As the television and radio murmurs of the 9/11 commission hearing flowed through Fire Department headquarters in Brooklyn yesterday, no one listened more intently than one thin, unassuming man with a notebook in his lap. Sometimes he jotted notes, sometimes he nodded and sometimes he just shook his head.
In many ways, Sept. 11 now defines this man, Deputy Assistant Chief Joseph W. Pfeifer. He witnessed the first jet hit the north tower, and immediately reported that "it looks like the plane was aiming toward the building." He arrived very early on the scene, and stayed long after. At one point, he and his only brother gazed at each other for a few moments before Fire Lt. Kevin Pfeifer went up some stairs, never to return.
Soon after, Chief Pfeifer was assigned to look at the catastrophe from every angle, and to develop recommendations for how the department ? and the city ? could improve its response to disasters. He also continues to do research in the areas of homeland security and disaster preparedness.
Any one of these reasons would have this man staring at the television, pen at the ready. But he had yet another. In focusing on the poor communication among first responders that morning, the commission mentioned that a chief ? Joseph Pfeifer ? had mistakenly rejected a strong radio channel in the trade center for a weaker, point-to-point system.
This mere mention created the awkward dynamic of heroic firefighter being challenged, of investigator being investigated. Yesterday, the pain of being second-guessed for what he considers to be a battleground decision ? and the right decision ? was evident in the long pause he took before talking about it.
"The burden is that people don't understand the truth," he said. "And the truth is that under extreme circumstances, command decisions were made based on the information available."
Chief Pfeifer, 48, lives with his wife and two children in Middle Village, Queens, where he grew up, the oldest of three. After nearly 23 years in the Fire Department, he remains studious, serious, accountant-like.
Yesterday morning he joined his superior, Assistant Chief Peter Hayden, in watching the hearing on a television that sat in the corner of an office, between a picture of the trade center skeleton and a montage that included the thumbnail photos of all 343 firefighters who died that day.
The day carried a surreal air. The hearing included a videotape that the commission had prepared weeks earlier, of Chief Pfeifer and Chief Hayden ? who also responded early to the scene ? watching and commenting on images of themselves on the worst day of their lives.
Of course, Joseph Pfeifer needs no videotape to remember that morning. He arrived at the north tower at 8:52, six minutes after the first plane struck. There were badly burned people, elevators out of order and reports of fire on the upper floors. Rescue units soon crowded the lobby, awaiting orders.
Deciding that the fire in the north tower could not be fought, fire officials focused on evacuation and rescue. Scores of firefighters, weighed down by equipment, began marching up the stairs. At one point on the videotape, Chief Pfeifer is heard saying:
"What you see here is, this footage, is actually my brother going upstairs. As with so many other firefighters, this was the last time we saw them."
Truths can get lost. That Chief Pfeifer was on the scene so early. That he helped to bring order to chaos in the lobby. That when the south tower collapsed at 9:59, neither he nor any other rescuer in the north tower knew what had happened, nor, as Chief Hayden said yesterday, was it ever in "anyone's consciousness" that either tower would fall. That when the north tower did fall, Chief Pfeifer threw himself on top of a French filmmaker to save the man from falling debris.
That he ordered his own brother upstairs, where he would die. "I told him what I told the other firefighters, to go no higher than the 70th floor," Chief Pfeifer said yesterday, sitting in his own office during the commission's lunch break. "We spent a couple of seconds looking at each other. He didn't say anything; it was just a look."
All this, it seems, is suddenly shadowed by a decision that Chief Pfeifer made at 9:05.
He tried to use the device called a repeater, which was supposed to increase radio strength on a channel reserved for fire chiefs, but it didn't seem to work. So he used a different command channel, and continued on with the evacuation.
In a statement read into the record yesterday, the commission's staff said that a second button on the repeater device, the one that would have turned on the master handset, had not been activated.
"The chief testing the master headset at 9:05 a.m. did not realize that the master handset had not been activated," the statement said. "When he could not communicate, he concluded that the system was down. The system was working, however, and was used subsequently by firefighters in the south tower."
Chief Pfeifer rejected the assessment, just as he rejected a recent New York Post article that included the headline, "9/11 Probers Grill Fire Hero: Why Did You Tune Out Vital Radio Signal?" People reaching conclusions without facts, he said, without context.
"They're speculating the reasons," he said. "The decision had to be made in the middle of the battle."
First, he said, no radio works 100 percent of the time, a point reiterated yesterday by two witnesses, former Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen and former Police Commissioner Bernard B. Kerik.
Second, he said, he tried activating the repeater after a civilian at the trade center tried turning it on. "I went behind the desk," he said. "It was on, we tried it and it didn't work. We couldn't depend on it fully."
"The difficulty with the repeater, as opposed to a point-by-point radio, is that when it's not working, it's zero," he said. "The decision was, we can't depend on this."
Chief Pfeifer switched to the lower-wattage, point-by-point system, which, he emphasizes, helped to save the lives of many civilians and firefighters. At 10 a.m., for example, moments after the south tower fell, he got on the radio and said, at least twice, "Evacuate the building" ? though not the more urgent "Mayday," he said, because no one knew that the roar that everyone had just heard was the other tower's collapse.
He later learned that a number of firefighters heard the broadcast and started down. He said he likes to think that his brother, Kevin, heard it as well.
"If people want to play Monday-morning quarterback, then what channel would you have chosen to use?" he said. "If people want to play Monday-morning quarterback, here's your opportunity."
The commission's lunch break ended. As Chief Pfeifer left his office to watch the afternoon session on television, he passed yet another photograph from ground zero: the one of him carrying out his brother's remains.