Tony Rossi, Director of Communications
September 11, 2022
9/11 Fire Chief Recalls ‘Ordinary Heroes’
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 saw how that verse applied to all the first responders 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.”
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 Suffolk County house of detention, where he would 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 talk with patients or families in crisis about their concerns and about God. Though Chief Pfeifer ultimately chose a career as a firefighter, connecting 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 in downtown Manhattan when he witnessed the first plane hitting the tower. This was an incomprehensible event, 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…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.
In the years since 9/11, Chief Pfeifer became founding Director of the FDNY's Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness and has taught crisis leadership around the world.Though he has experienced 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…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.”