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Lessons from September 11

When he was a little boy, Dan Nigro wanted to be a firefighter.

His father was a firefighter. Lots of other men in Bayside, Queens, where he grew up, were firefighters, too. So it just seemed natural that when he was twenty-one Dan Nigro joined the New York Fire Department.

When I knew him, twenty-five years ago, he was starting to climb the promotional ladder in the Fire Department. By 1996 he was an assistant Chief, and he oversaw the merger of the Emergency Medical Service into the Fire department. He also served as a Citywide Tour Commander and, later, Chief of Operations. He probably thought a little about becoming Chief of Department, the highest uniformed rank in the New York Fire Department.

He wasn't in a hurry, though, because that rank was held by his close friend Peter Ganci. Dan is tall and serious and thoughtful-looking. Peter was shorter, more outgoing. They made a good team.

They were both working at the Fire Department's headquarters in Brooklyn on September 11, 2001 when the planes began smashing into the World Trade Center Towers. They responded together, in the same car. Somewhere along the way Dan remembers telling Ganci, "This will be the worst day we ever have."

Ganci assumed command of the incident at the Fire Department's command post. Around 9:15 Nigro told Ganci he wanted to quickly circle 1 World Trade Center, to assess the damage. "See you later," Ganci said.

Dan and his aide were in the middle of Church Street when the second tower started to come down. They found shelter in the old, deep doorway of a Starbucks. It saved their lives. Peter Ganci was not so lucky.

On September 17, Daniel A. Nigro, III was sworn in as Chief of Department, the highest uniformed rank in the New York Fire Department, replacing Chief Peter Ganci who died at the World Trade Center.

Imagine. Imagine achieving a life's goal on the wings of tragedy and the loss of one of your best friends. Imagine achieving that goal as all around you other firefighters, many of whom you know, die.

In the entire history of the New York Fire Department, from 1865 to 2001, seven hundred seventy-four firefighters gave their lives in the line of duty. Then, on a single day, in a few moments, more than half that number - three hundred and forty-three - were killed.

September 11, 2001 was the largest loss of life by first responders in the history of the United States. It was a loss equivalent in numbers to Pearl Harbor except that most of the dead in Washington and New York and in the fields of Pennsylvania were civilians, not military who had put on a uniform and the risk that went with it.

September 11, 2001 as a tragedy in loss of life or property dwarfs whatever went before in the United States. Before the World Trade Center the largest loss from a single event covered by US insurance companies was fifteen billion dollars for Hurricane Andrew. The estimates for the World Trade Center and other disasters of September 11 exceed fifty billion.

The numbers are so big and the losses so huge that sometimes we reel from the immensity of it. There are already over 150 books that have come out about September 11. The first of those hit the market just twenty days after the event itself, a triumph of speedy publishing in the Digital Age, if not a triumph of journalism.

The numbers are so mind-numbing that we're tempted to hold the event at bay, confining it across the room in the television. But we can only learn from September 11 if we're willing to drench ourselves in the humanity of it all.

September 11 gave us a concentrated dose of all that is best and worst about human beings. It showed us what humanity is like in all its contradiction and wonder. In a short intense burst we saw bravery and failed systems. And we saw heroism and the kind of planning that saves lives.

When the planes began plowing into the Towers firefighters and police officers and EMTs converged on Lower Manhattan. It was a spectacular display of bravery. As people rushed from the Towers, firefighters and police officers rushed in. They rushed in to fight the fire, to maintain order, to give aid and comfort to victims, to save lives.

That bravery was magnificent, an epic in its proportions, but it overwhelmed a training and logistic system that simply was not up to the task. As word of the tragedy spread across the city, fire units were dispatched to Southern Manhattan. Some firefighters who had just finished their tours and were going off duty climbed on the trucks to go to where the action was. Others came from home.

At Ladder Company 16 on East 67th Street four firefighters who were going off duty wanted to go along to the Trade Center. Lt. Dan Williams told them no. Actually he told them to "Get the hell off the rig!"

Williams, who served in the Marines in Viet Nam, knew about the dangers they would face. He also knew how important discipline is when the danger is high. His men got off the rig. Then they caught rides downtown in cabs, a police car and on a city bus. One of them was among the sixty off-duty firefighters killed at the Trade Center.

There were organization failures, too. The Fire and Police command centers were set up blocks apart with no active liaison from the other service. Radios didn't seem to work properly.

The after-action reports tell us that many of the firefighters in the second World Trade Center tower to collapse simply didn't know that their commanders had ordered them out. They didn't know that a police helicopter hovering outside the Tower had indicated almost a half an hour before the collapse that the building was likely to come down and that everyone possible should evacuate.

Some of them got the message and didn't pay any attention because it didn't come from a source they trusted. The police radio seemed to work fine in that second tower and police officers got the message from their command post to leave the building. As they did they passed the word to firefighters they saw in the hallways.

Many of the firefighters didn't leave. They were hearing something from the cops that they hadn't heard from their command. There's a little bit of macho at work here, watching the police officers leave while the firefighters stay. Ultimately, whatever it was, it was deadly.

Many problems of the 9/11 response in New York trace back to ongoing problems with budget and with the rivalry between the New York City Police and Fire Departments. They simply don't coordinate and work well together. That's not something you fix with a memorandum. There's rivalry and animosity that go back generations and may take that long to fix.

The same is true for the different intelligence agencies at all levels. With better communication and information sharing, and less turf wars between federal agencies and between federal and local agencies, we might have done a better job with the intelligence we did have.

If human nature includes the instinct to protect turf, it also produces heroes. One of them on 9/11 was Rick Rescorla.

You may remember a picture you saw of Rick, the security chief for Morgan Stanley, as he encouraged the evacuation of his company's employees from thirty floors of 2 World Trade Center. You may also have seen another picture of Rick.

That's the picture, taken by a young Peter Arnett, that graced the cover of the book, We Were Soldiers Once, and Young. That picture was of a young Lieutenant Rick Rescorla urging his men on during the action in the Ia Drang Valley. He got medals for that action.

Then he came home, tried several things and wound up as head of security for Morgan Stanley. After the 1993 attack on the Trade Center Rescorla offered his expertise to the Port Authority. They declined. So Rick drew up his own evacuation plans.

On September 11, while the public address system at the Trade Center was telling folks to stay put, Rick was marching Morgan Stanley's people down the stairs, two by two. All but six of Morgan Stanley's 2700 workers survived. Rescorla was one of the six. He was last seen walking back up the stairs in search of stragglers.

It is tempting to try to draw simple lessons from all of this but they will not come. That's because all the lessons are wrapped up in, and bounded by our humanity. Our humanity gives us our soaring hope, our bravery, our frailty. It was human beings who brought this evil and human beings who died, human beings who rose up with courage to save others, human beings who laid the groundwork for the evil and the heroism.

The message of 9/11 for us all is that we can make choices. We can choose the brave, the hopeful, the kind, or we can choose something else. We can choose to work to make the world better. That is Dan Nigro's choice.

There were the heroes of September 11 whom we saw racing into buildings, fighting with hijackers on airliners, walking back up the stairs to check for stragglers. We need to remember them and honor them.

But we also need to acknowledge men and women like Dan Nigro. You didn't see Dan at many of the televised rallies. It's not his style and besides, there was planning to do, budgets to develop, firefighters to recruit and train. That kind of work happens out of the limelight, from early morning till late at night.

But Dan Nigro worked at caring for the firefighters, too. He attended funeral after funeral and wakes and memorial services. Dan, who attends Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bayside every Sunday, began joking that he was going to Mass more than most Catholics. There were visits to fire houses and, every day, to Ground Zero.

In his office, Dan has a framed picture of all the Fire Department dead. Stuck in a corner of the frame is a piece of construction paper with a child's writing in blue marker. The piece of paper showed up in the avalanche of letters of support that arrived after September 11. The note says, "You did the right thing."

We need to remember the dead. We need to remember and honor the heroes. But we also need to remember all the folks, like Dan Nigro who carry on quietly out of the limelight. We need to tell them, "You did the right thing, too."


This feature appeared on 9 September 2002 in Wally Bock's Monday Memo newsletter which is no longer published.


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