Five Floors Up
The Heroic Family Story of Four Generations in the FDNY
Seen through the eyes of four generations of a firefighter family, Five Floors Up the story of the modern New York City Fire Department. From the days just after the horse-drawn firetruck, to the devastation of the 1970s when the Bronx was Burning, to the unspeakable tragedy of 9/11, to the culture-busting department of today, a Feehan has worn the shoulder patch of the FDNY. The tale shines the spotlight on the career of William M. Feehan. “Chief” Feehan is the only person to have held every rank in the FDNY including New York City’s 28th Fire Commissioner. He died in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. But Five Floors Up is at root an intimate look at a firefighter clan, the selflessness and bravery of not only those who face the flames, but the family members who stand by their sides. Alternately humorous and harrowing, rich with anecdotes and meticulously researched and reported, Five Floors Up takes us inside a world few truly understand, documenting an era that is quickly passing us by.
On one level, what lies ahead is the story of the modern New York City Fire Department seen through the eyes of the extended Feehan family. From the birth of the motorized FDNY to today’s high-tech department, the pages ahead are a chronicle of fires and the men and women who fight them. They also do their best to reveal the social mores, prejudices, and tribal mentality endemic in the department. The FDNY protects itself like a family. Insulates like one. Laughs and grieves like one. It has black sheep, crazy uncles, wise-ass little brothers, precocious sisters (though still not a lot), and a history with enough heroic members to fill Yankee Stadium. We can observe, report, cry, and laugh along with them, but we can- not know fully the bond that binds them. The intimacy firefighters own is forged in fire. It begins perhaps when a recruit enters the academy or when the “proby” sticker comes off the helmet. It is then they become one of them, and everyone else is not. However, away from the firehouse and bunker gear, this is a story of a family recognizable to all of us. At times, the experiences ahead are genuinely heartbreaking. But these pages are also filled with humor, grudges, and enduring love. Like most families, the Feehans and Davans are not perfect. They have their eccentricities, faults, and demons. But they also possess something that today seems in short supply.
In the months after 9/11, the hierarchy of importance in America was turned upside down. It wasn’t fame or fortune that garnered the most admiration, but the courage of firefighters, cops, and other first responders. COVID-19 has rightfully brought the medical community into that exalted group. For periods all too brief in our country, selflessness and a reflexive desire to help others at any price have received the respect they deserve. Still, long before the spotlight shone on them and long after it went back to illuminating the superfluous, firefighter families such as the Feehans and Davans have lived lives of quiet heroism. This is their story.
When you have a department whose men and women are expected to be ready at any moment to put their life on the line, to go to the aid of a stranger even when it means that you might put yourself in harm’s way, actually in dire peril, I don’t think you could pay people to do that job. There has to be something beyond money that makes them do that.
—William M. Feehan, chief of the department, FDNY, 1991
I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually.
—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, U.S. senator from New York, November 22, 1963
Lord, take me where You want me to go; Let me meet who You want me to meet; Tell me what You want me to say; and Keep me out of Your way.
—Father Mychal Judge, FDNY chaplain
At another time, on another evening, the gathering at Tara and Brian Davan’s might have been a late-summer barbecue. The evening was warm, and the fading summer’s air carried the scent of ocean salt. But there was nothing ordinary about this day.
In the backyard, Billy Feehan cupped his hand over one ear with his cell phone pressed to the other as F-16 fighter jets screamed overhead. He and his family had just arrived from Princeton, New Jersey, where they lived. Three police departments—the Prince-ton Junction, the New Jersey State Troopers, and the NYPD— had formed a relay team to escort them from the leafy town fifty miles south of New York City to his sister and brother-in-law’s house in Belle Harbor, New York. It was mid-span on the Verrazano- Narrows Bridge when Billy had his first glimpse of what was left of the World Trade Center. Even from that distance, the enormity of it shocked him. The thick black smoke seemed to reach a mile into the sky.
John Feehan, Billy’s brother, and Brian Davan, both firefighters, had just returned home from the Trade Center site still wearing turnout gear. The cement dust that covered them gave their faces a ghostly white appearance, and their eyes were red from the acrid air, exhaustion, and tears. What they had just seen was beyond their understanding. A six-inch shroud of dust covered the remains of the mighty World Trade Center. Brian likened it to walking on the moon. But what he remembers most is not the deadly dust, the moonscape, or even the twisted steel girders. It is the sound of the firefighters’ Scott Air-Pak PASS alarms, hundreds of them, buried under a million tons of cement and steel, that he can still hear in his mind today.
On the phone with Billy was Henry McDonald, his father’s executive officer, sort of an aide-de-camp. Henry had been the one to call Billy to tell him that his father, Chief William Feehan, had been killed in the attack. Though Henry had retired from the FDNY a few months earlier, there was no one in the fire department who was closer to his dad. Billy wanted to get into the city to see his father’s body. Though Manhattan was essentially sealed to traffic, he knew Henry could make it happen.
The Feehan brothers arrived at Bellevue that night around eleven-thirty. A police lieutenant named Jimmy Marron from the 100th Precinct in Rockaway arranged to get them through the police checkpoints. Marron practically grew up with the Feehan children. His dad had come onto the fire department with Chief Feehan and had remained one of his closest friends. A cop in Bellevue led them through a room the size of a gymnasium. A couple dozen doctors and other medical professionals sat at desks waiting for the injured who would never come. Few in the buildings of the World Trade Center survived the attack. The brothers passed a gurney that held the body of a victim. You couldn’t even call what they saw remains. Billy was not a firefighter, like his brother, father, and grandfather. He hadn’t served in the Army. But it’s doubtful any experience could have prepared him for the sight of a body on which a 110-story building had fallen. He turned away and almost lost his nerve.
Please, God, don’t let him look like that, he thought.
The initial relief that his father’s body was whole was supplanted by the finality of the moment. Chief Feehan’s face, one that had felt the heat of a thousand fires, was white with the dust from the fallen tower. His hands were cut and raw. Someone had told Billy that his father was helping a woman trapped in the rubble from the south tower collapse when the north came down and killed him. That has never been verified, but what we know for certain, from fire department personnel who survived, is that William Feehan’s last moments on earth were spent helping the direct recovery effort for firefighters trapped in the Marriott hotel adjacent to the south tower. At least outwardly, and much like his father in that regard, Billy showed little emotion as he looked down at his dad’s body. His mind instead went to the things he needed to take care of—the wake and funeral, the phone calls to be returned. There would be time enough for the tears.
The day after the attack was no less surreal. Families and friends had begun posting photos of missing loved ones on walls and streetlamps around Manhattan. Rescue workers and firefighters dug through the pile, as they took to calling it. They would continue to do so for months. Though they knew little of the deadly microscopic dust that would kill over a hundred more firefighters and counting, the pile was an ever-shifting active fire scene. Nine hours after the attack, 7 World Trade Center collapsed due to fire and damage it had suffered when the north tower came down. The forty-seven-story building imploded in downtown Manhattan just after five o’clock in the evening, an event that would have shocked and transfixed the city on a normal day, but now seemed insignificant and anticlimactic.
Billy drove to his father’s house in Flushing, Queens. He needed some documents, photos, and other personal effects. When he arrived, a reporter was there waiting for him. The press had already obtained his cell phone number, and several reporters had called. He was polite to them, and even answered some of their questions. But when a New Jersey newspaper journalist wanted to know about the last words he had with his father, Billy told her the interview was over. He knew his dad wouldn’t want a family conversation dramatized in the press. He silently shook his head to the reporter and walked into the house.
Inside the home in which he grew up, Billy was flooded with memories, some of them painful. For much of his childhood, his mother had been bedridden with physical and emotional ailments. His father, however, was a rock in his and his siblings’ lives, attend- ing soccer games, cooking dinner for the family, always there for his children. And he did this while he rose like a rocket to the upper-most echelon of the department. William Feehan had held every rank in the FDNY, including, for a short period, fire commissioner. He is the only person ever to have done so.
In the silence of the empty house, Billy could hear the scampering of squirrels in the eaves of the roof. In the months after his mother’s death, friends and family would worry that his father was lonely living in the house by himself.
“I’m not alone,” he would say. “I’ve got my family of squirrels that live in the attic to keep me company.”
Billy collected what he needed from his dad’s bedroom. The task felt intrusive to him, like a kid pilfering quarters from the top of his father’s bureau. It felt like his dad would walk through the door any moment and catch him.
When he learned of the attack and the towers’ collapse, he initially believed his father was okay. William was first deputy commissioner at the time, the second-highest rank in the department. They would want him and the senior chiefs somewhere safe, running the response, Billy thought. That comforting belief, however, began to dissolve when call after call to his father’s cell phone went directly to voicemail. When he hung up the last time, he knew his father would’ve been there, right in the middle of everything. For all of his forty-two years of fire service, Chief Feehan ran into burning buildings, not away from them.
When his task at the house was completed, Billy drove to FDNY headquarters in the MetroTech Center, Brooklyn. His father’s office, filled now with Chief Feehan’s close circle of friends and sub-ordinates, was, as always, immaculate and orderly. Neatly stacked papers and binders sat on his desk next to photos of his grandchildren, including one with a five-year-old Connor, Brian and Tara’s son, taken on the deck of a fireboat in New York Harbor. Behind them in the shot, the twin towers of the Trade Center climbed high into the picture-perfect blue sky.
Perhaps it was while he was in his dad’s office, where the shelves that surrounded Billy were filled with his father’s life and career, that the unanswerable question returned. He needed to do one more thing before the day was over. He turned to Henry in the office.
“I want to see where my dad died,” Billy said.
Oddly, what struck him first as they approached the site was the office paper. When the Boeing 767s tore into the towers, the impacts had blown out of the buildings a blizzard of copy paper, forms, and documents. The paper swirled and fell like giant snowflakes blanketing the entire area. The shroud covered Trinity Church at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway. Built before the Revolutionary War, the church, with its grounds and famous graveyard, where Alexander Hamilton is buried, was cloaked in the stationery vestment. As Billy neared the World Trade Center site, what he saw stunned him. Fire department rigs lay scattered and crushed like toys. In all, the collapse of the towers destroyed ninety-eight fire department apparatus and vehicles. The front of Ladder 3 was shorn off, the ladder itself shredded into tangled tentacles. Because the attack came at the change of shifts, the truck “ran heavy,” which, in the nomenclature of the department, meant members from both shifts were on it. The company lost eleven members in the collapse. He could see stacks of flattened cars, one on top of the other, assembled that way by huge forklifts. The site itself smoked and burned like a lava pit. Ironworkers had arrived with blow- torches and grapple trucks, and had begun to cut and move mangled twenty-ton pieces of steel girders. Sometimes when the grappler claw pulled an iron beam out of the pile, the oxygen in the air would cause it to burst into flames. Many of the ironworkers at the site had helped build the towers, including Mohawk Indians from Quebec. Slices of the building a dozen stories high stuck out of the mountain of twisted steel and cement. Practically nothing was left from inside the buildings—no desks, no chairs, no computers, no phones, no filing cabinets. Nothing. They’d all been pulverized in the collapse. And on top of the pile was a scattered army, all with gaunt expressions and vacant eyes. All searching. Firefighters formed bucket lines, digging in vain, wearing boots that seem to melt from the fire that would burn for ninety-nine days. They had to be on guard. Fire plumes blew up through holes as though from an underground volcano. Billy and Henry spoke with a retired fireman and his firefighter son, a proby, who were among the searchers. Both wore bunker gear. They’d been there for twenty-four hours straight, clawing through the mountain of rubble for the proby’s older fire-fighter brother. “This is Chief Feehan’s son,” Henry said in a way that justified the interruption of the solemn search. “We’re trying to get to where his father died.”
“Come on,” the old fireman said, waving them through an opening in the chunks of cement.
All of the searches would prove futile. Early on, there had been miracles. Ladder 6 from Chinatown, where Chief Feehan spent most of his time as a lieutenant, was one of the few. The company was headed up stairwell B in the north tower and had reached the twenty-seventh floor when the south building collapsed. Captain Jay Jonas would later say he “pulled the plug” on the operation. As his company started back down the staircase, they came upon a fifty-nine-year-old grandmother named Josephine Harris. She’d worked for the Port Authority and had descended from the seventy-third floor and could barely walk. The six men in the ladder company began to help her down the remaining stairs. It was slow going and got more difficult with each step. By the landing on the fourth floor, she said her legs wouldn’t move. Josephine was a large woman, and in the narrow stairway it would have impossible to carry her. The firefighters reminded her of her grandchildren, but not even that could help her move. Then a rumble that sounded like the earth was splitting in half came from above. They held on for dear life as a rush of compressed air came from the floors collapsing above. Seconds later, 106 floors of cement, glass, and steel fell on top of them. Somehow the tumbling steel wedged into a pocket just big enough to hold them. Josephine, the six firefighters from Ladder 6, and several other firefighters with them had no idea what had happened. It would only be later that they realized that had they not stopped for Josephine none of them would be alive. Only sixteen people survived the collapse of the north and south towers. All of them were in stairwell B of the north one.
Though he was not an active member of the fire department at the time of the attack, Henry was a firefighter to the cuffs of his turnout pants. His first company was one-fourteen truck, one of the leftovers from the old Brooklyn Fire Department. He made lieutenant and then captain and was put in charge of Ladder 153 in the Sheeps- head Bay section of the borough. Later in his career, he became the FDNY’s liaison to the Department of City Planning. Mayor David Dinkins appointed Chief Feehan as interim fire commissioner. Henry joined him in headquarters as his top aide. He would stay by the chief’s side for the rest of his career. He, like many other retired firefighters, had responded to the recall, the department-wide order that brought over eight thousand active firefighters to the World Trade Center that day. He was on the pile when they found Chief Feehan— he rode in the ambulance that carried Bill Feehan’s and Chief of Department Pete Ganci’s bodies to the morgue. Bill and Ganci had been running a temporary command center from a loading dock of the Merrill Lynch building on West Street. Because West Street was impassable, filled with iron girders and chunks of the building, he knew the only way they could get to where the command center stood was by going through the partially collapsed Merrill Lynch building. They came out on West Street, some twenty-five feet south of the loading dock. Billy asked Henry if it would be all right for him to have a moment or two alone.
Standing on the spot where terrorists murdered his dad, Billy felt nothing for those who killed him. Homicide is the cause of death listed on his father’s death certificate, the first issued to a member of the FDNY killed in the attack. There would be anger, plenty. But not at that moment. Instead, he felt strangely comfortable, as though time had stood still and his father’s last breath still hung in the air.
Later, Billy would tell people he could have stayed there all night and the night after. At that moment, alone in this shattered and holy place, he’d found the answer to the question that had burned in his mind. His father had died as he would have wanted, wearing his helmet, gear, and a jacket that bore the initials of an organization to which he had long since given his life: the FDNY.
At some point, as he stood in the wreckage, time began to move forward again for Billy. For the rest of America too. Soon Billy’s melancholy was replaced with a hollow ache and the growing awareness that he would never have his dad again.
The family held the funeral the following Saturday at St. Mel’s in Flushing, the Feehans’ parish. Chief Feehan’s was the first of three high-profile FDNY funerals that day. Later, Masses would be said for Pete Ganci and Father Mychal Judge, the beloved fire department chaplain. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani had proposed to the Feehan family the idea of having the three funerals together at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Feehans declined the offer. They knew their father would not have wanted the pomp and attention.
At first, a relatively small group of firefighters gathered to pay their last respects outside the church. In normal times there would have been a sea of firefighters dressed in Class A blues and white gloves for a line-of-duty death. But those members who weren’t working were digging through the smoking pile, searching and still holding on to fading hope. The mayor and Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen spoke at the Mass, one of hundreds they would attend. The commissioner’s aide had forgotten to give Von Essen the eulogy he’d written for Bill Feehan. Twenty years later, he still thinks his extemporaneous words that day were inadequate.
As fire officers in white hats and Class A’s carried out Bill’s coffin draped with an FDNY red-and-white flag, a single violinist played “Ashokan Farewell.” Billy had first heard the musician play the tune a few weeks before in the World Trade Center’s concourse. He’d come out of the PATH train and was headed toward his office in the Woolworth Building. The sweet sadness of the song reminded him of his dad. He dropped a few bucks in the open violin case and took the violinist’s card. Weeks before the attack on the World Trade Center and his father’s death, he’d had no reason to hire a violinist. But now, as the melody accompanied his dad’s casket into the bright sunshine, the moment seemed fated.
Outside the church, the crowd had grown into the hundreds. The firefighters didn’t wear the Class A dress uniforms, but instead bunker gear that was covered in cement dust from the Trade Center. They had come from the pile to pay their respects to a man most of them knew by reputation only. Chief Feehan was a boss, a big boss, and by rank about as far removed from the firehouse as you could get. But even when he held the lofty post of fire commissioner, he insisted on being called “Chief,” an homage to the uniform that bound him to the firefighters who now stood in silence and saluted his coffin.
Though a fire service career like no other ended in that bright sunshine, the heroic story of Chief Feehan’s firefighter family would continue for two more generations. Just as it had for a generation before.