Bob Bohack’s Decision

As a newly promoted officer in the Fire Department of New York, Lieutenant Bob Bohack moved around a lot, covering for other lieutenants who were out sick, injured or on vacation. On the morning of Sept. 11, Lt. Bohack was filling in for a lieutenant in Engine Company 5 on East 14th Street. He left his home, wife and four young kids on Long Island early that morning so he could be at work on East 14th Street at 8 o’clock-an hour before he was due.

The older firefighters knew Lt. Bohack’s name, though not because he was a particularly famous young officer. His family founded and ran the Bohack’s supermarket chain in and around the city until the stores closed for good in 1977. Lt. Bohack was 16 years old at the time. He would not have the option of going into the family business.

He had no blood connection to the Fire Department when he was growing up in the Woodhaven section of Queens, and he needed none: The sight and sounds of those FDNY rigs racing through the streets of Queens made any recruitment pep talk from an uncle or cousin unnecessary. He tinkered briefly with the idea of being a doctor, but medicine would require years of school, and that was not nearly as exciting as the prospect of riding a red fire engine.

Bob Bohack made lieutenant on Jan. 1, 2000, and bounced from assignment to assignment, as all new lieutenants do. His duty at Engine 5 in the late summer of 2001 offered him a rare enough glimpse at nearly every layer of Manhattan society, from the elegant townhouses surrounding Gramercy Park to the middle-class apartment complex of Stuyvesant Town–Peter Cooper Village to the ever-crowded tenements of the Lower East Side.

Engine Co. 5’s first run of Sept. 11 was a false alarm. The “box” came in from the Gramercy Park neighborhood, home to the city’s first privately maintained (and, accordingly, fenced-in and locked) park. While Lt. Bohack and Engine 5 went through their false-alarm routine, checking to make sure there really was no fire in the vicinity, they heard a call over their radios from the First Battalion in lower Manhattan to the FDNY’s dispatcher: A plane had just hit the World Trade Center.

Bob Bohack and Engine Company 5 reported for duty within 10 minutes, and were dispatched to the 79th floor and told to bring their tools. They would fight the fire upstairs, if they could. They strapped on their oxygen tanks, threw a tightly bound section of hose over their shoulders, and trudged towards the A stairwell. Each firefighter was carrying about 60 pounds of equipment. To reach their assignment, they would be climbing up stairs for at least an hour.

As they began their long walk up, civilians were streaming down, and several of them told Lt. Bohack and his men that they had little to fear. “I was here for the bomb in ’93,” said one civilian. “This is nothing.” It seemed true-the building still had power, the stairwell lights were on, and there was very little smoke. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. Lt. Bohack and his company moved on, and up.

Not long after Engine Company 5 set out for the stairwell, the chiefs at the command post realized that the fireball in the sky was too intense, the logistics too complex, to be extinguished. The FDNY’s primary mission would be to search, rescue and evacuate. Hayden told officers and their companies to leave their hoses behind once they were sent upstairs. Some held onto them anyway. They were like security blankets.

More distress calls came over the radio. There were dozens of reports of civilians trapped in elevators, of civilians in wheelchairs unable to use the stairs, of burned civilians above the fire floors pleading desperately for help. Hayden began handing out assignments based on specific distress calls, and then assigned other officers and companies to search a specific series of floors. The officers then took their companies up one of the building’s several stairwells to the upper stories. Another officer tried to keep track of the assignments using a suitcase-like board. But some companies didn’t stop and wait for orders. They went on ahead. Other companies had firefighters from both the day and night tour; still others rode with off-duty firefighters from other companies. Nobody really knew exactly how many firefighters were in the building.

In these early minutes of Sept. 11, the officers gathered around the command post calmly talked over their assignments and their assessment of what was happening almost a quarter-mile above them. Hayden was joined by the Department’s top civilian and uniformed brass: Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, Chief of Department Peter Ganci, First Deputy Commissioner Bill Feehan and Chief Ray Downey, head of the FDNY special operations. All around them were the sounds of chaos: incessant and garbled transmissions from the handie-talkies, sirens from arriving rigs, police vehicles and ambulances, and the occasional crash of falling debris. But, as video shot by a French camera crew inside the lobby would later show, there was no panic at the command post, no sense that the situation was beyond the FDNY’s control. As far as the firefighters knew, they were fighting a high-rise fire. It was the biggest high-rise fire they had ever fought, but it was a fire nevertheless. They were not actually suppressing the flames-that would have come later, after the civilians were evacuated-but they were fighting the residue of fire: panic, confusion, fear.

Then the second plane hit. Any doubts about what the FDNY was facing on this day were erased. This was not a 21st-century version of the plane that struck the Empire State Building in 1945. This was not an inexplicable accident. This was war, and the firefighters of New York, along with their colleagues in the New York Police Department, the Port Authority Police Department and the Emergency Medical Services, were on the front lines.

Handie-talkies crackled with the cry of “Mayday! Mayday!” A firefighter near the command post said the south tower had just been hit. Huge chunks of debris from the second attack fell outside the lobby doors. Civilians on the walkway above the command post started running for doors, some hunched over, reflexively covering their heads.

The conversations at the command post took on greater urgency. “Stay together, stay together,” one chief told a ladder company. “You got a long way to go.” Commissioner Von Essen, Feehan, Ganci and Downey left Hayden in the north tower, while other officers set up a command post in the south tower. The department’s chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, paced the lobby by himself, his arms and hands behind his back, his lips mouthing quiet prayers. Twenty-four hours earlier, the popular Franciscan was celebrating mass on the apparatus floor of Engine 73 and Ladder 42 in the South Bronx. “You get on the rig and … you have no idea what God’s calling you to do,” he had said in his homily.

Then the bodies started falling. Above the fire, just above where Bob Bohack and Engine 5 were heading, men and women were leaping from windows 80, 90 or 100 stories in the air. And they were landing with sickening crashes on the cement outside, or on the hoods and roofs of emergency vehicles, or through windshields. Firefighters turned their heads in the direction of the crashes, but not for long. As minutes went by, the terrible sounds of a life ending became part of the background noise of hell.

Lt. Bohack and Engine 5 took a short break on the 13th floor. The staircase was wide enough for two people to pass each other with ease, but it still was tough going. Through it all, the civilians heading for the exits remained surprisingly calm. Lt. Bohack thought they looked like they were simply heading downstairs for a quick bite to eat. Then again, as they reminded the firefighters, many of them had been through this routine before.

The calm belied the rumors that were sweeping the staircases, most of them spread by civilians who had called friends or relatives before leaving their offices. They told Lt. Bohack that the second tower had been hit, not by an airplane, but by a missile. Other people said they heard that 13 planes were unaccounted for and were headed for New York.

Still, Engine 5 had its assignment. After their rest, Lt. Bohack and his company of strangers-as a covering lieutenant who floated from firehouse to firehouse, Lt. Bohack hardly knew the men he was leading up the staircase-saddled up and resumed their climb. As they reached the 19th floor, Engine 5’s Derek Brogan told Lt. Bohack he had pain in his chest. They rested for about 10 minutes, and Brogan felt better. They started climbing again. But they were down one man. The company’s youngest member, Manny Delvalle, was a faster climber than the rest of the company, and somewhere early in the climb, he became separated from Lt. Bohack and the others. Now, he was nowhere to be found.

Four stories later, on the 23rd floor, Brogan said he had pain shooting down his arms, a classic symptom of a heart attack. “That’s it,” Lt. Bohack said. “You’re done.” They moved out of the staircase and ran into two Port Authority police officers, who gave Brogan some oxygen. A firefighter from another company who was a trained nurse examined Brogan and said that he didn’t think it was a heart attack, although he couldn’t rule it out.

Lieutenant Bob Bohack faced the dilemma of his career. He had his orders: He was to help extinguish the fire on the 79th floor. But those orders were given before he heard rumors of missiles, of more airplanes heading for New York. Communications were horrendous. One of his firefighters was missing, and another was having chest pains.

And he still had more than 50 floors to climb.

On the 23rd floor of the north tower, Bob Bohack reviewed his options, which were limited: He could continue up the stairs and maybe find his missing man, the young and eager Manny Delvalle, or he could reverse course to get Derek Brogan down to an ambulance at ground level. If they kept going up, would the standpipe equipment they’d need to fight the fire be working? Probably not. Meanwhile, he kept hearing stories about missiles, about more planes heading for New York. “I don’t like this,” he said. “We’ve got a guy with chest pains, we’re getting hit with missiles, there’s 20 floors of fire in this building, there’s jet fuel burning. Let’s get the hell out of here. This is a losing battle.”

Engine Company 5 picked up their equipment and headed for the C staircase, instead of the A staircase they had just climbed. The C staircase faced the south tower, and as they began filing downstairs, they felt a huge rumble. “We’ve got to get out of here now,” Lt. Bohack said. “Right now.” The stairs were not entirely clear, but much less crowded than an hour before. As Engine 5 raced down the stairs, the building’s emergency lights went out, and smoke and debris filled the stairwell. They had no idea that the south tower had just collapsed, but they knew they had to get out to the street.

They were almost there. Then, when they were down to the third floor, piles of debris blocked their path. “Stay here,” Lt. Bohack told his men. “I’ll look for another way out.” He found the A staircase, in the core of the building, and called to the firefighters to follow him. Three of them did, but a fourth, Gerry Gorman, was unaccounted for. He had been with them minutes before in the stairwell, but now he was gone. Two of Lieutenant Bohack’s men were missing.

Twenty minutes after they started their descent, the four firefighters made their way to the north tower command post. Nobody was there, and the lobby was covered with white dust inches thick in some places. “This isn’t a good thing,” Lt. Bohack said. “We’ve got to get out of here.” The others said they had to go back to find Gerry Gorman. Lt. Bohack was an outsider in this group; some of them had met only hours earlier. The other men knew Gerry Gorman. He didn’t. Of course they wanted to save their friend. But Lt. Bohack ordered them out. “Look,” he said, “I have a bad feeling about this.” Flaming pieces of debris were falling outside, and each piece seemed bigger than the last. That was the tip-off: The building was falling apart. “We’ve got to get out of here,” Lt. Bohack said.

Jimmy Andruzzi wouldn’t go. “We have to get Gorman,” he said.

“We ain’t getting Gorman,” Lt. Bohack said. “We got to cut our losses or we’re going to get killed.” Lt. Bohack said he’d wait a minute to see if Gorman would show up.

Gerry Gorman did not show up in the minute Bob Bohack allotted. “O.K., let’s get out of here,” he said. They heard a terrible groaning sound from the building, and that ended the argument. When they got outside, Lt. Bohack looked up to watch for falling debris or bodies. He heard somebody say, “Look at that.” Lt. Bohack saw what looked like a crack in the tower about 30 floors up. “We got to get out of here,” he said, again. He and his company of three walked north on West Street about two blocks, where they found their rig and two off-duty firefighters from Engine 5. They told Lt. Bohack that the south tower had collapsed. He had no idea.

Lt. Bohack ordered the company to get aboard the rig and drive it north towards Chambers Street, where, he figured, it would be safe if the north tower tipped over sideways. They found a place to pull over just as the north tower imploded. Five minutes had passed since they gave up on Gerry Gorman and evacuated the lobby.

With the collapse of the second tower, the top command structure of the Fire Department of New York ceased to exist. Peter Ganci, Ray Downey and Bill Feehan died doing the job they loved, died with the people they loved, the firefighters of the city of New York. Centuries of experience, decades of promise, and the hopes and loves of thousands of parents and spouses and partners and children were gone-buried, crushed or turned to dust in the unspeakable ruins.

Bob Bohack, Engine 5 and the company’s rig escaped the terrible debris cloud after the second tower fell. Lt. Bohack and the other men tried without success to call family members to tell them they were safe. He still believed missiles or other airplanes were heading for the city, so he ordered the company into the truck for what he called a reconnaissance mission. All he really wanted was to clear his head. They drove across the width of the island, all the way to South Street, and back again. They found a working fire hydrant on Broadway near Cedar Street, hooked up to it, and relayed water to another engine.

Later on in the afternoon, Engine Company 5 learned that Gerry Gorman was alive. He didn’t realize that Bohack and the others had retreated from the C stairwell and had gone down the A stairs. Somehow, Gorman had gotten through the debris that was blocking the C stairs, and he made his way to an exit on the north tower’s mezzanine level. When the tower began to fall, he found shelter behind 5 World Trade Center. But Manny Delvalle, who had gone on ahead of Lt. Bohack as they were struggling up the stairs, still was missing.

Bob Bohack and Engine 5 returned to quarters on 14th Street after 7 World Trade Center fell. There still was no word about Manny Delvalle-his remains would be found weeks later, just before his memorial service. Lt. Bohack couldn’t help but second-guess himself. If only he had kept Delvalle on a tighter leash. If only …. But Delvalle was young, and he was eager. And he was needed.

No firefighter needed to be told that there was a chance, probably a good chance, that somebody was alive underneath the seven-story ruins of the towers. The rescue of the firefighters and lone civilian from the north tower’s B stairway provided all the inspiration they needed. Firefighters continued to pour into lower Manhattan after the collapses to help with the frantic and dangerous work of picking through the smoking rubble, looking for colleagues and civilians alike. Lieutenant Paul Washington, president of the Department’s Vulcan Society, arrived at the pile at 2 o’clock in the afternoon by a commandeered city bus. The devastation was overwhelming, but he was certain civilians and colleagues were alive somewhere underneath the horror. They would be pulled to safety, the one or two or dozens or scores who were trapped, through the afternoon and into the night. “Let’s get as many as we can,” he said.

Piece by piece, bit by bit, working with their hands or whatever tools they could find, firefighters and rescue workers tried to clear the debris and listen for voices they knew they would hear. They worked into the night, and many of them, like Lieutenant Washington, were shocked to hear nothing, to see nobody. They were deployed in two lines like the citizens of New Amsterdam more than three centuries earlier, with one line passing an empty bucket towards the pile, another line passing debris-filled buckets to a rubble field.

They worked through the night, as the agony of Sept. 11 yielded to the tears of Sept. 12. They heard no cries for help.

Nearly 3,000 people were dead. Three hundred and forty-three of them were members of the Fire Department of New York.

So Others Might Live: A History of New York’s Bravest is published by Basic Books. Bob Bohack’s Decision