For Joseph Pfeifer, the badge number of 1513 that he received when joining the New York City Fire Department more than 40 years ago reminded him of his favorite gospel verse, John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” After September 11, 2001, he came to see how that ideal applied to all the firefighters, first responders, and “ordinary heroes” who sacrificed so much on that day and in its aftermath. Chief Pfeifer, now retired from the FDNY, recently earned a Christopher Award for his book “Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11,” and we discussed it on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
Growing up in Queens, New York, Chief Pfeifer felt drawn to two careers: firefighter and priest. He attended the seminary for a few years, where he felt a particular affinity for hospital and prison ministry. He recalled being a student chaplain at a house of detention in Suffolk County, where he would walk the tiers of the jail by himself, reach through the bars to shake prisoners’ hands, then engage in conversation with them. And while stationed at St. Augustine’s parish in Brooklyn, he served as a student chaplain at Lutheran Medical Center, where he would often sit with patients or families in crisis and talk about their concerns and about God. Though Chief Pfeifer ultimately chose a career as a firefighter instead of a priest, the opportunity to connect with others remained one of the job’s biggest appeals, especially when he could bring comfort to the victims of large fires.
On the morning of 9/11, Chief Pfeifer was investigating a gas leak in downtown Manhattan when he witnessed the first plane hitting the tower. This was an incomprehensible event for which no one had ever trained, but over the course of his career, Chief Pfeifer had learned to stay calm in dangerous situations and ask himself, “What do I need to do now, in this moment?”
That led the Chief to radio the dispatcher and request 150 firefighters, as he himself headed to the North Tower lobby to set up a command post. He recalled, “Firefighters aren’t quiet…at any fire, but that day they came in quietly because they looked at the burning building and they knew they were going to…the most dangerous fire of their lives, and they made a personal decision to run into danger. They came up to me and said, ‘Chief, how can I help?’ I told them to go up to evacuate the building and then rescue those that couldn’t get out. As they were going up the stairs, people were coming down…The firefighters did some ordinary things. They told the people, ‘Keep going, don’t stop, you can make it out of here.’ We know from people who survived, those simple words made all the difference.”
One of the firefighters who interacted with Chief Pfeifer that morning was his brother, Kevin, to whom he had given his original badge number. It was the last time they would see each other because Kevin was killed in the Tower’s collapse. One small consolation came through the fact that documentary filmmaker Jules Naudet happened to be with Chief Pfeifer that day and was filming everything he could, including the brothers’ final meeting. Chief Pfeifer said, “It was important to me to see those pictures of my brother in the lobby, and it was important to other family members. That day we lost 343 firefighters, and Jules was able to capture…I think the number was 69 people who passed through the lobby that day to receive orders to go up. Those pictures have meant a lot to family members, as it did to my family, myself.”
Another person Chief Pfeifer saw in the lobby was Fire Department chaplain Father Mychal Judge: “I saw him praying, and it was physical prayer. I could see his lips move, and I could imagine it was like being in the Garden of Gethsemane asking God for this to pass. When the first tower collapsed and we tried to move quickly, I guess our chaplain didn’t move fast enough, and he was hit by part of the building. I was the one that discovered him at my feet. I checked for a pulse, and I knew he was gone…The day before 9/11, he was dedicating the 100th anniversary of a firehouse in the Bronx. He said in his homily, ‘You never know when God will call you or what danger you’ll run into. But what we do is put one foot in front of the other and respond to that call.’ I think that’s what our chaplain and our first responders did 21 years ago.”
In the years since 9/11, Chief Pfeifer has been focused on building a better world. He became founding Director of the FDNY’s Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, the director for crisis leadership at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, and he has traveled the world to bring the “message of working together, of connecting with each other, collaborating and coordinating. What I have seen is that message actually changes things. It changes how we’re prepared for the next big event, whether it’s a terrorist event, whether it’s climate change, like hurricanes or tsunamis…By coming together and leaders now working with other leaders, we’re better able to respond to the needs of the people we serve.”
Though he has seen and experienced much tragedy, Chief Pfeifer believes in the Christopher ideal of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. He concluded, “In moments of darkness, we feel very much alone, that this is my pain. I think the only way to light a candle in that darkness is by connecting to others and sharing what we’re feeling. In doing so, we see a glimmer of hope, and we don’t just look back at what’s happening to me, but we look forward: How do we make this different? So, I think with the book and with the anniversary each year of 9/11, it’s simply not just reflecting on the past, but standing with each other and looking forward to create a world full of kindness. Little acts [of love] are those little candles of hope.”
(To listen to my full interview with Chief Joseph Pfeifer, click on the podcast link):