60 Minutes remembers 9.11: The FDNY

On September 11, 2001, 343 members of the Fire Department of New York perished while trying to rescue people trapped in the World Trade Center. Scott Pelley speaks with firefighters who were there that day and the loved ones of those who never made it home.

60 Minutes remembers 9.11: The FDNY — Part 1
60 Minutes remembers 9.11: The FDNY — Part ... 14:20

In the neighborhoods of New York, there are 217 firehouses. Each holds a memorial to firefighters who answered the call 20 years ago and never returned. 343 members of the Fire Department of the City of New York perished on 9/11, in the greatest act of gallantry ever bestowed on an American city. This is their story.

Joe Pfeifer: This plane raced past us along the Hudson River at such a low altitude I could read "American" on the fuselage. 

At 8:46 that morning, Battalion Chief Joe Pfeifer was blocks away, searching for a routine gas leak.

Joe Pfeifer: I saw the plane aim and crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

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Joe Pfeifer

From that moment, the firefighters of the FDNY would have about an hour and a half to save 17,000 lives.

Sal Cassano: They knew that they might not come home, but they knew there were people trapped. That's our job.

Peter Hayden: There's no way we were gonna stand back and say we're not going in. That wouldn't be the FDNY.

Dan Nigro: Our aim was to get above that fire and get those poor people out that were calling us.

Melissa Doi: We're on the floor and we can't breathe. And it's very, very, very hot! 

Dan Nigro: And all the dispatcher could say is, "We're coming for you." So, we like to keep our promises. You know, we told them we're coming. We're coming.

Joe Pfeifer was coming with a camera. Filmmakers Jules and Gideon Naudet were making a documentary about the FDNY.

Joe Pfeifer: We have a number of floors on fire. It looked like the plane was aiming towards the building. 

Dispatch: Engine 6 to Manhattan, K.

Dispatch: Engine 6

Radio Transmission: The World Trade Center, Tower Number One is on fire!

Dispatch: Engine 1-0, World Trade Center 10-60. Send every available ambulance, everything you got to the World Trade Center now!

Dispatch launched an armada.

Dispatch: Engine 2-1-1, Ladder 11, Engine 4-4, Engine 22, Engine 53…

121 engines, 62 ladder companies, 100 ambulances, 750 members of the FDNY.

Dispatch: Attention 68 Engine, 35 Engine, 50 Engine, 64 Engine, 94 Engine, 83 Engine…

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Peter Ganci Jr.

At FDNY headquarters, in Brooklyn, 54-year-old Chief of Department Peter Ganci Jr. raced to his car. He was the boss, leading the second-largest fire department in the world—after Tokyo. Dan Nigro was his number two. 

Dan Nigro: So we went downstairs quickly, got in the car and headed over the Brooklyn Bridge, where we could see the damage, see the smoke, see the fire. That's when I said to Pete-- "Pete, this'll be the worst day of our lives." And, you know, that was before I knew the half of it.

Radio Transmission from Pete Ganci: Car 3 to Manhattan, K.

Pete Ganci's voice was recorded en route. 

Radio Transmission from Pete Ganci: Transmit a fifth alarm for this box and get us a staging area chief, uh, chief, somewhere on West Street, K. 

A "box" is a location. "K" signals the end of a message -- a throwback to the 19th-century telegraph which, on this day, was punctuating the greatest crisis in the department's 136 years. 

Peter Hayden: Right away I got a deep sense that we were going to lose a lot of firefighters this day.

Division One Commander Peter Hayden met Battalion Chief Joe Pfeifer in the lobby of the burning tower.

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Peter Hayden

Peter Hayden: Well, I knew that we weren't gonna be able to put out the fire. So, the order of the day was to search and evacuate as many people as we could. And then we were gonna back away.

The fire was 93 floors above. Elevators were out, so firefighters climbed tight stairwells shouldering 75 pounds and more.

Peter Hayden: And I thought we would have enough time to get the people out. And everybody that was above the impact of the plane we were pretty much sure were either dead already or going to die. There were a lot of people jumping out already.

1,355 people were trapped above the fire. The Boeing 767 had severed all three stairwells—leaving one way out.

Radio Transmission: …Jumpers, K! Jumpers!

Radio Transmission: Alright Division 1 be advised, Battalion 2 advised he has jumpers from the World Trade Center.

Joe Pfeifer: We heard a loud thud. And I knew that was somebody that either fell or jumped from the building.

The first firefighter killed was hit by a fellow human being. 

Joe Pfeifer: It was happening so rapidly that I grabbed the PA system at the fire command post And I said, "The firefighters are coming. If you can, hold on."

Sal Cassano: It's something that's gonna haunt us probably for the rest of our lives. 

Tour commander Sal Cassano had arrived precisely 17 minutes after the North Tower was hit. 

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Sal Cassano

Sal Cassano: Just as I got outta my car, I heard another explosion. And I can tell you exactly what time it was. It was 9:03, because that was the plane that hit the South Tower.

Radio Transmission: You have a second plane into the other tower, the tower of the trade center! Major fire!

Radio Transmission: Mayday! Mayday! Engine, ah, another plane hit the second tower, K.

The second 767 exploded into floors 77 through 85. Now, 2,000 people were trapped a quarter-mile high. Cassano ran into the department chaplain, Mychal Judge. 

Sal Cassano: And I just told him, "Father we're gonna be in for a bad day. You're gonna need a lot more chaplains here."

Peter Hayden: You know, the more and more firefighters they kept coming in, they took their assignments with no question, pretty tough to do. 

Scott Pelley: But it's also hard to give them those assignments.

Peter Hayden: It was, it was, but I could tell that when I gave the assignments out, I could see the look in their eyes. I remember seeing firefighters hugging each other. And heading up.

Scott Pelley: How many firefighters did you see that day refuse to go up the stairs?

Joe Pfeifer: Nobody refused to go in.

Joe Pfeifer: I could remember one lieutenant from Engine 33 coming up to me and not saying a word. And we stood there wondering if we were both gonna be okay. And that lieutenant was my brother Kevin. And then I told him what I told many of the other fire officers. I said, "Go up to the 70th floor." 

Seventy, they hoped, could be a staging area in the North Tower. 

In less than half an hour the FDNY had rescue operations in the North Tower, the South Tower and the nearly sold-out 800-room hotel between them.

Sal Cassano: From the time the first plane hit the North Tower until the second tower collapsed was 102 minutes. The things that were going through Pete's mind in just 102 minutes is just mind-boggling.

Sal Cassano was with Chief of Department Pete Ganci at his command post on the street, below the towers.

Scott Pelley: Was Ganci the kind of boss that you did things for because you feared him, or because you desperately did not want to let him down?

Sal Cassano: You did it because you loved him.

Ganci joined the FDNY in 1968.

Scott Pelley: What kind of man was Peter Ganci? 

Dan Nigro: Pete, I guess people would say he's my alter ego. Had a chest full of medals. And he was just a down-to-earth, honest, hard-working guy. You know he was a paratrooper in the Army, worked his way up to be chief of department in the FDNY. Quite a story. 

A story of courage over his 33-year career.

Scott Pelley: He won the department's medal of valor. Crawling into a burning apartment on his hands and knees, grabbing a child who was certainly going to die, and dragging that child out and saving her life.

Sal Cassano: That's the kind of person Pete was. He would put people before himself without a doubt.

He put his firefighters before himself three months before 9/11. Ganci, the chief of the department, responded from home to a call of firefighters trapped in a burning store. He went in wearing shorts and boat shoes. He once said his 11,000 firefighters were his children. On that day in Queens, he lost three. 

On 9/11, the man responsible for firefighter safety was Chief Al Turi, who was tormented by the passing minutes. 

Al Turi: …Let it burn up. We ain't putting this out.

He asked Pete Hayden if he had considered the threat of a partial, localized collapse on the burning floors.

Peter Hayden: I said yes but, we needed to get the people out. There were hundreds upon hundreds of people coming down the interior stairs. 

Scott Pelley: How much time did you think you had?

Peter Hayden: I thought we had a couple of hours.

The chiefs knew, no steel high rise in history had ever completely collapsed due to fire. 

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  Dan Nigro

Dan Nigro: None of us expected the building to come down. We expected the fire to keep burning, and conditions to get worse. But if we could just get one route above in each building, perhaps we could bring some folks down, at least.

Scott Pelley: You just needed a little more time.

Dan Nigro: We just needed time.

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Orio Palmer receives orders in the lobby of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 CNN

No one would do more with time than Orio Palmer. That's him on the right with the mustache. He's receiving orders to go to the South Tower to try to clear a path to the trapped souls calling 911.

911 operator: How many people where you're at right now?

Melissa Doi: There's like five people here with me.

911 operator: All up on the 83rd floor?

Melissa Doi: 83rd floor.

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Melissa Doi 9/11 Memorial & Museum

32-year-old Melissa Doi was saying the Hail Mary prayer when 911 answered. The once aspiring ballerina was a manager in a financial firm on 83, one of the burning floors in the South Tower.

Melissa Doi: Are they going to be able to get someone up here?

911 operator: Of course ma'am we're coming up to you.

Melissa Doi: Well, there's no one here yet and the floor is completely engulfed. We're on the floor and we can't breathe. And it's very, very, very hot.

The operator was right, someone was rising toward Melissa Doi. Orio Palmer ran marathons as a hobby. 

Radio Transmission from Orio Palmer: Battalion 7, Ladder 1-5, 

"Battalion 7" is Chief Palmer. "Ladder 1-5" is a team of firefighters, a few floors below.

Radio Transmission from Joe Leavey: What do you got up there, Chief?

Radio Transmission from Orio Palmer: I'm still in "boy" stairway, 74th floor. No smoke or fire problems, the walls are breached, so be careful.

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Joe Leavey FDNY

This is ladder 15's lieutenant, Joe Leavey.

Radio Transmission from Joe Leavey: Alright, we're on 71 we're coming up behind you.

Radio Transmission from Orio Palmer: I found a Marshal on 75.

Palmer found Fire Marshal Ron Bucca on the 75th floor, evacuating civilians. 

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Ron Bucca FDNY

Radio Transmission from Orio Palmer: Battalion 7, Ladder 1-5.

Radio Transmission from Joe Leavey: 1-5.

Radio Transmission from Orio Palmer: I'm going to need two of your firefighters "adam" stairway to knock down two fires, we have a house line stretched, we could use some water on it, knock it down, K. 

Palmer had discovered the only intact stairway to the top of the South Tower. Unlike the North Tower, the second plane had missed stairway "A."

Radio Transmission from Joe Leavey: We're on 77 now in the B stair. I'll be right to you.

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Orio Palmer FDNY

If Palmer could clear this stairwell, 619 souls would have a way out. He was five floors below Melissa Doi and rising.

Melissa Doi: I'm going to die, aren't I?

911 operator: No, no, no, no, no, no …

Melissa Doi: I'm gonna die.

911 operator: Ma'am, ma'am, ma'am say your prayers. We're not gonna…

Melissa Doi: I'm gonna die.

911 operator: We're gonna think positive because you've gotta help each other get off the floor.

Radio Transmission from Orio Palmer: We have access stairs going up to 79, K.

Radio Transmission from Ladder 15: Alright I'm on my way up, Orio.

Melissa Doi: I'm going to die.

911 operator: Stay calm. Stay calm. Stay calm. Stay calm.  

Melissa Doi: Please God.

911 operator: You're doing a good job, ma'am. You're doing a good job … 

Melissa Doi: It's so hot. I'm burning up...

60 Minutes remembers 9.11: The FDNY - Part 2 15:44

An hour had passed since the attack on the World Trade Center began. In the South Tower, Battalion 7 Chief Orio Palmer took the only working elevator as high as it would go. Then, he led the men of Ladder 15 on a climb from the 40th floor. Palmer was trying to clear a path to 619 people trapped by fire. 

Radio Transmission from Orio Palmer: Battalion 7, Ladder 1-5. 

This is Palmer's radio transmission from the 78th floor of the South Tower. He's calling the firefighters of Ladder 15 who are coming up with rescue gear from a few floors below.

Radio Transmission from Orio Palmer: We've got two isolated pockets of fire. We should be able to knock it down with two lines. Radio, radio that. 78th floor. Numerous 10-45 code 1's. 

10-45 code 1's were fatalities, more than he could count. Palmer pressed toward 79, climbing at about one floor a minute. As he rose, Melissa Doi, speaking to 911 from the 83rd floor, thought she heard someone.

Melissa Doi: Wait, wait, we hear voices. Hello! Help! 

911 operator: Hello ma'am?

Melissa Doi: Help! Oh my God!

911 operator: Are they coming through to you now?

Melissa Doi: Find out if there is anyone here on the 83rd floor!

911 operator: Ma'am, don't worry, you stay on the phone with me …

Melissa Doi: Can you find out if there is anyone here on the 83rd floor because we think we heard somebody!

We don't know what she heard. But hearing no answer to her shout, Melissa Doi returned to the call.  

Melissa Doi: Can you, can you… stay on the line with me please? 

911 operator: Yes, ma'am…

Melissa Doi: I feel like I'm dying.

Joe Pfeifer: Orio Palmer knew how dangerous this was. And he didn't stop. Ladder 15 knew how dangerous it was. But we never thought that an entire high-rise building would collapse. There was no history of it anywhere in the world.

But this day, history was changing because the planes had blasted away the spray-on fireproof foam insulating the structural steel. The burning floors were sagging, slowly pulling the exterior inward. EMS Division Chief John Peruggia was in the city emergency operations center, where he received a warning from an official he believes was an engineer.

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  John Peruggia

John Peruggia: He said, "The buildings are severely compromised. You can see slight lean. They're in danger of collapse." So I grabbed one of my staff guys, EMT Rich Zarrillo. And I said, "Rich go to Pete Ganci, don't talk to anyone else, and deliver this message: the buildings are in danger of collapse." 

In a four-second video, at the far left of the screen, you see Rich Zarrillo's blue shirt. He's delivering the warning to Pete Ganci. Zarrillo hardly got the words out when Ganci's attention was drawn to a roar from the South Tower above him. 

Sal Cassano: Loud noise, had no idea what it was. All we saw was this plume of dust and smoke and debris.

In the moment before, Melissa Doi had given the 911 operator her mother's phone number and the message that her daughter loved her. Then, there was silence.

911 operator: Oh my God. Melissa, please. You're gonna be alright. You're gonna be fine. You're gonna talk to your mother yourself. But you gotta think positive. You gotta stay calm. Ok? You're gonna talk to your mother yourself, alright? Melissa? 

Scott Pelley: Palmer's last radio transmission was Battalion 7 to Ladder 15, and there's nothing after that. That's when the tower collapses. He must have known that with every step he ascended, his chance of survival dropped. 

Sal Cassano: Didn't deter him one bit. The only thing that was in his mind was, "Let me get up there. Let me get as many people out as I can as quickly as I can."

Joe Pfeiffer, next door in the North Tower, was 200 feet from the cascading twin.

Joe Pfeifer: And then the lobby goes pitch black… And in the darkness, I wondered if I was dead or alive… And I got on my radio. And I said, "Command to all units in Tower One…

Joe Pfeifer: Evacuate the building. 

Peter Hayden: Joe Pfeifer was giving the order to evacuate. And one of the firefighters were calling my name… He says, "We have somebody down."

Joe Pfeifer: I felt somebody at my feet. And I saw this was our fire department chaplain, Father Mychal Judge. I removed his white collar. I checked for his pulse and breathing. And he had none. And I knew he was gone.

Peter Hayden: Several of us picked him up and we carried him out. The EMTs that had taken him, actually took him, not to the morgue, but they took him to St. Peter Claver which is a Catholic church a little bit north of the Trade Center. And they laid him on the altar, and they called out the Franciscan priests to come down and get him.

Radio Transmission: Tower Two has had a major explosion and what appears to be a complete collapse! 

Radio Transmission: Have them mobilize the Army! We need the Army in Manhattan.

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John Sudnik

John Sudnik: There was a rush of dust with high pressure coming in, you know, with force that I've never experienced before.

Ganci's streetside command post had been set up next to an underground garage in case shelter was needed. Captain John Sudnik, Ganci and the chiefs dove into the entrance.

John Sudnik: I just remember the dust that day, feeling like it was searing your lungs. Like it was, like, it felt like you were swallowing glass.

Sal Cassano: Pitch black, pitch black. But we heard voices, "Are you okay, are you okay?" And then that's when we made our way back up.

Sal Cassano: And then, when we got up to where the command post was, Pete's mind went into rescue mode. 

Pete Ganci heard, on the radio, the cries of trapped and wounded firefighters. 

Sal Cassano: And I remember him giving orders. "I need truck companies. I need rescue company. Tell 'em to come with me."

As he had before, Ganci went into the debris to save his men himself. In the still standing North Tower, many firefighters refused the order to evacuate while they were still carrying the wounded and disabled. Ganci sent Sal Cassano to set up a new command post. Twenty-eight minutes later, Cassano was on his way back.

Sal Cassano: And then I look up and all I could see was the antennae from the North Tower imploding. 

Radio Transmission: The other tower has just collapsed! Major collapse! Major collapse!

Regina Wilson: I, in my mind, had to be resolved with death.

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  Regina Wilson

Regina Wilson was on the street below the tower. She was with Engine 219, in her second year as a firefighter.

Regina Wilson: And I prayed, and then I just asked God to just protect me. And then, if he couldn't, I knew that I would die doin' what I love.

Inside the collapsing North Tower, the men of Engine 39 were caught in a stairwell.

Jeff Coniglio: And it started out slow, boom… boom… boom. Then it got quicker, where pretty soon it was just like, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, coming down.

Jeff Coniglio and Jamie Efthimiades were on the stairs near the ground floor with 110 floors above them.

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  Jeff Coniglio and Jamie Efthimiades

Jamie Efthimiades: It took ten seconds for it to come down, but it felt like ten minutes. I saw-- I was in the background of a funeral: I saw my casket, I saw my parents, my wife sitting in the front. And as I'm watching this, I'm like, "All right, it's gonna be quick." I'm just waiting for something to tap my shoulder and figure, "I'll feel a tap, and that'll be it, we'll be gone," you know? "We're not gonna suffer." 

James McGlynn and Bob Bacon were in the same stairwell.

Bob Bacon: You know, the wind actually came up the stairwell. You know, blew me into the air and the landing that I was on just disintegrated underneath me, and I kinda bounced, you know, back and forth and ended up hangin' from like a pipe. 

James McGlynn: I think I said a couple of prayers and said, "God, please get us outta here."

Their fragment of an intact stairwell lay upon a mountain of misery -- 16 acres of wreckage, 91 crushed FDNY vehicles, and quiet like the first heavy snow of winter. 

Peter Hayden: Every once in a while, you'd hear the radio, the dispatcher on a radio trying to contact somebody. 

Dispatch: Alright, Manhattan announcing, any division or any staff chief at the scene of the World Trade Center, K.

Silence spoke of unimaginable loss.

Dispatch: Any division chief or any staff chief at the scene of any of the World Trade Centers? K. 

Joe Pfeifer: That day, 23 battalion chiefs responded. Only four of us survived.

Joe Pfeifer thought of the lieutenant of Engine 33, his brother, Kevin, who Pfeifer sent up the North Tower.

Joe Pfeifer: I got on my radio, and I said, "Battalion one to Engine 33." And I repeated it several times. And I didn't get an answer. 

Kevin Pfeifer was gone and so was the crew of Ladder 105, which rolled from Regina Wilson's firehouse. 

Regina Wilson: We found the truck. We didn't find the members.

Scott Pelley: What happened to them?

Regina Wilson: They all died.

Among them was John Chipura, her mentor and her savior. Regina Wilson was assigned to the doomed Ladder 105, but early that morning, before the attack, John Chipura asked to switch jobs, which put her among the survivors of Engine 219.

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John Chipura and Regina Wilson

Regina Wilson: I try to honor him by talking his name. And that's how it is in the African American culture. When you speak the name of an ancestor or you speak the name of a loved one, then they live. And so, every time I say John's name, he lives. And that gives me comfort.

Jeff Coniglio: It was very hot.

Jamie Efthimiades: Oh, yeah. 

The men of Engine 39 were trapped in the wreckage near the North Tower lobby. They could hear, only a few feet away, Battalion Chief Richard Prunty, who was pinned and calling for help.

Jeff Coniglio: We couldn't get to him and he was passing out.

Jamie Efthimiades: Yeah he was coming in and out

Scott Pelley: Did you hear his radio transmissions? 

Jeff Coniglio: The last thing that he said was, of course, about his wife, and saying that--

Jamie Efthimiades: "Tell my wife and children I love 'em."

Jeff Coniglio: Yeah, that they were the most-- "my wife-- that she was the most important thing in the world to me."

Those words were among Richard Prunty's last. The men of Engine 39 were rescued, but 343 members of the FDNY were gone. In a tradition where the job is handed down in families, many lost fathers, sons and brothers. 

Peter Hayden: Guys I had worked with both retired and active, saying to me, "Petey--" you know, "Have you seen my son?" And-- you know, firefighter-- young firefighter coming up, you know, "Chief, have you seen my father?" Who I knew and-- I-- I just said, "No." I didn't have the courage to tell him what I knew to be true.

Among the fallen were Peter Ganci and 71-year-old Deputy Fire Commissioner William Feehan, who had gone with Ganci to rescue the trapped. Pete Hayden climbed atop an engine to address the living. 

Peter Hayden: I yelled out, you know, "We just lost a lot of guys here today. Let's have a moment of silence." And well-- I took my helmet off. And we held it. I held it. And after a while, I put my helmet back on. They put their helmets back on. I said, "Okay, we have a job to do. (CLAP) Let's do it."

Scott Pelley: Do you look back and wonder, "How did I survive, and 343 members did not?"

Sal Cassano: Yeah. I didn't think about it as much. We were crazy busy. I was working 18 hours a day, and then it hit me. I says, "I'm here." You know, I mean, I get home and I'm tired, and there was always food on the table waiting for me when I came home, no matter what time I came home. And… I'm lying in bed. And I ask my wife, "Why me?" And she said, "Did you ever think there was a job for you to do?"

There was a job for Cassano and others, to do — rebuilding the FDNY.

60 Minutes remembers 9.11: The FDNY - Part 3 09:52

Volunteers started fighting fire in Manhattan in 1648. Nearly 200 years later, during the Civil War, an entire New York regiment was manned by firefighters. Their commander is quoted, "I want New York firemen, for there are no more effective men in the country…" as those veterans returned home in 1865, the modern FDNY was created. The department's traditions are handed down in families. And so, it remains, especially for the children of 9/11's fallen.

The late chief of department, Peter Ganci, had three children. His daughter married a firefighter. His son Captain Peter Ganci III was 27 on 9/11. His other son, Battalion Chief Chris Ganci, was 25.

Scott Pelley: How did you learn your father died?

Chris Ganci: I ran home, and I got in the door right when Steve Moseillo, who was my dad's driver, Al Turi, who was the Chief of Safety… I just remember them telling my mom that he's gone. And she said, "Gone where?" Like that. Like, innocently. And they're like, "He's dead." And I remember the scream that she-- that she let out. I can still hear it-- my ears and it pains me to hear it. The pain of the realization that he's never walking back in the door. 

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Peter Ganci III and Chris Ganci

Scott Pelley: Pete, what kind of man was he? 

Peter Ganci III: He loved being around family. But his family was also the fire department. We knew it. My mom knew it. Sometimes to his dismay. But we understood the type of person that he was and why he chose our chosen career.

Scott Pelley: Chris, you were in business and on your way to an MBA. Did 9/11 make you a fireman?

Chris Ganci: Absolutely. Had 9/11 not happened, I would not have been a New York City firefighter.

Scott Pelley: You've quoted your dad as telling new graduates from the Fire Academy, "You will never, ever be rich. But you will always be happy."

Chris Ganci: "You'll always be happy." It's hard to explain to people, how, like, you could get injured or you could get killed but yet, somehow, you come home with a smile on your face.  Like, I enjoy being part of the organization, it makes…gives me a sense of pride that I never felt anywhere else. And maybe that's what had driven my father for so many years.

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Josephine Smith

Josephine Smith: My name is Josephine Smith, and I work in Engine 39.

Josephine Smith's late father, 47-year-old Kevin Smith, was with Hazmat One on 9/11. 

Josephine Smith: I always wanted to be like my father. I always wanted to be brave like him, and strong and willing.

Josephine Smith: It really just runs through our blood, generation to generation. I just think it's just who we are. It's our passion. It's our upbringing. 

Scott Pelley: Somebody else might have thought, with such grievous loss, I don't want to have anything to do with that. 

Josephine Smith: It's not the job that took my father, it was an act of terrorism that took my father. And that made me want to fight even more to protect the City of New York and the citizens, "You may have taken my father from me, but the passion in the blood is still there." 

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John and Tommy Palombo

John Palombo: I'm John Palombo. I work in 92 Engine in South Bronx.

Tommy Palombo: I'm Tommy Palombo. I work in 69 Engine in Harlem.

Scott Pelley: John, how old were you on 9/11?

John Palombo: I was a week away from being 8 years old. 

Tommy Palombo: And I was 9. 

Scott Pelley: How many kids in the Palombo family? 

John Palombo: There's ten of us. Eight boys and two girls.

The Palombo brothers' dad, Frank Palombo, was 46 when he died—Ladder 105. In a sense, it wasn't 9/11 that made the Palombo boys firefighters, it was September the 12th —and all the days that followed.

John Palombo: My dad's brothers and sisters in the firehouse, they cooked for us. They drove us places. They took us to Six Flags. I remember going on their shoulders and, you know, they'd take us by the arms and spin us in circles.

The firehouse turned out for birthdays and games.

Tommy Palombo: The stands were filled at the hockey games, you know. It wasn't the same because you are missing the one person that you want there, but they do everything they can to fill it. They never will, but they did everything they could to fill it as hard as it was for them, taking time away from their own families. 

The firehouse cooked dinner for the 10 Palombos and their mother, every Monday, for five years, until the family moved away.

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Mike Florio

Mike Florio: I'm a firefighter in Engine 214, Ladder 111 in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. My name is Michael Florio.

Mike Florio's dad, John Florio, was 33 years old on 9/11 -- Engine 214, the same house where his son works today.

Mike Florio: Every day I walk in, my father's picture is on the wall.  There's a lot of memorials of him and the other four guys that passed on 9/11. I do have a lot of memories from the firehouse being a young boy. And just walking in there every day and seeing his pictures it brings back those memories.  It makes me feel closer to him being there every day.

More than 60 children of 9/11's fallen have been through the training academy, on Randall's Island in the East River, and are now 'on the job.' To join, they took a written exam that's given only once every four years. About 60,000 applicants take it. And only those in the top 10% earn a place in the rank and file. 

Dan Nigro: I'm very proud of them. I feel that their-- their fathers would have been very proud of them. 

Dan Nigro, Peter Ganci's number two on 9/11, was promoted to chief of department and is now the city fire commissioner. Among the others in our story, John Sudnik, a captain on 9/11, rose to chief of department, and so did Peter Hayden. Sal Cassano became fire commissioner. 

Battalion Chief Joe Pfeifer became chief of counterterrorism and now teaches crisis leadership. Regina Wilson is studying for the lieutenant's exam. 

And Orio Palmer's name lives on the FDNY's award for the most physically fit firefighters. 

Dan Nigro: A lot of bravery. A lot of bravery was displayed that day. And-- followed by a lot of sadness. 

Scott Pelley: Commissioner, it seems to be a sad day for you 20 years later.

Dan Nigro: I think for everyone that was there that day, it just stayed with them, the sadness. We have plenty of good days, plenty to be thankful for, those of us who survived, but it's a day that'll never leave, never leave you.

Scott Pelley: Sadness becomes part of your life.

Dan Nigro: Absolutely.

Scott Pelley: Your father survived the collapse of the first tower. And instead of moving to safety, he went to answer the mayday calls from his trapped firefighters. 

Radio Transmission: Receiving reports of firefighters trapped and down.

Scott Pelley: He knew that the other building was in imminent danger of collapsing. He had decided in that moment that he was not going home.

Chris Ganci: Yeah, I mean, He chose his guys. And, you know, we can get angry about it. And I know my sister and my mother, we sometimes-- we hit our head against the wall. But when the smoke clears and you think about it, it was the only decision. I knew the way he felt about his men and his job and the FDNY and he was going to stay and see the job through. And…

Peter Ganci III: He wouldn't have been able to live with himself if he left and, you know, one more guy was killed. It's just the way he was. It was, I have to be there until the last guy is out.

Today's recruits were children then. And so, they muster. Before memories--three columns of the World Trade Center—and 343 lives—which are, here, indelible in time.

Regina Wilson: So many of us sacrificed so much that this story can't get lost. Because the world is changing fast. And I don't want this to be something that's in a history book that a page is turned, and we're forgotten. 

Produced by Maria Gavrilovic. Associate producers, Tadd J. Lascari and Alex Ortiz. Broadcast associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by Peter M. Berman and April Wilson.

  • Scott Pelley
    Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"