Dan Nigro and a Lesson from 9/11

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When he was a little boy, Dan Nigro wanted to be a firefighter.

His father was a firefighter. Lots of other men in Bayside, Queens, where he grew up, were firefighters, too. So it just seemed natural that when he was twenty-one Dan Nigro joined the New York Fire Department.

When I knew him, in the 1970s, he was starting to climb the promotional ladder in the Fire Department. By 1996 he was an assistant Chief, and he oversaw the merger of the Emergency Medical Service into the Fire department. He also served as a Citywide Tour Commander and, later, Chief of Operations. He probably thought a little about becoming Chief of Department, the highest uniformed rank in the New York Fire Department.

He wasn’t in a hurry, though, because that rank was held by his close friend Peter Ganci. Dan is tall and serious and thoughtful-looking. Peter was shorter, more outgoing. They made a good team.

They were both working at the Fire Department’s headquarters in Brooklyn on September 11, 2001 when the planes began smashing into the World Trade Center Towers. They responded together, in the same car. Somewhere along the way Dan remembers telling Ganci, “This will be the worst day we ever have.”

Ganci assumed command of the incident at the Fire Department’s command post. Around 9:15, Nigro told Ganci he wanted to quickly circle 1 World Trade Center, to assess the damage. “See you later,” Ganci said.

Dan and his aide were in the middle of Church Street when the second tower started to come down. They found shelter in the old, deep doorway of a Starbucks. It saved their lives. Peter Ganci was not so lucky.

Ganci died at the World Trade Center. On September 17, Daniel A. Nigro, III was sworn in as Chief of Department of New York Fire Department,

Imagine. Imagine achieving a life’s goal on the wings of tragedy and the loss of one of your best friends. Imagine achieving that goal as all around you other firefighters, many of whom you know, die.

In the entire history of the New York Fire Department, from 1865 to 2001, seven hundred seventy-four firefighters gave their lives in the line of duty. Then, on a single day, in a few moments, more than half that number were killed.

September 11, 2001 was the largest loss of life by first responders in the history of the United States. It was a loss equivalent in numbers to Pearl Harbor except that most of the dead in Washington and New York and in the fields of Pennsylvania were civilians, not military who had put on a uniform and the risk that went with it.

The men and women who died on 9/11, trying to save others are true heroes. But we also need to acknowledge men and women like Dan Nigro. You didn’t see Dan at many of the televised rallies. It’s not his style and besides, there was planning to do, budgets to develop, firefighters to recruit and train. That kind of work happens out of the limelight, from early morning till late at night.

He worked at caring for the firefighters, too. He attended funeral after funeral and wakes and memorial services. Dan, who attends Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bayside every Sunday, began joking that he was going to Mass more than most Catholics. There were visits to fire houses and, every day, to Ground Zero.

Before Dan retired, he kept a framed picture in his office of all the Fire Department dead. Stuck in a corner of the frame was a piece of construction paper with a child’s writing in blue marker. The piece of paper showed up in the avalanche of letters of support that arrived after September 11. The note said, “You did the right thing.”

Today Dan is the New York City Fire Commissioner. He holds the civilian office that oversees the Fire Department. On September 4, 2014 he participated in the ceremony adding thirteen more names to the Fire Department’s World Trade Center Memorial Wall. Years after the World Trade Center tragedy, his work is not done.

“I still see our families grieving, far too many of our members still suffering, and I see that terrible day continue to take far too many of the very best among us.”

We need to remember the dead. We need to remember and honor the heroes. But we also need to remember all the folks, like Dan Nigro who carry on quietly out of the limelight. We need to tell them, “You did the right thing, too.”

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