Last Man Down; A Firefighter's Story of Survival and Escape from the World Trade Center

Last Man Down; A Firefighter's Story of Survival and Escape from the World Trade Center

by Richard Picciotto, Daniel Paisner

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A first responder’s harrowing account of 9/11—the inspirational true story of an American hero who gave nearly everything for others during one of New York City’s darkest hours.

On September 11, 2001, FDNY Battalion Chief Richard “Pitch” Picciotto answered the call heard around the world. In minutes, he was at Ground Zero of the worst terrorist attack on American soil, as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center began to burn—and then to buckle.

A veteran of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Picciotto was eerily familiar with the inside of the North Tower. And it was there that he concentrated his rescue efforts. It was in its smoky stairwells where he heard and felt the South Tower collapse. He made the call for firemen and rescue workers to evacuate, while he stayed behind with a skeleton team of men to help evacuate a group of disabled and infirm civilians. And it was in the rubble of the North Tower where Picciotto found himself buried—for more than four hours after the building’s collapse.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425189887
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/06/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 100,892
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Battalion Commander Richard Picciotto is the highest-ranking firefighter to have survived the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11. He is a veteran of the New York City Fire Department, presiding over FDNY’s Battalion 11, which covers Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

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Last Man Down

A New York City Fire Chief and the Collapse of the World Trade Center
By Richard Picciotto

Berkley Publishing Group

Copyright © 2003 Richard Picciotto
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0425189880

Chapter One

MORNING I remember what we all remember about that morning: clear horizon, high sun, visibility stretching to forever. Looking back, I realize it was the beautiful day that killed us, because if it had been gray, or foggy, or overcast, there's no way those bastards could have flown those planes. Not on that day anyway. All up and down the East Coast, it was the same: still winds, blue skies, and not a cloud in sight. Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. ... all dawning like a picture postcard. What are the friggin' odds of that? September 11, 2001, started early in our house in Chester, New York, about sixty miles north of the George Washington Bridge. God's country-or anyway, a mostly blue-collar community, solidly embraced by firemen and cops and other civil servants who couldn't afford to live in the city they served. I was scheduled for a straight tour, nine to six, which for me comes around just a few times each year. Most days, I'm working six o'clock at night until six o'clock the next night; a couple times a month, I'm on from nine in the morning until nine the next morning; and every here and there, I'll pull a night tour, a fifteen-hour shift from six at night until nine the next morning. These straight tours, though, they're pretty rare, especially when you reach chief, as I had done about nine years earlier. I'll tell you, they're always a welcome sight on the calendar. They signal a shift that puts you in synch with the rest of the nine-to-five world. Makes you forget, at least for one day, how out of whack our working lives really are, set against everyone else's. It's about seventy miles, door to door, from my front door to the firehouse on West 100th Street. I had the drive down to a science. If I had to start at nine, I usually planned to get to work around seven-thirty, which meant leaving the house at about six. Most guys, they're looking to do the same, itching to start their shifts, to get into it, and at the other end there's guys been working twenty-fours anxious to leave a little early, so it all works out. You pull the same nine hours-or fifteen, or twenty-four-you just start a little bit ahead of the books. It's been this way as far back as I could remember, and I'd been at this job twenty-eight years. We're always looking to punch in early, and to get a jump on heading home. At the front end, there's something about the pull of the firehouse that draws us to it for the camaraderie, the bullshitting, the shared purpose, the frat-house environment ... it's different for each of us, I suppose. For me, the attraction has always been about the guys and the job. Or I should say, about the guys and the jobs-emphasis on the plural, meaning all the different fires we've worked over the years. I love talking about this job or that job, big or small, extraordinary or routine. Whatever fire I missed on the previous shift, I have to hear about it. Whatever fire I worked, I have to tell the tale. As chief, and now as battalion commander, I obviously have to hear about each job in order to file my necessary paperwork and stay on top of things, but it runs much deeper than that. I have to hear about it. I get off on listening to the guys talk about the jobs, down to the smallest detail, over and over, or talking up whatever it was that took place on our tour. It's like lifeblood. I can hear the same story a million times if it's a good story, and I can tell a good one of my own a million plus. There are a lot of us caught up in it the same way. It's what we do. It's who we are. And it's why we're there. So I was looking to leave home early that Tuesday morning, same as my wife, Debbie, who works as an obstetrical nurse at St. Luke's Hospital in Newburgh, New York, and my son, Stephen, who attends a private Catholic high school in New Jersey. My daughter, Lisa, is a senior at Pace University in lower Manhattan, living in a dorm, so she was the only one in the family sleeping in at this early hour. We were all out the door by six, six-fifteen, which meant there was no such thing as breakfast. Maybe a doughnut fisted on the fly. No such thing as small talk either. Our main thing was getting Stephen moving in time for school. He's always ten, fifteen minutes late for everything, and that's with his mother and me riding him. It's funny the way two people from the same family, the same gene pool, can be so completely different-me racing to get to work early; Stephen being pushed along so he isn't too late. And then there's Debbie in the middle, minding us both. On this morning, after I did my piece chasing Stephen out of bed and into the shower, I grabbed a cup of coffee in a travel mug and made to leave. We'd never been overly demonstrative with each other, me and Stephen, just kind of nodded or grunted good-bye as we got ready for the day. Two ships passing, that's how it was with our comings and goings each morning. Me and Debbie, though, we usually kissed, or hugged, and on the days we didn't think to kiss good-bye, we usually hollered something to each other on our ways out the door. Something nice. Debbie's always told me that when I go off to work there's a part of her thinking about the dangers I might face there, about the job, but she tries to put it out of her mind. Like the wives of most firefighters, she chooses to think I spend my days playing Ping-Pong at the firehouse, or whipping up great meals with the guys in the kitchen, and we'd fallen into this silent routine where I didn't talk about how close we came in this fire or that fire, how big the job was, or anything like that. She tells me that when I come home at night and crawl into bed alongside her, she can still smell the smoke-the fire even-coming off my body, even after I've showered, but we don't talk about it. We never talk about it. Most guys I know, they don't talk about these things with their wives either. The unspoken fear, the unacknowledged fear, is that I might not come home, but it's a fear so ingrained it's almost unnoticeable. It's there, but it's not there, Debbie tells me-in the back of her mind, but so far back it hardly registers-and knowing this, we try to put our busy routines on pause long enough for a loving good-bye of some kind. This, too, we don't always think about. This, too, has become so ingrained we don't even notice it. We mean to make this loving moment of connection, but sometimes we forget, or sometimes the clock gets in the way. That's one of the pieces of this morning's ritual that will haunt me later, the not remembering if we had a chance to hug or kiss or say something nice to each other. If it was one of those mornings when we just took each other for granted and went about our business, or if it was one of those mornings when we stopped and paid each other some warm attention. I've reworked the scene a thousand times in my head, and I've got no idea. One minute we were taking turns putting Stephen through his slow paces, and the next minute I was gone. Gone first for bagels. One of the unwritten rules of the fire department is that the guys working the day tour are expected to bring breakfast. It's understood. Chief, captain, lieutenant, fireman ... rank doesn't matter. Every day tour, every firehouse in New York City, there are whole units coming in, and it falls to these guys to bring cake, bagels, muffins, rolls, fruit. Whatever they want, but it's got to be something, enough for everybody, so before I hopped onto the New York State Thruway, I made a pit stop at Rockland Bakery for a bag of bagels. The bakery is a bag-your-own, self-service place, so I grabbed a couple dozen assorted, with at least one cinnamon raisin for yours truly. I didn't put much thought into what I was grabbing, I just grabbed until the bag was full. Everything else we've got at the firehouse kitchen: butter, cream cheese, coffee, milk. Every payday, we take up a collection, twenty dollars per man, that goes to keeping the kitchen stocked. Coffee's by far the biggest expense-we drink that stuff down like it's water-but the twenty dollars also goes to buy condiments, other staples, and toilet paper. (Actually, we do get department-issued toilet paper, but it's like sandpaper; you can still see the wood chips in each square!) The city doesn't pay for any of that stuff; it all comes from us, and it all starts with breakfast. I drove my beat-up blue 1991 Honda Accord south to the city in no time at all. I'm usually moving against traffic, and whenever there was a tie-up there were a bunch of different back ways I could go. I'd been driving that route for so long it was like the path I'd worn out between my bedroom and the bathroom-the 160,000 miles on the odometer were the proof!-so it was never a problem making time. I knew all the snags, all the potholes, all the trouble spots. And I made good time this morning, even with the regular commuting traffic, and pulled up at the firehouse around seven-forty. Found a good spot right on the street-the police chief's, from the 24th Precinct, which is housed in the same building (I always made it a point to take their parking spaces, for chop-busting reasons)-made sure my valuables were stowed out of view in the black lawn-and-leaf bags I kept for just this purpose, grabbed the bagels, and went inside.

There wasn't much doing from the night before. There had been a couple of incidental runs, and there was some paperwork left over, reports to be filed. The chief I was relieving, Bob Holzmaier, was particularly glad to see me. He'd been on since nine the previous morning, and he took one look at me and started figuring which Long Island Rail Road train he could catch out of Penn Station. Bob's not one of those "minute men" you sometimes find in firehouses, those guys who watch the clock and bug out at the first opportunity, but he was anxious to get home, can't blame him for that, and he had the train schedule so burned into his memory that he didn't have to consult it for his ride home.

It had been a quiet night, nothing much to report. Once or twice a year, you'll get a night tour with no calls, but there's almost always a run or three. Sometimes, it's a run to nothing, but when you check the calls throughout the battalion, there's usually something big somewhere. As battalion commander of FDNY Battalion 11, I supervised seven companies, along with battalion chiefs John Hughes, Dennis Collopy, and Bob Holzmaier: Engine Co. 37 and Ladder Co. 40, on 125th Street in Harlem; Engine Co. 47, on 113th Street in Morningside Heights; Engine Co. 74, on 83rd Street on the Upper West Side; Ladder Co. 25 on 77th Street on the Upper West Side; and Engine Co. 76 and Ladder Co. 22, on 100th Street on the Upper West Side, where I was based. If there were no big jobs here, with our two home companies, there were surely a couple elsewhere in the battalion.

I dropped the bagels in the kitchen, grabbed my cinnamon raisin, and hopped up to the office to go over a couple of things with Bob. Things move in much the same way all over the department, all over the city, as one guy comes in to relieve another. It's like a tag team, or a relay race, the way you pass on responsibility to the next guy, bring him up to speed on what's been going on. At the change of shift, there's usually three or four guys in the kitchen, shooting the breeze, talking about the jobs, in no hurry to leave. At the end of the overnight tour in particular, guys' kids are already off to school, and if their wives work, they're usually gone by this time, too, so there's no rushing home.

What you've got then are all these extra hands, guys not wanting to leave for fear they'll miss out on something. Often there's nothing to do but twiddle our thumbs, sip at some coffee, pinch at a muffin or a roll, and hash over the details of our last big job like it was the seventh game of the World Series. Or sometimes, it's actually the seventh game of the World Series, or the Monday Night Football game from the night before. The firehouse is like a second home to most firefighters, and if our real homes are empty, there's no better place to be. Honestly, there's not a firefighter in my acquaintance who will tell you, also honestly, that he'd rather be anyplace else than chewing the fat with his brothers. Looking back on the last job, looking forward to the next. Shooting the shit.

So this was the scene on that terrifyingly beautiful morning. Business as usual, about to be shattered. I was still in my civvies when I told Bob to take off, but I figured if we got a job I could put on my bunker gear over my clothes. You're not supposed to, goes against regulation, but I'd done it before. Two minutes, I'd be dressed and good to go. There are some chiefs, they won't relieve the chief on duty until they're sitting at their desks with their ties cinched tight, like they're posing for the newspapers. Regulation says we're to wear our work duty uniform whenever we're on duty: blue pants, white collared shirt with the chief's epaulets-gold oak leaves for the chief, silver oak leaves for the battalion commander. It's like the military, silver outranks gold, but if I can't find my silver leaves I'll wear the gold ones-that is, if I can find those. What the hell do I care? How I dress doesn't affect my job performance, how I approach each fire, how I look after my men. If a job comes in, I'm ready; it doesn't matter what I'm wearing.

At about eight o'clock, I wandered down to the kitchen, to talk with the guys, to grab another bagel, to put a head on my coffee. In one sense, the day had officially started, with me relieving Bob, but it hadn't really gotten going. We hadn't started checking the equipment, or recharging the batteries for our radios and other gear, which for the morning tour would have to wait until precisely nine o'clock. But the entire house was already in change-of-tour mode. Guys were still trickling in, small-talking on this and that, swapping out upcoming tours. Basically, we were waiting for nine o'clock, hoping our first run could hold out until then. And if it couldn't, then that would be okay, too.

Eight-fifteen, I was back in my office, making ready. A chief's office isn't much: two desks, two chairs, two computers-one for the chief and one for the aide. (My aide, for this tour, would be Gary Sheridan, but he was joined in our rotation by Doug Robinson, Super Dave Shaughnessy, and Bobby Pyne.) We kept our family photos and other personal effects in our lockers-in mine, there's a pair of Stephen and Lisa in my chief's hat, circa 1995 or so, which I'm guessing is a fairly standard pose for the children of firefighters-but the office itself is a spartan, bare-bones scene. Nothing that isn't standard-issue, or time-shared by the four chiefs assigned to each house-or occasionally, by a chief from elsewhere in the department called in to cover.



Excerpted from Last Man Down by Richard Picciotto Copyright © 2003 by Richard Picciotto. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Picciotto's account is one survivor's remarkable story... Its strength is its tone: conversational, free of literary pretense... The book is both grim and inspiring." —USA Today


Exclusive Author Essay
As I post this, it's been nearly seven months since September 11, 2001, and I can still feel the day unfolding with me in its middle. I will always be in its middle, and it took the effort of chronicling those tense, dark moments in Last Man Down for me to place my role in context. It's a funny thing, the way we move further from that terrible day and the day itself becomes more and more a part of history, yet while those buildings raged and crumbled no one was thinking historically. There wasn't time to put things in perspective. Hell, there wasn't even any reason to put things in perspective. All there was, really, was time enough for a random few of us to make it down from those skyscrapers alive. We firefighters had lives to save, and fires to battle, and there was no point in struggling to make any kind of sense of what we were doing. There was just the doing.

But as time crawled away from those terrible moments, and the doing was done, the struggle to make sense took on new significance. For many of us, suddenly, all that mattered was the context, the perspective. We struggled to understand what we'd been through in order to understand where we were going. Like it or not, we'd been a part of history -- and soon enough it would fall to us to share that history with the rest of the world. Our history. For all the hours and hours of taped footage of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, and the devastation on and around the plaza that has now become known as ground zero, there was virtually nothing being reported on what it had been like inside those buildings. For all the speculation on how the New York City Fire Department managed or mismanaged the monumental crisis that day presented, there were no accounts from the rank and file. And for all the urban legends of those who survived the attacks, from impossible situations against the longest odds, few people were stepping forward to offer their unvarnished view.

That's what I've meant to do here, with Last Man Down, and I hope I've succeeded. Reading over what I've written, reconsidering what I've lived, I'm amazed I've survived to tell the story. But here I am. And here it is. My account of the darkest hours of our lives. No holds barred. No feelings spared. And nothing left to the imagination. (Richard Picciotto)

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Last Man Down; A Firefighter's Story of Survival and Escape from the World Trade Center 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Last Man Down" is the story of a group of fireman who survive the collapse of the north tower of the World Trade Center. The story narrated by Richard Picciotto gets into on what really happened on September 11th, 2001. Picciotto lets readers know everything that happened to him and his group on that day. The story puts readers on edge. Once you read the first chapter, you will most likely be hooked. The firefighters are in a race for their lives as the World Trade Center is near collapse. Richard Picciotto lived to tell his experience of 9/11. I recommend this book to anyone that likes learning about America
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was amazing. It keeps you interested the whole time. Being a Firefighter in NC it relates back alot to everyday calls and life. Great book, I highly recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a current firefighter I found this book answered many of my questions I had about the events surrounding the World Trade Center's collapse. Coming from a firefighting family, the events of that day are talked about often around my house. This book gave me a better understanding of what it was like in those times of distress. Richard Picciotto give examples that he encountered that day and it had a very emotional toll on me because of the way I can realate to the feeling of losing loved ones in fire situations. This is by far the best book I have ever read relating to firefighting and will continue to be my number one of all time for a great while.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After the towers fell NY was never the same and neither was the firefighting family. The 343 Brothers and sisters lost on that day effected not only the FDNY but also the volunteer community on Long Island. Reading Cheif Piccioto's view from inside the towers made me remember how numerous firefighters in not only my department but departments from LI to Staten Island were effected by the loss. Reading this book makes me remember the numerous wakes and funerals on Long Island because of the 343 lost. God Bless and Rest their souls.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Even though I am an EMT-Basic from Michigan, this book brings tears to my eyes every time I read it because this book shows how human we all are and that they had hope when a lot of things had conspired against them. I think that it also shows that no matter what, firefighters show a lot of compassion in a world where public safety personnel are sometimes seen as idiots and jerks.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am currently a firefighter In Rhode Island And I read this book many of times because I was so impressed in how this cheif wrote this book..It explains how many firefighters feel and act when responding to a call... I highly recommend this novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am trying to become a Firefighter and i wanted to read some storys. And i came along this book, its great i love it i am reading it for the 6th time it just gets better and better each time you read it . It good for people that are wanting to be a firefighter it puts you right in there its great please get it and read it
Guest More than 1 year ago
Richard Picciotto, an experienced FDNY batallion commander, had worked his way up to the 35th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the South Tower collapsed. Here he describes what it was like for him and his men to evacuate the building and rescue numerous people--until the North Tower came down around them. Picciotto--'Pitch'--was one of the lucky few to survive the World Trade Center destruction to live and tell about it. His insider view and slightly salty language help turn the horrific disaster into a personalized and engrossing page-turner. Recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pretty good. But this guy didn’t seem very grateful when he managed get out. He wanted the red carpet rolled and was upset when it wasn’t. Also whined a lot
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good story but the writer certainly thinks highly of himself. I was wondering why when they were making their way down the stairwell with Josephine slowing them down, why forget dignity and just pick her up so they could get the heck out of the tower before it came crashing down on all of them. Seems to me it was a bad choice as they lost one of their own in the crash.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Last Man down is a spectacular and detailed account of what happened inside the north tower and around the scene of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. The story follows retired FDNY Battalion commander Richard Picciotto and a team of firefighters through the crowds and onto ground zero. The account of his experiences is so riveting because it is a new way to look at the attacks: from the perspective of those inside the building. This in-depth look inside the rescue effort was very detailed and precise. It was made even more original by the rough and unrefined speaking style that the author used in the book. The major theme that I carried out of this book was perseverance and the will to keep moving forward to achieve a greater purpose. This book would make an excellent movie due to the highly tense and frequent high stress situations of Mr. Picciotto, and all others in the tower for that matter. There was a lot to like about this book, and I only have one complaint. The authors Egotism was sprinkled everywhere. This is a shame because it masks the true message of the book: Our countries brave service members who all risked their lives that day, not just Mr. Picciotto and his individual contributions. Despite this, it was still an excellent story of hardship and triumph that is very hard to put down. I would recommend it to everyone!
ConnerC More than 1 year ago
The terrorist  attacks of 9/11 are the worst event on American soil and yet so many people know little to nothing about it.  Luckily enough, this book presents a solution to that problem.  Last Man Down by RIchard Picciotto is a memoir about his specific experience and heroism.  Picciotto, also refered to as Pitch, is a high ranking firefighter in the New York Fire Department, or NYFD.  After his time in the department was over, he decided to write a book to share his story with the world.  This book is a great example that service, and helping others is one main reason that our society and our race can survive. This memoir provides insight to what was actually happening inside the North Tower not just what we have seen on television.  The shock and awe that these firefighters felt when they were trapped and finally made their  out is conveyed like never before.  Never before did we know that the wreckage was worse the people inside could ever have imagined or the noise with which the towers came down.  This book is truly eye opening and inspiring learning what these brave individuals went through and learning about  mentality of a firefighter because it puts the events into perspective and puts our own problems into perspecitve.  This book made me realize both how small my problems really are and also that there is never a point where a person is able to say that they've helped people too much.  This book has inspired me to be a better person in my community also everwhere in the world because those firefighters were ordinary people like me who went above and beyond.  The firefighters like Picciotto were willing to risk their lives for complete strangers and the rest of us should be willing to do the same.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is freaking awesome. I accedently lost my book but the librarian kept it for one night and let another student take it wich is really fustrading cuz i was almost done with the freaking book!!!! Now I have to buy it to finish reading cuz my elar teacher wants a project out of it.......uh-oh (;-;)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How long is this book?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great book. Sometimes the writer goes into much details or repeats himself alot. This book is great otherwise, i would suggest anyone to read this.
SjaB53 More than 1 year ago
Fantastic writing by a very courageous man !
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very good unable to put it dowm
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