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Highest Ranking 9/11 Survivor Recounts that Fateful Day

The Tribune-Democrat

September 10, 2010

JOHNSTOWN — Richard Picciotto, the highest ranking firefighter to survive the collapse of the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, spoke Thursday night in Richland Township about how the events that day brought America closer together.

Picciotto spoke to about 400 people during a fundraising dinner at Pitt-Johns-town for the benefit of the Richland Township Fire Department and Windber Medical Center.

“We have become a closer country since 9/11,” he said.

People in the twin towers of the World Trade Center helped each other with firefighters, police and other rescue workers rushing in to help also, he said.

New York City lost 343 firefighters that day, he said.

“We saved a lot of people,” he said.

After the tragedy, the country rushed to help the families of fallen firefighters, he said.

“The faith in this country is tremendous,” he said. “We got so much help from everybody.”

Picciotto said Richland firefighters likewise are dedicated, responding to the needs of the community at any hour of the day. He said Windber Medical Center likewise is there to help others. It is important that people support the hospital and firefighters so that the two entities can continue their work, he said.

Picciotto, who since has retired as a battalion chief for New York City’s fire department, spoke about how horrendous the events were that day and how heroic many people were in saving others.

Picciotto, who was in charge of evacuating people during the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, said when the initial report was made about a plane striking one of the twin towers, he knew it was no accident.

He said his initial assignment was to lead his battalion up to the 20th floor of the North Tower to rescue people. They had to climb the stairs because the elevators were destroyed in the attack.

On the way up, thousands of people were coming down the narrow stairwell, with people helping one another, he said.

The firefighters then started climbing the steps to higher floors and were on the 35th floor when the entire building started shaking, he said.

The shaking was due to the adjacent South Tower collapsing, he said.

Picciotto said that when that happened, he believed the terrorists had planted a bomb in the South Tower and that there was probably one in the North Tower also.

He said that by that time, most of his superiors were no longer alive, and, even though he knew people were still trapped above them, ordered his men to evacuate because no one above them could possibly have survived the raging inferno, he said.

“That was a tought order to give,” he said.

Just a short time later the North Tower collapsed, with Picciotto and 13 fellow firefighters becoming trapped in a void. They were able to escape the void.

Picciotto said during the collapse, two sections of steel beams fell into the shape of a cross, becoming a symbol for all rescue workers and bolstering their faith in God and giving them hope.