Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, there have been many heroic stories about the New York City firefighters who fought to save lives and in many cases became victims themselves. But few of those firefighters lived to tell a story like that of Richard Picciotto then a battalion commander with the fire department. He's the author of a best-selling book called Last Man Down: A Firefighter's Story of Survival and Escape from the World Trade Center.
As a New Yorker and a firefighter, Richard Picciotto says he felt a personal stake in the terrorist attacks of September 11. But he had another reason to race to the World Trade Center that day. He says the disaster brought back memories of an earlier terrorist attack at the same site. "In 1993, I was one of the first chiefs on the scene for the '93 bombing," he said. "I knew that building. I knew the devastation a bomb could cause. I was actually in charge of the evacuation in '93. So I wanted to be there again on September 11."
In Last Man Down, Richard Picciotto describes what happened in the hours after he arrived at the scene that day. He was put in charge of a group of firefighters, and then began working his way up through the North Tower, searching for survivors.
"On the 35th floor I step out into the hallway, and all of a sudden this tremendous noise starts happening," said Picciotto. "The actual building I'm on the 35th floor of the North Tower and the World Trade Center is shaking. And this noise is approaching real fast. We all basically froze in our steps, waiting for something to crash through the ceiling. The sound lasted 10 seconds. So when that deathly silence hit, I was calling, 'Something major just happened. Does anyone know what happened?' Then all of a sudden somebody said, 'The tower collapsed.' And once I realized the South Tower had indeed totally collapsed, I thought a bomb went off and brought the tower down. And then I thought there's going to be a bomb in the North Tower also. We've got to get out of here quick. And I ran to all three stairways and yelled up and down, 'We're evacuating. Drop your tools, drop your masks. Get out.'"
As he began working his way back down the stairs, Richard Picciotto continued to scan the floors for survivors. When he reached the twelfth floor, he came upon what he describes as a surreal scene. "There are approximately 50 people in this office, just sitting around," he said. "I said 'Let's get going now.' I was just yelling at them. And they started rolling their wheel chairs at me, coming up on their walkers. These people were the last people to leave the building, approximately 20 non-ambulatory people and people who were helping them."
With Richard Picciotto in the rear, the group continued making its way out of the tower. They were escorting a final office worker, an elderly woman named Josephine when they heard another thunderous noise. "I described it the first time as loud, the building shaking-it was that times a hundred now," said Picciotto.
"The lights were black, and there was a wind. By the building collapsing it was compressing all the air in the building, especially the stairwell and it was pushing that wind down. I prayed, 'Please God, make it quick.' I knew I was going to die, I just wanted to die quick. I had this falling sensation, tumbling. All of a sudden I'm lying in darkness. I'm covered with debris. I had a feeling even though it was black there were other people there, so I called out, 'Is anyone else here?' And I heard 'Yeah, I'm here.' 'I'm here too.' 'Me too.' This section of the stairwell we were in, from a little above the lobby to approximately the fifth floor, was almost intact. The stairs were missing. There were beams and a lot of rubble, but it became almost like a cave. And in that void were 12 firemen, this woman Josephine, and a Port Authority cop. We started calling on the radio for help. It took about two hours before someone responded to me. When they did respond it was someone I knew, another chief, Mark Ferran. I said, 'Mark, 'This is Richard. We're at the North Tower in the B stairway on approximately the third floor.' And his response back was, 'Where's the North Tower?'"
The devastation outside was so great that it was impossible for rescuers to pinpoint the location of the group. Radio exchanges continued back and forth, until Richard Picciotto spotted a small area above him turn from black to gray, then grow lighter.
"There was this little crevice, snaking its way out, into the open," he said. "There was nothing above the fifth floor. It was just open air. But there was a tremendous dust cloud that was there for hours, and the surrounding buildings were on fire, so the smoke and dust were obscuring the opening. When we finally saw it, I climbed up. I was using a bullhorn as a siren, something that people could key in on to get to us. And it took another hour or so before people could get to our site, take care of Josephine and the injured and dig for two other guys who were below us who got out also. And when they did, then we climbed out."
Like other New York City firefighters, Richard Picciotto says he's experienced many emotions since September 11 everything from rage to anguish to guilt over not being able to save more lives. He's especially angry that the fire department wasn't better equipped to handle the tragedya problem he attributes to lack of funding for adequate resources. But he also realizes that by surviving, he beat unimaginable odds. "I had one in a million on top of a one in a million on top of a one in a million," he said. "To be in that building and survive and be able to climb out of that rubble is amazing. Everyone asks me why and I don't know why. Luck, blessed, a lot of things."
Richard Picciotto was recently promoted to a new position, as a deputy chief in the New York City Fire Department. And despite everything that happened on September 11, he still loves what he does. He says the team work, the physical challenge and the ultimate reward of being able to save lives make his job the best in the world.