The mural, painted on the cherry red garage door of the firehouse in Flatbush, Brooklyn, sums up the dichotomy of a firefighter’s life. One part shows three uniformed men raising an American flag amid the rubble of the World Trade Center above the words “Strength & Honor.” On September 11, 2001, three men from this firehouse died when the Twin Towers collapsed; four current members lost a father or brother, and all of them lost too many friends. On the wall above that solemn scene is another image: a pirate, grinning jauntily. The caption says “Jolly Rogers,” the nickname of the firehouse on Rogers Avenue. “We’re the ‘land pirates’—we’re known for being aggressive firefighters,” says Chris Ganci ’99, whose father was the highest-ranking uniformed member of the New York City Fire Department to die on 9/11. “You go to a fire, and it’s hard to explain, but it’s the most unbelievable feeling in the world. And then afterward, you’re so spent that there’s nothing left. Then you get called to another job, and the adrenalin carries you through.”
Last winter, Ganci and his colleagues were among roughly 200 firefighters called to a five-alarm blaze that raced through a seven-story apartment building. More than 100 residents were forced to flee into the chill of a twenty-degree night. Wind gusts of forty miles per hour whipped the flames and created what the fire chief later described as “blowtorch conditions.” The firemen battled the blaze for seven hours. Maydays rang out over the radio. One resident died. Nearly two dozen firefighters were injured, including Ganci, who suffered burns on his neck. “That’s the worst fire I’ve ever seen,” he says. “Like being in a blast furnace.”
But the aggressiveness also applies during the frequent down-time in the Jolly Rogers, which houses two companies of about twenty-five men each—Ladder 157 (the first ones in, searching and rescuing), and Engine 255 (the unit that secures a water supply and suppresses the fire). Maybe an NFL locker room has a similar vibe, or a gladiator pit. Watch your back: here, there are no greater pleasures than a well-cooked meal and a well-timed prank—for instance, tossing some firecrackers into a room to interrupt a quiet Sunday afternoon interview with a reporter. And sharpen your wit: amid the company of adrenalin-fueled men who spend more time with each other than with their significant others, busting chops is like breathing.
“Where did you go to school?” one of them asks sarcastically, as Ganci steps into the galley during a firehouse tour. “Was it Cortland? I know it begins with a ‘C.’ “
After Ganci graduated from Cornell more than a decade ago, Peter Ganci Jr. playfully hung his youngest son’s diploma in the bathroom of the family’s Long Island home, as if to say, “Here’s what I think of your Ivy League degree.” But he was damn proud of him, and he had high hopes. Senator. Captain of industry. He believed his son could achieve anything and supported him unconditionally, even though New York’s Bravest is essentially the family business. Over thirty-three years, Pete had worked his way up to become chief of the FDNY, commanding more than 15,000 officers, firefighters, EMTs, para-medics, and civilian employees. Chris’s older brother, Pete III, joined Ladder 111 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. His cousin? Ladder 174. His uncle? Ladder 132. His brother-in-law? Ladder 123.
Ganci originally aimed for a career in medicine, inspired in part by his mother, Kathleen, who provided home care to terminally ill children. But, he admits, “I really don’t have an affinity for blood and guts.” (On the other hand, he was captain of the Cornell rugby team, which somewhat belies that statement.) He graduated from the College of Human Ecology with a major in nutrition and found a job as a sales rep with Merck Pharmaceuticals. “I liked what I was doing, but I was always looking forward to having time off,” he says, “whereas in this job you miss the firehouse when you’re not working.”
As FDNY chief, his father worked eighty to 100 hours a week. He liked to say he had 10,000 kids, and sometimes that meant that his own saw less of him than they would have liked. But in the summer of 2001, he and Chris spent every Saturday together on the golf course. “I tell you,” says Ganci, “it was the best time of my life.”
On the night of September 10, Ganci, still living at home in North Massapequa, watched a movie with his dad. As was usually the case, Pete fell asleep somewhere in the middle. “Chief,” Ganci said—that’s what even his son called him—”you missed the best part.”
“It’ll be on again,” said Pete, as he stood up and hugged his son, who told him he loved him.
“I love you, too,” he said, and he walked upstairs to bed.
They didn’t see each other the next morning. Ganci had a breakfast meeting with one of his Merck clients in Brooklyn. Pete, as was his custom, awoke before dawn and strolled across the street to a house he had found for his best friend and executive assistant Steve Mosiello, who always left the door unlocked and a pot of coffee brewing. Pete was supposed to report for jury duty that day. Mosiello was supposed to drive him to the courthouse. Instead, Pete instructed him to drive to FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn, where his office was on the seventh floor. It was supposed to be on the eighth floor, where the Fire Commissioner’s office was located. “No. I’m a fireman,” he explained. “The suits are on the eighth floor.” It was this kind of attitude— a reputation for approachability, for leaving politics out of fire-fighting, for never really letting the axe out of his hand—that led him to become known as “the blue-shirted chief.” Officers wear white shirts; firefighters wear blue shirts. Pete Ganci would always be a fireman.
After the first plane crashed into the North Tower on that cloudless Tuesday morning and smoke began billowing from the building, Pete, Mosiello, and FDNY chief of operations Dan Nigro jumped into Pete’s car and raced across the Brooklyn Bridge. They made it to the scene in ten minutes and set up a command post on a ramp leading to a garage near the burning tower. The second plane struck the South Tower moments later. Two fires were burning nearly a quarter-mile up. Thousands of people were trapped. Nigro told his boss, “This is going to be the worst day we’ve ever had.”
In the days following 9/11, video footage emerged that showed Pete Ganci at that command post. His son recognizes the determined look on his face—”like he’s mad at the fire.” He was also frustrated that the department’s radios didn’t seem to be working properly amid the chaos. And when someone informed him that there was a significant chance that one or both of the buildings could topple, he grew angrier still.
One minute before 10 a.m., the South Tower came crashing down. Pete and his assistants managed to escape into the garage beneath the North Tower. Choking on dust, they found a staircase a couple of blocks away that led them out. Pete instructed his assistants to set up another command post further north in a safer location. But he headed south toward the other tower, knowing that some 200 firefighters were missing and hundreds more needed to be evacuated. As he directed firefighters to “Go! Go! Go!”, some of them implored him to go, too. He waved them on. He was on the radio with his pal Mosiello, telling him they were going to need more truck companies for search and recovery, when the North Tower crumbled. “The way I look at it,” Chris says, “those were a lot of his friends’ sons that he sent into those buildings, and he felt responsible. If they weren’t coming out, he wasn’t coming out.”
Ganci knows exactly where he was at 10:28 a.m., the moment his father died. He was filling his car with gas on the corner of Linden Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue in Brooklyn, having left his breakfast meeting early. When he arrived home, his family was glued to the TV, desperate for information. His mother and sister were frantic, but Ganci held out hope: “I said, ‘He’s the chief. He’s probably in a bunker somewhere or in some armored personnel carrier.’ Now I look back on it, and I feel like it was silly optimism.”
Only several hours later, after NYPD cruisers cordoned off the block around the Ganci house, did Chris accept the crushing truth. In mid-afternoon his father’s body was found buried beneath the debris, identified by his patent leather shoes. Mosiello retrieved his helmet, wrapping it in cellophane and placing it in a box in a closet; by the time it was opened years later, it had turned to dust. Recently, Ganci donated the radio his father had been carrying to the September 11 museum, set to open next year on the eleventh anniversary of the tragedy. He still has his dad’s golf clubs, which somehow survived in the trunk of his car.
From its inception as a paid fire department in 1865 until September 11, 2001, the FDNY had lost 778 members in the line of duty. Then, in a single day, the chief of the department and 342 more of New York’s Bravest died. On the Saturday after the attacks, fifty-four-year-old Pete Ganci was laid to rest. The fifteen-mile procession from the church to the graveyard was lined with firefighters and civilians.
In the weeks and months that followed, Ganci’s mother remained as strong as she could, but he knew she was hurting. His sister was just trying to get by. His brother, Pete III, was coping with his own horrific experience from that day. He had been about to finish a shift when one of his good friends, Mike Roberts, offered to swap with him. “Pete, jump on the truck,” he said. “I’ll ride for you on the engine.” Two minutes before the Trade Center call came in, Pete and Ladder 111 were called to a garbage can fire. Meanwhile, all four firefighters from Engine 214 died when the towers fell. (Pete is now a survivor of thyroid cancer, as is a fellow member of his firehouse—likely a result of their search and recovery efforts at Ground Zero.)
Chris was always the most gregarious member of his family, the most comfortable with an audience—most like his dad. He eased into the role of unofficial spokesperson, not only for the family but eventually for the entire FDNY. He gave speeches and interviews, telling NBC’s Brian Williams, “Your whole value system changes . . . I just know that I’ll never feel innocent again.”
The Italian-American Foundation flew him to a rural outpost in Sicily, where local officials produced residents whom they said were long-lost Ganci relatives. Less than a month after the attacks, the Gancis were invited to the White House. President Bush greeted them one by one in the Blue Room, finally arriving at Chris. Their conversation, which the President repeated moments later during a nationally televised speech, unfolded like this:
“Mr. President, you know what my father would be doing if he were here right now?
“He’d be hitting his three-wood over the fence, aiming for the Washington Monument.”
“No chance. The pressure of the White House, he’d shank it.”
“No offense, Mr. President. But you don’t know my dad.”
As Pete Ganci Jr. came to symbolize the heroics of September 11, strangers would contact the family, sometimes sending bizarre offerings. “I had a vision of your father,” one person wrote, “and I drew it on an egg.” Often, they would send money, which Chris was reluctant to accept. Eventually, he combined those random bills with a small life insurance payout to create the Peter J. Ganci Jr. Memorial Foundation, which makes donations to firefighter-related charities. “You pay it forward,” says Ganci, who still dreams about his dad once or twice a week. “My father was a very generous person, and I wanted to do something in his honor.”
In 2003, when Scholastic asked Ganci to write a children’s book, the project offered some catharsis. He had friends whose kids were writing reports on their heroes, but they were choosing athletes like Derek Jeter. “If there is one absolute truth in this world, it is that I never get tired of talking about my father. He was my hero long before the tragedy of September 11th,” he wrote in Chief: The Life of Peter J. Ganci, A New York Fire-fighter. “For thirty-three years he risked his life so that others could go on living theirs.”
Ganci went on living, too. His plan was to transition from pharmaceutical sales to corporate management, so he enrolled full-time at NYU’s business school, something his father had encouraged. But he felt a void. “Growing up, I saw my father and these guys, they were like big kids,” he explains. “They smiled every day going to work. And I wanted that feeling.”
A few years earlier, mostly out of curiosity, he had taken the firefighter entrance exam given by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. It consists of a three-hour, 100-question written exam as well as a physical test requiring tasks like climbing a Stairmaster while wearing a weighted vest. “I wanted to size myself up, to see how I would do,” says Ganci, who packs roughly 200 pounds on a stocky five-foot-eight frame. He received a perfect score on each part. When FDNY recruiters began contacting him, he told them he wanted to finish business school; his dad would have been proud of that. Then, four days after receiving his MBA, he started at the New York City Fire Academy.
The second-largest municipal fire department in the world (behind Tokyo’s), the FDNY protects more than eight million residents in a 320-square-mile area and responds to more working fires annually than the departments of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia combined. The two companies that make up the Jolly Rogers are among the busiest in the city, which is why some firefighters spend their careers trying to get assigned to a place like the unassuming firehouse in Flatbush. “They have a reputation for being good at what they do. I wanted to be a part of that,” says Ganci. “That’s why I studied so hard in Probie School.”
Situated on twenty-seven acres on Randall Island in the East River, the Fire Academy is essentially basic training for probationary firemen. Informally known as The Rock, it includes eleven buildings, a 200,000-gallon water tank, train cars to simulate subway fires, and a driving course that includes controllable traffic lights and electric pop-up obstacles. Ganci spent fourteen weeks in Probie School, memorizing thousands of pages of information about fire science, equipment, and techniques, while also passing a series of physical tests that involved everything from advancing a hose line to crawling through tunnels.
Based solely on performance at the academy, Ganci was the class valedictorian. After receiving a standing ovation as he walked across the stage at Brooklyn College, he told his fellow probies, “My father always ended the graduation speech with the same line: By taking this job, you will never, ever be rich, but you will always be happy. And when someone asks you what you do for a living, you can look him in the eyes with pride and say that you are a New York City firefighter.” Five others among Ganci’s 240 classmates from the summer of 2005 had lost family members on 9/11.
The top-ranked probie gets his choice of what fire company he would like to join. “I wanted to be valedictorian, so nobody could tell me I got here because I knew somebody,” he says. “I earned my spot.” But he was well aware of the footsteps he was following. Pete Ganci Jr. was a legend. The post office on Main Street in Farmingdale, New York, where his kids attended high school, is named for him. A U.S. military installation in Kyrgyz-stan is unofficially named Ganci Air Base, and the recreation center there is known as Pete’s Place. In his 2006 interview with Brian Williams, Ganci said of his father, “He turned back and went right into the breach. He went right back, knowingly, and I look at it and say, ‘Do I have that kind of mettle?’ “
‘He turned back and went right into the breach,’ Ganci says of his father. ‘He went right back, knowingly, and I look at it and say, “Do I have that kind of mettle?” ‘Apparently so. On July 1, 2008, Ladder 157 was called to an apartment fire in which eleven people were trapped. Ganci and two other members of the forcible entry team raced to the second floor and found a locked door. Fire and smoke were venting through the key hole. They broke down the door and found the entire apartment ablaze. Ganci expended a fire extinguisher, helped a colleague drag an unconscious seven-year-old into the hallway, returned to a rear bedroom, found an eight-year-old lying under a bunk bed, crawled with him back toward the apartment entrance, then returned once more to assist in the removal of a fourteen-year-old victim. Only the eight-year-old survived. His actions, “in keeping with the highest traditions of the New York City Fire Department,” earned him a medal; the award came with a $400 check, which he gave to the victims’ family. “If I never go to another one like that again, that’s fine with me,” he says. “That fire could have killed all of us. But when you hear children trapped, you throw it into an extra gear.”
Ganci—who lives in Massapequa Park, a few minutes away from his childhood home, with his wife, four-year-old son, and two-year-old daughter—has a reputation for being on the job all the time. “The guys joke that I do twenty-four-hour shifts at home and live in the firehouse,” he says. But he insists he does-n’t want to miss out on his children’s formative years the way his workaholic father did, and he certainly doesn’t aspire to the same fate. He wants to come home to his family.
Even now, when he smells smoke from a fierce fire, the kind of scent that gets in your hair and in your pores, his thoughts often turn to those moments a generation earlier when his father would return home from a grueling shift. Covered in soot and looking like he hadn’t slept in weeks, Pete would walk in the front door and embrace his son. “It was a good job, Chris,” he would say. “I got to play.”
Brad Herzog ’90 is a CAM contributing editor.