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November 3, 2011

Fdny Commissioner Thomas Von Essen '72 Reflects on 9/11

Being a good leader means making the best decision possible even when you don’t have all the information you’d like. That’s the situation St. Francis College alumnus Thomas Von Essen ’72 found himself in on September 11, 2001 as he surveyed the devastation after the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, he told a rapt audience on November 3 at St. Francis College. (Watch the whole lecture)

Von Essen recalled that his drive to St. Francis the morning of his talk started the same way as the morning of September 11. It was a beautiful day, as he drove down the East River to FDNY Headquarters in Brooklyn, when he got a call about a small plane hitting one of the towers, sending him immediately to the site. Von Essen told of the first thud he heard, “it sounded like a car hitting the ground, it had such an impact,” before realizing it was a person.

Several times during his talk, he returned to the events of that day as well as the months and years that followed, sharing what he learned on 9/11 as well as during the months of recovery and years since the attacks.

Von Essen, who served for more than 30 years with the Fire Department of New York City, including the last six as Fire Commissioner, said that the path he took that brought him to the command post at the base of the World Trade Center was not something he had originally planned. Von Essen admitted that during his first few years at St. Francis College he was not much of a student and it wasn’t until he returned to college a couple of years later, now with a wife and kids, that he appreciated the value of the degree he was working towards.

For him, the Fire Department was an opportunity to finish college and then go into business, instead as Von Essen accumulated years in the FDNY he realized that he was cut out for leadership in the ranks, moving up to the head of the Firefighters’ Union before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appointed him Fire Commissioner, a job that had never been held by a rank and file fire fighter before.

Von Essen said his experience on the front lines gave him unique insight into the needs of the fire department. But he admitted that on 9/11, the events were so huge, the response so massive, that no amount of planning and no amount of coordination could have brought the scene at the World Trade Center under control.

“I got confirmed information that the Mall of America was hit, that the Sears Tower was hit. Those were untrue reports. That was confirmed information,” said Von Essen in talking about how to respond during a crisis. “You are always as a leader wishing you had more information and you at some point have to make a decision based on information you’re not sure of and your own intuition based on the experience that you have.”

Taking a look at the current state of the FDNY, Von Essen said that even though the department is almost all white, there is no racism when a firefighter goes into a building to save lives. But he stressed that more needs to be done to recruit minorities to the force. He said judicial oversight was not the answer, but rather creative and focused recruiting as well as an emphasis on New York City residents.

Thomas Von Essen’s appearance was hosted by the St. Francis College Sociology and Criminal Justice Department.

Attached photo (Sociology and Criminal Justice Professors Michael Kaune, Nickie Phillips and Emily Horowitz with Thomas Von Essen ’72)

St. Francis College, founded in 1859 by the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, is located in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. Since its founding, the College has pursued its Franciscan mission to provide an affordable, high-quality education to students from New York City’s five boroughs and beyond.


St. Francis College, 180 Remsen Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY 11201

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