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Leni (Zitzman) Koehler '79, pictured in yellow rain jacket, accompanies the family members of 9/11 victims to Ground Zero just weeks after the attacks. Photo courtesy of FDNY Photo Unit.
Firefighters are a selfless bunch, risking their lives everyday to save someone else, and sometimes paying the ultimate price.
Over 10 years of working with the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), I heard many stories of the 23rd Street Fire in 1966, which claimed 12 members, and the Waldbaum’s Fire in 1978, where we lost six.
There was the “Father’s Day Fire” of 2001, where a wall collapsed and killed three of our firefighters, all fathers themselves. We thought it couldn’t get any worse.
Nobody ever dreamed that a day like September 11 would ever come.
My husband and I were on our annual camping/fishing trip in Montauk. It was a perfect September morning when I overheard someone from a neighboring campsite saying a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I dug out my pager, which confirmed it.
I later learned that back at fire headquarters, many of the civilian staff were watching the scene unfold across the river. One of the workers proclaimed it “terrorism” right from the start. Others shushed him, saying it was an accident. Now, we all know how prophetic his words were.
At the campground, I listened to radio reports and knew we would most likely lose some guys, maybe as many as one or two companies. I wouldn’t learn for a few hours what the magnitude of the devastation really was.
Phone and cell reception was bad. After numerous attempts to get through to the press office, I climbed to the top of the highest dune and picked up a voice mail from my assistant. It was not looking good, she said. Both towers had collapsed, and it was feared that many of our guys were trapped under the rubble.
We headed back to the city first thing the next morning, still not comprehending that the Twin Towers were really gone. I was sick when I first saw the site from the Verrazano Bridge—just a big cloud of black smoke where those majestic buildings had once stood.
At fire headquarters, everyone was in shock. Steve Rush, an assistant commissioner, was in First Deputy Commissioner Bill Feehan’s office, watching the TV coverage. Neither of us could speak. All we could do was hug and cry.
As we stood there, surrounded by Bill’s years of FDNY memorabilia, it struck me that we would probably never see him again, a thought too terrible to possibly comprehend.
All we wanted to do was shut down and try to absorb the devastating loss. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that luxury.
Headquarters was a madhouse. The phone rang nonstop with calls from family members, and TV and newspaper reporters seeking ongoing updates. The problem was compounded by the fact that we had just lost three of our greatest leaders, the men who we would have relied on most for guidance during a crisis of such magnitude – Bill Feehan; Chief of Department Pete Ganci; and Chief of Operations Donald Burns. It was so hard to stay focused.
Each morning would sadly begin by updating the death roster. Members’ names were moved from “unaccounted” to “confirmed” status. Only once or twice was there a brief interlude of joy when we’d learn that a guy we thought was missing was actually alive.
One week later we held the first of many meetings with the families of the missing. How difficult and macabre it was to ask wives and parents to bring personal effects of the firefighters for possible DNA matching, while at the same time trying not to discourage them from having hope that maybe there was an air pocket, maybe there were survivors.
At the meeting, families asked to visit the site, known as “Ground Zero” or “The Pile” to hope, pray and heal.
“…you could make out personal items in the wet rubble. A single high-heeled shoe had me
obsessing about its owner, and whether or not
We would depart from our Marine Unit at the Brookyn Navy Yard. About 10 minutes into the 20-minute trip, while still on the East River side of Manhattan, a sliver of the ruins and the giant cranes became visible. It was easy to tell when we were at that point in the trip, as the group on-board sat silent.
When we got off the boat, the first views were the broken glass of the atrium at the World Financial Center, followed by the thick debris of papers and ashes. As we walked past Army and police personnel they saluted the families, holding the salute until the very last family member had passed. No matter how many times I experienced this, the gesture was so heartfelt, so honorable, that it always brought me to tears.
Approaching the Pile, you could make out personal items in the wet rubble. A single high-heeled shoe had me obsessing about its owner, and whether or not she survived.
The families were led to a makeshift viewing area across the street from the ruins of the South Tower and Marriott Hotel. By then, many of the families had learned where their husband, dad or loved one had last been seen. They would ask me questions about where certain buildings had formerly stood, the answers somehow bringing them closer to their lost relative.
Each time I took a group of families to the site, I saw firefighters that I had come to know over the years digging on the Pile. They were men I always knew as strong, vibrant and unshakable. Now, their expressions were of shock and frustration, not able to comprehend or accept that there was little they could do to make things right. The most gut-wrenching thing was watching fathers desperately digging in search of their sons, refusing to believe what would soon become the inevitable.
When the final death tally came in at 343, it was difficult to fathom. Even now, when I look at the pictures, I have a reaction deep in my gut and am overcome with sadness.
We coordinated an overwhelming number of FDNY line-of-duty funerals and memorial services. On one Saturday alone we had 27 services going on simultaneously.
Chief of Department Pete Ganci’s funeral was on Saturday, September 15. Pete was someone I knew well and truly loved. His sense of humor, charisma, and cool and collected leadership style were unforgettable. Following the service, I was mentally and physically exhausted and looking forward to getting home, when my cell phone rang.
It was Captain Ray Goldbach, calling to tell me that we had to put together a promotions ceremony for the next day at noon. Getting new leaders in place was imperative, he said.
Traditionally, promotions ceremonies are joyful, filled with cheering and banner-waving by large contingents of firehouse members. Not surprisingly, this one was eerily subdued. Few people came, applause was polite, and even those being promoted looked like they’d rather be anywhere else. Mayor Giuliani, together with Commissioner Tom Von Essen, swore in an unprecedented 166 new officers.
Looking back, I realize that this ceremony was the critical first step in the recovery of FDNY. Today, five years later, we continue to heal, and with each new graduating class of eager, young firefighters I see hope for the future.
Since 9/11, more people than ever want to become New York City firefighters. Everyday I am amazed by the heart, the selflessness, and the camaraderie found within this department. It is truly an honor to know these brave men and women, and a privilege to work among them.
–Lenore (Zitzman) Koehler ’79
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