A Story of Survival
Richard Picciotto was certain he was going to die. With the mindset that his life was about to end, he prayed. He prayed that God would make it quick; that he wouldn’t have to suffer. But Picciotto’s life was spared, along with about 14 other people who were in a stairwell near the sixth floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when it collapsed Sept. 11, 2001.
Picciotto, the highest ranking firefighter still in the building that day, told his story of desperation, hope, courage, and survival to more than 600 people Oct. 29 during one of Cowley’s 80th anniversary celebrations. The event, held in the Robert Brown Theatre on the main campus, was free.
Picciotto, a native New Yorker with the typical brogue, took the audience through his day on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew two planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and one that was crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. “It’s a day I’ll never, ever forget,” Picciotto said, supplementing his talk with a pictorial slide show. “They (terrorists) tried to change our way of life. They took a shot at us, a cheap shot. But you know what they did? They made this nation even more united than ever before.”
The 29-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York said when Ladder 11, one of his companies, was called to the World Trade Center, his thoughts immediately rushed back to 1993. That was the year terrorists set off a bomb in a lower-level parking garage at the WTC, causing extensive damage. “The news people were saying initially that it (Sept. 11, 2001) was an accident,” Picciotto said. “I never thought that. My gut feeling was that it was no accident. I felt we were being deliberately attacked.” Picciotto, who mingled during a 75-minute reception in the Earle N. Wright Community Room prior to his presentation, and also autographed his book following his talk, described the chaos that day in Manhattan. “When we were going in, we had to look up because people literally had thrown themselves out of the building and were falling,” he said.
Picciotto, 51, and a group of 20 firemen started up flights of stairs, reaching the 35th floor. Suddenly, a tremendous noise engulfed everyone in the North Tower. “The building shook, and the sound came down from above and literally rushed right through us,” he said. “We had no idea what it was.” It was the collapse of the South Tower. Now, more than an hour after the North Tower had been struck, time was becoming a factor if the remaining people in the building were to escape. “I finally made radio contact outside, and they told me the South Tower went down and that we had to get out of there,” Picciotto said. “So all of a sudden, instead of a rescue mission, it was a mission to get out of the building. It was a very difficult decision I had to make, to tell firefighters to stop going up searching for people, but to start going down and to get out of the building.”
Picciotto and several firefighters slowly made their way down and assisted a black woman named Josephine Harris. Picciotto described her as a large woman, which made it difficult to evacuate her quickly. But Josephine, dictating the pace, probably saved Picciotto’s life and the lives of the small crew with him. “There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “If she goes faster, we get out of the building and are crushed by falling debris outside. If she goes slower, we’re up several floors and who knows what would have happened. It’s nothing short of a miracle that I’m alive today.”
When Picciotto and the group reached the stairwell between the seventh and sixth floors, they heard the noise. “All of a sudden there was this tremendously loud noise, and the building shook even more than it did earlier,” Picciotto said. “People said they could hear the towers collapse 15 miles away. We were inside the building, so you can imagine how loud it was.” Silence overcame the site. Picciotto thought he was dead. Then he began to breathe. He called out to the group not to move. Using his flashlight that was strapped to his jacket, Picciotto began to see what had happened.
The North Tower had collapsed. Buried in mounds of rubble, but alive, Picciotto made radio contact with the outside once more. An estimated four to five hours later, he and the rest of his crew, including “Josephine the Angel,” climbed to safety out of the twisted wreckage that once was a stairwell. Picciotto suffered burns to his eyes and a broken shoulder, relatively minor injuries. The day still haunts him.