NY Fire Chief lucky to survive 9/11 collapse
HUMBOLDT — Richard Picciotto thought he was dead when the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11.
Picciotto is a former Fire Department of New York chief. He is one of the highest ranking firefighters to survive the collapse.
He shared his experiences from 9/11 during a Humboldt Volunteer Fire Department fundraiser Sunday afternoon.
More than 1,200 people filled the Humboldt High School gymnasium.
“It took the south tower 10 seconds to come down,” Picciotto said. “It took the north tower eight. Eight seconds.”
“What are you doing the last eight seconds of your life?” he asked.
For Picciotto, he prayed. But he didn’t pray to survive. He prayed that it all would be over quickly.
“I prayed for what I wanted more than anything,” he said. “Please God, make it quick.”
Picciotto was between the sixth and seventh floors when the skyscraper came crashing down.
“I knew what was happening,” he said. “I just didn’t want to suffer. And then in matter of seconds that noise, that bang. It was black.”
He added, “Black. Silent. Still.”
When Picciotto first arrived on scene that morning, he had already witnessed tragedy up close.
“I could see a lot of people,” he said. “I could also hear a lot of people. People jumped. That’s something no one should have to see.”
Picciotto, who was a New York firefighter for 30 years, entered the north tower with his team and made his way up the stairwell.
He was on the 35th floor when the south tower collapsed.
“The rumbling was tremendous,” he said. “Like an earthquake.”
“I get up the 35th floor, I stepped out and as soon as I step out the floor is shaking,” he said. “It was loud. It was getting louder and coming even faster. I was staring at the ceiling thinking any second something is going to explode. I could hear it, I could feel it right through my body. I felt it through my body … and then it stopped.”
He added, “There’s an expression, ‘The silence is deafening.’ That’s what it was. When it stopped, we were frozen, staring at the ceiling.”
Soon after, Picciotto said he made his most difficult decision ever.
“The south tower was down,” he said. “I called for an evacuation of north tower. Tough order to give because I knew the people that were trapped above me only have one chance. If we are coming. We take risks. We take calculated risks. We risk our lives to save other people’s lives. It comes to the point where you say this is foolish. I thought that this building was coming down and we had to get everyone out.”
Picciotto used his radio as well as a bullhorn to repeat the order, he said.
“On the way down I did something different,” he said. “I stopped on every floor . I did a quick sweep because I wasn’t going to allow anyone to stay back for any reason.”
On the 27th floor, he met some resistance from an office worker who wasn’t ready to leave.
“I see a guy in the office in a cubicle, just typing away,” Picciotto said. “I said we are evacuating, you have to get out.”
The man told Picciotto he was “doing something important here.”
I said, “Oh excuse me,'” Picciotto said. “Well that’s not exactly what I said.”
Picciotto said he grabbed the man by his shirt and pulled him out toward the door.
“He looked at me like how dare you touch me,” he said. “But that did happen.”
On the 19th floor, Picciotto noticed a cluster of people.
“There was a logjam,” he said. “No one was moving. I said don’t stop for anything. I said if someone is injured, pick them up. Drag them. Do not stop.”
On the 12th floor, one of the firemen told Picciotto there was problem.
“They bring me to an office and there was about 30 to 40 people in there,” Picciotto said. “By that time the building had been hit by a plane more than an hour ago. The building had been on fire for an hour. I said we got to go people. Move, move, move.”
As Picciotto made his way to the seventh floor, he started to feel the shaking again.
“Bang, bang, bang,” he said. “The shaking was unbelievable. The shaking registered as an earthquake — and I am right in the middle of it.”
Picciotto said he couldn’t see anything.
“It was total blackness,” he said. “The noise was unbelievable.”
It was then that Picciotto prayed.
“People tell you right before you die your life flashes before your eyes,” he said. “That’s what happened to me. I thought about my family.”
Picciotto was lying in the darkness.
“I thought I was dead,” he said.
A short time later, he began to come to his senses.
“I crawled out. I said, ‘Is anyone here?'” he said. “Someone said, ‘Yeah I am here.’ Other than myself there was 13 others.”
Initially, Picciotto asked that no one move.
“It was like a house of cards,” he said. “You move one piece, or upset that delicate balance, everything comes crashing down, so we are trained not to do anything until we observe, observe, observe.”
He attempted to reach someone on his radio.
“It took about an hour before we finally reached someone,” he said. “We reached an off-duty fire chief. We knew each other. I said, ‘Mark I am trapped in the north tower, please send help.'”
“The first thing he said is, ‘You can’t be there.’ I said, ‘I am here.'”
Picciotto and company didn’t get out of the debris for more than four hours.
“When I got out, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I couldn’t believe the devastation.”
Ultimately, Picciotto was taken in an ambulance to a hospital. He suffered a torn rotator cuff among other injuries.
He said people often ask him the lessons learned.
“You have put your priorities in life,” he said. “When there’s a tragedy in your life, you get very focused on what’s important. What’s really important is family and friends. We don’t tell our friends and our families enough that we love them. We don’t say it enough.”
Picciotto said he’s glad that his prayers did go unanswered.
“When I thought I was dying, I prayed,” he said. “My prayers weren’t answered. I prayed to die quickly. Sometimes prayers unanswered are the best things you can ever have. Sometimes you pray so hard when you think you want something. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Unanswered prayers are sometimes the best prayers you can have.”