Richard Picciotto and Daniel Paisner - Last Man Down: A Firefighter's Story of Survival and Escape from the World Trade Center

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"Last Man Down" ...Last job done.

May 2, 2002 (Updated Dec 26, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Personal one-on-one story-telling that puts you there beside him.

Cons:Why does Epinions insist on everything being 'The' whatever ?!?

The Bottom Line: FDNY Battalion Chief Richard Picciotto takes us inside his mind, inside his thoughts, inside the north WTC tower on the day that no one will ever forget.

.....September 11, 2001: 9:59 A.M.
"It came as if from nowhere.
There were about two dozen of us by the bank of elevators on the thirty-fifth floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center.
We were firefighters mostly, and we were in various stages of exhaustion...
And then the noise started, and the building began to tremble, and we all froze. Dead solid still... No one spoke. There wasn't time to turn thoughts into words, even though there was time to think.
For me anyway there was time to think, too much time to think...

"Last Man Down" is the sobering personal tale of one New York City fireman's experience surviving a hellish event that the world could never have imagined. His tale is not one of personal heroism while battling flames or pulling innocent victims from the clutches of Death. His tale is one of uncertainty, of not knowing what is happening, of having to be responsible and logical, of having to lead in a situation antithetical to reasoned response, calculated logic and effective leadership.

This is the story of New York City Fire Department Battalion Commander Richard Picciotto and his survival of the collapse of the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Last Man Down opens with a quiet moment of reflection. The author recounts the New York Fire Department's (FDNY) custom of sounding a sequence of five bells, four times in a row, over the FDNY internal bell system when a firefighter is lost in the line of duty. While the communications system has changed "the call of 'four fives,' from one firefighter to another, will always signal the loss of a brother." The author deplores the ugly fact that on September 11, 2001 there was no time for 'four fives'. "There was no time to ring the bells for (our fallen brothers) and too few of us left to hear the ringing."

What follows is his dedication of his story to those firefighters who "gave their lives on that tragic day." What follows are black words set on white paper: rank / surname / given name / unit assignment. Page after page after page after page after page after page after page after page after page after page after page after page of names...343 firefighters strong--as officially recorded by the FDNY--all gone. A roll call as hauntingly obscene as it is beautifully evocative of all that was lost.

"May their spirits soar, and their legacies linger, and may their mention here stand for the bells that never rang in their honor."

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Table of Contents

.....September 11, 2001: 9:59 A.M.
.1. Morning
.....September 11, 2001: 9:59 A.M. Still
.2. Ride
.....September 11, 2001: 10:00 A.M.
.3. Climb
.4. Retreat
.5. Stall
.6. Collapse
.7. Void
.8. Contact
.9. Light
10. Escape
11. Home
.....Acknowledgments: The Power to Lead

The table of contents above is really misleading in giving a first impression of this book. Instead of the staccato word!-word!-word! of that list, the words in this story flow like easy, yet plaintive, remembrances shared over a brew in an Irish pub on a New York City street. The words and emotions draw you into a flowing narrative that the author neatly 'clips' at pivotal points in time. I found myself eagerly flipping the page to start the next chapter.

Central to the overall 'flavor' of the story is the importance of time in the author's life as a fireman and husband. Time in the sense that it dictates his commute, affects his working hours that constantly flux as a fireman, affects his interaction with the significant others in his life. As time affects all of us.

"The unspoken fear, the unacknowledged fear, is that I might not come home, but it's a fear so ingrained it's almost unnoticeable...we (he and his wife) try to put our busy routines on pause long enough for a loving good-bye of some kind...We mean to make this loving moment of connection, but sometimes we forget, or sometimes the clock gets in the way."

Time in the sense that it seems to stand still as his mind races trying to understand what he is seeing on a television screen as the first of the WTC towers burns on a bright sunny morning. Or as he waits suspended in time in a WTC tower elevator landing wondering "What the f*ck was that?"

Time in the sense that it is the ultimate arbiter, this day, of who shall live and who shall die.

Morning, Ride, and Climb
The early chapters of the book describe the physical actions of Chief Picciotto and his fellow firefighters that day as they go, rendezvous, organize, plan and ascend into both towers. But it is in the early, interposed chapters titled September 11,... that he delivers the raw power of this story. His personal meeting with the fury and randomness of Death. His personal understanding that Death does not rush. That Death waits for everyone.

.....September 11, 2001: 9:59 A.M. Still
We still couldn't know what we were facing, but it was virtually upon us... Of all the ways to go this one would be mine. I prayed it would be quick. I didn't think I was going to die, but I felt certain I was about to suffer. And so I prayed. Quickly.
And yet the roar passed through us, like nothing at all. It was coming and coming, and then it was on top of us, and a part of us, and finally through us, and now it was gone, rocketing down to the plaza below. Whooooooooooshhhhhh! ...but we were still standing.
This entire episode was only ten seconds in the unfolding, from faint rumbling to deafening roar to fading, falling thunder, but it happened in a weird slow motion. It was eerie as hell, unlike anything I'd experienced, and the strangest, most unsettling part was we couldn't see a thing to correspond to the ridiculously loud noise. It was just noise. Endless, unrelenting, horrifying noise. In a vacuum.
We had no idea. Outside, or on television screens the world over, it was clear what we were hearing, but we were marooned in this windowless vestibule, a couple hundred feet above the ground, another several hundred feet below a raging fire and incredible devastation. And, still, whatever it was hadn't touched us. Whooooooooooshhhhhh! It had merely passed through us, and continued on its path, to some unknown place.

.....September 11, 2001: 10:00 A.M.
The firemen gathered together there on the thirty-fifth floor of the north tower have no idea what could have caused the noise from hell that just passed through them. They inquire, slowly, of each other, fearful of moving "for fear of making the wrong move." Finally they hear a random radio message on their receivers: "The tower came down."

At first they can make no sense of this message, believing it perhaps to mean a radio tower (or towers) on the roof of the WTC tower. Or perhaps a water tower at the top of the WTC tower had collapsed and the noise they had heard was thousands of gallons of water falling to the earth. Finally one fireman dares to think aloud that the south WTC tower itself has fallen. When they all begin to grasp this possibility, Chief Picciotto's "...first thought, once the realization hit, was that there had to have been hundreds of firemen in there. People I knew. People I loved. Hundreds of them, easy. Hundreds and hundreds of other people too, maybe thousands, but my first thought was for the firemen." He tries to picture what it must look like, for the building to be 'gone' but he can not.

But he knows that they are essentially trapped in this north tower. And in no time, but in the slowest time, the realization comes: "If the south tower could come down, I realized, the north tower could too. And I knew we had to get out of there."

Retreat, Stall, Collapse, Void, Contact, Light, and Escape
The middle chapters of this book deliver the rest of the story of that day. While they are necessary to play out the story, they contain a lesser amount of the sheer emotional intensity that lead up to the point of realization that he "...had to get out of there."

Commander Picciotto tells of many strange occurrences during the hasty retreat down from the thirty-fifth floor. Port Authority Police stopping to arrest and handcuff an apparent Middle-Eastern gentleman. A man that refuses to leave his computer until forcibly thrown into the escape stairwell by Picciotto. His telling other firefighters that he knew their 'buddy' was ahead of them in the line snaking down the stairwell. Telling them he had seen them going down another stairwell. These "white lies" enable him to be sure he is the "last man down" from the building, at least that he left no one that he knew of behind.

These middle chapters flesh out the story that the reader knows must have occurred. Must have occurred for him to have written this story. It is almost 'light reading' after the intense emotional investment the reader gives the first part of the book.

Throughout the book, Commander Picciotto rails against the tight budget policies of the FDNY that resulted in staff cuts of supervisory chiefs and commanders. Budgetary policies that removed simple equipment, e.g. nylon ropes, harnesses, from the everyday equipment that a firefighter uses. Equipment that would have made their job/escape easier that day, and any other day.

Home and Acknowledgments
The final chapters "drop the other shoe" of emotional revelation that make this book such an intimate look into this man's day, this man's life. His passionate description of the easy, intimate joy that he feels simply being a firefighter is breathtaking. All of us who have ever rolled out of bed reluctantly accepting the prospect of another day of work, will envy the challenge, the love of his work, that he embraces each day simply by being a firefighter.

Commander Picciotto feels that all firefighters "are born leaders. It's what drives us to the job in the first place. We're leaders in our families, and leaders in our communities. We give a sh*t!...And we refuse to let the cowardly bottom line of our administrators get in the way of our bottom line--saving lives, watching each other's backs, doing what needs to be done."

His impassioned plea for the realization of the value and importance of the life of a firefighter, any firefighter, brings this story full circle from individual to family to citizen back to this one individual. His story becomes our story, his pride becomes our pride, his values become our values. And we are all enriched by the telling of his story.

"Last Man Down" is a book that you must read if you care about courage, duty, honor, God, country.

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Please 'click' the link below to find my other Epinions reviews of 9-11 books and movies and other direct links to 'non-Epinions' websites relating to 9-11.

Related September 11, 2001, reviews by sleeper54

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"Just the facts, ma'am"

Title: Last Man Down: A New York City Fire Chief and the Collapse of the World Trade Center
Author: Richard Picciotto, with Daniel Paisner
Publisher: Berkley Publishing Group
Copyright: 2002 by Richard Picciotto
Pages: 320, Hardcover
ISBN #: 0-425-18677-6

Recommend this product? Yes

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