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Archive for Saturday, August 24, 2002

Book helps commissioner heal 9-11 wounds

August 24, 2002

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Thomas Von Essen wasn't even sure how he would get through Sept. 11, let alone the days and weeks that followed.

Von Essen, who led the New York City Fire Department that harrowing day when 343 of the men he thought of as his own sons died in the World Trade Center, immediately began logging his thoughts in a journal.

His notes  both administrative and emotional in nature  became an integral part of "Strong of Heart," his book about the 9-11 tragedy and his long career with the New York City Fire Department.

Von Essen, whose daughter lives in Lawrence, signed copies of his book Friday night at Borders, 700 N.H. A dozen or so people filed through the line, exchanging stories with the author about Sept. 11, firefighting or New York as he autographed their books.

Von Essen, New York's 30th fire commissioner, recalls in one of the book's early chapters the jumble of emotions he experienced at a news conference just 12 hours after two hijacked jetliners had careened into the Twin Towers. In one instant, he was helpless, wondering how he would endure the hours and months to come after all the tears, work and worry he had exerted in a single day.

Then, rage. A reporter he had known and respected asked him how it felt to know that at least 300 firefighters were missing in the rubble.

"I felt as if I wanted to rip her throat out," he writes.

Von Essen said writing the book, which hit bookstore shelves this month, had been part of his healing process. He retired from his post as commissioner at the end of 2001, ending a 31-year career with the Fire Department.

The Brooklyn native, now 56, got his start in 1970 in the South Bronx at one of the busiest ladder companies in the city. He later served in leadership roles in the Uniformed Firefighters Assn. and was appointed commissioner by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1996.

Von Essen is known to have clashed with the fire chiefs and unions for much of his tenure as commissioner. However, he said, response to his book has generally been positive.

"I've gotten calls from families of people I really cared about," he said. "That's really more important to me than The New York Times or whoever else. Â If the people you care about like it, that's enough for me."

Von Essen spoke to area firefighters, law enforcement officers and others earlier Friday.

"He's very genuine and compassionate," said Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical Battalion Chief Peter Houston, who attended Von Essen's earlier talk and bought two copies of the book for the author to sign. "You can tell that he carries that event with him every day."

Von Essen's daughter, Pamela Keller, who teaches at Kansas University's School of Law, said she had helped her father by reading a few early drafts of his book. She said he had been so caught up in the business of running the Fire Department after Sept. 11 that he hadn't taken any time for himself.

"For the first few months afterward  he never had time to think about what he was going through," she said. "Hopefully, that's the best part of this book. It gave him a chance to reflect on things."

Von Essen's conclusion, at least as he states it in the book, is that our enduring spirits will help us survive:

"That, for me, is the miracle in all of this: having looked horror in the face, we bear the pain without losing heart."

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