He wasn’t even supposed to be on duty that day. But New York City Fire Department Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeifer had agreed to swap shifts with another chief.
And so, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he was responding to a call for a possible gas leak in Manhattan when a commercial airliner flew overhead and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
“We were, like many others, thrusted into history,” he told Military Families Magazine.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Pfeifer has written a book, “Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11,” sharing his experience as the first FDNY chief at the scene of the World Trade Center attack.
Originally, he said, he envisioned not a memoir, but an academic book on crisis leadership — a topic that aligns with his current positions as the director for crisis leadership at Columbia University and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point. His editors encouraged him to share his personal story first.
It’s a deeply compelling one. On the morning of Sept. 11, after the first plane hit, Pfeifer raced to the scene and began ordering firefighters, including his younger brother, Kevin, to climb the stairs to the impact site, evacuating civilians along the way.
While he was commanding from the lobby of the North Tower, a second plane hit the South Tower. Not long after, he heard a “monster locomotive sound,” but in the confusion of the day didn’t realize until later it was the South Tower collapsing.
Pfeifer made the difficult decision to order firefighters to evacuate from the North Tower, and as he raced down the street in his gear, it crashed behind him.
“Hearing debris crashing all around us, I bargained with God to see my family again,” he wrote.
Pfeifer survived, but his brother and 342 other members of the FDNY did not. The terrorist attacks changed the trajectory of Pfeifer’s life and career. In the aftermath, he felt he had a responsibility to fix the communication issues between the New York City police and fire departments that complicated the Sept. 11 response.
“It took both agencies and others working through the pain and going through the process to be able to trust each other with their lives, and that’s something else when you see that happen,” he said.
Prior to his 2018 retirement as an assistant chief, Pfeifer founded FDNY’s Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness and played a key role in several other high-profile incidents, including the Hurricane Sandy response and the “Miracle on the Hudson” plane landing.
In his memoir, Pfeifer recalls a visit from a group of teenagers who wanted to meet the firefighters featured in a documentary about the attacks, including Pfeifer. One of the girls told Pfeifer she thought he’d be taller — more like a superhero.
His hope is that, after reading his book, people can see themselves as ordinary heroes. Recent events, like the building collapse in Surfside, Florida, are a reminder that people need each other, he said.
“Whether it’s a terrorist attack, or collapse of a building, or dealing with climate change, and the list goes on and on, or international conflicts, it’s going to take all of us coming together to deal with these large problems,” he said.
On this 20th anniversary, he plans to return to the World Trade Center.
“I’ll be there, like I’ve always been,” he said.
“Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11,” written by Joseph Pfeifer and published by Portfolio, goes on sale Sept. 7. Visit https://www.amazon.com/Ordinary-Heroes-Memoir-9-11/dp/0593330250 to order a copy.