July 24, 2002 -- In a new book, former Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen describes a department "in complete disarray" just after the Sept. 11 attacks, with many top officials missing and its people at the World Trade Center knowing less than a shocked world watching on television.

"Throughout my 31-year career, I had gotten used to the idea that my enemy, fire, was tenacious and impossible to kill, but could be beaten. But this, this was something new," Von Essen writes in a memoir, "Strong of Heart," due in bookstores next month.

The book, subtitled "Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York," covers Von Essen's life as a firefighter, union president and finally as commissioner for six years.

But the memoir, published by ReganBooks, begins with an account of how the department dealt with the worst disaster in its history.

The 343 firefighters killed on Sept. 11 were nearly half as many as had died in its entire existence.

Even hours after the hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers and brought them down, killing 2,800 people, the situation remained chaotic, with radios and cell phones all but useless.

"Hours were passing by and information was still sketchy, and it was all so damn frustrating," Von Essen writes.

Von Essen joins those who have given former Mayor Rudy Giuliani high marks for leadership after the attacks.

"He seemed driven, intense, wanting answers now . . . determined to impose some order on the situation," Von Essen says.

Von Essen himself was in a southbound car on FDR Drive, about two miles from the trade center, when he and his driver, firefighter John McLaughlin, first saw smoke in the sky.

"Is that a cloud?" Von Essen asked. "No," replied McLaughlin. "That's a job."

Rushing toward the trade center, siren wailing, they heard a radio "going crazy" with chatter and fire units "pouring to the scene from everywhere," writes Von Essen.

At the scene he saw "bodies and body parts" on the sidewalks. "All around me, people trapped up there by the fire were already jumping, or falling, to the pavement."

He found senior officials, such as department Chief Peter Ganci, First Deputy Commissioner Bill Feehan, Chief Ray Downey and Rev. Mychal Judge, the department chaplain, on the job in the lobby of the north tower.

"But all of us in that lobby knew less about what was happening than the people watching the fire on TV around the world," Von Essen writes.

He remembers Downey telling him, "You know, these buildings can collapse." Within the hour, both 110-story towers had fallen. All four of those men were later found dead.