The Last 9/11 Fire Chief Bows Out
Posted July 10, 2018 8:05 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Joe Pfeifer had a date in mind for retiring from the job he has done for 37 years. It would be the second Wednesday after Labor Day. After schools were back. Sept. 12.
He could hardly wait.
Then he decided, no, he would not delay.
“Do some sailing,” he said. “Decompress.”
So this will be his last week with the Fire Department, retiring as an assistant chief from the agency where he started as a 25-year-old from Queens in 1981. Now 62 and a grandfather, he still lives in Queens — and is still fit enough to scale 30 stories of the Eiffel Tower and then rappel down it, as he did in an exercise last month with a French hostage rescue team.
He was the first chief through the doors of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and he set up a command post in the north tower lobby. His brother Kevin, a lieutenant, checked in with him, on his way to join 343 firefighters who did not come back.
Now Joseph Pfeifer is the last of the 9/11 chiefs to leave the department.
What took him so long?
“My rank allowed me to make changes,” Pfeifer said. “To gain back control.”
He has worked in the present tense, not lingering in the past. But it is surely worth a review.
On the second Tuesday in September 2001, he was 45, chief of a battalion in Lower Manhattan, two decades into his fire career and eligible for a Civil Service pension. He was on Church Street that morning, checking a routine report of a gas leak at Lispenard Street.
“How innocent and naive I was,” he said. “I mean, we were.”
Tagging along was a young French filmmaker, Jules Naudet, who, with his brother, Gédéon, was planning a documentary about firefighters.
A roar in the sky.
Naudet swung his camera to the noise. Traveling at 443 mph, steered by hijackers, American Airlines Flight 11 passed overhead and an instant later crashed into the upper floors of One World Trade Center. It was 8:46 a.m.
Thanks in large part to the Naudet film, the world witnessed the valor of emergency responders on 9/11. Later came the accounts of unseen grace by office workers who had done for each other what no one else could.
Decency and muscle saved thousands. Nothing else actually worked.
People were trapped nearly 1,000 feet up in both towers, their staircases blocked. To save money in the 1960s, the towers had been built with too few exit stairs, just as the Titanic was sent out with too few lifeboats.
About one-fifth of the core structural columns in each tower were sundered by the planes. The surviving columns were bolted to the floors, which were exposed to uncontrolled fires. Weakened by heat, the links failed, the columns buckled, the towers collapsed.
Before that, sprinklers and the public address systems were useless.
And for years, the CIA and the FBI had not been sharing information. Airlines had resisted hardening cockpits. Contrary to first reports, military air defenses that morning were nowhere near catching up with the hijackers.
Even in this catastrophe, the police and firefighters operated on separate radio frequencies, replicating the laddish rivalries that prevailed after a 1993 bombing at the trade center. Emergency medical workers were unable to get orders.
Pfeifer, in the north tower lobby, had no idea how bad the fire was 90 stories above him. The police in helicopters who could see the blaze were not in touch with firefighters.
“People watching at home,” he said, “knew more than I did inside the tower.”
In flight, he stopped to open the clerical collar of the fallen chaplain, Mychal Judge, hoping for a pulse. On the street, he threw himself, clad in protective bunker gear, over Jules Naudet, the filmmaker, who was wearing a T-shirt.
Over the years that followed, Pfeifer created the department’s Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. A loss of control afflicts crime and terrorism victims alike, he said: “By making a difference, it’s gaining back one’s sense of being.”
Some reforms turned out to be impossible or maddeningly slow or required black-belt-level bureaucratic judo. The police department agreed to routinely take fire chiefs along on flights over three-alarm blazes — but only, Pfeifer said, after he made a deal with news organizations for chiefs to ride in their aircraft. Now commanders on the ground get video feeds from drones and the choppers.
The real estate industry shut down an effort to require more exit stairs in new buildings because, as a city commissioner explained, “One inch on every staircase in every high rise is hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
With the arrival of Bill Bratton as police commissioner in 2014, Pfeifer said, an era of cooperation began.
“The next mega-attack will come back to high-rises,” Pfeifer said. Vertical terrorists will use guns and arson. Fire could hold off police officers, and guns would stop firefighters.
“How do law enforcement, and fire, and medical, all operate together in very hostile environments?” he asked.
His next stops are at Columbia and Harvard universities, teaching in crisis-leadership and disaster-preparedness programs.
One day not long ago, he snapped a picture from the top of the new trade center tower.
“It’s looking out, to the Brooklyn Bridge, instead of just looking back,” he said. “I love that picture. That’s how I got to Sept. 12.”