A Riveting Report From Ground Zero

Chief Peter Hayden brought me to the roof of the three-story firehouse that serves as quarters for Ladder 10 and Engine 10 on Liberty Street, across from Ground Zero. At the time we talked, a couple of weeks ago, Ground Zero looked no more threatening than a large construction site. Not threatening, that is, if you blocked out the sight of firefighters raking through debris, looking for bits of human remains.

The talk that morning had been about the bodies that surely were buried beneath the earthen ramps built to accommodate heavy machinery moving in and out of the pit. Eventually, once the earthen ramps were removed, the digging would start and the bodies would be found–firefighters’ bodies, mostly, but who knew what else. Since the chief and I talked, workers have been excavating near the ramps and, just as they suspected, more remains have been found. More very likely will follow.

Chief Hayden was in the North Tower on Sept. 11, manning the FDNY’s command post. If you watched the remarkable CBS documentary 9/11 shown on March 10, you saw Chief Hayden, though he wasn’t identified. He was in those riveting scenes of the command post, calmly handing out assignments to firefighters who, with their old-fashioned helmets and pike-like hooks, looked like so many medieval foot soldiers summoned to do battle with invading armies.

I made the mistake of forgetting my roots (firefighting runs in my family) and mentioned casually that it must have been chaotic in that lobby. It was clear that Chief Hayden didn’t agree with the assessment of a rank amateur. “Maybe some would have found it chaotic,” he said gently. “But we had control. We knew what we had to do.” What they had to do was to get thousands of people out of mortally wounded buildings. And they did. The CBS documentary bore out the chief’s assertion that there was no panic at that command post. Even as civilians were falling with sickening thumps in the plaza outside, the chiefs and firefighters were astonishingly calm and professional. Nothing could have prepared them for Sept. 11–and yet, in a sense, everything had.

Chief Hayden is one of the heroes–one of many–in Dennis Smith’s new book, Report from Ground Zero. Mr. Smith, a friend of mine, is the firefighter who became a literary star 30 years ago with the publication of his memoir, Report from Engine Co. 82 . He was 30 years old at the time, and serving in the busiest firehouse in the world. His book came out just as fire was turning the South Bronx into a symbol of urban decay, and it remains one of the important texts of postwar New York: Report from Engine Co. 82 is, according to those who put such lists together, one of four books every New Yorker ought to read.

Report from Ground Zero is bound to become the definitive history of the FDNY’s most terrible–and most heroic–day. Though he’s been retired since the early 1980’s, Mr. Smith jumped aboard a commandeered bus with dozens of firefighters and rode to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, arriving just after the towers’ collapse. He crossed paths with old friends of his, retired firefighters who rushed to the scene and were now looking for their firefighter sons. He heard the names of some of the missing, and immediately put a face and a story to each name: Paddy Brown, Terry Hatton and so many others. Mr. Smith knows these firefighters. He knows their fears and dreams; he knows what makes them run into burning buildings. And in Report from Ground Zero , he explains it as nobody else can.

“I just think that they are the best people you’d ever meet,” Mr. Smith said of the firefighters. “They’re honest, straightforward, tough, determined–the kind of people you’d want your own children to marry. They raise their children well, they care about America, and they care about each other.”

Report from Ground Zero includes Mr. Smith’s efforts, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, to raise money for the FDNY’s grieving spouses and children. He was, and remains, relentless on the subject, in the FDNY’s finest traditions: New York’s firefighters have been providing for their disabled colleagues, or their survivors, since the 1790’s. Mr. Smith’s efforts led to millions of dollars in donations to the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund, which turns over 100 percent of its proceeds to the beneficiaries.

“Every firefighter you meet will tell you it is an honor to be a part of the New York firefighting force,” Mr. Smith said. “And when you go to a firefighter’s funeral, and you see those thousands of firefighters lined up and saluting, it’s an honor to realize that you’re a part of that.”

All these years later, Mr. Smith remains very much a part of the FDNY. And in Report from Ground Zero , it shows.