Interview With Thomas Von Essen
Aired August 13, 2002 - 08:48 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Nearly a year after 9-11, memories of the tragedy and the chaos that followed are still fresh in many minds. Three-hundred and forty-three New York City firefighters died in the World Trade Center that morning. They were Tom Von Essen's troops. He was New York's fire commissioner at the time, and he worked side by side with Mayor Rudy Giuliani to bring the city back from disaster.
Now he's written about his experience and his 31-year career with New York's bravest in a new book called "Strong of Heart," and he joins us now.
THOMAS VON ESSEN, AUTHOR, "STRONG OF HEART": Thank you.
ZAHN: What do you want people to learn from this book?
VON ESSEN: What great people work in the New York City Fire Department, and how hard everybody tried to rescue all of the citizens and civilians that were in that building, and the tremendous effort and great success in that rescue mission. Thousands and thousands of people are alive today, because of what our troops did. I talk a lot about individuals in the story, people who meant a lot to me in the fire department, people who have been injured before and made amazing comebacks to come back to work, like Jimmy Stackpole, great leaders like Fian (ph) and Gansi (ph) and people like that, that are given 30 and 40 years in the department, hard-charging, new people on the horizon, Eddie Garrity (ph), and Terry Hatten (ph) and Patty Brown (ph), just individuals, how wonderful they were and what sacrifice -- what they had given to the department, and I'd like to help preserve that for their family.
ZAHN: I guess the sacrifice must be the hardest part of this equation for you to deal with, because there's still a lot of second- guessing going on about why so many New York City firefighters lost their lives that day.
McKenzie (ph) was commissioned to do this study on what went wrong. As briefly as you can explain, what do you think were some of the biggest errors that were made that day? God knows we had never been through this scenario before, and I think we need to acknowledge that.
VON ESSEN: Right, I think there weren't any errors made by the troops and the chiefs, who did a wonderful job, a fantastic job, the very best they could, under the scenario that, like you said, was the worst that's ever happened. The firefighters and their bosses did a great job.
You can look at procedure, you can look at policies, you can say that we can do a better job at staging areas. We had things like that in place. They broke down because people were trying so hard to get in there and help other people, so they didn't stop at a particular location, get a piece of equipment, find out exactly where to go, things like that, procedural things, but you don't want to criticize heroes for working on their day off and coming in to help people when they didn't even have to.
Nobody would have criticized anybody for not being there if they weren't even working. We had 100 guys who weren't even working that were running in that building trying to help people, and I don't think those kind of things deserve to be criticized. Look at your procedures and fix them for the future if you think they can be improved.
ZAHN: Although you have acknowledged that there's still a war going on between -- in the radio communications field, whether they should have gone from analog to digital, and the union is still sniping at you, and you're not even in power any more. Is that a fundamental problem that needs to be solved, to make New York City firefighters safer?
VON ESSEN: Well, to make firefighters...
ZAHN: And the public?
VON ESSEN: To make firefighters all around the world safer, it would be great if we had technology -- which we don't -- that 300 or 400 people could be talking on a radio that's collapsing around them. They may be on a wrong channel, maybe a receiver isn't hooked up, a receiver is not working, that all of those people would be able to communicate. That technology -- we don't have that ability today. It would be nice if we did. Those radios were working. We have recordings of people on receivers where they were communicating with each other.
Did we communicate with everybody? I don't think so. I think there were a lot of people in the building without radios. I think there were a lot of people who had, you know, jumped on those trucks and didn't have a radio.
So there were lots of people that didn't get the word -- I think -- to evacuate, but we don't know. People shouldn't throw around although these anecdotal criticisms. If you want a real investigation of just the radio issue, you should do that, but they've never done that. I called for a real investigation, stuff like that, last October, but nobody has done it.
The union has done nothing but criticize, but where have they been? It's now August, these radios are still in the closet. They're testing the technology now. Why haven't they been testing that technology all year?
ZAHN: Let's come back to the individual stories of bravery. An audiotape that was just released proved, I think, for the first time to the public and many family members that two of your bravest actually made it to the 78th floor of the south tower.
VON ESSEN: Chief Palmer, a fantastic fire chief, a really knowledgeable guy in radios coincidentally and high-rise firefighting. He took an elevator, I guess, to the 41st and the 40s and walked up the rest, and saw that there wasn't that much fire in the particular area where he was, and he was calling for more people to get up there; we can put this fire out. It kind of shows you the level of calmness and professionalism these chiefs had on the scene, to be able to be in control, to be able to be calmly asking for more help, and a lot of 10-45s, which is a lot of people that were dead that high up, because they had been severely burned, and the need for more firefighters to get up there and help these people that weren't as severely burned that we could get out.
So it's a tribute. I'm surprised that tape was not listened to for so long, because it's helpful, I think, for the families to hear that kind of stuff.
ZAHN: How much do you think of this day that no one could have alerted those firefighters that that building could go any minute?
VON ESSEN: It's horrible to think so many people in the north tower, you know, just didn't know -- or maybe knew, and were so high up, had been helping so many people that they couldn't get out fast enough. Nobody -- and there is no expert around -- you can maybe go to MIT and do an experiment in a laboratory, but we've got the finest fire chiefs in the world and none of them could have predicted in 102 minutes that both those buildings would come down. That, I think, was the biggest shock.
I was in the North Tower, and Chief Downey, said to me, these buildings can come down, calmly, professionally. The second building had just been hit, the South Tower was hit. So he knew that eventually they could come down, but there was no panic in his voice, there was no, boss, let's get everybody out of here, we've only got 10 minutes. It wasn't like that. They never dreamed that in an hour and 42 minutes both buildings would have collapsed.
ZAHN: You talk about a lot of this in "Strong of Heart" and the personal journey you've taken since September 11th. And Commissioner Von Essen, we appreciate you sharing parts of your story with us this morning.
VON ESSEN: Thank you.
ZAHN: Continued good luck to you. Good luck with the book.
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