SURROUNDED by darkness and silence, 20 years ago today Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer did not know for certain whether he was dead or alive.
As the first fireman to enter the World Trade Center, he was also among the last to get out.
When he heard the second tower ominously rumble, the man in charge of the New York Fire Department’s First Battalion sprinted as fast as his heavy gear would allow.
After seeing a cameraman wearing a T-shirt crouching, about to be showered by steel and glass, Joe jumped on top to protect him.
Then his world turned dark.
Joe, 65, tells The Sun: “We were way too close when you have a building falling. It was a bright day but it all went black.
“You can’t see anything. All the noise stops and there is complete silence. It was like a new snowfall, it was so quiet. You are wondering if you are still alive at that point.”
Joe had survived. But his brother was not so fortunate.
Earlier in the day, Joe had raced to the WTC after seeing a plane crash into the North Tower’s upper floors.
He set up a command centre in the tower’s lobby to direct the evacuation of visitors and staff.
Despite the chaos and confusion, there was little chatter among the firefighters tasked with climbing towards the flames.
Joe was surprised to encounter his brother Kevin, also a firefighter but meant to be taking exams that day.
Joe says: “Like many of the other firefighters, Kevin came in quietly. We looked at each other in a, ‘Are we going to be OK?’ way. We didn’t exchange any words at that point. It was just a very personal look.”
As the officer in charge, Joe had given the order for Kevin to take his team from Engine 33 to the 15th floor.
Joe says: “When he turned around and took his firefighters, that was the last time I saw my brother Kevin.”
The 42-year-old lieutenant was one of 343 firefighters who did not make it out of the WTC alive.
Then I found our chaplain, Mychal Judge, laying at my feet. I opened his white collar. I checked for a pulse. At that point, he was gone.
The brothers had always been close.
Joe says: “We were buddies. As kids we shared a bedroom. We sailed. We had an 18ft sailboat.”
What Joe witnessed was captured by French filmmaker Jules Naudet, who happened to be shadowing him that day.
His remarkable footage takes viewers into the heart of disaster in National Geographic documentary 9/11: One Day In America.
It shows the moment the North Tower’s lobby, where Joe was now working, is shrouded in dust from the South Tower’s collapse.
The towers were designed to withstand the impact of a plane crash. But fuel from the hijacked jets filled lift shafts and ignited flammable materials across many floors.
The South Tower was hit second but came down first because it was struck lower down, causing greater instability.
The result of its collapse was “total darkness” in the neighbouring tower, Joe recalls. Rubble blasted through windows, killing people near him.
The quiet was broken by the cries of people leaving the building, many burned or badly injured.
Then, the crash of bodies landing from many storeys above, as people chose to jump rather than face the flames.
Joe says: “I gave the command to pull our fire- fighters out (from the North Tower). Then I found our chaplain, Mychal Judge, laying at my feet. I opened his white collar. I checked for a pulse. At that point, he was gone.”
Twenty-nine minutes after the South Tower fell, the North Tower followed.
Joe was able to dash clear.
After he emerged from the darkness of the circling dust he clung to the hope his brother had somehow survived.
Joe says: “I was in a white helmet. I said, ‘He’ll come and find me’. That hope ended the next day. It was 26 hours and I knew we weren’t going to find any more.
In a city of nine million people, Joe felt very alone.
Only emergency workers were allowed near the disaster zone.
He says: “It was a very difficult moment walking back to the firehouse. The only people there were first responders. We looked like ghosts in the night.
“That’s when I realised Kevin wasn’t coming back and I had to tell my parents.”
Details of Kevin’s bravery would later emerge.
Joe says: “From eye-witness accounts we know, as he was coming down, he stopped on the ninth floor, directing firefighters from one stairwell to the safer one to get out.
“The captain of Engine Seven told me my brother had saved his life by redirecting him and the life of his crew. I am very proud of my brother. Not only did he save those firefighters, he saved many others and civilians.”
Hope ended the next day. It was 26 hours and I knew we weren’t going to find any more.
Twenty years on from the attacks, which claimed almost 3,000 lives, conspiracy theorists question the official version of events.
Last month the relatives of a British man who perished in the towers called for a fresh inquest, claiming there is evidence the buildings were brought down by controlled explosions.
But Joe had no doubts from the start terrorists were responsible.
He was investigating a gas leak in the streets nearby when he heard the first plane fly over Manhattan and clearly arc towards the skyscraper.
He says: “I saw the plane aim and crash into the building. There was no doubt in my mind that it was a terrorist event. That’s what I said on the fire department radio.”
He didn’t hear explosives and none were recorded on Jules’ video.
Joe, who spent 37 years in the fire service, says: “As for any of those conspiracy theories of explosions . . . well, you would have heard that on the tape.”
He supports the conclusion of an 11,000-page report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology that concluded fire caused the towers’ collapse.
Prior to his retirement three years ago Joe was chief of counter-terrorism and emergency preparedness for New York’s fire service.
He also helped the organisers of London’s 2012 Olympics develop contingency plans in the event of an attack.
I saw the plane aim and crash into the building. There was no doubt in my mind that it was a terrorist event
He says: “I think what drove me was a new sense of purpose — to make a difference.”
Now, on the attack’s 20th anniversary, he hopes we will remember the bravery displayed by so many.
He has written a book about that day, Ordinary Heroes.
Joe says: “Those people that ran into the building, those people that were in the building and helped each other, did ordinary things at an extraordinary time. What we see are ordinary heroes.”
- Watch 9/11: One Day In America on the National Geographic channel.
The policeman – ‘I saw the South Tower go down – I didn’t know, but my wife was under that building. We ended up digging with our hands’
A FORMER NYPD cop has described watching the South Tower fall as he drove to the scene — not realising his wife, another police office, was trapped inside.
Moira Ann Smith was the only policewoman to die in the attacks, having gone into work early after kissing husband Jim and two-year-old daughter Patricia goodbye.
She was helping a woman having an asthma attack on the tower’s third floor as the building collapsed.
Jim, now 60 and retired, told The Sun: “It was right before the Midtown Tunnel that I saw the first building go down.
"I made it to the precinct where Moira and I worked. I asked where she was and was told, ‘It’s OK, she’s accounted for’. But by that point she was already under the building.”
Moira, 38, ran into danger just as others streamed the other way.
A picture shows her leading bleeding broker Edward Nicholls away from the carnage.
Jim said: “On September 11, Moira was supposed to be on election duty but she switched and was working a labour dispute demonstration.”
As the disaster unfolded, Moira and other officers moved from that assignment towards the towers.
Jim said: “Some- one said there was a woman on the third floor having an asthma attack and needed help. Moira went up to give her aid. That’s when the building collapsed.”
Earlier, Jim’s sister had called, warning him of the attack.
He dropped Patricia with her and headed into the city.
Believing Moira was safe, he continued to work. But as the hours passed without word, they grew worried.
Jim said: “We were checking hospitals. We began digging by hand. That went on for quite a while.”
He eventually accepted she was gone.
Jim remarried and had two sons with his second wife.
Manhattan’s Madison Square Park now has a playground named after Moira.
Jim added: “That was part of where she patrolled. As my daughter says, it’s a place where kids can be safe and Moira can look out after them.”
The 911 Operator – ‘I kept hearing thumps over the radio – bodies hitting the ground. One caller offered me $1m to get his wife out of the towers’
A POLICE dispatcher taking calls on 9/11 has told how the husband of a woman trapped in the World Trade Centre offered her a million dollars to get his partner out alive.
Speaking publicly for the first time, Gladys Mitchell, now 62, said: “It’s like a nightmare. It will never go away.”
Based at the emergency dispatch centre in Brooklyn, the keen singer was due to perform the national anthem that day at an official ceremony.
She was told to “look busy” and take calls as she waited.
Gladys told The Sun: “The first caller said, ‘Don’t think I’m crazy but I just saw a plane go into the World Trade Center’.
“We’re supposed to take everything at face value but I was thinking, ‘It’s too early in the morning for this craziness!’ Then mayhem broke out behind me.”
What she heard on later calls affects her to this day.
Gladys said of one desperate caller: “He told me his wife was in the building.
"She’d called him and she couldn’t get out. He said, ‘I’ll give you any amount of money — a million dollars, whatever you want — to get her out safe’.”
The mum of three, who retired in 2008 and is now pursuing a singing career, said: “I kept hearing a thump (while talking to officers) and I asked what it was.
"They told me, ‘Those are bodies hitting the ground. They’re jumping out of windows. We can’t get them to stop’
“Those things haunt me.”
THE names of all 2,977 victims of the attack will be read out during a commemoration at the 9/11 Memorial in New York today.
The event – at the two gigantic pools on the site of the towers – will also observe six silences.
They will mark the times when each tower was struck, when they fell, when Flight 77 hit the Pentagon and when Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania.
At dusk until dawn, shafts of light will be beamed into the sky, echoing the shapes of the towers.
Other buildings will be lit in blue.
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