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CNN SUNDAY MORNING

Interview with Richard Piccioto, Phil Hirschkorn

Aired May 5, 2002 - 10:17   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: It's been almost eight months since those terror attacks last September and there are still many, many stories that haven't been told. Today we focus on two firsthand accounts of what happened that day and what left New York looking like this.

One is detailed in the book "Last Man Down" written by Richard Piccioto of the New York City Fire Department and another book, "Covering Catastrophe" details the experience of journalists. The editor of that book is Phil Hirschkorn a CNN field producer. He also joins us from New York.

Gentlemen, good morning.

RICHARD PICCIOTO, "LAST MAN DOWN": Good morning.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN, "Covering Catastrophe": Good morning.

PHILLIPS: Well, Chief, let's begin with you. You led a group of firefighters up the North Tower, got to the 35th floor. You heard some rumbling. What happened from there?

PICCIOTTO: What happened was the rumbling was the South Tower collapsing. It took a few seconds for us to realize that actually the South Tower had indeed collapsed. When it did, I realized hundreds of firemen just died and thousands of people just died, but I also realized that there were hundreds of firemen left in the North Tower working their way up.

Our command structure was wiped out, so there was no one to give any orders, so I gave the order to evacuate the rescue workers from the North Tower.

PHILLIPS: And Phil, on that same day, originally you were covering the New York Primary. What happened from there?

HIRSCHKORN: Well, we got word of some sort of strange fire, a sketchy report, and I was asked to go down with my crew that had been covering the mayoral primary and Mike Bloomberg voting for instance, to go right down to the scene which we did, and the tape you've been showing that ground view was our view of the South Tower collapsing, which happened about 45 minutes later after we got there. Our -

PHILLIPS: Go ahead, I'm sorry Phil. I was just looking at your crew's video here.

HIRSCHKORN: Right, what we chose to do was document as much as possible of that day. Communications were out of whack. Cell phones weren't working. We had a live truck on the scene, but we couldn't get a signal. One reason was one of he transmission towers was at the top of Tower One.

And so I decided that what we should try to do is document what was happening on the street, what people saw, what we could see, the buildings on fire, and the catastrophic scenes that were happening around us. And that's what our book is al about. It's my experience.

It's the experience of my three co-editors, and more than 130 other TV and radio journalists from cable, local, national network news, a lot of our CNN colleagues. What we saw that day and what we did to bring you the story.

KYRA: And Chief, talk about memorable experiences. You came across a full room of workers, all of whom were either in wheelchairs or using walkers. You helped each of them out of that room. Describe to me this experience. It was so compelling in your book.

PICCIOTTO: Yes, what happened after the building collapsed, we were on the 35th floor. We started evacuating all the rescue workers. I was trying to remain the last man down, making sure there was no one left behind from the 35th floor on down.

We got down to approximately the 19th floor and two of the stairwells, two of the three stairwells were clogged, so we had to filter to the third stairwell. We got further down to the 12th floor and there were approximately 50 disabled, well 50 people in an office. Approximately 20 of them were disabled in walkers, wheelchairs and crutches and about 30 people that were helping them.

So we had to stop our evacuation and get these people out. We were doing that. We were in the process of doing that. The last one in the group was this woman named Josephine, myself, and a few firemen that were assisting her. We got down to approximately - well, I was on the sixth floor. They were below me, anywhere from the first floor to the sixth floor when the North Tower collapsed.

We heard the noise. It took eight seconds for that tower to collapse. We were caught in it. Miraculously we all ended up in this little void alive and trapped. We were trapped for hours before we were able to get out.

PHILLIPS: And so many people were trapped for hours, there was this anticipation of rescues. I think everybody wanted to see the rescues take place. Phil, this was a big part of your book. You talk about this and how reporters were talking about this.

PICCIOTTO: Right well.

HIRSCHKORN: That's right, Kyra. We all expected to have rescue stories. A lot of the journalists who were on the scene in New York on September 11th had covered other catastrophes, like Oklahoma City. This is a gentleman I talked to who reported seeing people jumping from the buildings, which a lot of other journalists saw themselves and talk about in our book. That was a broker from Solomon Smith Barney who described, as I said, the scenes of the jumpers.

You know, when you went down there, the camera was sort of a magnet and people would come to you and tell you what they saw and the shock. People saw the jumpers, as I mentioned, and when we went to hospitals and triage centers a lot of people in our book talk about the surprise. There were no rescue stories. The doctors were waiting outside. Ambulances were waiting, gurneys were ready, and rooms were ready but very few people were rescued that day.

PHILLIPS: And Chief, I know that you train your whole life for search and rescue and to bringing people out alive. Do you carry a heavy heart because of this?

PICCIOTTO: Of course, 343 of my brothers died and there were quite a few rescue stories. There were over 30,000 rescue stories. I know he's referring to rescue from the debris and there are a few stories of that also, myself being one of them, myself, Josephine, the 12 firemen that we all got out.

We were rescued by a group of firemen that came to get us. I think it is the only rescue story that happened that day and it's true when they eventually brought me to the hospital, it was eerie because there was no one there, very few injured people. It was a very surreal situation when we finally went to the hospitals.

PHILLIPS: FDNY Battalion Commander Richard Picciotto. "Last Man Down" is the name of the book. Phil Hirschkorn with CNN, "Covering Catastrophe," gentlemen thanks so much. You're both very heroic in very different ways.

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