story and photograph by janet i. martineau
As he spoke Tuesday at Horizons Town Talk, Dan Nigro kept dabbing at his nose with a handkerchief.
Nursing a cold, perhaps?
No, more likely nursing the effects of 9/11 in 2001.
He was at Ground Zero of the World Trade Center in New York City when the second plane hit and later the two tallest towers and another smaller one in the complex collapsed -- as the chief of operations for the New York City Fire Department; second in command to the chief of the department.
His week-old Crown Victoria was flattened that day. 343 of his fire department colleagues died -- including the chief of the department, whom Nigro replaced for a year. And nearly 2,000 people going about their business in the World Trade Center towers perished, “hundreds without a trace.”
“Many of the people who survived the collapse of the towers have since died -- the driver of my car that day, of cancer, as well as people who cleaned it up -- due likely to the contamination of the site. Think of what is in building materials and it was all pulverized into dust.
“I also think my sinus issues you are seeing today was part of that too.”
There is a slight sadness to the tall and lanky Nigro as he speaks. Many of the people who survived that day still have what is called survivors guilt. He recalled that as he began a walk around to see all sides of one of the towers, he stopped briefly to console a man he knew who was looking for his wife -- his wife who had gone back to work in the towers that week after the birth of their first baby.
“That brief pause saved my life because the tower began to collapse -- an 11-second roar. If I had not stopped to talk, I would not be here. Those ‘what ifs” get to you.”
But Nigro says he still speaks today about his worst day of a 33-year New York Fire Department career “because in the midst of all that, there were positive results from the actions by good people.”
Nigro, 64, joined the department in 1969 as a firefighter and quickly rose up its ranks. His father was a captain in the NYFD; four nephews and two son-in-laws serve it. Nigro says in his early years arson ran rampant so he was well trained in fighting fires.
“But on 9/11, two planes fully loaded with fuel crashed into two buildings, with the flames leaping 100 feet. And then the towers collapsed into murderous rubble. I knew when I first arrived on the scene we were in trouble. We had never fought a fire that high in a high rise ... and then soon after the second plane hit.”
A fire chief’s job is to save lives and bring every firefighter home, he said. “so in a sense I commanded the biggest failure in firefighting history....but I could not have changed the outcome of that day.”
“I had many sad days over my 33 years. On Father’s Day of 2001 we lost three firefighters in an explosion and collapse -- one I had known since childhood. Such things were wearing me down. I would often think I had seen enough pain and sadness. But I kept bouncing back.”
And he did indeed bounce back from 9/11 too, he says -- knowing countless firefighters ran in and up the stairs without question, “and kept entering realizing the danger and that they probably would not make it out; that they had, indeed, cleared a pathway on the stairs of the South tower so workers above the airplane hit zone could escape, but then the collapse happened; that they did successfully evacuate a smaller building on the grounds when they realized it would likely fall victim.
“It was an honor and a privilege to work with those heroes that day.”
The first plane hit during a shift exchange at the 200 fire houses in the city, he said. “And that is why we lost so many firefighters -- those going off their shift responded too.”
In the days that followed, Nigro visited 70 units, attended 100 funerals and memorial services, wrote 400 letters to wives and parents.
In 2012, he recalled, the Costa Concordia cruise ship tipped over in Italy and the ship’s captain and many of its crew abandoned the ship and their passengers to get to their own safety. Italy is still embarrassed by their actions, he said.
“But on 9/11, the Fire Department of New York served our nation well. They all did the right thing. And I also with the help of others did the right thing that day and after. I believe that helped us as a nation to deal with that tragedy.
“That is what I recall -- the good deeds and sacrifices that day and in the days after. In all our lives days like this, ones that change our lives, happen. And you are able to close every day after with the knowledge you acted property on that day.”