December 19, 2001 23:22:25

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WTC Fires All But Defeated

NEW YORK, Dec. 19, 2001

"There might be some pockets still burning, but we consider the fire to be out."
Fire Battalion Chief Brian Dixon

(CBS) Firefighters have extinguished almost all but the last remnants of underground fires that have burned at the World Trade Center site for more than three months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

"Just in the last week the fires have actually been put out," Gov. George Pataki told a group of about 50 upstate elected officials during a tour of the disaster site on Wednesday.

Battalion Chief Brian Dixon confirmed later Wednesday that the main bodies of fire have been extinguished, although he said small pockets or "hot spots" are still being discovered.

"The FDNY has made great progress in putting out the fires at the World Trade Center," Dixon said.

But Dixon noted a firetruck remains on standby at the site, and the department considers it an active fire scene.

The fires that began with the Sept. 11 attacks had been strong enough that firetrucks had to spray a nearly constant jet of water on them. At times, the flames slowed the work of clearing the site.

"You couldn't even begin to imagine how much water was pumped in there," said Tom Manley of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the largest fire department union. "It was like you were creating a giant lake."

The fires were fueled by almost everything inside the towers, from documents to office furniture. As demolition and rescue crews toiled to clear the debris, air pockets would open up, allowing fresh oxygen to cause hot spots to flare up.

Manley said at any given time there were at least 10 firefighters working the hose lines — and more when needed.

"You always had at least 10, but if you had numerous fires going you brought in more," he said.

Pataki also said Wednesday that clearing the site is expected to take six to nine more months, with work focused on the seven floors of compacted rubble underground. Workers at the site continue to search closely for human remains.

For the 75 firefighters working at the site daily, knocking the fires down makes the job of finding remains a bit easier — but it does little to help them emotionally.

"It'll be a lot less of a hindrance now since the smoke's not there," Manley said. "But the emotional state stays exactly the same. Just being down there is emotional."

Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said he was gratified that the fires have been beaten back. "But the work is not getting any easier."

Smoke from the 16-acre site where the buildings once stood has at times choked the air in lower Manhattan's financial district with the smell of burning rubber, plastic and steel.

"When you smell that smoke it was a constant, grim reminder and now that the smell has subsided I guess it'll be easier for those who have gone back to work down there," said Gorman, whose union represents the department's lieutenants, captains and chiefs.

About 50 members of the New York State Association of Counties heard the update about the fires and other details of the trade center ste when they toured ground zero Wednesday with Pataki.

"I think it's important you all came down here because we're one state," the governor said. "Whenever there has been a problem in this state we've all pulled together and it's just great that you've all come to pull together and understand what we have to do here."

The elected officials looked around the site for nearly a half-hour, looking somber with ashen expressions.

"You get the feeling right up your back when you see how somber it is and the emotion that is here," said Dutchess County Executive William Steinhaus.

©MMI CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters Limited contributed to this report.

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The Aftermath
A nation mourns the loss of thousands in a violent terrorist assault. Follow the recovery and the search for survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

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