At 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Tom Roby, Chief Battalion Commander of the New York Fire Department’s 16th Battalion, was halfway through a 24-hour tour at the firehouse at 143rd Street in Harlem. He was in the kitchen fixing himself a cup of hot tea. On the TV, a local news station was broadcasting from just outside the World Trade Center. The suddenly confused and panicked voices of the reporter snatched Roby’s attention from his tea. Almost 100 floors up, a plane had struck the North Tower of the Trade Center.
He switched on the department radio. It was erupting with activity. Accident? Attack? No one knew for sure. But Roby, a white-haired, 33-year veteran on the other side of 55-years-old, knew one thing for certain: it was going to be a long day.
A few minutes later, all doubts were cleared when a second commercial plane crashed into the World Trade Center, striking the South Tower. The Chief Battalion Commander turned his attention to the crew at his station, and told them to go to the grocery store and stock up on everything they would need for potentially weeks of not going home.
On July 28, 1945, a B-25 Mitchell bomber crashed into the Empire State Building. The accident, caused by dense fog, killed 14 people, including the two pilots and one passenger. The New York Fire Department issued what’s known as a ‘total recall,’ where every member of the fire department — off-duty or not — is summoned to their stations.
Fifty-six years later, on Sept. 11, 2001, the next ‘total recall’ was issued. There are more than 12,000 firefighters in the FDNY. Locations that normally have about 15 members on hand in the morning would soon be packed with more than 100 firefighters itching to get to Ground Zero.
Roby headed out by car to visit the other six stations under his command. He wanted to bring them up to date on the situation, give them a pep talk, and order them to stock up on supplies. FDNY had a strict set of procedures in place. One rule was that no firefighters or trucks would be deployed until they were assigned to a specific job or location. Because Roby’s stations were further away from the World Trade Center, it had not yet received an assignment.
Other Chief Battalion Commanders closer to Ground Zero were already receiving assignments to the crash site. In all, there were 14 Chief Battalion Commanders in the borough of Manhattan that morning. Only three of them — including Roby — survived that day.
The firehouses under Roby’s command were among the busiest in New York. This made them the most desirable to firefighters, who often thrive on pressure and adrenaline, with outsized commitments to saving lives. But Roby, who loved being a firefighter ever since his first day on the job at the age of 23, knew order, control and preparation was the best approach until he received an assignment.
“I had one firehouse — 33rd Street — and they were kind of rebels,” said Roby, with an unmistakable, but unexpectedly comforting New York accent. “When I got there, they were all ready to run down to the Trade Center. I said, ‘Listen, nobody’s going down without assignments.’ That’s not how we operate, you know. I actually had a couple of guys telling me, ‘Well, we’re going down anyway. Screw you.’ I was pissed, you know. I said, ‘Listen, you guys are big boys. If you want to go down there, do me a favor: clean out your locker first, because you’ll never work again in this station.’”
After he made his rounds to the other firehouses, Roby called his wife, Ellen, to let her know he was safe. He told her to stock up on anything they might need. The Chief Battalion Commander and his wife had three kids. Roby said he was a “late bloomer” in his career with the FDNY. “I was a fireman for 15 years. I just loved being a fireman, and was in no rush to get promoted. I never even took a test,” he said.
When his two oldest children were in high school, Roby studied for a promotion, and was made a lieutenant in the Bronx, which kept him busy and happy. A few years later, he was promoted to captain, and then, closer to his planned retirement, he rose to chief and battalion commander.
“I always loved whatever work I was doing. I enjoyed the hell out of it.”
After the Towers fell, Roby was finally able to send firefighters under his command to Ground Zero. He stayed at the firehouse moving around his people and assigning use of reserve apparatus. Remarkably, there were nearly no emergency calls for Battalion 16 that were away from the World Trade Center. It was later in the afternoon before he was able to get to Ground Zero.
When he went there, he was left breathless by what he saw. Roby said one of the first things he noticed was how disoriented he was. When the Twin Towers fell, five more buildings were taken out in the destruction. The concept of where he was and where he should go had been leveled.
“All the pictures you see, and as bad as it looked on television, it was 10 times worse. It was just incredible.”
He found the World Financial Center complex, which consisted of several 40-plus-story buildings near the site. They had been damaged, but were still standing. Roby went as far up as he could in one of the buildings to gain a bird’s-eye view of the destruction.
“It was crazy. Crazy. It was so hard to get places, and there were a lot of firemen doing what I didn’t want my guys to do, which was showing up on their own, especially off-duty guys, going onto the pile. Thousands of firemen. We had to create a staging area where we could put all these guys and just try to keep control of everything,” Roby said. “Because everybody wants to do something. To do the right thing. But if they all run into the middle, then they’re not doing the right thing. We needed some adult supervision.” Roby laughed. “I was a firefighter for 15 years. I knew why they were doing that.”
Crawling through the destruction, along with thousands of first responders, were ordinary and well-meaning civilians. What was left of the World Trade Center towers was referred to as ‘the pile,’ a seven-story mound of steel, concrete, powder (from crushed concrete), paper and victims. The pile was precarious even for trained personnel. It was deadly for well-meaning residents.
“You had so many civilians, it was crazy. It took a couple of days to get the cops to do what cops do. See, they did what everyone wanted to do, which is get on the pile and pull somebody out. And that’s certainly understandable. I don’t want to sound like I’m knocking them. But what the cops should have done was set up a perimeter right away, and not let a lot of people get through. Just the first responders. It took a couple of days to get to that point.”
Incredible as it may seem, not everyone at the scene was trying to help. Roby said throughout the pile there were openings, or voids, where people might be trapped. Some places in the wreckage looked like Pick-Up-Sticks where steel beams were jutting out, creating access points. First responders would carefully go into those voids — that could collapse at any moment — to search for survivors.
“So, I had one guy come to me and say, ‘I saw somebody in there.’ So, I put companies in there to search. There was nobody in there. This guy was just a nut job. I told him to get lost. Get off the site, right? So later on, this guy tries to pull the same thing with me. There was a police captain nearby and I said, ‘I want this guy off the site. He’s just bull——.’ This police captain was a big guy. He was like 6’4,” you know? He literally picked up the guy by his shirt and dragged him off. That was good to see. Soon after, they put up a fence, and you had to go past police to get to the pile.”
Roby said the steelworkers and welders were some of the unsung heroes of that day. “There was so much steel piled up and everywhere. We couldn’t get much done until they cleared it out.”
That day, Roby stayed at Ground Zero until around 2 a.m. He was physically and emotionally exhausted and needed to get some sleep. Many of the firefighters laid down anywhere they could, but Roby went back to the firehouse and grabbed two hours of sleep before getting up and returning to the pile. A few days later, he finally went home to see his family and get sleep. He would return to the firehouse with the rest of his company. They mostly lived out of it the first two weeks after the attacks.
Roby, and many of the firefighters, still had 24-hour shifts to work at their stations, and nearly all of them worked at the Trade Center before and after their shifts. “If I was starting at six o’clock at night, I would go to the Trade Center at about noon, and stayed out for, you know, five, six hours. Same thing when I got off work. A lot of guys did that,” he said.
But the depth of their dedication came with a price. With firefighters working at the World Trade Center before and after their firehouse shifts, exhaustion was creating more injuries among the first responders.
“We had a couple guys, and one got really hurt, fall asleep driving home after being at the site. He had a bad accident. I didn’t have an accident, but it actually happened to me. I was going home one night, and I fell asleep in the car. I woke up and I said, ‘Oh my god, this is crazy.’”
Roby said he never pulled anyone alive from the pile, only remains. There were many funerals, one right after the other. Every body that was pulled from the wreckage, especially if it was a first responder, was treated with honor and respect. “I’ve been to fires where multiple people were killed, kids were killed, and guys would do their job. But it never got like down at the Trade Center. We were just finding bodies and pulling them out. Eventually, guys would actually say prayers over the remains. It was amazing. It was spiritual. And that’s from people who have done this kind of work, dealt with victims their whole life. It was a very spiritual place. I was proud of the fire department for sure.”
In November, the FDNY began sending firefighters to Ground Zero on 30-day details. They wouldn’t be assigned to the firehouse; instead they would be assigned to the World Trade Center. Roby said everyone volunteered to work the 30-day detail, including himself in January. For months, thousands of people removed all 220 stories of the Twin Towers in five-gallons buckets. Eventually, the pile became a pit.
When this happened, the area was considered safer, and that’s when the politicians began frequenting the site. Roby said he was working in the pit one day in January and the President of France showed up and wanted to take a photo with an FDNY Chief. “So I had to come out of the pit and go take a picture with this guy.”
In May 2002, when the work at Ground Zero was finally finished, Roby returned to the site for the final ceremony. The pit — the scarred imprint of a terrorist attack, where thousands lost their lives and thousands risked their lives — was filled with elected officials and very few first responders.
“All the politicians showed up,” Roby said. “It was freaking disgusting, you know? It was a big hole in the ground basically. All the firemen were up on the street. Nobody was down there. It was all politicians. I was really pissed off about that, because I know guys who worked their hearts out. And we got put up on the streets.”
Chief Battalion Commander Roby retired in January 2003. He suffered a spinal cord injury fighting a fire and had major surgery to repair it. He could have returned to work, but it would have been a desk job, and he didn’t want to do that. So, he stepped away.
On Sept. 11, 2001, 343 firefighters died when the towers fell. Since then, 258 firefighters have died from injuries and health issues from working at Ground Zero. The dust created from millions of tons of concrete crushing itself into a fine powder for weeks hung like a curtain around Ground Zero. Roby said he has all kinds of nasal issues, which he said was very common with the rescue workers. He’s had skin cancers, malignant melanoma, which can be deadly if it isn’t treated early.
“I have to go to skin doctor every six months and get a full body scan,” he said. “I go to a lot of doctors all the time.”
One thing he does not do is watch footage of 9/11. When he’s channel surfing and comes across something related to that day, he skips right by it. “I know what happened, I know what we did. I knew a lot of those 343 guys.”
Roby, who now lives in Cary with his wife, said he’s only once been to the completed World Trade Center Memorial. Five or six years ago, they visited their oldest son, who still lives in New York, and decided to go to Ground Zero.
“It was a tough day for me, especially when you walk around and see everybody’s plaque. I went once, and I’ll probably never go again. I’m proud of everything we did. I think we did extraordinary work down there. All the firemen. I don’t think we could have done it any better.”
Editor disclosure: Tom Roby’s youngest son is married to the writer’s daughter.