New Man In Charge;
As its highest-ranking uniformed officer Daniel Nigro guides the Fire Department past Sept. 11

Copyright 2002 Newsday, Inc.
Newsday (New York, NY)...07/07/2002

By Sheila McKenna. STAFF WRITER

On a recent morning, Daniel Nigro, chief of the nation's largest fire department, sat in his seventh-floor office in Brooklyn's Metro Tech complex and thought back to Sept. 11.

He pointed to the window that his predecessor and friend of 30 years, Peter Ganci, had peered through that day to see smoke rising from the north tower of the World Trade Center after it was hit by a hijacked airliner.

One of the things Ganci did next was to call Nigro, then chief of operations, who worked on the floor below. Moments later, both men and Steve Mosiello, Ganci's executive assistant and now Nigro's, were driving over the Brooklyn Bridge.

"This is going to be the worst day of our lives," Nigro says he told Ganci and Mosiello. "I knew it was going to be the worst fire but I just didn't know how bad."

What he also could not have known, of course, is that it would be among the last moments he would share with his close friend.

Ganci and 342 other New York City firefighters would perish, and that day would forever be stamped in the nation's consciousness.

Six days later, on Sept. 17, Nigro was sworn in by then-Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen to head the department, made up of 11,500 firefighters and fire officers, as well as 3,000 members of the emergency medical service. As the new chief of department, Nigro, who will earn $ 149,000 a year, was left with the unprecedented task of leading the agency through a period of mourning that continues 10 months later.

"Chief Nigro was one of those excellent chiefs who were willing to make that sacrifice at the time, to come off the line and help with so many projects that were critical to moving the department forward," said Von Essen, now senior vice president at Giuliani Partners, the consulting firm started by the former mayor.

"He was supportive of the EMS merger (Emergency Medical Service with the fire department) and has always been supportive in making all of our chiefs accountable for the evaluations that we were trying to do.

"Dan was also a natural replacement for Pete. He was his close friend and was horribly hurt, as we all were. I'm sure to this day he cannot sit in that office without thinking about his friend. He cares deeply about the department and although he's been greatly affected, he tries to keep going and get through every day the best he can."

Nicholas Scoppetta, who became Nigro's boss as the fire commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, says the fact that Nigro witnessed the devastation at the World Trade Center "gives him enormous credibility and it gives him a kind of empathy for everyone going through the 9/11 experience. ... Dan is one of the people who lived the day and lived the losses."

The commissioner described the chief as literate, low-key, understanding and with "a wonderfully dry sense of humor."

In an interview, Nigro, 53, looks younger than his years when he smiles. Then his face is transformed and the somewhat sad expression changes. The eyes brighten and the worry lines almost vanish.

When he has spoken at various ceremonies in the past several months, his remarks often have been introspective. A self-described history buff (he's hooked on TV's History Channel and reading biographies), he uses the Civil War as a frame of reference and quotes the Gettysburg Address, words that have brought solace and grace to each occasion.

At a Fire Department ********* ceremony on Tuesday, Nigro impressed a new group of captains with their new responsibility as firehouse leaders. "Be the captain, not a captain," he said. "It's a position that should be respected, trusted in." And within seconds, he softened and urged them to "take your families somewhere cool today and enjoy the day."

One person who has noticed Nigro's approach is Dennis Smith, a former firefighter and author of the bestselling book "Report From Engine Co.82." In his new book, "Report From Ground Zero," Smith included Nigro's haunting eyewitness account of Sept.11. Smith only has praise for Nigro, whom he knew more by reputation before Sept. 11.

"He was an important man in the FDNY. I met him at many events and always admired Dan Nigro because of his known competency," Smith said from his Manhattan home. "This guy headed every major bureau in the fire department. Nobody knows the inner workings better. He's also incredibly modest and known to be a fair adjudicator ... and he can write."

Opting to sit alongside an interviewer instead of behind his impressive desk, Nigro was asked how he and the department are coping with the enormity of it all.

He reached over to the right side of his desk for a photograph in a gold frame. Seated in a golf cart is a beaming Ganci next to an equally happy Nigro.

"It was taken at the chiefs' association golf outing last August," Nigro said proudly through misty eyes. "It might have been the only time I ever beat him."

His favorite pastime, golf, has been put on hold for now. Lately he averages at least two memorial services a week, as the remains of more Sept. 11 victims are identified by DNA tests.

When asked to assess the emotional state of the department as a whole, he said it is strong.

Pressed on why the Fire Department hasn't adopted a mandatory counseling policy similar to the one the Police Department put in place for officers who served long tours of duty at Ground Zero, Nigro said he's a believer in the lead-the-horse-to-water school of thought.

"Real counseling is a cooperative effort - between both parties. It's not something you can force somebody to do. There is still a lot of pain. Some people have gone for counseling and there are probably others that should but haven't. So it's up to us - our medical people and me - to constantly remind them that help is available," Nigro said.

Daniel Nigro III was brought up in Bayside and like his father, Daniel Nigro II, now a retired FDNY captain, he always knew what he wanted to do. After graduating from Baruch College (the Baruch College Alumni Association honored him with its Community Service Award on June 5), he entered the Fire Department in 1969. He has held many jobs, including heading personnel, the medical division and emergency medical services.

Nigro said it was his solid relationship with his family that has pulled him through the trauma of Sept. 11 and the ongoing anguish over so many lost lives. He and his wife, Lynn, whom he met at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bayside, have been married for 30 years and have lived in the same house in Whitestone ever since. The couple have two daughters - Lori, 18, is enrolled at Baruch, and Lisa, 25, is planning to wed a firefighter next year, which he admits pleases him.

It appears to be this down-to-earth quality that has served him well and earned him the respect of his peers.

"My opinion of him was always positive but post-9/11 it's even higher," said Capt. Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, who doesn't consider himself a personal friend but someone who has gotten to know Nigro across the table through union-related business.

"During that time, when it came to the headlines, it was the fire commissioner and the mayor who did all the speaking for the department. Even on fire-related issues they pretty much dominated it. Dan Nigro did his job with quiet dignity and to the best of his ability and I really admire what he did for this department," Gorman said.

As the top uniformed officer in the department, Nigro also is in the position to influence a new generation of New Yorkers to become firefighters. That could be a daunting challenge, especially now, when people know just how dangerous the job can be.

"We suffered a terrible tragedy but it remains a great department that will still attract terrific people," Nigro said.

"But now it's up to us to convince people that the firehouse is a comfortable work environment. Not a place where they will feel estranged but a place that they will enjoy no matter what ethnic or racial background they come from."

Still, after what he went through, would he do it again?

"My father was very happy doing his job and so was I. It seemed like a good way to spend your life and up until Sept. 11 it was. It will certainly take us a while to get that feeling back ... but we will."