19 Jul 2005
By Greg Szymanski
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 sure death.
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 out 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.
Furthermore, Cacchioli was upset that People Magazine misquoted him, saying "there were bombs" in the building when all he said was he heard "what sounded like bombs" without having definitive proof bombs were actually detonated.
After that unfortunate journalistic blunder, 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 final report.
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 dinner 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 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 within.
"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."
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. Originally, his crew was ordered to the South Tower, but was misdirected to the other one due to confusion, a twist of fate that saved his life.
When he finally entered the North Tower 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, a twist of fate that probably saved his life.
"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 Hetzel 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. When I began to try and direct down, 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" 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 descent 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 there 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 falling 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 his fire truck 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 down West Side Highway."
Cacchioli said he remembers looking back at the North Tower 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 that 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 really know how much time passed, but once I felt better, I quickly 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 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 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 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 was terrible."
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 added:
"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 the truth."
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