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9/11 Heroes: Joe Pfeifer

Aired September 11, 2002 - 11:29   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: We have heard so often about the fire department here in New York. We hear it talked about as a brotherhood. In some cases, it is also the family business of fathers and sons and sons, and then their sons become firemen.
This is a story of a fire battalion chief who was on the scene and the brother he saw for the last time in the few minutes before the tower fell. I felt like I just said this, but I'm going to do it again. This piece also includes pictures of planes hitting towers. Please be careful of that. And please, if there are children around, take note of that. We know -- believe me, we know how difficult that is.

All of that said, here again is CNN's Michael Okwu.


MICHAEL OKWU, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's 8:46 a.m. Battalion Chief Joe Pfeifer is on a routine call, looking for the origins of a gas leak, 12 blocks north of the World Trade Center.

JOE PFEIFER, BROTHER OF WTC VICTIM: We hear this roar of the plane, and it passes to the west of us, and heads for the Trade Center, and I could see the plane steer right into the building. And then, there was a huge fireball. And a couple seconds later, we heard the explosion.

OKWU: The first fire chief on the scene, Pfeifer sets up a command post on the ground floor of the North Tower. In the dizzying moments ahead, he will dispatch teams of firefighters up the stairs, closer to the point of impact, including his brother, Kevin, a lieutenant with Engine 33.

PFEIFER: And I thought he was going to be off that day, because he was going to study for the captain's test. So, he comes up to me at the command post, and he doesn't say a word. And he looks at me, and I tell him where I thought the fire was. And then, it was like time just stopped. We stood there for a couple seconds, and just stood there looking at each other.

OKWU: It was the last time they would ever see each other.

Pfeifer has been reliving that moment and the frenzied aftermath every day since. He has been seeking solace here, 24 miles south of Manhattan, along a stretch of the Atlantic he often sailed with his brother.

PFEIFER: It's still 9/11. So, I'm hoping for 9/12 to come one of these days.

OKWU: But the images are still clear. 9:03 a.m.

PFEIFER: And we hear this loud plane come overhead.

OKWU: A second plane, careening towards the World Trade Center.

PFEIFER: And then, a loud explosion. And then, I remember somebody running in from the outside, almost immediately saying a second plane had just hit the South Tower.

PFEIFER: Our sense of urgency was that we had, and we heard it, people jumping.

OKWU: Chief Pfeifer and his fellow commanders assemble and conclude the fire cannot be beaten. It is, instead, a massive rescue mission.

PFEIFER: And we sent people up with hose lines, was to make a rescue path, or our hope was to make a rescue path to get thousands of people out of the building.

OKWU: 9:59 a.m.

PFEIFER: Tower Two collapses.

OKWU (on camera): Were you even aware of it?

PFEIFER: No. We were in the North Tower. We heard a loud rumbling sound, almost like a freight train coming through. Things were falling into the lobby. And then, the entire lobby area where we were went black.

OKWU (voice-over): In the blackness, fearful of what happened outside, he barks into his radio.

PFEIFER: Command in Tower One, to all units, evacuate the building. Evacuate the building.

OKWU: Pfeifer hears the order being relayed to units on the floors above, a relief, since he and the other chiefs had had radio transmission problems all morning. Even as he speaks, pilots and police helicopters above the North Tower are also calling for an evacuation of that building. Pfeifer and the other firefighters do not hear this.

PFEIFER: It would have been far more urgent for everyone to get out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The North Tower is down. All personnel, be advised, the North Tower is down.

OKWU: Miraculously, Pfeifer and others are carrying the fire department's dead chaplain out of the building just before it collapses. PFEIFER: I remember running, you know, maybe 20 yards, and the street started to turn that brownish color that so many people saw on TV. And I ducked behind a car. And then, everything went silent. All of the radio traffic stopped. All of the noise stopped.

OKWU (on camera): You had to be thinking a little bit about your brother.

PFEIFER: I thought of my brother, and I said, well, you know, I'm standing here in a white helmet, and there are tons of firefighters. I said, well, I remember thinking that, well, he'll find me. I'm a little more visible. And I remember, at that point, walking the site and seeing if I would be able to find him and -- or anybody from Engine 33. And I didn't see any helmets with 33 on it.

OKWU (voice-over): He knows no walk on the beach will ever erase that memory.


OKWU: Now, you heard Joseph Pfeifer saying that -- he said he is so looking forward to September 12, because every day since September 11 has been the same. That is clearly the case here at the Chelsea Fire House. People here, the firefighters, were among the first to respond to the scene a year ago, and they have been desperately trying to move on. They have lost five of their members, and it has been very difficult for them to move on.

You can see just to my right here, all day, people have been stopping by to recognize those people at this fire house who lost their lives, laying down candles, bringing flowers, and some of them contributing American flags.

And, of course, an inscription here reading: "No farewell words were spoken. No time to say good-bye. You were gone before we knew it, and only God knows why."

Moments from now, there will be -- we'll be seeing an effort on their part to move on. A flag that has been on top of the fire house since September 11 of last year has been at half-staff. We understand that at some point this morning, they will remove this flag, and they will replace it with a flag that was given to them by well-wishers at place called Point Thank You. This is an intersection in Lower Manhattan, which for many, many months was as close as residents in New York could get to ground zero. They will hoist that flag there at some point this afternoon -- Aaron.

BROWN: Michael, thank you -- Michael Okwu.




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