits were happening within the FDNY, too.

“They have a list,” LaFemina recalled. “They’re trying to conduct a rollcall to see who’s missing. Who’s there. Who’s not there. Who was off duty.”

It was chaos.

LaFemina and his crew arrived on the scene – as close as they could get at least, several blocks away from where the towers once stood. He was hearing word that Rescue 3 was trapped.

“Then we walk up the two or three blocks, and it was overwhelming; it was massive,” he remembered. “Sixteen acres of destruction with six, seven high-rise buildings, not including the two towers that are down, actively burning.”

It seemed incomprehensible that anyone could have survived the collapse.

LaFemina soon ran into Division Commander Tommy Galvin.

“I’m so happy to see you alive,” Galvin said.

“Yeah, I’m good.”

“No, you were on the list,” Galvin explained. “Your brother’s on the list, too. We haven’t found him yet.”

Concerned about his brother and thinking of his own family, LaFemina knew he had to find a way to call home to let his wife know he was OK. That moment wouldn’t come for several hours, though. The work ahead was unfathomable.

‘Of course I wanted to go to the fire’

Freddie LaFemina began his fire service career in 1985.
Freddie LaFemina began his fire service career in 1985.

Freddie LaFemina began his fire service career in 1985, but it wasn’t until several years later that he found himself guided into special operations. It was an instant fit: “I loved every minute of it. That was where I always had my passion.”

In 2000, LaFemina was assigned to Squad 270 in Queens. Geographically, it was the furthest special unit from the World Trade Center site.

On the night of September 10, 2001, LaFemina was studying in his office for an upcoming chief’s exam. They ran a couple jobs in the middle of the night. It was a routine shift.

The next morning, the alarm at the World Trade Center was announced. It was normal, he said, as any alarm at the Trade Center was an automatic second alarm due to the size of the facility, and any multiple-alarm fire was announced in every firehouse in the city.

“It didn’t resonate with us until we put the TV on – of course I wanted to go to the fire.”

Instead, with a nightmare unfolding in Manhattan, Squad 270 was assigned to protect the rest of the city, first responding to a reported train station bombing on the Long Island Railroad – a false alarm. That tied up the crew for a while. But then, the recall announcement was made, and they knew they would likely be headed to the biggest incident in FDNY history.

‘Where do we start?’

LaFemina had been to many building collapses in his career – massive incidents where more than six dwellings were down – but this scene was on an entirely different scale.

“I’m telling you, the pictures do not do it justice. As bad as it looks, when you were there, it’s compounded 150 times,” LaFemina stressed, adding that even beyond the tons of rubble and the deep-seated fires, there were other anxieties. “There’s fighter jets all over the place. So now the wheels are turning. Is this the enemy? Are we under attack?”

Crews soon got word the jets were U.S. military.

Amid what command structure remained after the collapse, LaFemina’s crew was divided among various assignments – some members assigned to help rescue two Port Authority officers, others trying to dig out two civilians who could be heard in the rubble.

But mostly, they found bodies.

Workers stand at Ground Zero in New York, Sept. 12, 2001.
Workers stand at Ground Zero in New York, Sept. 12, 2001. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett)

“The only crew that survived the collapse was 6 Truck,” said LaFemina, recalling the chaos of knowing they were alive but not being able to find them. “One of my ex-bosses, John Salka – he had been my lieutenant – he came running by and he’s telling me, ‘Jay’s on the radio. We can’t find him.’”

This was Jay Jonas, captain of Ladder Company 6. Jonas’ crew ultimately found their way out of the rubble several hours later.

As the day wore on, LaFemina saw the dangers all around them: “My focus was, of course, getting to our guys and any civilians that could possibly be alive, but I didn’t want any of my guys to get severely injured or killed during this rescue operation. We kind of all had that mindset as supervisors, and we took some chances, but we were still aware of this fact that you lose rescuers at these incidents.”

The most pressing concern for LaFemina: His crew was working in the collapse footprint of 7 World Trade Center. It was 3:30 p.m., and he had to make a decision about moving the crew. He knew that it would take 30-45 minutes to navigate the debris to get outside of the collapse zone, so they had to go – now.

7 World Trade Center collapsed at 5:20 p.m. The crew had made it out.

‘You had to park the emotions’

It wasn’t until 4 or 5 a.m. that LaFemina ran into a chief who had a cell phone he could borrow.

“It was emotional,” he said of that first call to his wife. “She kind of knew I was OK because somebody had told her they had heard me talking on the radio. But she wasn’t convinced.”

Then, LaFemina saw his brother. He had taken the day off at the last minute.

The firefighter who worked in his place that day, Joe Spor, did not survive. He had only been with Rescue 3 a couple of weeks.

“He doesn’t talk about it much,” LaFemina said of his brother. “We never really discussed it much, but I know he feels terrible.”

Guilt is a common emotion, he shared: “I think every firefighter working that day, even that didn’t get there that day, has survivor’s guilt. There was a lot of it going on. You’re talking about a lot of emotions.”

But on that day, and in the weeks that followed, emotions were secondary, LaFemina explained: “No matter how we feel, you have to focus on this. You had to park the emotions. Some people couldn’t do that. They were too overwhelmed. But for me, the focus was the job because who’s coming? There’s nobody coming. It’s us. If anybody is going to get rescued here, we are going to rescue them. There’s nobody after us. This is it. So, that was the emotion, the anxiousness of trying to find somebody and just anything, a sign of life, you know?”

‘I was really hurting’

The first few days were painful, physically and psychologically. There was no heading home for a hot shower or good night’s sleep, not for LaFemina.

“The first time I sat down was probably on Wednesday night,” he recalled. “And somebody brought me something to eat, Burger King or whatever it was. And I had a sit, and I remember I must have fallen asleep, and somebody woke me up. I said, ‘How long have I been sleeping?’ and they said, ‘Only about an hour.’ I was just sitting on debris. I wasn’t anywhere special. Not even laying down. I had my back against a beam or wall or something.”

Amid the lack of food, sleep and rest, there was another challenge – the inescapable smell, the mix of death and burning metal. “That’s what stuck with me the most,” LaFemina said.

It was during brief breaks that members would pause to consider the magnitude of the loss for the department. People floated numbers but, “It was unfathomable,” he remembers thinking. “At that point in our 125-year history, we had lost 700 members in the line of duty. This pushed it over 1,000 in one day.”

On Friday, the non-stop exertion finally came to an end for LaFemina, if only for a moment.

“I couldn’t walk. I was really hurting. I had to go,” he recalled. “I told one of the chiefs there, ‘I gotta go home. I need to shower. I have to clean up. I’ll be back.’”

LaFemina arrived home around 1 p.m.

“I told my wife, ‘I don’t want to speak to anybody. I don’t want to see anybody. I want to lay on the couch and that’s it.’ An hour into my sleep, she handed me the phone and said, ‘Chief Norman’s on the phone.’”

LaFemina needed to be at the chief’s office at 3 p.m. No rest for the weary.

Rescue and recovery operations continue on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001, at the World Trade Center site.
Rescue and recovery operations continue on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001, at the World Trade Center site. (Photo/Andrea Booher, FEMA via AP)

‘You’re trying to do the right thing’

With so many department leaders, including Chief Pete Ganci, killed in the attack, a new crew of leaders worked round-the-clock to devise an operational plan. They needed senior members to step up and offer any intel and expertise for managing urban search and rescue operations.

One of the first priorities identified by Chief of Operations Daniel Nigro was controlling the scene.

“People were coming from all over,” LaFemina described. “Civilians, they’re running on this pile. It was very, very dangerous. They were trying to help. Good intentions, but it wasn’t good.”

LaFemina made a simple recommendation based on operations at the Oklahoma City bombing: Fence it in. “[Nigro] looks at me and says, ‘It’s 16 acres.’ And I said, ‘We’re in New York City. We have 1,500 fence companies. They can have it up in a couple of days.’ And that’s when we really got control. There was one way in, one way out.”

It was an important early step in improving safety at the scene.

Another critical decision soon followed: FDNY would essentially be divided into two departments – the World Trade Center Fire Department and the New York City Fire Department. As much as everyone wanted to continue searching for their brothers, the city still needed a fire department.

LaFemina explained how it worked: “What we did was we took Squad 61 in the Bronx, who survived, and us in Queens, and we made them rescue companies, and they covered half of the city each. That went on for about two months. So you had 12 hours of duty at the Trade Center, and you still had to work your tour. So, you would be down there, and it was never 12 hours. You would find a fireman and you would want to dig him out, or a civilian, and it would be 20 hours and then it was a 24. Then you only had 10 guys left to work the chart. There were only a couple of officers. So, you were never home until sometime in February or March when we got some manpower back, but before that, it was 24/7.”

Beyond the first few months, the work became a blur: “I vividly remember every moment of the first day, of the first week, of the first few months,” he said. “And then it becomes monotony. You’re down there. What time is it? Who’s here? Where are we working today? What’s going on?”

The time didn’t matter. The day didn’t matter.

“I remember just standing there, early Christmas morning. One or two in the morning. I’m just looking around going, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is Christmas day.’ Standing in the middle of this devastation.”

Amid the nonstop work, LaFemina and others were making time to attend funerals: “You’re trying to do the right thing. You don’t want to miss a funeral, but you can’t go home and put your uniform on because you’re filthy dirty. I remember we would leave, a lot of us, from the site, go to a funeral, go back to the site and go to work, get the word of another funeral. You were trying to keep that balance. It was your duty to get to that site and work, and then your duty to get to that firefighter’s funeral.”

The balancing act went on for months.

LaFemina attended 88 funerals and worked at the site until the last day of recovery operations – May 9, 2002. He only went back to Ground Zero a handful of times after that. It had become standard practice, as bodies continued to be found, to include a rescue chief in the recovery process, so LaFemina would return to handle the documentation.

“Now it’s to the point where I won’t go near that place,” he said.

By April 2002, search for remains was coming to an end at Ground Zero.
By April 2002, search for remains was coming to an end at Ground Zero. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

‘We had to get these companies up and running’

It’s impossible to separate the tragedy of the day from the immediate structural and leadership changes within the department. LaFemina, for one, had considerable experience in rescue operations, but he was now being called upon to rebuild and lead the elite Rescue 1 unit.

LaFemina had been preparing to promote for the chief’s exam, but Rescue 1 had lost 11 members, including the captain. The commissioner was adamant about the move for LaFemina following the death of all five rescue chiefs. They needed an experienced rescuer in that spot.

The trajectory of LaFemina’s career had suddenly shifted. By April 2002, he was promoted to battalion chief assigned to the Rescue Battalion: “Years ago, you made chief after 17,18, 20 years,” he explained. “I had 16 years on the job, and I was getting promoted to chief already. I was confident in my ability. I had plenty of experience, but it just accelerated everything – and it was very difficult. Not just for me, for all the guys – their home life as well because everything focused on that incident. All day, every day.”

The sudden staffing reduction prompted shuffling of some members and promotions for others – and the training was constant: “We had to get these companies up and running, and it took a long time, but the guys stepped up and they’re great rescue men and squad firefighters now,” LaFemina emphasized.

The incident changed the training dynamic of the fire service, not just in New York City, but around the world, he added: “Better training, better equipment, better preparation. ‘Expect the unexpected’ – we used to always say that, but we went above and beyond after 9/11.”

‘Every day of my life’

LaFemina has not been near the World Trade Center site in nearly 10 years. Every September 11, he goes to Rescue 1 on 43rd Street, several miles away from Ground Zero, for a ceremony, then heads home and “hopes the day ends quickly.”

It’s not that he wants to forget or dismiss the day; in fact, he remembers the day like it was yesterday. But he chooses to focus on the firefighters. Of the 343 firefighters killed on 9/11, LaFemina knew 202 of them, 92 of whom he worked with on a regular basis as part of the command unit.

“Every guy, especially in my command that I worked with, had a little piece of my career. Billy Lake in Rescue 2, he was always busting chops. And Kevin O’Rourke, he was the sweetest, nicest guy. First guy to help you at your house. And Chief Downey, the most respected. You know, we called him God. He would run those incidents like they were nothing.

“I look at the pictures and I go, ‘Remember this guy and this story?’ I always have a little story in my head about the people I really knew. It’s nonstop. … That’s how I keep it close. And the guys I didn’t know, I don’t have a story, but I know the characters. I know what they stood for.”

LaFemina retired from the FDNY as Chief of Rescue Operations in 2011.
LaFemina retired from the FDNY as Chief of Rescue Operations in 2011.

He knows because he lived it his entire life, his family a rollcall of firefighters – his father, uncles, cousins and, of course, his brother.

“It was our life, and then this tragic incident occurred. But you keep going, onto the next operation.”

And that’s what he did, continuing to serve the department, lead Rescue 1 and oversee the rebuilding efforts of rescue operations for another 10 years.

LaFemina retired from the FDNY as Chief of Rescue Operations in 2011 – a medical retirement.

“It was my calling, my identity. I would go back tomorrow if they would take me.”

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