Former FDNY Chief On His New Book

Former FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen visited The Early Show to discuss his new book "Strong of Heart: Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York."

The 13th Fire Commissioner of New York City had seen just about everything during his 31 years in the fire department. He has been in building collapses, raging infernos, heroic rescues and power struggles. But nothing, he says, could have prepared him or the fire department for September 11, 2001.

The New York City Fire Department lost 343 men when the two towers fell to earth. Many of these men were Von Essen's friends and colleagues — men whose lives contributed to his love of the department.

In this memoir, Von Essen revisits the tragic event, his own role as head of the Department, and the his career. He recounts the behind-the-scenes dramas as the horrific events of September 11th unfolded, as well as the challenges he and other city officials faced in the days and weeks that followed.

Chapter One
Can You Talk About the Loss?

"Commissioner Von Essen, can you talk about the loss to the fire department?"

I didn't know. I was a wreck, twisted inside, dirty outside, my hair mussed, my tie crooked, my clothes coated with dust, my brain scrambled, my whole self, like everyone else, suddenly lost in a horrible, surreal new world.

It had been maybe twelve hours since two hijacked jetliners had slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, igniting massive fires that brought them crashing to earth a short time later. Thousands of people were missing and presumed dead. Rubble was scattered across the southern tip of Manhattan. All day long, people in shock had been streaming uptown, away from the disaster, marching across the bridges from Manhattan by the thousands in an eerie mass exodus. The entire city was shut down, the whole country grieving and angry from the suddenness and brazenness of such an attack on the world's most powerful nation.

I was standing behind Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, my boss of five and a half years, in the auditorium of the city's Police Academy, as he spoke to dozens of reporters packed together in front of us. Lights shone down, cameras snapped and whirred. But unlike the usual mania of a news conference, the atmosphere was subdued and sorrowful.

Until a minute before, I had been marveling at the coolness the boss was displaying under such immense pressure, though I had seen similar demonstrations many times in the past.

I had also been hoping no one would ask me to speak. I didn't want to have to say anything.

The loss to the department? For starters, more than three hundred firefighters were missing, most of them feared dead. I always took the death of a firefighter, any firefighter, hard. In this case, the victims included dozens of men I had counted as close personal friends. All day long, people had been whispering their names into my ear, each one feeling like a punch to my gut.

Bill Fechan, seventy-one years old, our first deputy commissioner, the number two man in the department, who had first become a firefighter in 1959 and gone on to hold every rank during his career, even, briefly, mine.

Pete Ganci, fifty-four, the tough bulldog with a chest full of medals who as chief of department was our highest-ranking man in uniform, the one who oversaw all the firefighters.

Ray Downey, sixty-three, a sharp and seasoned chief who as head of our special operations had become an internationally known expert in disaster recovery and building collapse, skills we had never needed more than now.

Father Mychal Judge, sixty-eight, the Franciscan priest and chaplain who in many ways embodied the soul of all that we were.

And there was much more than just the names and numbers, as horrible as they were. Our command structure itself had been severely crippled. We had lost hundreds of years of experience, knowledge, and wisdom.

Death had reached into dozens of firehouses in the cruelest, most sudden way imaginable and left voids that might never be filled. At that very moment, hundreds of weary and anguished men were desperately clawing through the mountainous piles of rubble that were strewn across several acres, seeking any signs of life they could find. We nurtured hopes that there were survivors in the rubble, and horrible doubts that no one was alive. Thousands of other current and former firefighters, not to mention the parents, spouses, and children of our people, were reeling from psychic wounds that cut deep and would certainly last years, if not a lifetime. All were asking, "Why?" and none had an answer.

How would they all get through this? At that moment, after a long day of tears, work, worries, and just putting one foot in front of the other, I wasn't sure if or how I would endure the hours and months to come, let alone everyone else.

Excerpted from Strong of Heart by Thomas Von Essen and Matt Murray. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers.