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Former FDNY chief recalls first responders 'moving like ghosts in the night' on 9/11

Read an excerpt from retired battalion chief Joseph Pfeifer's new book, "Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11."
/ Source: TODAY

What began as a response to investigate the smell of gas in downtown Manhattan ended in a day Joseph Pfeifer and his firefighters, along with the rest of the world, would never forget.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Pfeifer was the first FDNY chief on the scene as the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

Now, 20 years after the terrorist attacks, the retired battalion chief is sharing his account of the horrific events of that fateful day in a new book, "Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11."

Pfeifer recalls sending his younger brother, Kevin, a fellow firefighter, into the World Trade Center's north tower to help evacuate people out of the building without realizing that'd be the last time he'd ever see him.

In a live interview Tuesday on TODAY, Pfeifer said he still vividly recalls the moment Kevin went into the tower.

"I picture him walking into the lobby and coming up to me without saying a word," he said. "And we looked at each other out of concern, whether we were going to be OK, and then I ordered him, as I ordered other firefighters, to go up.

"And he turned around quietly, took Engine 33, and that was the last time I saw my brother, Kevin, and Engine 33."

Pfeifer also explained why he "wanted to tell the personal story of that day." He said the book's title was inspired by his firefighters who went into the twin towers to help get people out of danger, while telling those already evacuating: "Don't stop, you can make it out of here."

"We know those simple words was the difference between surviving and not," Pfeifer said.

Read an excerpt Pfeifer shared with TODAY from his memoir, which is out now, below.

I waited for the new dust cloud to settle. Having worked for twenty-four hours, I needed to rest for a couple of minutes before going back to search for my brother and other victims. I walked up Vesey Street toward the Hudson River and the North Cove Marina. My steps created little dust pillows that looked like powder snow.

I found an empty bench coated with dust and sat down facing the Hudson River. My face, mustache, and bunker gear were also coated in dust. I imagined I looked like a bizarre figure carved of gray marble.

Official ground zero photographer Gary Marlon Suson took this photo of Chief Pfeifer in 2002. Pfeifer wore the same tie he had on the morning of 9/11.
Official ground zero photographer Gary Marlon Suson took this photo of Chief Pfeifer in 2002. Pfeifer wore the same tie he had on the morning of 9/11.Gary Marlon Suson

(Image © Courtesy

I gazed into the distance, physically and mentally exhausted. I needed to think. How could skyscrapers just vanish into piles of twisted debris? Where’s Kevin and other firefighters I ordered to evacuate? What do I, as a battalion chief, do now in this unthinkable disaster?

How could skyscrapers just vanish into piles of twisted debris?

With every breath, I tasted the pulverized cement like a dry paste on my tongue. My eyes burned as I blinked, trying to focus with hundreds of specks in my eyes. After the dust from the collapse of WTC-7 had settled, I returned to the rubble field and continued to search for victims well into the evening, picking my way across steel beams and chunks of concrete. I listened for tapping or yelling or the high-pitched beeps of SCBA alarms. I heard nothing but other rescuers calling out.

Darkness fell about 7:30 p.m. Con Ed’s electrical power grid in lower Manhattan had been destroyed. Some big searchlights running off generators were brought in; for the most part, we used flashlights to keep searching.

Joseph Pfeifer (left) with brother Kevin (right) after Kevin was appointed to the FDNY.
Joseph Pfeifer (left) with brother Kevin (right) after Kevin was appointed to the FDNY.Courtesy Joseph Pfeifer

I continued to walk the site looking for my brother and survivors trapped by the rubble. Not only the Twin Towers but the entire complex of WTC buildings had been destroyed. The rubble field was immense.

I saw no one from Kevin’s company, dead or alive, and a sick feeling coiled in the pit of my stomach.

By 11 p.m., I had been working for over twenty-nine hours, and awake for almost forty. The adrenaline rush of dealing with the crisis had long since ebbed. I hadn’t eaten since 8 a.m. and could feel the stress and exhaustion slowing my reflexes, my thinking. I was afraid I was no longer helpful.

Coughing up dust, bone-weary, I began walking up West Street, zigzagging seven blocks back to the firehouse. I could barely see; in the heavy boots, my feet hurt so much all I could do was shuffle.

As I walked, an eerie gray dust cloud hung over lower Manhattan. I saw no one on the streets except other firefighters or police officers, moving like ghosts in the night. On the worst day of my life, I was profoundly alone.

The entire downtown Manhattan area had lost power. Thanks to a backup generator in the courtyard, in addition to candles, a few lights were on in the Duane Street firehouse. I could hear the TV as news reporters talked about a third plane hitting the Pentagon and a fourth crashing in a field in Pennsylvania. I couldn’t grasp what they were saying. Were the four aircraft all connected? It seemed impossible, unimaginable.

After I dropped my dusty bunker gear in my locker, I asked if every- one was okay, afraid to hear the answer.

It was shocking.

Everyone from the Duane Street firehouse, all fifty-five firefighters and officers—the thirteen of us on duty and the forty-two who’d rushed to assist them—had survived.

On the worst day of my life, I was profoundly alone.

Not a single person was missing or dead. All accounted for. Tardio, Walsh, and the firefighters of Engine 7 and Ladder 1 who had answered the call with me that morning, who had gone up inside the North Tower first, had made it out. Some were injured, but they were all alive. Relief washed over me, but I didn’t comprehend right away that it was a miracle.

In a state beyond exhaustion, body aching and eyes burning, I got into my car to go home. Lower Manhattan had no streetlights or traffic signals. Thankfully, no one else was on the road as I struggled to keep the car in one lane. I’d never seen the streets so empty. The horror had driven everyone in New York inside, huddling for protection, perhaps out of fear there’d be yet another attack.

Rainbow halos encircled the streetlights in Queens no matter how much I blinked to clear the grit from my eyes. I got to my home around midnight. I unlocked the front door and climbed the squeaking wooden stair to the bedrooms.

Chief Pfeifer (far right) with his younger brother, Kevin (far left), and their parents.
Chief Pfeifer (far right) with his younger brother, Kevin (far left), and their parents.Courtesy Joseph Pfeifer


Pfeifer also shared two paragraphs from his book's epilogue, which you can read below.

Extreme events from 9/ 11 to pandemics and natural disasters throw us into a global state of trauma. Worldwide, we collectively experience anxiety about the future and turn to crisis leaders to lessen this fear and uncertainty. I realized that without action there is no hope and without hope there is no leadership. The heart of crisis leadership is the ability to sustain hope by unifying efforts to solve complex problems in the face of great tragedy.

It takes courage to find resilience, to come back to lead with greater determination and purpose. My journey started on 9/11, and it is what propelled me to make a difference over the years. But my most incredible privilege was sitting with other leaders and victims of terrorism and disasters from around the world. We shared stories, shed a few tears, and together turned traumatic memories into hope for the future.

Excerpted from Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11 by Joseph Pfeifer in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Joseph Pfeifer, 2021.