This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2004 issue of SSI and went on to capture the Western Publishing Association “Maggie” Award for Best Interview or Profile/Trade. A slightly modified version is presented again here to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. Richard Picciotto continues to share his amazing experiences, spread the lessons learned from that tragic event, and offer relevant commentary through CNN, History Channel, National Geographic and countless other media and forums.
America will never forget the staggering horror and loss of Sept. 11, 2001. Yet — be it trauma, self-absorption or simply short attention spans — the progression of time has seen many Americans gradually distance themselves from the World Trade Center attacks. However, for at least one man, a heroic man whose mortality was pushed to the limit, such diversions are not an option.
That man is Chief Richard Picciotto, who was preparing to go on duty as battalion commander of Manhattan’s Upper West Side when the tragic events of 9/11 began to unfold. The 28-year Fire Department of New York (FDNY) veteran — who was also on the scene after 1993’s WTC bombing — rushed to Ground Zero to assist rescue efforts.
Picciotto entered the North Tower and climbed as high as the 35th floor before hearing and feeling the adjacent South Tower crashing down. He then made the call for firemen and rescue workers to evacuate, but stayed behind with a skeleton crew to save disabled and injured civilians. It wasn’t long, however, before the North Tower also collapsed, trapping Picciotto, who had been between the sixth and seventh floors at the time, and several others under the tremendous rubble and debris.
With their fate hanging by a thread, Picciotto and his men then used their radios to send out mayday calls until a search party was dispatched. When light finally appeared from above, the chief and the others ascended some four stories until they reached the top of a humongous heap that, up until that morning, had been one of the world’s tallest buildings and proudest symbols of the American way.
Picciotto emerged nearly unscathed after a harrowing four hours to become the highest-ranking firefighter to survive the WTC collapse and the last to escape the destruction. Picciotto, who is also a former New York police officer, has since retired and carried forth to tell his amazing story of courage and survival through his book, “Last Man Down: A Fireman’s Story,” and public-speaking engagements where he offers tribute to the lives lost on 9/11 and discusses the lessons learned.
Many of those lessons relate to measures that can prevent or mitigate large-scale fire/life-safety calamities — such as the systems provided by installing security dealers and systems integrators. In an exclusive interview, SSI tapped into Chief Picciotto’s unique perspective and asked him how the electronic security industry can best help firefighters.
1993 Attack Unheeded; 9/11 Fades
First off, let me say what a distinct honor it is to meet you. Going back to that fateful day, can you tell me when you arrived at Ground Zero, what was the scene like and what was going through your mind when the North Tower you were in began to collapse?
Richard Picciotto: I arrived on the scene shortly after the second plane hit. People were jumping out of windows. We were hoping to contain the fire, but I also knew it was going to be near impossible to put it out. When I first went into the North Tower, I just was thinking how we had to get people out as fast as possible.
But then the building crumbled and I was thinking that I would be dead in a few seconds. I just wanted to die quickly. Many others were trapped in the rubble as well, but only 13 others - including 11 firemen, one Port Authority officer and one civilian — made it to safety.
You also witnessed the carnage and aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Aside from the level of destruction, how did the two attacks differ and what was learned from the first one?
Picciotto: Thanks to implemented recommendations by the Port Authority after the 1993 bombing, once fire and police responders got on the scene, they did a great job of evacuating people on 9/11. For example, lighting in stairwells helped get people out a lot faster. In 1993, evacuation was painfully long. On 9/11, we got roughly 90 percent of the people out in 40 minutes.
Some things from 1993 did not change. Communications were a major problem then and again on 9/11. Communications between fire service and within the building failed. The fire department’s radios were woefully inadequate. That did not improve even though better equipment was available. It might have been a different story if the powers that be would have spent the money.
Considering the years that have transpired, are too many people losing sight of what needs to be done to prevent future disasters like 9/11?
Picciotto: Sadly, yes. There are still things first responders need, including basic communication equipment. When politics get involved, things get muddied. Without a doubt, people are losing sight of the safety awareness they had after 9/11.
Another terrorist attack is going to happen and people cannot afford to forget. We cannot make the same mistakes, we have to be vigilant and know what could happen again. I don’t want to see it happen again, but it will ... and we are still not as prepared as we should be.
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