Former veteran fireman recalls hearing three distinct 'huge explosions'
while rescuing people in north tower between 23rd and 24th floors, testimony ignored
in the 9/11 Commission's final report. Brave fireman recalls how he almost called
it quits after losing his buddies, his job and his health. Now, four years later,
he's finally on the rebound, making an emotional and physical recovery, adding
he keeps active with the fire department and enjoys his life as a new grandfather.
New York fireman Lou Cacchioli looked the devil square in the eye the morning
of 9/11. He stared him down, threw him aside and walked into the depths of hell
like a true hero, knowing he may never walk out again.
Like a hero, he risked his life to save others, never once thinking about himself
at a time when one wrong a turn, a slight move in the wrong direction, meant
Although he survived, a little bit of Lou Cacchioli died that tragic morning
in the north tower.
A little bit of the Italian boy, born in northern Italy who came to New York
at the age of 10, was left behind in the rubble along with thousands of unlucky
souls who didn’t make it out of hell that morning.
And if you look closely, a little bit of the Italian boy can still be seen
hovering high above where the WTC once stood, flying high with the hearts and
souls of his firefighter friends who perished that morning.
Look even closer through the clouds and you can probably still see a silhouette
of Cacchioli and his best friend, Tommy Hedsall, both proudly wearing their
FDNY uniforms and still rescuing people in the north tower’s 24th floor,
the last place Cacchioli ever saw his friend alive.
Four years later, Cacchioli hasn’t talked much about the nightmare he
lived on 9/11. First, he really didn’t want to talk about. Next, he got
tired of having his words twisted by the 9/11 Commission and finally, the New
York media basically never sought him ought to get the true account of what
he saw and heard in the north tower right before the building collapsed.
Originally, on September 12, 2001, People Magazine ran a few short paragraphs
about the 20-year veteran New York fireman hearing what sounded like bombs exploding
in the north tower.
Short and sweet, that was it. A few short words about bombs exploding, but
words that were repeated over and over again in story after story by writers
and broadcasters who never even bothered to talk to him in the first place.
After that, a little angry and a little disgusted, he pretty much disappeared
into the New York landscape, his story only appearing in an obscure book released
called “American Spirit,” and his 2004 testimony given in private
to the 9/11 Commission never released to the public in the commission’s
So, it’s safe to say Cacchioli’s story, the story of an American
hero, is probably unknown to most Americans even though 9/11 will be forever
etched in everyone’s hearts and souls for all time.
In a humble effort to set the 9/11 Commission’s record straight and put
the correct version of hero Lou Cacchioli’s story back in the history
books, here is the unedited version, better late then never, as told by the
man in an extended telephone conversation this week from his New York home:
THEN AND NOW
Losing his buddies, his job and his health, there was time after 9/11 he seriously
considered suicide. But after counseling, a bit of soul searching and a loving
family, the man who went through the depths of hell is now a happy grandfather.
Although he’s finally able to cope with the horror and grief of 9/11
after four long years, the tough-talking Italian with a heart of gold, admitted:
“I still have my moments, I still break down sometimes and I still go
to counseling. But I feel a lot better, a whole lot better. I have a wonderful
wife of 30 years, three great children and now a little granddaughter. What
more could a man want?”
And the man who almost lost it all after saving so many lives is back living
safely on the “happy side of heaven,” keeping close touch with the
fire department he loves and vowing to never leave the streets of New York,
the only life he really knows.
And like a true Italian, headstrong, independent and not afraid to speak his
mind, he said:
“Nothing’s going to push Lou Cacchioli out of this town, nothing!”
THE MORNING OF 9/11
Cacchioli was one of those tough New York firefighters, the kind of guy you’d
like to have a coffee or beer with or the kind of guy who could talk your arm
off about Yankee baseball.
For most of his career, “Tough Lou” was a Company 47 engine man
in the equally as tough Harlem District. He was the type of fireman who you
picture sitting around the firehouse diner table, shooting the breeze and talking
war stories about the last big blaze up on 42nd Street.
He was the type of fearless New York fireman who, up until 9/11, thought he
saw it all, including the WTC bombing in 1993.
But that was before 9/11. That was before Cacchioli was thrown into depths
of hell when the Company 47 bell sounded, telling the fire crew to head to the the south tower of the WTC.
And like the sound of the bell marking the 15th round at Madison Square Garden,
it was the last bell Cacchioli ever heard, as he never worked another day for
the FDNY after 9/11.
Although it was like someone ripped his heart out on January 4, 2002, when
doctors told him due a pulmonary condition from the 9/11 contaminants he’d
never work as a fireman again, Cacchioli somehow still finds the strength to
recall what he calls the most horrifying day a man could ever imagine.
But back on 9/11, Cacchioli was in true form, headstrong and ready to take
on the blaze like he’d done so many times before. Although he readily
admits “none of the finest fireman in the world were prepared for 9/11,”
he said never once did he think the buildings would topple, but at the same
time, never did he think the fire could ever be contained.
CACCHIOLI AND ENGINE CO. 47 ARRIVE ON THE SCENE
When Co. 47 arrived with Cacchioli leading the way as the senior member of
the crew, the second plane had already hit the south tower and they were told
to head directly to the Marriot Hotel across from the WTC, since a fire was
blazing form debris falling from the towers. Cacchioli recalls hearing radio
reports of “people jumping” and when he got closer to the Marriot,
the reports turned into reality.
“I looked up and there were about 6 to 10 people flying through the air
coming down right on us,” said Cacchioli. “It was horrible when
they hit the ground, something you had to turn your eyes away from. One of the
jumpers landed directly on fireman Danny Sur, killing him on the spot. I remember
saying, ‘Oh my God, what are we getting into.’”
Cacchioli then recalls entering the Marriot, trying to lead “the kids”
as he called them, adding that words could not describe the screaming and chaos
“There was debris flying everywhere and it was just mass chaos,”
said Cacchioli. “At that point, orders were changing fast and furious
and our company was directed to lend assistance in the north tower,” he added.
CACCHIOLI AND CREW ENTER NORTH TOWER AND GO UP TO 24TH FLOOR
Although the Marriot was a bad scene, the north tower looked like a war zone.
When he entered the lobby, Cacchioli recalls elevator doors completely blown
out and another scene of mass chaos with people running, screaming and being
hit with debris.
“I remember thinking to myself, My God, how could this be happening so
quickly if a plane hit way above. It didn’t make sense,” said Cacchioli.
At that point, Cacchioli found one of the only functioning elevators, one only
going as high as the 24th floor, the first twist of fate that probably saved
“Looking back if it was one of the elevators that went higher, I wouldn’t
be here talking today,” added Cacchioli.
As he made his way up along with men from Engine Co. 21, 22 and Ladder Co.
13, the doors opened on the 24th floor, a scene again that hardly made sense
to the seasoned fireman, claiming the heavy dust and haze of smoke he encountered
was unusual considering the location of the strike.
“Tommy Hedsal was with me and everybody else also gets out of the elevator
when it stops on the 24th floor,” said Cacchioli, “There was a huge
amount of smoke. Tommy and I had to go back down the elevator for tools and
no sooner did the elevators close behind us, we heard this huge explosion that
sounded like a bomb. It was such a loud noise, it knocked off the lights and
stalled the elevator.
“Luckily, we weren’t caught between floors and were able to pry
open the doors. People were going crazy, yelling and screaming. And all the
time, I am crawling low and making my way in the dark with a flashlight to the
staircase and thinking Tommy is right behind me.
“I somehow got into the stairwell and there were more people there, who
I began to try and direct down, when another huge explosion like the first one
hits. This one hits about two minutes later, although it’s hard to tell,
but I’m thinking, ‘Oh. My God, these bastards put bombs in here
like they did in 1993!’
“But still it never crossed my mind the building was going to collapse.
I really only had two things on my mind and that was getting people out and
saving lives. That’s what I was trained for and that’s what I was
going to do.
“I remember at that point in the stairwell between the 23rd and 24th
floor, I threw myself down on the steps because of the smoke. It was pitch black,
I had my mask on and I was crawling down the steps until I found the door on
the 23rd floor.”
When Cacchioli entered the 23rd floor, he found a “little man”
short of breadth, holding a handkerchief in front of his face and hiding under
the standpipes on the wall, used for pumping water on the floor in case of fire.
Leading the man by the arm, he then ran into a group down the hall of about
35 to 40 people, finding his way down the 23rd floor stairwell and beginning
their trek down to safety.
“Then as soon as we get in the stairwell, I hear another huge explosion
like the other two. Then I heard bang, bang, bang - huge bangs – and surmised
later it was the floors pan caking on top of one another.
“I knew we had to get out of their fast and on the 12th floor a man even
jumped on my back because he thought he couldn’t make it any farther.
Everybody was shocked and dazed and it was a miracle all of us got this far.”
When the group led by Cacchioli finally made it to the lobby level, he was
unable to open the door at first, the concussion of the explosions or perhaps
the south tower falling, jamming the lobby door.
Finally jarring it loose, the group entered the lobby finding total devastation
with windows blown out and marble peeling form the walls, but strangely no people.
At that point, it was either left or right to an exit, Cacchioli, the man he
originally found by the standpipes and another lady going right while the others
went left, a move which by the grace of God saved his life.
“It seemed like every move I made that morning was the right move,”
said Cacchioli. “I should have been killed at least five times. The people
that went left didn’t make it out, but we came out alive on West Street.”
OUTSIDE AND APPARENTLY OUT OF HARMS WAY
After making sure the two civilians were attended to, Cacchioli went to the
corner were his fire truck was stationed finding Lance, the driver, who was
attending to the truck and waiting for the crew to return.
Looking up at the north tower directly above, Cacchioli recalls not having
the slightest idea when he exited that the south tower had already collapsed.
He also remembers wondering about the fate of his crew members, the driver telling
him two were missing and two others injured and already taken to the hospital.
“Next thing, we look up and see the tower collapsing. We saw it starting
to come down fast, Lance running towards the water to safety and I headed instinctively
down West Side Highway.”
Cacchioli said he remembers looking back at the antenna falling, at the same
time trying to stay ahead of the huge ball of black smoke gaining ground. He
then threw of his mask to make himself lighter, a move that allowed him to run
faster and perhaps save his life, while eventually having to throw himself on
the ground from the heavy sawdust like air mixed with glass was choking him
to death and taking away his vision.
Landing in debris, he luckily fell by the wheels of another fire truck, another
twist of fate that may have saved his life, where he then managed to find a
compressed air breathing mask. He then passed out and recalls waking up some
time later after another fireman pulled him to safety.”
“I don’t realy know how much time passed, but once I felt better,
I immediately went back to look for my friends and stayed till I couldn’t
walk anymore,” said Cacchioli, who began crying when he talked about his
close friend. “They finally found Tommy’s body in the debris about
10 days later. I went back to Ground Zero every day for a long time, going AWOL,
until I finally went to a doctor and was put on medical leave.
“They were very good about it. Everybody understood. It got to the point
I couldn’t take breadth anymore and I lost a lot of vision due to the
broken glass getting into my eyes. “Finally, the doctors told me in January
2002, I couldn’t work any more and I remember feeling devastated like
my whole world was coming to an end.
“I couldn’t tell this story for the longest time and I have to
admit it is still difficult.”
THE 2004 9/11 COMMISSION HEARINGS: WHAT A WAY TO TREAT A HERO!
Cacchioli was called to testify privately, but walked out on several members
of the committee before they were finished, feeling like he was being interrogated
and cross examined rather than simply allowed to tell the truth about what occurred
in the north tower on 9/11.
“My story was never mentioned in the final report and I felt like I was
being put on trial in a court room,” said Cacchioli. “I finally
walked out. They were trying to twist my words and make the story fit only what
they wanted to hear. All I wanted to do was tell the truth and when they wouldn’t
let me do that, I walked out.
“It was a disgrace to everyone, the victims and the family members who
lost loved ones. I don’t agree with the 9/11 Commission. The whole experience
HIS LIFE NOW
Cacchioli spends a majority of his spare time hanging around the firehouse,
trying to stay in touch with the department he loves and trying to lend a hand
to some of the younger kids in the department.
“I talk to the kids and I want to make sure they are keeping up to snuff
so they’re ready if something happens,” said Cacchioli, who also
plays softball in the FDNY league, something he regularly did when he was on
active duty. “I don’t want to lose this connection because the fire
department is a part of who I am and who I always will be.”
Asked if he ever was pressured to keep quiet about his 9/11 experience, he
“Nobody has bothered me. I don’t think I should be bothered. I
know what happened that day and I know the whole truth hasn’t come out
yet. I have my own conscience, my own mind and no one, I mean no one, is going
to force Lou Cacchioli to say something that didn’t happen and wasn’t