John Norman, like every American, has a story to tell about where he was on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
The now retired deputy chief of the New York City fire department was asleep when the terrorist-hijacked plane flew into the first tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. On vacation, he had turned off his phone’s ringer.
“I was going to sleep in — that was the plan,” Norman said in a video interview with the NRA’s Life of Duty “Trial by Fire” series.
He was unaware of what happened until his answering machine received an “all call” message from the department. Still not knowing exactly what was going on, Norman remembered turning on the TV and seeing what the rest of the country and the world would be glued to for countless weeks following.
“As I’m just about to turn off the TV and head for the door, the south tower collapses. I thought it was a bomb,” he said.
It took him an hour and a half to get into the city and to the staging area for first responders.
Heading out to help survivors and put out fires, Norman said “just walking down the street put me in shock.”
In the wake of the towers falling and the search and rescue that followed for days, weeks afterward, Norman was put in charge of the search operation, after those previously in this leadership position were killed. But his history with the World Trade Center goes much further back than that fateful day.
His first job out of college was to run the high-pressure standpipe riser for the WTC complex, Norman said of his job working for a sprinkler system company.
“The towers at the time, they were not the iconic figures that they became,” he said, noting the south building wasn’t even finished yet.
This experience knowing high-rise building construction would be valuable to later in his career.
“I knew all the underground passages. I knew places that the public never got to see. So yeah, that was tremendously valuable to me,” he continued.
Among the many things that struck him that day of the debris field were the papers.
“The thing I remember, besides the dust, is the papers. Paper everywhere. The whole graveyard here filled with paper,” he said as he walked by the area now 12 years removed from the attack. “The whole street, everything is filled with paper from the tower.”
The landscape as a whole was “surreal,” he said. “It looks like you’re on the surface of the moon.”
One of his most poignant stories was when he found the team of Rescue 1, a team he had left just two years prior. All members of the team were dead, their bodies trapped under steel so heavy that it would require construction equipment so specialized that it take three weeks to get to them. Fire was coming underneath the crew that Norman led, so he ordered a member of his team to cut off the hand of one of Rescue 1.
“My thinking at the time was, I want to have something to identify these guys before the fire consumes their body entirely,” he recalled.
“That’s how bad this was,” he said. “I pray to this day that the guy that I gave the order to…that he doesn’t have nightmares over doing that to one of his best friends, cutting his arm off. But at the time, we thought it was the thing to do.”
Watch the NRA’s full feature with Norman’s story:
Although Norman says nothing can prepare someone for what they had to deal with after the attacks on 9/11, he does attribute the skills he was able to use at the time — and in other fires — to what he learned at Oklahoma State University’s School of Fire Protection.