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Middle Village Sept. 11 hero comes out of retirement to join FDNY commissioner’s civilian staff

Feb. 21, 2023 By Bill Parry

Faced with a leadership crisis on her executive staff, FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh appointed Middle Village’s Joseph Pfeifer as First Deputy Commissioner, the second-highest civilian rank in the department.

Pfeifer retired at the rank of assistant chief in July 2018 following a legendary 37 career in the FDNY, 18 years after he was the first battalion chief to arrive at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As first deputy commissioner and strategic leader, the 67-year-old Pfeifer is charged with managing the day-to-day operations and activities of the FDNY across all offices and bureaus.

“Joe Pfeifer is an incredible and innovative leader,” Kavanagh said in an FDNY press release Saturday. “He served as one of New York City’s Bravest for decades, created partnerships and programs that enhanced the safety and training of our members, and has always been there for our city, especially on our darkest days. Having already worked closely with Joe for many years, I am thrilled he has returned home to the FDNY and joined our executive team.”

Joseph Pfeifer came out of retirement after FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh appointed him First Deputy Commissioner Saturday. (Courtesy of FDNY)

Kavanagh made no mention of the mutiny among her top chiefs in recent weeks and neither did Mayor Eric Adams, who praised Pfeifer’s return to the FDNY.

“Chief Joe Pfeifer embodies what it means to be New York’s Bravest, being the first chief to respond to the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 and founding the department’s Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness,” Adams said. “With nearly 40 years of experience with the FDNY, he is an excellent choice to assume one of the highest-ranking positions in this great department and is someone that New Yorkers and firefighters can count on to innovate in all aspects of fire prevention and safety.”

Pfeifer began his career in 1981 assigned to Engine Company 234 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In 1987, he was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to Ladder Company 128 in Long Island City, and in 1993 he was promoted to captain and assigned to Engine Company 307 in Jackson Heights. A promotion to Battalion Chief in 1997 led to his assignment to Battalion 1 in Lower Manhattan.

Pfeifer was checking a gas leak in Tribeca at 8:46 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when he heard the roar of jet engines and looked up to see the American Airlines jetliner slam into the North Tower a few blocks away. He was the first chief on the scene and set up a command post inside the burning tower. Just 17 minutes later, the second jet slammed into the South Tower.

With the elevators shut down, Pfeifer began ordering hundreds of firefighters to start climbing the stairs to the 70th floor to begin rescuing survivors, including his own brother, Lieutenant Kevin Pfeifer, who was one of the 343 FDNY firefighters who were lost when the towers collapsed.

After he retired in 2018, Pfeifer served as a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School; a senior fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point; and as the director for crisis leadership at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. Last April he was named a recipient of the Christopher Award for his critically acclaimed “Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11,” which recalled the heroism he witnessed that day.

“Growing up in Middle Village, I never thought I would write a book, let alone win an award for writing a book,” he told QNS.

Following his appointment as First Deputy Commissioner, Pheifer reflected on his storied career.

“The heart of the FDNY is the ability to unify efforts to solve complex problems in the face of great tragedy,” Pheifer said. “Our united team is a sign of resilience to reflect on the past and envision the future so that we can enhance the present.”

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