Chief Peter Ganci Died Leading Rescue Efforts At 9/11’s Ground Zero

Peter J. Ganci Jr. always wanted to serve, and be where the action was. When terrorists hijacked two commercial jetliners and slammed them into the 110 story twin towers at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, nobody would have questioned Ganci if he had coordinated the massive firefighting and rescue effort from a safe location.

But regardless of the numerous high ranks he held, Ganci always thought of himself, and introduced himself, simply as a “fireman.”

And that’s what he was at his core on 9/11. He grabbed his hard hat, the one that said “Chief of Department F.D.N.Y.,” and hurried to the World Trade Center Plaza. He directed the rescue efforts, trying to ensure that as many civilians as possible and his men got to safety before the buildings collapsed.

Three-thousand civilians died that day from four terrorist attacks, along with 72 law enforcement personnel and 343 firefighters. Among them, Chief Ganci.

“My father gave up his life in the line of duty, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way,” son Chris Ganci, now an FDNY firefighter, wrote in his book “Chief: The Life Of Peter J. Ganci, A New York City Firefighter.” “He died doing what every firefighter in New York City did that day without question. … No way he would have left with all his guys still inside.”

A Chief Of Accomplishments   

Ganci was the FDNY’s highest-ranking uniformed officer on 9/11. He’s credited for “leading and directing the most successful rescue operation of the modern era,” the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation wrote.  “Over 30,000 people were saved because of Chief Ganci and his fellow firefighters.”

Among Ganci’s commendations for heroism was the Battalion Chief Frank T. Tullemondo Medal. He received it for rescuing children from a burning apartment. Ganci left behind wife, Kathleen, FDNY firefighting son Peter III, whom he swore into the department, and daughter Danielle, in addition to Chris.

” ‘Do the right thing,’ that was my dad’s code,” Chris Ganci told IBD. “That’s what he instilled in me and my brother. You know what’s right, that’s what you have to do. If that means giving a little more of yourself, that’s what you do.”

Lisa DeFazio, who served as Peter Ganci’s secretary, told IBD the chief was “approachable, whether you were the president of the United States or a janitor in the building. … He was a fireman’s fireman. He always made the time to talk to you.”

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Chris Ganci founded the Peter J. Ganci, Jr. Memorial Foundation, which provides financial and emotional support to families of firefighters.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ganci (1946-2001) was raised on Long Island with five siblings.

His career destiny was shaped when at 16 he became friends with FDNY firefighter Tony Liotta.

“Through Tony, my dad learned about the excitement, the danger, and the responsibility of being a firefighter,” Chris Ganci wrote. “He knew it was something he wanted to try.”

Before graduating high school, Ganci joined the Farmingdale Volunteer Fire Department, based on New York’s Long Island. After earning his diploma, the teenager enlisted in the Army in 1965, while the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War.

When his two-year hitch ended, Ganci joined the Fire Department of the City of New York in September 1968. He went on to be recognized officially numerous times for heroism and tactical expertise as he climbed the department’s ranks.

While a lieutenant at Ladder 124, Ganci earned his Tullemondo Medal in 1983. Arriving at a burning apartment building with children trapped inside, Ganci made his way to the third floor, rolled under a wall of fire and entered an apartment.

Throwing burning furniture out of his way, Ganci crawled through intense heat and smoke. He found a 5-year-old girl unconscious in a bedroom. Ganci gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and handed her off to safety through a window. He then helped save two more children.

Battalion Chief Robert Scalone wrote in a report on the incident: “Without regard for his own safety Ganci with unerring skill and accuracy moved into an atmosphere heavily charged with heat and smoke. If it were not for his quick, skillful actions the rescued child would certainly have perished.”

“As far as leadership under fire, my dad was very cool under pressure,” said son Peter Ganci III, “pretty much like it was second nature to him.”

Climbing The Ladder  

Ganci’s career trajectory included becoming a captain in 1983 and a battalion chief in 1987. By 1993 he was the deputy chief, then assistant chief of operations in 1996, and chief of operations from 1997-99. He was named acting chief of the department in 1999 before that position was made his permanent and last one, in October 1999.

Becoming a top tactical strategist helped power his FDNY rise. Ganci also studied around the clock for long periods of time to pass exams necessary to be considered for his numerous promotions

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“He knew how to keep a fire from spreading, how to get it under control, and he knew how to put it out,” Chris Ganci said. “He knew how many guys were needed, where they should, or more important, shouldn’t be. He didn’t take himself seriously, but the one thing he did take seriously was the safety of his men. That was a huge thing, he took it very personally.”

There were certainly places as chief of the department where Ganci shouldn’t have been.

Take Father’s Day, June 17, 2000; Ganci made his way to the scene of a fire and explosion at a hardware store in Queens. Ganci and an aide, retired firefighter Dennis Conway, went in search of a firefighter who had radioed that he was trapped in a basement. They got there by breaching a wall, then digging a makeshift tunnel — a last resort and a dangerous FDNY procedure.

It then hit Conway that Ganci shouldn’t be there because the makeshift tunnel could collapse even with reinforcement, and a chief wasn’t supposed to put his own life at risk. But Ganci wouldn’t hear of it, and stayed to search for his fellow firefighter and friend.

At the end of the tragic day, three firefighters were lost, leaving eight children behind. “They all took a piece of my dad with them that day,” Chris Ganci said, adding that was typical of his dad for any loss of his men.

Sept. 11, 2001

Sept. 11, 2001 was almost 33 years to the day Ganci became a firefighter.

As department chief, his job was to oversee 15,000 uniformed firefighters. The day that would come to simply be known as 9/11 began as clear and pretty one in New York City. Then, at 8:46 a.m. five terrorist hijackers slammed American Airlines Flight 11 between the 93rd and 99th floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The plane’s 10,000 gallons of jet fuel ignited an inferno.

At Ganci’s seventh floor Brooklyn headquarters, he could see the North Tower ablaze. Ganci and others got to their FDNY cars and raced to the Manhattan scene.

“He was like a warrior when it came down to doing what needed to be done,” DeFazio said. “Chief Ganci was in charge and led his men.”

By the time Ganci arrived, the South Tower was struck by five more terrorists who’d hijacked United Airlines Flight 175, slamming that jet between floors 77 and 85 of the building’s south facade. The plane also was carrying 10,000 gallons of combustible fuel.

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The scene was horrific and chaotic. Firefighters were in both towers trying to evacuate people. Victims above the impact zones jumped out of the buildings rather than burn to death. Battalion chiefs had set up command posts. The streets were teeming with people.

The casket carrying the body Peter J. Ganci Jr. is carried out of a church in Farmingdale, N.Y., as his wife, Kathleen, looks on. (AP)

Ganci and his men set up his command post where he oversaw the rescue efforts. Then, at 9:59 a.m., the South Tower collapsed. Ganci and his men ran into the basement of another World Trade Center building, 2 World Financial, for shelter. After a few minutes they found an exit and dug their way out of the debris from the South Tower.

“The men who were there with my dad remember seeing him shouting orders and picking guys up and pushing them out of the area,” Chris Ganci wrote. “Everyone thought he was headed out, too, but when they looked back they saw him heading right back into the chaos. He would not leave his men inside.”

Ganci then set up a command post in front of the North Tower, and used a multichannel radio that he found to continue directing the evacuation effort. Thousands of civilians poured out, but it was a race against time.

“There was talk about collapse, they were aware — very aware — that these buildings could come down,” DeFazio said. “That’s why they worked so hard to get everyone out.”

At 10:28 a.m. the North Tower collapsed, killing those still in the building, and those immediately outside of it, along with Ganci and his aides at the command post.

On 9/11, Chief Peter Ganci’s death was perhaps inevitable.

“He was always a lead-from-the-front kind of person,” Chris Ganci said.

Ganci’s Keys

Rose through FDNY ranks to become acting chief of the department, 1999,  then permanent chief from Oct. 1999 to Sept. 11, 2001. Received numerous accommodations for heroism in the line of duty, including the Battalion Chief Frank T. Tullemondo Medal.

Overcame: The tactical challenge of fighting fires, and overcoming the fear of them.

Lesson: Be dedicated to your craft.

“When a firefighter realizes that someone is being robbed of life by fire, adrenaline and determination replace any thoughts of personal safety.”


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