Last Man Down: A New York City Fire Chief and the Collapse of the World Trade Center
The six-month anniversary of September 11 has come and gone. On May 30, ceremonies to commemorate the closing of the World Trade Center site took place. An honor guard carried a flag-draped stretcher out of the hole, and the last remaining post from the south tower came down. The FDNY official website notes that "simultaneous prayer services were held at all FDNY firehouses, EMS stations and FDNY facilities. In each firehouse, at 10:29 am, the rig was pulled out onto the apron and a moment of silence will be observed. A local clergy member or a member of the company read an ecumenical prayer, written by FDNY chaplains. The prayer will be followed by a minute of silence."
We now know that the total number of human lives taken that day was 2,823. So far the remains of only 1,058 --- about 37% of those killed --- have been identified. Time magazine ran a photo essay of the grim reality that will forever be known as Ground Zero; this imagery is stark, grotesque and truly apocalyptic. In March of this year, a friend of mine and I made a pilgrimage to the site to view for ourselves the tremendous wound inflicted upon our nation. At that point much of the debris had been cleared but the sorrow was palpable, filling the void where the towers and the people had once been. As we circumnavigated the hole, neither of us could comprehend that any human had gotten out of this horror alive. But some had.
FDNY Battalion Commander Richard Picciotto, along with Daniel Paisner, has put together a truly riveting account of the events that unfolded on September 11. Picciotto takes his readers from the start of an ordinary day in the life of a senior level New York City firefighter through some of the most horrific events in what was to become a day of infamy. Arriving early for his shift, Picciotto is juggling the many small administrative details required of a Battalion Commander when, just after 8:50 in the morning, he is alerted to the fact that an airplane may have flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center. In his gut, Picciotto knows that this is no accident and he is right. With a strong knowledge of this building gained from experience in the bombing of 1993, Picciotto also knows that he is of more use to the department, and to the civilians in desperate need of rescue, if he can get to the scene.
After a 130-block ride, Picciotto arrives at the north tower, commandeers a Brooklyn fire truck company, slices through the chaos and begins moving his firefighters into a position where they can save lives. Up to the 21st and 25th floors this group moves as a unit at which point Picciotto goes on ahead to the 35th floor. Here he meets up with another group of rescue workers and together they experience the terrifying sounds of the south tower collapsing. Realizing that to continue on would provide, in a best-case scenario, only a Phyrric victory, Picciotto calls for a retreat out of the building. Along the way, these firefighters evacuate uncounted amounts of civilians, saving untold lives. As they nearly reach ground level, the north tower joins the south tower in collapse. Picciotto and the other firefighters in proximity all join in a headlong rush to reach whatever safety they can. Before any one of them reaches safety, they are engulfed in the collapsing building that was the north tower.
Picciotto goes on to recount the harrowing tale of being buried alive and summoning the will to escape and survive. His first person narrative is spellbinding and is often told using gruff street language that adds an air of authenticity to this nearly unbelievable account of strength, determination, and survival. For all of those who wonder just how terrible that day was and how those firefighters, police, and rescue workers could have responded with such courage, Picciotto's book is a must read.
Reviewed by Timothy E. McMahon (firstname.lastname@example.org) on April 30, 2002