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The Rediff Interview/Former New York fire chief Daniel Daly

September 26, 2003

Daniel Daly, former chief of the New York fire department, has been granted permission to wear his uniform even after his retirement. He was given this honour for leading his men with fortitude and determination during the 9/11 tragedy.

Fondly referred to as 'Chief Dan Daly,' he visited India recently on a week-long trip. During his stay in New Delhi, he toured  various schools in and around the capital and spoke about the tragic event and its aftermath.

In an exclusive interview with Chief Correspondent Onkar Singh at the American Centre, Daly felt 9/11 has changed America's attitude towards the world, and particularly India which has been fighting terrorism in Kashmir and the Northeast.

How would you describe your experience after the planes struck the twin towers?

When I arrived at Ground Zero there were many feelings and the most pronounced was that of disbelief.

I felt as if I had landed on the moon. The sun had been blacked out by thick dark dust, people were running around covered with blood. It was a different place than the Manhattan I had known.

What was your immediate reaction?

There was a feeling that this could be a nationwide attack and nobody knew how far that would extend.

I was more concerned about the two buildings that could hold 50,000 people. This meant there could be that many victims in the towers.

What went through your mind as you and your men fought a relentless battle in the rubble, rescuing victims and pulling out dead bodies?

It was very, very difficult work. For six months we were walking around with buckets and shovels and picking up tiny pieces of human beings. It was heart rendering and very emotional work.

As volunteers from world over started arriving, it became a place of great inspiration as well.

Ground Zero became a very spiritual place where love and caring became a dominant feature in our emotions.

How difficult were the rescue operations? Do you think the death toll could have been higher?

When we are on rescue operations we are not thinking logically. We are trained to do our job.

When I went to Ground Zero and I saw that huge mass of twisted steel I said, 'Oh my God there could be 50,000 people in there.' The situation was hopeless because we were starting with buckets and shovels. We decided we must go in and do it because there are people in there.

As the days passed and nobody came alive the realisation dawned on us that there would be very few people alive. We were able to rescue 25,000 people but still 2,800 people died.

This was the biggest rescue operation in US history.

Did you ever visualise a situation where fire services would have to tackle a tragedy of this magnitude?

We are trained for terrorist attacks, but never in our wildest imagination did we ever think there would be one of such great magnitude that the buildings would come crumbling down.

So in some respects we were caught off guard.

Has the experience changed you as a human being?

I think it has. I lost 343 co-workers including some of my closest friends who had joined the fire department in New York with me 24 years ago.

When you work in a situation like that where there is so much of death and destruction you cannot help but think about what really matters in life.

I thought a lot about how fragile peace is. How fragile life is. We need to work in that direction. So it has changed me.

I took my retirement last November and have been going around the world and stressing upon the need to work together. Like we did at Ground Zero. Removing rubble together.

Obviously, the idea is to work towards peace and against terrorism. Terrorism can never be an acceptable form of protest.

How are you mobilizing people to join you in your effort against terrorism?

I am trying to bring about some kind of awareness amongst people against terror. Many countries that are already suffering from terrorism are already aware of its ghastly face.

Terrorism brought about by a small minority of people but has enormous power. We have to fight terror.

My focus is children who are going to inherit the world from us. I do not want the young ones to feel that the world is devoid of good and caring people. The world is full of loving and caring people -- that is my message to them.

How has been your trip to India?

Absolutely delightful. I have always liked spicy food and have come to the right country. The people have been simply wonderful. Speaking to school children has always been the brightest part of my trip. When you look into their eyes you feel the future of the planet is bright.

What has been the response in India?

Indians are wonderfully spiritual and intelligent people.

The response has been generally very good. Some of the questions that have been put to me are difficult because they refer to America's political role. I found them very supportive in condemnation of acts of terrorism.

They agree with me that terrorism is not an acceptable form of protest and there are other means by which you can protest.

Is it true that post 9/11 people in the United States understand what we in India have been going through in Kashmir and other parts of the country?

There is no doubt about it. When I stood at Ground Zero, I understood the sorrow of what other countries have been going through for years and particularly India.

It is not just our problem, but it is a worldwide problem.

Is it true that Americans did not care what other countries went through before the terrorist attacks?

That is not true. I think we did care about what other nations were going through. A lot of our foreign policy is about helping people and nations. Once we saw from close quarters the horror of what handful criminals can inflict, it brought the realisation home to us.

We have more compassion for other nations. I think we all realise that. When it comes to terrorism there are no distinct choices.

If that is so, then why make friends with Pakistan which has been exporting terrorism?

I cannot respond to that question because I am not knowledgeable about what is going on between the governments of the US, Pakistan and India.

If the US is making friends with nations like Pakistan then it is to get to the root of terrorism. We all need to work together to give our children a safe world.

The stronger the action we take against terrorism, the stronger the backlash. Is that true?

Unfortunately, that is true. But this does not mean we take no action against those who indulge in terror. It would not be correct to do so.

It is only a matter of time that those who strike terror have weapons of mass destruction like nuclear weapons. If that does happen then it would be a scenario beyond repair. That is why we need to look at this problem with a sense of urgency.

Do you ever get up in the middle of the night and say 'Oh God, this should not have happened?'

Yes, that happens sometimes. When I travel by air and look at Ground Zero I still cannot believe that the whole thing could have happened.

One of the things that stand out in my memory is when I found the hand of a woman with a ring on it. I thought this woman was married, she had a husband and a family and it was just not another piece of flesh.

I cry a lot. This journey is difficult, but it is worth it because it is a part of my healing process.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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