Facts and logic thwart
ugly rumor of looting


The doors parted, but the elevator had become stuck just as the bottom of the cab was reaching the lobby of the south tower. Only the feet of the trapped passengers were visible as the burning jet fuel that had cascaded down the shaft ahead of them threatened to broil them alive.

"These people were getting cooked," recalls Firefighter Tim Brown. "They were screaming. They were dying."

Brown was assigned to the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, and his official role at the World Trade Center that horrific September morning was to help coordinate the overall rescue effort. He momentarily cast those duties aside and grabbed a fire extinguisher, only to discover it was empty.

Brown tried another extinguisher, but it also was empty. An arm stuck out of the smoky gap between the bottom of the stalled cab and the top of the doorway, flailing as if attempting to pull the elevator down.

"It was hell for them, and I was watching it," Brown recalls.

Brown turned to his right to get help and discovered it already had arrived in the form of Firefighter Michael Lynch of Ladder 4.

"He slapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Timmy, don't worry about it, we'll take care of it,'" Brown recalls.

Brown knew Lynch to be smart and brave, one of the department's future stars.

"I just had this whole wave of relief," Brown says. "I knew things were going to be okay. He was just one of those guys. I said, 'All right, Mike, you got it.'"

Lynch set to work with seven equally brave and dedicated members of Ladder 4: Capt. David Wooley, Lt. Daniel O'Callaghan and Firefighters Joe Angelini Jr., Michael Brennan, Samuel Oitice, Michael Haub and John Tipping.

Brown returned to his duties, which soon sent him in search of an Emergency Medical Service supervisor. He was coming out of the tower onto Liberty St. when he looked to his left to see Ladder 4's rig parked on the sidewalk, just outside the lobby fire command station.

Debris was still cascading from above, and Firefighter Danny Suhr of Engine 216 had been killed by a jumper moments before, but there was Michael Lynch, reaching into the upper compartment on the rig for a Hurst tool, the Jaws of Life used to pry open doors. The motor end is heavy, and a young firefighter dashed out to help.

"I yelled, 'Mike, you guys got it?'" Brown says.

The reply was calm and confident as the most mortal danger rained all around.

"Yeah, we got it."

Lynch headed back into the lobby where the rest of Ladder 4 was extinguishing the fire under the elevator. The Hurst tool would be able to widen the gap between the cab floor and the doorway so the firefighters could pull everyone to safety.

Brown found an EMS team under the south pedestrian bridge and was starting back to the lobby when the south tower collapsed. He dove into the adjacent hotel and survived.

Bodies found together

Ladder 4's firefighters were still in the lobby. Their bodies were found six months later, clustered together, as you would expect a disciplined company to be in a high-rise fire. The Hurst tool lay among them, along with the remains of a civilian woman. That would suggest Ladder 4 was in the midst of rescuing her.

Their crumpled rig had been found in December, having plunged five levels below the street. A Federal Emergency Management Agency video of the rig's recovery shows that a wide area of the surrounding debris was laced with jeans, almost certainly from the destruction of the Structure store that had been at that end of the concourse level.

Afterward, an ugly rumor persisted, even though it defied the simplest logic. Writer William Langewiesche reported it as fact first in the Atlantic Monthly and then in his book "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," stating that the rig's crew cab was "filled with dozens of new pairs of jeans from the Gap."

"It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the looting had begun even before the first tower fell, and that while hundreds of doomed firemen had climbed through the wounded buildings, this particular crew had been engaged in something else entirely," the book states.

Langewiesche does not name the "particular crew" but he can be referring only to Ladder 4. He would have us believe these firefighters parked their rig as close as possible to the command post, walked to a Gap store 300 yards away, trudged back with armloads of jeans past hundreds of injured civilians, and risked death from falling debris to stash their loot within clear view of their supervisors.

Account disputed

The FDNY and a committee of senior rescue workers of every stripe called the WTC Living History Project have cited numerous witnesses to the rig's recovery who dispute Langewiesche's account. These include the FDNY recovery team leader, an FDNY battalion chief, a construction company supervisor, two grappler operators and various hardhats.

Yesterday, Langewiesche did not respond to a request for comment. He has said he stands by his account. He would be well-advised not to stand anywhere near Tim Brown.

Originally published on November 24, 2002