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The status of the FDNY

I ended up going down [to Ground Zero] from home. I didn’t see newspapers from that day or from Sept. 12 or 13; we were busy.

September 7, 2011 
By John Salka as presented to Firefighters Speak Up

Editor’s note: FDNY Battalion Chief John Salka spoke in Ilderton and Clinton, Ont., in April. Here is his story, in his own words, of 9-11, the aftermath and the lessons learned. Salka’s presentation was riveting and was given in sections based on images and slides. We’ve edited his words a bit for clarity but wanted to maintain Salka’s voice, so readers may find that some areas are better explained as they read further along . . .

*    *    *

I ended up going down [to Ground Zero] from home. I didn’t see newspapers from that day or from Sept. 12 or 13; we were busy.

The FDNY’s John Salka spent months at Ground Zero searching and cleaning up. Salka said he found only one item in the debris that he recognized – a plastic sheet that goes over a computer keyboard. Photo by Laura King



The size of the buildings – there are two, one-acre spots; when they fell down they had a negative, dramatic effect on thousands of buildings. The buildings were 1,368 and 1,362 feet high – 110 storeys. There were seven buildings on 1.6 acres.

The towers had 43,600 windows with more than 600,000 square feet of glass – the only reason that’s amazing is because I was there for months and I didn’t see any glass; I didn’t see a piece of glass.

The site is equivalent to about eight city blocks.

Why did the buildings collapse? There’s always been a story that this was a plan by the government, that [George] Bush brought them down; all those people who said . . . More or less the buildings were initially severely damaged by the planes, then the ensuing fires finished them off.

The second plane flew past Newark airport at a very low altitude and high rate of speed, and they knew it was trouble.

Personally, I think it’s a disgrace that 10 years later the World Trade Center is still a construction site, but that’s what happens in New York City.
I really had no idea until months later that in all these cities, people were evacuating their highrise buildings in fear that this might be a more widespread thing. Being so involved, we didn’t realize how widespread the impact was. It was my friend Billy, who said on the radio, a plane just flew into the tower and it looks like it flew directly into it, and this might be a terrorist incident.

*    *    *

I was at home, driving my son to the bus stop; I was having the front end of my truck looked at – there was a wiggle in it. This was around 8 a.m. I live in the country, but by the time I got to the repair shop I could hear that incessant loud beeping on the TV and people were saying a plane just hit the World Trade Center. The TV in the repair shop – while we’re watching it in the waiting room – you see that other plane come around the back and hit the other building. It didn’t occur to me that this was a terrorist incident. My mind immediately jumped to, ‘Holy cow, how are we going to put this fire out?’ I was in flip-flops and shorts; I zoomed home, grabbed workpants and a work shirt, and threw some money in my pocket and drove down to the city. I didn’t have that front-end wiggle at 100 miles an hour, I can tell you that. We didn’t think the buildings were going to fall down; I wasn’t thinking this was terrorism, I was thinking, ‘How are we going to put this fire out?’ I get to my fire house and there’s no one there – there’s a note that says, ‘Sign in and go to division.’ We got there – another 100 firefighters were there with their gear. There were people dropping off extra gear, SCBAs, tools . . .

Eventually, it sounded bad enough – we weren’t sure if we should send more people – so we decided to just send people down there. We went out to the street in front of the fire house and stopped a city bus and threw everyone off the bus; all the firefighters got on the bus, and we told the bus driver we’ve got to go to New York. She said she had to call her dispatcher. I told her to do that from the road. I took the chief’s car and drove down on the empty side of the road.

*    *    *

Flight 11 hit the north tower, floors 90 to100.

The catastrophic situation that faced the first arriving FDNY units the moment they arrived was more complex, more dangerous and more challenging than any other fire or disaster on American soil.

Initially, we weren’t going to handle it; it was an unattainable goal.

Within 10 to15 minutes, more than 200 firefighters from all parts of the city are rushing to the scene. Most companies were sent up immediately to assist with the evacuation of the thousands of people still in the building.

Pretty much everybody above the plane strike died, and everyone below lived.

Thousands of people below the plane strikes were still in danger. Aviation fuel dripped down through the elevator shafts…

Fifteen minutes later, Flight 175, hijacked from Boston, struck the 78th to 87th floors of the south tower.

There were more people above the strike zone and the damaged part of the building was supporting a much larger piece of real estate above it than was the case in the first building.

The second plane was estimated to be traveling 100 miles per hour faster than the first plane that struck the first tower. He was flying as fast as he could without the plane breaking up, and he angled the plane so that all but one foot on the end of the wings hit the tower; he couldn’t have done it any better for what he was trying to do.

This 100 mile-an-hour increase in speed has been estimated to have resulted in as much as a 40 per cent increase in damage due to the energy released during the impact.

The strike to the second building resulted in a 30-storey fireball. We couldn’t handle it; even if the second building hadn’t been hit, the first building would have been a catastrophic event. The standpipe system was rendered useless – never mind when the buildings fell down and broke the water mains in the streets – so what do you do now?

We set up seven command posts but they just didn’t fit into the neat little command-post scenario; it was a little unorthodox as far as the command structure went.

There was an uncontrollable fire – almost 20 floors were involved in the fire. If these buildings did not collapse, it’s doubtful any fire department could successfully extinguish this much fire, this high, in a highrise building. Anybody ever put a large-diameter hose up a stairway? I’m guessing the fire would burn itself out in the two days it would take you to get the hose up there.

Approximately 15 minutes prior to the unexpected collapse of Tower 2, [an officer] ordered the evacuation of Tower 1. The order did not start the process; many firefighters did not hear the order.

After only 65 minutes, Tower 2 collapsed; the event occurred with no warning and severely damaged the fire-department operating forces and the command structure at the scene. The chief of the department was killed, the first deputy fire commander was killed – basically the whole command structure – all the people in charge of the command structure were killed or severely injured; plus thousands of others were injured, over and above those injured from the initial crash.

I heard that on the radio – I was 15 to 20 miles from New York City and you hear a guy screaming that there is a major collapse.

I don’t know what you do on Sunday morning, but I go to church; my friend Jay Jonas, who was in the building in the stairway, he and his crew survived.

*    *    *

My friend Capt. Jay Jonas and firefighters from Ladder 6 . . . [Jay] says, with a little frustration in his voice, ‘John, go in through the glass doors, make a left . . .’ He didn’t know the whole building fell down, the whole world stopped; he thought something happened and they got banged around a bit. We said, ‘Jay, the building is gone, it’s on the ground.’ They got him out of there several hours later.

*    *    *

Tower 2 collapsed rapidly in a pancake fashion.

Anything can happen, anywhere, at the drop of a hat. Those are the lessons we have learned. We are very vulnerable.

Thirty-five minutes after the first collapse, Tower 1 collapsed in an identical fashion. The entire collapse of this 110-storey building took 10 seconds – so quick that the smoke that was coming from the top of the building hadn’t dissipated.

*    *    *
People were sent across the Hudson River to New Jersey on ferries – New Jersey firefighters were picking them up and helping them; some were distraught, with no shoes on.

They found body parts on the roofs of buildings a year later . . .

*    *    *

Immediate problems: Accounting for FDNY members, which was absolutely impossible. There were fires in collapsed and adjacent buildings. There was no water. There was concern about secondary devices and attacks; we were worried about it but we weren’t doing anything about it.

Re-establishing command: that eventually happened but not very quickly.

Site access: army guys with rifles were guarding the place; you couldn’t get in unless you were a firefighter.

On Dec. 24 a crane pulled a beam out of the ground that was still red hot at the end . . .

Sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind; if you wanted to worry about safety and do everything the proper way, you would have had to leave. We were beyond worrying about safety.

Our whole accountability system in those days was a printed piece of paper on the dashboard of the apparatus; we now have that augmented by a computerized system.

After the first five or six hours the radios stopped working – there were no batteries; and when it was dark it was dark.

In the year and a half or two years that I worked there on and off, I saw one item that I recognized – one of those cardboard things you put over a computer keyboard. I didn’t find a desk or a wheel off a chair – not a single piece of anything that was recognizable, except for maybe a piece of a Halligan or half a Halligan . . .

The cleanup was very hot and nobody was wearing full gear; eventually we went into a different mode and wore overalls, and a bus would drive you [to Ground Zero] and back and we had tents, showers and new overalls.

There was a six-storey pile of debris. We ran 35-foot ladders to the top. We’re emergency workers – we sometimes have to do dangerous stuff. Some of these guys were steelworkers; steelworkers with torches, helmets and T-shirts with American flags on them. I had steelworkers cutting beams around dead firefighters. They didn’t have to do that. They poured themselves into it too.

One day we found eight guys, all on top of each other. That was great. Any time we’d find anything – a glove, stripes – we’d stop. Trucks, grapplers – they didn’t move anything out of there without us seeing it. Everything came out of the piles and went into a dumpster, then onto a barge to a landfill, and onto conveyor belts.

They were finding driver’s licences, wedding rings, on the conveyor belts; there were 20 or 30 guys on each side just standing there watching stuff. Everything would have passed 30 guys by the time it got to the end.

The first guy we found had no head – a New Jersey Port Authority guy.

We thought we could still find guys alive in a cavern two weeks later. We were wrong.

We eventually established sub-commands – west command (using a trailer and phone lines), Liberty command, Church command – three sectors. When you got assigned you were assigned to a sector – it was a bit more organized as per the incident command system.

We were using five-gallon buckets for collecting body parts.

We just took what we had to – we set up in storefronts for food stations or morgues. Manhattan was closed.

The FDNY lost 112 pieces of fire apparatus. The department was on normal operations afterwards but I don’t think we got any calls for a week. We had volunteers from Westchester county to cover – a green damn fire engine in my fire house!

*    *    *

There were 491 people from 91 countries; 343 FDNY – 174 recovered; 23 NYPD; 37 Port Authority police; and 2,800 civilians.

*    *    *

At FDNY, we started figuring out what we did right, what we did wrong.

Some of these losses were our fault. Some of the men who died in 9-11 didn’t have to die and would be alive today if we did some things differently.

There was a message from the fire commissioner about rebuilding the ranks. We needed a new radio system – a dual radio system – we used handi-talkies and radio – we can communicate with each other; we have very much the same as before but we improved a couple of aspects that did not work so well.

Terrorism training – there’s some terrorism/operational training that people need to have.

Decon capabilities – we can now decon thousands of people at a time; we didn’t have a clue about that before.

Radiation detection equipment – just about every rig has it now.

Protective masks – everyone’s got ’em now; on 9-11 I was fumbling through ambulances full of paper and dust and ankle deep in white dust looking through ambulances for the little white masks so we could stop coughing while we were working; now we have SCBA with them built in.

Staff chief enhancement – we now have chiefs in charge of terrorism. A bunch of them were killed because they were at the fire, standing where a deputy chief should have been standing, looking at a computer screen; maybe some of the staff chiefs should stay where they are or work remotely rather than being down on the scene.

We now have a Center for Disaster Preparedness.

And new fire boats. We didn’t have any water supply – no water – try it for a day at home; does anyone realize what a complicating factor that was? We didn’t have any water; now they’ve enhanced the whole marine division.

We have new strategic plans for different things, a new Emergency Operation Center – it’s huge, with all sorts of computer-assisted equipment – and we can now pull up pictures of every address.

We have an enhanced accountability system and new recall procedures.

*    *    *

The first thing was to rebuild the ranks. On Sept 16, 2001, there were 171 promotions. Five days later, we had a new chief of the department, a new chief of operations, two deputy assistant chiefs, five deputy chiefs, 31 battalion chiefs, 62 captains and 69 lieutenants. All of those folks weren’t ready – when you’re 62 names away on a captains list, guys probably got promoted years ahead of the date that they initially anticipated before 9-11. We had to suffer through that a little bit.

*    *    *

All FDNY members are now assigned a handie-talkie radio with 16 channels, a distress button, a remote mic and a shoulder strap.

There was a time in the FDNY that all our firefighters didn’t have radios. Does anyone know how long ago that was? That was 9-11.

If you don’t have a radio or you’re not with a guy who has a radio then you might not hear the evacuation order. Now, every single guy has a radio. That was a big change. They had to do some other things – our radios were not very reliable in below-ground areas, and they weren’t as effective as they were everywhere else, in highrise buildings.

So we had to devise and develop a new radio system. They came out about two years after 9-11 with a digital component in them – there are more than 350 companies with five or six people in each company, and we had to change over every radio in the FDNY in the same minute – five counties, 350 companies, 3,000 firefighters all had to switch from the old radio to the new radio. We switched over, and the first thing they discovered was that standing in front of a fire, I would hear my voice come out of his radio a full second after I said whatever I said – it was absolutely unnerving – you had to wait for your own voice to stop talking before you could start talking again, and there were a couple of maydays that didn’t get out. So, we sent all those radios back, and we had to switch back to the old radios again. Now we have switched to analogue radios again.

The handie-talkie radio – they were point to point – no repeaters or trunking; our fire-ground radios are just point-to-point on the fire ground. Everybody’s on channel 1 all day, every day.

One of the things that we did to enhance our communications system is use a new radio called a command post radio – for underground and highrise. It’s a 45-watt portable radio for use in command-post operation post and sectors. It’s a Pelican case – built in a custom-built 45-watt radio, on the same frequencies as handie-talkie. Battalion chiefs carry them in the cars.

So, we created a separate radio that we can carry into the building.

We also have a vehicle-repeater system in some battalion chiefs’ vehicles – the highrise battalions in New York City have a radio system built into their vehicles with a repeater that can interact with the radios in the highrise buildings.

*    *    *

Counterterrorism information bulletins are issued by the FDNY Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. These bulletins discuss current or possible terrorist threats relating to CBRNE issues. These are terrorism-related issues only.

*    *    *

We have technical decon teams – 25 teams made up of one engine, one ladder and a battalion chief; the teams are deployed at large events in corridors where evacuating crowds will be directed, like Yankee Stadium.

■ Chemical protective clothing unit

If something bad happens, inside that rig is a whole additional set of radios, backboards and full chemical protective clothing. Every CPC unit is trained all the way up to the highest level of protective clothing.

■ Radioactivity monitoring

This is carried by all companies, attached to handie-talkie radio strap. The first arriving unit can ID the hazard.

■ Protective masks

Think of the injuries that would have been prevented had this piece of equipment been available to all FDNY members on 9-11. We use the Scott twin-cartridge full facepiece respirator.


The EOC supervises thousands of responders. The incident-support center manages large-scale disasters. There are two divisible command center conference rooms.

A direct result of 9-11 is BF4, online accountability reports. These are pre-printed forms that you fill in, in duplicate. There is a blackboard that is a reproduction of the form; one goes in plastic holder on the dashboard and one goes in battalion chief’s pocket, and there’s one online. In our intranet – electronic list – anybody who goes on duty for a shift goes online and signs in – you drag and drop that battalion chief’s name and the five who are working with him on that tour, then the chiefs see who’s on duty in each company.

Additionally, if there’s a tragic situation unfolding – a building collapse that traps two companies – I can see who’s trapped; to take it one step shorter, the deputy chief has access to this in his car. You can view companies in a battalion or division; you can view battalions citywide; you can view officers only and you can view chiefs only.

The system also lists any specialty qualifications that a firefighter has, so if a driver gets hurt he can look at the report and say one of other engines has two chauffeurs on duty and can move someone over.

*    *    *

■ Fire-ground accountability system

We have developed an accountability system that uses the combined technology of our department radio system and our fire-ground handie-talkie network.

When the IC wants to hold an emergency roll call (PAR) it is announced on the fire-ground handie-talkie to all operating members. Upon hearing this radio call, every member simply “keys” or presses the transmit button on their radio. Every on-scene firefighter is immediately identified on the screen, and any firefighter that did not respond is also identified in a different colour, enabling us to know immediately who is missing.

■ Marine capability

We have just received the second of two brand-new boats. We used to have 10 marine companies – we’re down to three now. After 9-11 we realized by the fact that we had to use some formerly sold boats to get water [that we needed more], so we have two, 140-foot fire boats with 50,000 gallons per minute, that can operate in hazardous atmospheres. The whole cabin can be sealed from CBRNE. Beyond that we have a 66-foot FDNY rapid-response boat – and are building 16 more EMS and rapid-response fire boats. FDNY has made a conscious decision to rebuild the marine division.

■ Update and enhance mutual aid

We all must be familiar with what capabilities our neighbours possess. Police, fire and EMS agencies must co-ordinate with OEM officials. We must include or dispatch personnel with our mutual-aid policies and practices. Consider compatibility of radios, SCBA cylinders, hose couplings and any other equipment or tools that we may need to share at large multi-agency incidents. Train and practise before the actual event occurs.

■ When does New York City call for help? Never.
On 9-11, the dispatchers in the Bronx called Westchester (so there was that green fire truck in my hall!). Somewhere along the line there needs to be interoperability. The Westchester truck wasn’t compatible with the New York City hydrants; they had to find adapters in closets and whatnot. Mutual-aid partners should be compatible.

We have new recall procedures. The previous recall procedures used on 9-11 – FDNY notified local media, who made public announcements that firefighters were being recalled to duty at the firehouses. There was no confirmation as to who received this message and no specific directions.

Now every FDNY member is notified via automatic telephone dialing system. Only those needed are notified, and they are instructed where to report and what equipment or tools they are required to report with. Press 1 to repeat this message. Press 2 to acknowledge this message. Guys were sitting on laps on the seats in the rigs – nobody thought they were going to die that day. It was a shift change, so lots of guys were in the halls and some who were going off duty went anyway. Some guys threw others off. Eight off-duty firefighters were killed. There were 140 companies in the first hour; only two companies self-dispatched. Otherwise, it was a pretty disciplined effort.

■ Incident command teams
We couldn’t even spell incident management teams before 9-11. The first incident commanders to respond were the U.S. Forestry Service. They came to our city and we said, “Oh God, look at these guys in the green uniforms.” Do you know what they know about fire in New York City? Nothing. But they know incident management; they have tents and kitchen utensils and port-a-potties. And now we know how to do incident management – because we killed 343 people in a fire, that’s why. Now we know, and we learned it from them, and now we do it. We send incident management teams all over the world now.

■ Lessons learned
Where the next catastrophic terrorist incident will happen is unknown. What we need to plan for and prepare for is well known.

It’s like 9-11 never happened. Seventy per cent of the guys in my department have five years or less. Most people came on after 9-11. It’s just another old thing that happened a long time ago. We were there and we survived.

Three days – everyone was on duty. All 11,000 on duty. About half went to the World Trade Center. It was OK – because we got oodles and oodles and oodles of people. For 12 hours we didn’t get a run. Fires still happened but all the other nuisance calls just didn’t happen.

Every battalion has FDNY-NYPD interoperability radios – still very limited. Most of the interoperability is at the higher levels. If a plane crashes into a highrise in New York City tomorrow there will be a police command post and an FDNY command post. The cops had much better info on the buildings than we did from their choppers in the sky – they knew those buildings were coming down and we didn’t get the message.

There are widows alive today who have never actually been notified by anybody that their husbands died on 9-11. Obviously, they found out, but not officially. We were way over our heads and beyond our ability to handle that.

We didn’t even know who was dead for a couple of days, and then it was impossible; we didn’t have any time for anybody to polish their shoes and drive upstate and tell them their husband was dead.

After you knew you had five guys dead, you took five guys in your company and made them the liaison for the families; then we never relieved the guy – the guy did it for six or eight months; some guys left their families and hooked up with the widows. It was all well meaning – these women start to depend on these guys so badly . . .

In the end, every funeral was conducted; after 20 or 30 or 40 the bagpipe band stopped going and we called in New Jersey. I stopped going; I went one day to three in one day. And then I stopped going.

*    *    *

Everybody wanted to go and everybody wanted to stay. The hard part was pulling people out. It wasn’t a treat to go down but it was an expectation to go down. Nobody knew nobody. Everybody knew somebody – 70 guys who I knew by first name. You went down there when you were told and you came back when you were told. Some went down there and flipped. Some didn’t.

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