When Frank Gribbon was asked in the summer of 2000 whether he’d be interested in becoming the chief spokesman for the Fire Department, a move that would raise his salary about $30,000 and move him out of harm’s way from fighting fires in Harlem and the South Bronx, he was decidedly ambivalent.
“I kinda enjoyed what I was doing, being a covering Lieutenant in the 16th Battalion,” he explained Oct. 15, referring to the role of filling in for absent Lieutenants at companies within the command.
He knew the man who asked him, Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen, since their days at the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which elected Mr. Von Essen its president in 1993, the job from which he was plucked three years later by Mayor Rudy Giuliani for an unusual transition from labor advocate to heading the FDNY.
Mr. Gribbon, who had graduated from Brooklyn College with a bachelor’s degree in English and spent six years working for community newspapers in Brooklyn and Manhattan before becoming a Firefighter in 1989, had put together a special edition of Fire Lines, the UFA newsletter, in 1994 following the death of three firefighters that March. He had also briefly worked as the department’s Press Secretary under Mr. Von Essen—a job he turned down when it was first offered because he was running a study group for the promotion exam for Lieutenant—before giving it up in 1999 after his promotion in rank.
‘Supposed to Be an 18-Month Assignment’
“It was supposed to be an 18-month assignment,” Mr. Gribbon recalled, sitting in a midtown restaurant. Realizing his reluctance to give up firefighting, Mr. Von Essen convinced him to put it on hold by saying, “Would you stick around and help me 'til I find someone?”
Mr. Gribbon, whose weekly firehouse work schedule generally consisted of two nine-hour day tours and two 15-hour night shifts, said he’d become the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information if he could handle the job in two day tours at the department’s headquarters in downtown Brooklyn and continue working the night tours in his battalion.
“Tommy said, 'How ‘bout 3 and 1,’ ” Mr. Gribbon said, “and I could see where this was going. I had thought at the end of my career I would do this. I said I’ll do this for 18 months, and then I’ll go back to being a Lieutenant in Harlem.”
He was sworn in as Deputy Commissioner that September, which meant he was marking his first 12 months in the job just about the time of 9/11. Mr. Gribbon was driving along the FDR Drive that morning, bound for the school where his then-3-year-old daughter was spending her first day, when FDNY Press Secretary David Billig called and said, “Hey, a plane just hit the building.”
It didn’t sound nearly as serious as it was, but Mr. Gribbon detoured away from his daughter’s school and took the FDR as it wrapped around the lower tip of Manhattan. He was in the Battery Park underpass, mired in traffic, when the South Tower, 2 World Trade Center, was struck by the second terrorist-hijacked plane. When he emerged from the underpass, he discovered cops were redirecting traffic, preventing motorists from continuing to head north. Mr. Gribbon made the first turn he could and parked his car, took out the bunker gear he still carried in it and put it on, and went to the command post that had been hastily assembled on West St.—after briefly being set up in the North Tower.
There were 75-to-100 firefighters assembled at the command post, among them First Deputy Commissioner Bill Feehan and Chief of Department Pete Ganci, both of whom would lose their lives when the North Tower collapsed onto them at 10:28 a.m. Mr. Ganci had actually been trapped in the rubble of the South Tower when it imploded 29 minutes earlier and extricated himself, Mr. Gribbon said.
Before the North Tower came down, he said, he could see from the makeshift command post that “people were jumping. It was pretty horrific. Hearing it was pretty bad: people striking the pavement.”
He survived the North Tower collapse. He remembers “stretching a hose line from the Hudson River after the buildings fell—we had no water” to get on the fires raging at the site.
‘A Different World’
About an hour later, he ran into then-Daily News columnist Michael Daly and recalls telling him, “It’s a different world than it was earlier this morning.” That was especially true for the Fire Department, with a malfunction in firefighter radios meaning that a warning transmitted from a police helicopter moments after the South Tower imploded that the North Tower also seemed in imminent danger of collapse was not heard by firefighters inside it, even as virtually all of the cops inside were evacuated. It was estimated that 121 of the 340 firefighters who were killed died inside the North Tower.
The department also lost a civilian worker, an Emergency Medical Technician and its Chaplain, Father Mychal Judge.
Less than three months earlier, Mr. Gribbon remembered, three firefighters were killed in a Queens blaze that became known as the Father’s Day Fire, and the timing and the relatively high body count resonated enough that “guys were retiring after that” in greater numbers than usual.
“That was so bad, that fire,” he said of the emotional toll at the time.
But the magnitude of the 9/11 losses was in a different dimension. “The future of the job was taken,” he said. “So many people were gone,” including a large number of Chiefs and 25 percent of the elite Special Operations Command.
During the first few days following the terrorist attacks, firefighters searched for survivors, civilians as well as colleagues. “We were holding out hope a couple of days in,” Mr. Gribbon said, and then a call came in from one major media outlet “that they’d found seven firefighter survivors,” who had been taken to Bellevue Hospital. But it turned out to be “a false report,” and soon the search had turned into a recovery operation intent on finding the remains of those who had perished.
“Those were trying times, but the work was all-consuming,” he said. “For me, you sink into it” to avoid having to focus on the losses suffered. Among the firefighters who died, “There were 40 people who were friends. There were many more I had worked with.”
'People Were Devastated'
Asked about morale in the aftermath, Mr. Gribbon said, “Very bad. People were devastated.”
And yet there were those who showed remarkable fortitude, he continued, mentioning the widow of Fire Capt. Timothy Stackpole. Three years earlier, while a Lieutenant in Brooklyn, he suffered fourth- and fifth-degree burns over 40 percent of his body in a fire that killed two of his colleagues. After numerous surgeries and months of rehabilitation, Mr. Stackpole returned to the job in March 2001 and was promoted to Captain that Sept. 6, capping an inspiring return to the ranks. Five days later, he was among the casualties at the Trade Center.
But a few days later, Mr. Gribbon said, “I remember Tara Stackpole at Mychal Judge’s funeral. She had lost her husband basically twice. Her strength was incredible: she asked me how I’m doing.”
He had expected to be winding down the final six months of his 18-month commitment to serve as the department’s chief spokesman. Instead he was working 15-hour days and playing a pivotal role in preparing for hundreds of funerals. “I hired all kinds of speech-writers, we had to put together 343 biographies,” Mr. Gribbon said.
“In addition to the survivor guilt, it was also hard to mourn” because of the seemingly endless procession of wakes and funerals. “You really felt every time this happened, it was very painful. To mourn each and every one of them, where you spend the time and do a traditional funeral.”
Those months seemed a repudiation of what he had been told by a retired firefighter early in his career: “Enjoy this job, kid—it goes fast.”
Mr. Gribbon grew up aware of firefighting as a possible career without actually feeling like he was groomed for the job. His grandfather had been a firefighter, and so was his uncle Frank, whose son, Steve Cassidy, would later head the UFA for 14 years. His own father had been a three-star Chief in the Sanitation Department, and so Frank had grown up schooled in the virtues of a civil-service job. He lived in Flatbush but went to Rice High School in Harlem because four of his five brothers had gone there. After graduating from Brooklyn College, he had taken the Police Officer exam but quickly decided that wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life, despite having been a somewhat-frequent crime victim growing up during a less-safe time in the neighborhoods where he spent his adolescence.
‘I Wanted to Write’
He also took and passed the Firefighter exam in 1982, but was low enough on the list that he didn’t expect to be called for the job and “I wanted to write.” After spending some time working at Courier-Life, a Brooklyn chain of weekly newspapers, he went to work for the Hagedorn chain in Manhattan and began carving out a career. He hadn’t yet made it to one of the city’s daily papers, though, when he got a call from a woman at the FDNY asking whether he was still interested in being a Firefighter.
Mr. Gribbon asked her if he could think about it and get back to her. She told him he could, as long as it was by the next day. That was a bit quick to make a career-changing decision, he said, but “the advice I got from somebody I trusted was, ‘You are going to love this job, and if you don’t love it, you can leave. But it’s a job that’s so hard to get.' " Which meant, Frank said, that if he was on the fence about it emotionally, it was better to say yes than to ask for a deferral, given that the list he was being called from had been due to expire three years earlier and remained in existence only because of litigation involving the subsequent Firefighter test.
“If I had done the Daily News or The Post, I might have felt differently,” he said about giving up his journalism career. “But I was still at a community newspaper, even though leaving it meant I had to take a pay cut” to become a probationary Firefighter.
His reporting background had given him the knowledge of the profession and the skills needed to be an effective spokesman for the department. He just never imagined that what he had viewed as a short-term gig before returning to the firehouse would turn into a 19-year assignment before he retired last month at 59, and that the final 18 years would feature so many changes in the FDNY apart from the trauma and legacy of 9/11.
When Mr. Giuliani departed City Hall at the end of 2001, Mr. Von Essen also left to take a job in the ex-Mayor’s consulting firm, and was replaced by Nicholas Scoppetta, a veteran city administrator who had been both Investigation Commissioner and head of the child-welfare system but had no firefighting background.
Brawl, Coma, Cover-Up
That probably made him less indulgent than some past Commissioners had been of firefighters drinking on duty, which he banned in early 2004 in the wake of an incident in a Staten Island firehouse in which, after both men had started their New Year’s Eve partying a bit early, Firefighter Michael Silvestri smashed Firefighter Robert Walsh in the face with a metal chair. His injuries left Mr. Walsh temporarily in a coma. Compounding the embarrassment for the department was that fire officers engaged in a cover-up, and when forced to finally get Firefighter Walsh to a hospital, told medical staff that he sustained his injuries by falling down stairs. Firefighter Silvestri would eventually be criminally charged and sentenced to a year behind bars.
There was some speculation that this incident and others in which firefighters engaged in on-duty drinking were part of the residue of 9/11, although the practice wasn’t uncommon before that. Mr. Gribbon said the drinking ban was long overdue and helped professionalize operations, but he acknowledged that the emotional toll of the losses the department suffered has endured long after it began to fade from public consciousness.
“I remember there were conversations about how long it will take before the job gets over it,” he said. “Well, it won’t be over it before everyone who was there that day is done.”
He said of the firefighters who survived the rescue efforts and the long-term exposure to toxins at the Trade Center site that they breathed during the months of the recovery effort, “They carried it with them. They focus on what’s in front of them. But they walked into some things they knew were really bad. The most-seasoned people had never seen anything like it. But that didn’t stop them.”
Amid the heroism that has justly been celebrated, the FDNY has been forced to learn from some of the tactical mistakes that, along with being forced to use the same radios on 9/11 that had failed to function during an earlier response to a terrorist bombing in the complex in February 1993, contributed to the death toll. Referring to the consultant brought in to provide a thorough analysis of the department’s response, Mr. Gribbon said important lessons were learned “just having McKinsey come in and give us this unvarnished assessment of what happened.”
New Focus, Awareness
He spoke of how 9/11 had changed the nature of the department, from the counter-terrorism drills that are now a regular feature of firefighting here to the greater consciousness about the dangers of exposure to toxins that has occurred because of the thousands of firefighters who have incurred serious respiratory ailments and cancers due to their months at the Trade Center site.
“I’m just thankful we haven’t seen worse, because we expected much worse than that,” he said regarding terrorist threats.
“We have a new skill set we didn’t have before,” Mr. Gribbon continued. “What we learned was we had to build up a capacity to manage a long-term running event. Guys were terrifically trained.”
That can be seen from their responses to major storms, “our ability to manage catastrophic events: Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, going to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.”
The year after 9/11 also brought a complaint from the Vulcan Society of black firefighters challenging the fairness of the Firefighter exam, one that eventually was joined by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush. It led to a 2014 settlement by the de Blasio administration in which it paid $98 million, gave hiring preference and seniority to black candidates who had taken three previous exams dating back to 1999, and recruitment efforts that targeted minority and female candidates to a far-greater extent than in the past.
“Nick [Scoppetta] early on recognized our lack of diversity,” said Mr. Gribbon, noting that well into the 1990s the firefighting force still was 93 percent male whites. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg was frustrated that then-Vulcan Society President Paul Washington rebuffed his suggestion after the complaint was filed that he take over the recruiting effort, Mr. Gribbon said, “The problem was, even people like Giuliani were questioning things. Tom [Von Essen] was trying: we launched the Cadet Program.”
That initiative, aimed at attracting black and Latino candidates starting in their teens, was undercut after it was discovered that some FDNY Chiefs had gotten their sons enrolled in the program. Something similar happened when the department tried to boost minority representation by offering a promotion exam for Emergency Medical Technicians—a more-diverse workforce—that gave them an inside track on Firefighter jobs, with the sons of top FDNY officials and union officials also taking advantage of the program.
Not a Pure Meritocracy
Throw in testimony during the trial that some candidates for Firefighter jobs avoided disqualifications for past indiscretions because someone high up vouched for them—with more white candidates than minorities benefiting—and there wasn’t much surprise in U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis concluding that the FDNY admissions process hadn’t been quite the meritocracy the city claimed.
Asked whether resentment over the case had lingered among veteran white firefighters, Mr. Gribbon said, “I’m sure there’s some, but the one thing I don’t hear is ‘morale’s the worst,’ the way you would after 9/11.” He noted that by the end of Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure—prior to the city’s settlement with the Vulcans—15 percent of the firefighting force was black or Latino, and today 30 percent are minorities and/or women.
“It’s not bad if you look at it in historical context,” he said. He played a role in the sharply upgraded recruiting efforts, which he said came down to a basic formula: “open new doors, get out there and talk to people.”
There is greater discontent within EMS, with the unions there suing over the $35,000 gap in maximum salary between EMTs and Firefighters, and 900 members of EMS having moved into Firefighter jobs based on the promotion exam during the life of both that list and the open-competitive one.
“We’re still not up to headcount in EMS, and attrition is high,” Mr. Gribbon said, though he emphasized that the shortage wasn’t due to a lack of applicants but rather lack of space in which to train them. The talk during Mr. Von Essen’s tenure as Commissioner of combining the Firefighter and EMT jobs into a single title and remedying the pay gap that way has faded, he conceded, while wondering whether it might be addressed either through longevity differentials or tying salaries to patient outcomes.
‘No Better Client’
He has begun a new professional life as a consultant, and when asked whether he has begun to miss the Fire Department, replied, “No. Thirty years is enough. I’d been doing [the Deputy Commissioner’s job] 19 years and through three [mayoral] administrations, and I’ve got three tuitions to pay,” referring to his two daughters from his first marriage to former Daily News reporter Ingrid DeVita and his youngest daughter with Melissa Russo, WNBC-TV’s government-affairs reporter.
But referring to Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, Mr. Gribbon said, “Danny was great to me and I had a terrific team there.”
And, he added, “There’s no better client in the world as a PR guy. Firefighters, they help people. They’re very committed to it, and they don’t seek honors or the limelight.”