Tuesday, September 11, 2001, 8:50 A.M. There was one hell of a ﬁre up in New York. Nobody seemed to know what had happened, whether it was an accident or a terrorist attack or something else. But one thing was for sure–the FDNY had a long day of work ahead.
At Fire Station 4 in Arlington, Virginia, half a dozen ﬁreﬁghters watched TV with a kind of professional envy as smoke poured from one of the towers at the World Trade Center. The television commentators were speculating about what had happened and what it meant. Some kind of airplane seemed to have smashed into the North Tower, in downtown Manhattan, just as the workday was getting started. But nobody knew what kind of plane. Or why it hit the building.
The ﬁreﬁghters, however, were more interested in what was happening inside the tower. There was very little on TV about that. They had a pretty good idea, though.
Capt. Denis Grifﬁn was a burly 20-year veteran who had joined the Arlington County Fire Department back when canvas coats and hip-high rubber boots were the standard protective gear. He recalled some details of the 1945 crash of a B-25 bomber into the Empire State Building, which wrecked several ﬂoors and cut most of the building’s elevator cables. This looked similar. With the elevators probably out, he ﬁgured, the New York ﬁreﬁghters would be walking up hundreds of stairs, with axes and other tools and hoses and air packs–probably 50 pounds of gear for each guy–while an avalanche of people coursed in the opposite direction.
“Imagine getting all those people down the stairs,” Grifﬁn bellowed, his usually calm voice roused with excitement.
“Just think what it must be like humping all that gear up to the top of that building,” added Bobby Beer, a salt-haired West Virginian who had been ﬁghting ﬁres as long as Grifﬁn.
“Goddamn,” Grifﬁn said, “that is gonna be one hell of a long walk.”
Arlington had a few high-rises, but nothing like New York. That’s what made the New York City Fire Department so legendary–just about any kind of ﬁre there was, the guys in New York had seen it. Now they were ﬁghting what was probably one of the toughest, highest ﬁres ever, and the crew at Station 4 foresaw all kinds of problems. Even if they could climb that high, water pressure in the tower had probably been cut to a trickle. How would the New York crews put out the ﬁre? Would they be able to carry up the heavy tools needed to extract victims who might be buried in rubble? And how would they get to people trapped above the ﬁre? Did they have helicopters that could do rescues from the roof?
“Shit,” somebody joked. “Those guys in New York get all the best ﬁres.”
A shrill chirping sound disrupted the armchair ﬁreﬁghting. The room went silent as a series of staccato beeps got louder. It was a ﬁre call at an apartment building, and the dispatcher was summoning multiple units: Engine 109, Engine 101, Engine 105, Quint 104 . . . That was Grifﬁn’s unit. He and his crew of three others rushed to the truck, jumped into their turnout gear, and started the engine.
It was not shaping up as a good day to get dental work done. Vice Adm. Scott Fry, the director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, had orders to ship out soon for a new job as commander of the Navy Sixth Fleet in Naples, Italy. And he had to get to the dentist before he left.
Just as Fry was about to leave his ofﬁce, his executive assistant called out, “Hey, you won’t believe this.” The TV was on. “It looks like an aircraft hit the World Trade Center.”
Fry watched for a moment. That was odd, he thought. But probably just a freak accident. He told his secretary to call his cell phone if anything came up, and headed out the door for his nine o’clock appointment.
At the clinic, the news was on in the waiting room, with coverage of the incident in New York. The newscaster was asking somebody if there were any reports on the size of the plane that had hit the building. Had it been a small, private plane? “No,” an analyst said. “It looks bigger than a civil aircraft.”
Fry was antsy. This didn’t feel right. The lean, frenetic admiral was pretty wired to start with, and he debated heading back to his ofﬁce. But then the dental assistant called him in. At least we’ll get this over with fast, he thought.
The dentist started prepping him for a novocaine shot when they heard a shout from an outer ofﬁce; there was some kind of commotion. Then Fry’s cell phone rang. It was his assistant. “Sir,” he huffed, “I don’t know if you saw it, but another airplane hit the World Trade Center.”
That was all Fry needed to hear. “This appointment is over,” he announced, pushing the dental tray out of the way and leaping out of the chair. He walked swiftly out of the clinic. Out in the corridor, he started to run. One airplane hitting a skyscraper, that was damned suspicious. But two . . . there was no doubt about it. It had to be a terrorist attack.
Fry raced to the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon’s highly secure nerve center. Above the command center was a suite of rooms known as the Executive Support Center, or ESC, where the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior ofﬁcials would meet to discuss urgent matters. A video teleconference link could connect them to the White House, the State Department, the CIA, and military commanders throughout the world. Running the whole complex was Fry’s job.
As he bounded up a spiral staircase that led from the command center to the conference room, a group was already gathering. Stephen Cambone, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s right-hand man, was there, for the moment the ranking civilian. He and Fry started discussing what they knew about New York: not much, except what they could see on TV. Everybody in the room knew that events were unfolding that would likely lead the nation into war. But right now there were more immediate concerns. Should the Pentagon send a hospital ship to New York? An Aegis cruiser? An aircraft carrier? What would it take to get National Guard troops into Manhattan? And what was the status of the nation’s air defense network?
Like the men in Denis Grifﬁn’s company, Derek Spector, Brian Roache, and Ron Christman had raced to the Arlington apartment ﬁre. As with most calls, there turned out to be no ﬁre–in this case, just some burnt coffee smoldering on a stove. It had been a quick call, pretty routine–except that as they were packing up to leave, somebody had mentioned a big ﬁre up in New York. An airplane had hit a high-rise. So when the three ﬁreﬁghters returned to their station in south Arlington, they went straight to the kitchen and ﬂipped on the TV.
It was an astonishing sight. There were now two airplanes. Smoke poured from both towers of the World Trade Center, and the networks kept re-airing footage of the second plane–clearly a commercial airliner–roaring into the South Tower, followed by a spectacular eruption of ﬂame and debris.
“That’s weird, man!” Roache roared. “Fucking weird! This has got to be some kind of incident!”
Spector was the acting ofﬁcer on the crew–standing in for another ofﬁcer, who was on leave. He was the most experienced of the three, but he had never seen anything like it. Terrorism, maybe–but it seemed too big even for that. Didn’t terrorists use truck bombs? And operate on the ground?
Spector was a part-time ﬁreﬁghter in Frederick County, Maryland, where he lived. A lot of ﬁreﬁghters did that–earned their pay in a big department, then volunteered or worked part-time locally. Spector’s shift in Arlington would end at 7:00 A.M. the next day, and he was scheduled for a shift in Maryland right after that. He’d be late, so he called a colleague in Frederick, to work something out. They made a plan. Then they talked about New York.
“Hey, be careful man,” Spector’s friend told him. “That could happen down there.”
“Nah,” Spector answered. “That kind of stuff doesn’t happen down here in Arlington.”
Protestors were heading for the nation’s capital. And law-enforcement ofﬁcials were determined to avoid a melee.
Dignitaries at the International Monetary Fund met from time to time in Washington, D.C., and until recently the biggest problem had been gridlock caused by ﬂeets of limousines blocking the streets. But global ﬁnancial institutions had become a rallying point for protestors upset about poverty, economic unfairness, and a litany of other problems. Demonstrators numbering perhaps 100,000 or more were planning a huge march to greet the world bankers at the end of the month.1 At similar protests in other cities, chaos and violence had erupted. So throughout the Washington area, public safety ofﬁcials were planning how to keep that from happening in D.C.
The ﬁreﬁghters were FBI Special Agent Chris Combs’s assignment. After joining the Washington Field Ofﬁce in 1998, Combs noticed that the Bureau had solid outreach programs to local police departments, but not to the ﬁre squads. Before joining the FBI, Combs had been a ﬁreﬁghter on Long Island, up in New York, where he grew up, and he still had two cousins on the FDNY. He knew that in a major emergency or terrorist incident, like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, it would be the ﬁre department–not the police or the FBI–doing rescues, battling ﬁres, and going into wrecked buildings. “We’ve got all these great relationships with police, but not with the ﬁre departments,” he had told his bosses. “If there was a major bombing today, the ﬁre chief is going to own that scene. He needs a relationship with the FBI.”
Combs got the go-ahead to begin a liaison program with local ﬁre departments. He set up joint training programs, made sure the FBI understood ﬁre department procedures, and got to know the ﬁre ofﬁcials in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Today he was teaching a class on crowd control, in case ﬁreﬁghters had to respond to an incident during the IMF meetings that involved police cordons, tear gas, or masses of people.
As Combs lectured about 50 ﬁreﬁghters and police ofﬁcers at the Metropolitan Police Academy near Capitol Hill, he impressed the group with his energy and enthusiasm. A passion for law enforcement came across in his eager speech and animated body language. Traces of a New York accent added authenticity.
Combs’s audience was silent and attentive, until one of the ﬁreﬁghters reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. Combs scowled, thinking how rude it was to take a call in the midst of his class.
Then the ﬁreﬁghter blurted out, “It’s my wife. She says New York is under attack!”
Combs decided on the spot to cancel class. The group moved to another room, where there was a TV. Then Combs’s pager went off– the message said to prepare for a possible deployment to New York. “I gotta get out of here!” Combs announced. “I gotta get to New York!” He sprinted out the door, jumped in his car, and headed for the FBI’s Washington Field Ofﬁce in downtown D.C.
This sounded like a big incident. It could last for days. Combs decided to make a quick stop at his Capitol Hill town house on the way–it couldn’t hurt to toss some clean socks and underwear in his car.
When Denis Grifﬁn and his crew returned to Station 4, the mood was a lot more somber than when they had left. The second plane had hit New York. The TV networks had footage, and kept showing it, over and over. Both towers were retching thick black smoke–typical of fuel ﬁres. Something horrendous was happening.
Bobby Beer was on the phone with some buddies who belonged to a federal search-and-rescue task force. They didn’t have orders yet, but from the looks of things on TV, they ﬁgured they were going to be sent to New York to help search for victims at the World Trade Center–or anyplace else that might get attacked. The task force was starting to muster. “Be safe,” Beer implored one of his pals.
Chad Stamps, another ﬁreﬁghter, called his best friend in the department, Paul Marshall, who was on leave that day. The “wonder twins,” as they were known, were notorious for jokes and pranks, especially when they were around each other. There was no joking now. “Are you watching this?” Stamps asked.
“What the fuck!” Marshall shouted on the other end of the phone. “How do you ﬁght a ﬁre like that? What are they gonna do?”
Somebody else pointed to the TV and said it looked like the top of one of the towers was askew. Then the ﬁreﬁghters started speculating about what sorts of landmarks terrorists might target if they were to attack northern Virginia. The most obvious was the USA Today complex, which included the two tallest high-rises in Arlington. They had aimed for the tallest buildings in New York, right? So wouldn’t they do the same thing here?
Or they might go after CIA headquarters, somebody volunteered. Or the Pentagon. Or the White House and the Capitol, over in D.C.
The chirping sound interrupted. “Apartment ﬁre,” the dispatcher announced, “1001 Wilson Blvd . . .”
Time to get back to work.