Peter Ganci Jr. was the highest-ranking uniformed member of the New York City Fire Department to perish on 9/11—prompting son Chris Ganci ’99 to forego a business career and join the FDNY. Having graduated first in his class at the Fire Academy, Ganci works out of a well-regarded firehouse in Brooklyn, where life is a remarkable mixture of down time, boyish pranks, and acts of raw courage. “My father always ended the graduation speech with the same line,” Ganci said at his own academy ceremony. “By taking this job, you will never, ever be rich, but you will always be happy.”
After the death of his father— the highest ranking firefighter to perish on 9/11—Chris Ganci '99 abandoned a business career to join the FDNY
By Brad Herzog
Photographs by John Abbott
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.