Sunday, 26 February 2017
September / October 2011
Company Man
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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.

Peter Ganci Jr.
Fallen hero: Chris Ganci's father, Peter Ganci Jr.

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."

On the job: Ganci at a fire scene

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.