'There Was No Fleeing From This Cascading Terror'

By Merle English

May 26, 2002

If anyone ever wondered what it was like to be caught in the bowels of the collapsing World Trade Center on Sept. 11, veteran firefighter Richard Picciotto had firsthand experience and lived to tell.

The New York City Fire Department battalion chief was on the 35th floor of the North Tower with about a dozen firefighters when "the building began to tremble, and we all froze. Dead solid still. To a man, no one moved. No one spoke.

"The building was shaking like an earthquake, like an amusement park thrill ride gone berserk. But it was the rumble that struck me still with fear. The sheer volume of it. The way it coursed through me. I couldn't think what ... would make a noise like that.

"Like a thousand runaway trains speeding toward me. Like a herd of wild beasts. ... But whatever it was, it was gaining speed, and gathering force, and getting closer, and I was stuck in the middle, unable to get out of its path."

Picciotto, 51, recalls his emotions as the towers collapsed around him in "Last Man Down," his first- person account as the highest-ranking firefighter to escape the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks. The book was published April 30 by The Berkley Publishing Group.

The upstate Chester resident was in Queens earlier this month to answer questions about his ordeal at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Forest Hills. His visit to the borough also was a tribute to the 343 firefighters - many from the Rockaways and other Queens communities - who perished and to whom his book is dedicated.

On Sept. 11, Picciotto was on duty at his firehouse on West 110th Street in Manhattan just after 8:50 a.m. when he saw on television "what everyone saw. The North Tower of the World Trade Center smoking like crazy. Pandemonium at ground level." he writes. "All I was thinking was rescue."

Picciotto, a 28-year Fire Department veteran, was familiar with the layout of the North Tower, having been dispatched there after the terrorist bombing in 1993.

"I knew the stairwells and what it was like to evacuate tens of thousands of people ... against an uncertain clock," he writes.

Then the other plane hit the South Tower, and Picciotto decided that as a chief, he was "first due," on the scene. It was "the big one."

"I don't think there was a firefighter ... who wanted to be anyplace else but up on one of those fire floors doing what he could to put out the flames, to save lives."

Leading a few firefighters who were in the lobby of the North Tower, Picciotto sought to get to the fire floors. "There were dozens of firefighters on every floor," he writes. In offices he saw computer screens still on, half-sipped coffee and half-eaten muffins, family photos, loose papers.

He and his improvised company reached the 35th floor. "And then it happened."

A "deafening, sickening noise from above, like nothing any of us had ever heard. ...And all headed right at us," he recalls in the book. "We were sure we were about to be pierced or pummeled or pulverized by whatever."

But the terror went by. "It had merely passed through us and continued on its path to some unknown place."

The South Tower had collapsed.

Picciotto felt the North Tower would be next. "I knew we had to get out of there."

It was 70 minutes since the first plane hit, and he figured most civilians had left the North Tower by then. "It was unlikely that there were any more lives to be saved other than our own."

So he went into stairwells yelling, "Drop your masks. Drop your tools. Drop everything. Get out! Get out! This is the Fire Department."

Married and the father of two, Picciotto writes, "I had a responsibility that was bigger than just me. ... It was hundreds of firefighters and police officers and Port Authority rescue workers and emergency medical technicians, and it was all their families on the ground, praying for their safe return."

On the way down, he and his team found about 60 people sitting quietly in offices. Some were in wheelchairs, others were on crutches, and some used walkers or canes. Co-workers had stayed behind to help them.

"It was the one time that morning I nearly cried," Picciotto writes, touched by "these shows of extreme human kindness." He directed his team members to help the workers escape.

Racing down the stairwell between the sixth and seventh floors, "I heard that noise again," he says in the book, "that same sick, killing rumble from just 29 minutes earlier. There was no mistaking the roar, and as it quickly approached, I knew what it meant. In an instant, the whole of my life washed over me."

A Catholic, he had gone to church "grudgingly, infrequently, to set a good example for my children. ... But as that black rumble came hurtling down toward me I was born again. So I started praying. Hard. Fast. Making full use of the time I had left."

He bolted down the stairs while the building shook and beams and chunks of concrete fell on him. "There was no fleeing from this cascading terror. The building was coming down in a torrent, and I would be forever stuck in its middle." He ran, praying, 'Please God, make it quick.' "

A blunt object hit him on the head "and I was down and thinking that would be it." Picciotto was able to get to his feet, but the landing under him fell. He tumbled to the landing between the third and second floors.

"I stopped moving. ... I thought I was dead."

He was in pitch darkness, but he was alive - entombed, he believed, under 100 floors of concrete and debris. But except for burning eyes and bruises, "I felt fine."

Picciotto knew he had fallen into a void. Soon, he discovered that members of his team and a 59-year-old grandmother also were alive nearby. Using radios, they sent out Mayday calls until they made contact with a firefighter on the ground and a search party was dispatched.

Meanwhile, light appeared about four stories above Picciotto. He climbed toward the light, reached the top and saw the "unfathomable, mind-boggling destruction."

After organizing the rescue of the others, Picciotto walked across the rubble to safety.

In an interview, he said his lung capacity is diminished, he is sensitive to bright lights and damaged a shoulder muscle that will need surgery.

Writing the book was cathartic, he said.

But he plans to give up firefighting. "I'm going to quit. It's time," he said. "I'm hurt. I've been doing this for close to 30 years. I love it, it's a great job, but it's time to move on."

"Last Man Down" sells for $24.95 in bookstores. A portion of the royalties from the book will be donated to surviving families of firefighters lost at Ground Zero.