The Story Behind the First FDNY Chief to Respond to the World Trade Center on 9/11

FDNY Chief Joseph Pfeifer smiles as he poses for an official photo in his formal FDNY uniform.
FDNY Chief Joseph Pfeifer. Courtesy of the FDNY.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, FDNY Chief Joseph Pfeifer was on a routine call in lower Manhattan. Hearing the loud roar of an airplane overhead, Pfeifer looked up to see hijacked Flight 11 crashing into the North Tower. Immediately, he sprang into action, becoming the first chief to arrive at the World Trade Center. He responded with members of Engine 7 and Ladder 1 and implemented a command center in the North Tower’s lobby.

At one point during that morning, Pfeifer saw his brother, Lt. Kevin Pfeifer of Engine 33. The two shared a glance and a few words before Kevin headed up into the North Tower. Pfeifer stayed in the North Tower lobby to assist with the rescue operation, evacuating shortly before the building collapsed at 10:28 a.m.

Pfeifer would eventually discover that Kevin had been unable to escape the North Tower in time and had been killed. He later learned that Kevin spent his final moments helping other firefighters evacuate the building, which in turn delayed his own escape.

For Pfeifer, the legacy of 9/11 is not the sorrow or the tragedy, but the sacrifice and bravery that was shown through many people’s efforts that morning.

“9/11 is made up of little stories of people doing small things or making small decisions, which turned out to be the difference between life and death,” he said in an oral history recorded by the 9/11 Memorial Museum. “There’s incredible stories of people’s action[s] that day that saved so many others.”

Since 9/11, Pfeifer has turned his attention to analyzing global terrorism, especially how to better respond to terrorist organizations’ evolving methods. Currently, he serves as the chief of counterterrorism and emergency preparedness for the FDNY.

Pfeifer is one of four speakers who will share their stories for students and teachers across the country during the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s “Anniversary in the Schools” webinar on Sept. 11, 2018. For more information about this free program and to register, click here. The webinar is made possible thanks to generous support from the New York Life Foundation.

By Molly DePippo, Education Specialist, 9/11 Memorial

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