Christopher Piazza, 55 of Ridgfield Connecticut
Interviewed: September 10, 2011
Irene Lee: This was actually an assignment. We had to find somebody who witnessed September 11th and interview them.
Chris Piazza: I didn’t witness the planes. I got down there after the second building collapsed, but we saw number 7 collapse. But I wasn’t there when the planes hit and I wasn’t there when they fell either.
CP: We lost a lot of guys from our firehouse and I spent about a month down there. I was actually supposed to work that day. The guy who was my mutual partner wanted to switch it and I couldn’t do it because I was going to visit my mom that weekend. Then my mom called afterwards and said, ‘it’s not a good weekend.’ So I called this guy up and said, ‘you can switch if you want to switch, I can work Sunday night and Monday and you can work Monday night and Tuesday’ and he said, ‘great!’ So I actually went in Sunday and worked Sunday night Monday day, and then Monday night I went home and all these guys came in to relieve us- those were the guys that went the next morning. We had 16 guys in the house because we had an extra engine at the time and like 14 of those guys died.
IL: Out of 16!
CP: Not the guy that was working for me, he was one of the guys that got out, which is amazing.
IL: That is amazing.
CP: So I think my mom saved my life, actually. (laughs) I’m a pretty big guardian angel advocate. She was mine that day.
IL: I think you’re a great person to interview because you were so involved in it. You were working right there, so close to the people.
CP: How could I not be involved? Not even a week before, I think it was five days before, I worked in the firehouse in the shadows of the Trade Center. I was a lieutenant. My area was Times Square down to like the Trade Center, or, Battery Park. That’s the first division and that was where I was assigned. I worked in Ladder 10, which is right across from the Trade Center. So I knew a lot of the guys that died.
IL: So, you were there that day? You came down after you heard about it and then you went down to help out?
CP: There wasn’t very much to do. There were just a lot of fires, a lot of silence and chaos. There really wasn’t much in the way of survivors; it was all very quiet. They assigned me to St. Vincent’s Hospital for a little while, to see if I could locate some guys that were missing. Because some guys, if they got hurt, they’d just jump onto a bus or whatever, and guys weren’t really accounted for. So I went there and there weren’t many survivors coming in. They were all geared up for all these survivors to come in and there weren’t really any. There was so much dust and there weren’t many full bodies, a lot of body parts and a lot of pieces of bodies. There was just so much debris too, there was like 4 stories of debris. It wasn’t like it was wide open, there were two towers lying on the ground. It was just this big mountain. I couldn’t believe that those were actually the buildings. I didn’t know where they all went, compared to the size of those towers when they were standing up, there wasn’t that much to look at when they were lying on the ground. For such tall buildings, it was just very surreal.
IL: I bet. How long had you been working as a lieutenant before?
CP: Well, I was a fireman first in Queens and then I got promoted in June of 1999. I was in Manhattan for 3 years before 9/11, working all over the area.
IL: What did you do after September 11th, I know that a lot of the firefighters had health problems afterwards, was that, or is that a problem for you?
CP: Well, I continued to work, and they were doing all these screenings on the guys, this was after like 3 years. I had noticed; everybody was having problems breathing. So we all had to go down for these medical exams. I had an issue with my lungs. I wasn’t breathing the way they wanted me to. They give you this chemical that you have to breath in, that judges your lung capacity and how much it decreases. Mine had a significant decrease after I breathed in the chemical. They put me out on disability. I wasn’t really ready for that. I was going to be a captain. I was on the list. A lot of guys had retired with lung issues after that, and many of them continued to get sick. We actually buried a guy that we worked with just last week, came down with a real funky cancer a few years ago, and he just passed away. Guys are having a lot of trouble with this. My condition seems to be stable; I seem to be doing alright.
IL: I hope that continues. That’s a huge, life changing experience. How did you cope after it? It seems almost like a war zone experience, surreal, intense. How did you master it?
CP: I spent a lot of time with the guys at the firehouse; everyone was working 24-hour shifts. So we just leaned on each other. I was in an area where there was a lot of outside support from all over the country and the world. Every day there was different choir groups, people making crafts, cards and posters, benefits. They were sending us on trips. It came to a point that we couldn’t open our doors. It was just like ‘leave us alone for a little while.’ It never stopped. I worked in a really touristy area. Meanwhile, a lot of the areas and ghettos that had lost a lot of guys, they didn’t get the same attention. It was very tough. We were doing 3 to4 funerals a day. Sometimes there were 8 to10, but you could just go to the ones that you could get to, because we were stretched so thin. Usually if one of our guys dies today you get like 10,000 men in uniform. We didn’t have enough guys to give a proper burial. Honestly, it was like a big blur. Everybody was walking around in a fog and disbelief thinking, ‘how could this happen?’
IL: How did you do you think American reacted to this, then and now?
CP: I think people are forgetting. We’re being choked by political correctness, we can’t profile anybody and God forbid that we defend anybody in this country. I’m not trying to point the finger but when you’re trying to find people that are trying to blow us up it’s usually the Muslims that are doing it. I’m sure there are many good Muslims, but when you’re looking for someone who’s racketeering and doing organized crime you look towards the Italian guy. If you’re looking for someone who’s driving drunk you look for the Irish guy. There are these stereotypes and unfortunately they’re kind of accurate. Everybody’s afraid of offending everybody.
IL: Especially after that. Everything got so tense about the racial profiling.
CP: I think that now people forget and I don’t think we’ll be reminded any time soon, but we had a horrible attack on our country. Unfortunately, much of our enemy is right here among us and they’re American citizens, living in our country. It’s not like we’re wearing one uniform and they’re wearing the other one, and you can tell who the bad guy is. The guy that tried to blow up the car in Times Square was an American citizen. He was married and had had kids, it was unbelievable, it isn’t so much the Muslims, as the Muslim radicals.
IL: What do you think about the new building they’re putting up? I heard there’s not enough money going into it.
CP: There’s been a lot of stalling, 10 years later and they don’t have something. There’s so much red tape, and everyone’s so political and politically charged. They changed the name of it too. It’s not the freedom tower, people were thinking that you might as well put a big bulls eye on it. So they changed it to the Trade Center, they can’t get people to move in and I don’t blame them for that. We just passed a roadblock to check all the trucks, but they can’t check everybody. It doesn’t even need to be a truck. You can’t pull over every car and check every truck, and even if you open a truck and it’s full of lettuce so that you can’t see past it, it could be packed with explosives behind, you just can’t tell. It’s a very tough war to fight. We have to be right 100% of the time. They only have to be right once.
IL: So you think this war on terror is still going on?
CP: Absolutely, I don’t think it will ever end. It’s sad because I think if you took religion out of the equation, that’s what they’re fighting for. They don’t like our lifestyle but it’s all based on religion.
IL: Which is so bizarre, religion is supposed to be peaceful. What are you doing for September 11th?
CP: Honestly, I have mixed emotions about what I should do. They have a piece of steel that they got from 9/11 in my town and they’re dedicating the memorial tomorrow. So I may be the FDNY representative for that ceremony, I’ve been invited. Tomorrow morning all this stuff starts at 8am because they want to have it at the time the plane hit, and then what time the buildings fell. So, I’m not going to be in the city tomorrow. And I feel like- I’m not a coward, but I am a little wary of what could be down there. I want to see the memorial, but I don’t want to be there for 9/11. A couple of times I’ve come close to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I missed it by the grace of God and my mom. I don’t keep in touch with a lot of the older guys. The firehouses now are all younger guys. Some of the older guys come around, but many of them haven’t been there since they retired. I think I’m just going to keep them in mind, say my prayers, go to the memorial tomorrow. It’s all very emotional. Yesterday I was riding my bike and started to think of it and began to cry my eyes out, I was like ‘where did that come from?’ That used to happen a lot after 9/11, it hasn’t happened in a while.