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Thomas von Essen, the chief of New York's fire service
Thomas von Essen, the chief of New York's fire service
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: THOMAS VON ESSEN, New York Fire Chief

NOVEMBER 18TH, 2001

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: The New York Fire Chief Thomas Von Essen has won plaudits all around the world for his sensitive and brave handling of the rescue operation. This week he came to Britain on a flying 12 hour visit to receive the WALPOL Humanitarian Award on behalf of the New York Fire Department. I caught up with him earlier and began by asking him whether he'd had time on that brief trip to Britain to appreciate the level of fellow feeling, the sense of shared sympathy there is between Britain and America at the moment.

THOMAS VON ESSEN: Absolutely. I, I've gotten that sense meeting with your Prime Minister, who I could see the feeling in his eyes how much pain he had when I took him to Ground Zero. And going to London to receive the award and watching my firefighters, how well you treated them, talking to the people from WALPOL and everyone else who came to the event, it was unbelievable, the sense of support and compassion.

DAVID FROST: And the feeling towards firefighters in America as a result of all this heroism, with the 343 losses and so on, I mean the firefighter is perhaps the most respected symbol in America at the moment.

THOMAS VON ESSEN: Well deserved. Not just in America, I think all around the world people understand now that the firefighter is the first responder, the police officer right there with him, the two groups of men and women that are going to make the difference in how quickly an emergency of any type is handled. So I'm glad that, unfortunately this tragedy had to bring it to everybody's attention, but it's nice to see them getting their well deserved recognition.

DAVID FROST: And what are the moments of September the 11th, in particular of the following days, you were right there at the spot, what are the moments that are going to live with you, or haunt you, forever?

THOMAS VON ESSEN: The whole day after the collapse, just getting more and more reports and more and more information about how many friends and fellow workers and, you know, other firefighters and, that were lost, I don't think I'll ever get over that.

DAVID FROST: I can understand that and I guess it's that emotional pressure of so many funerals, so many memorials, that has decided you to retire from your post.

THOMAS VON ESSEN: Yes I love the job, I really wanted to stay, I would have worked, I think, with any new mayor, but the personal contact I have with widows and the firefighters who feel such grief and such pain over losing their friends and their co-workers, the personal contact I've had from being in a department for 31 years, I think it's just too much for me, I've gone through, I'll go through it these three months, four months, but after that they need a fresh face, someone who comes in and looks at it, I think, a little bit less personally and try to take them forward in the future.

DAVID FROST: And will you retire completely or look for a new challenge?

THOMAS VON ESSEN: No I'm a civil servant so I'm not a rich man, I'll look for a job and hopefully find something that's challenging, that I can make a, you know, make a difference and do something that's meaningful to me.

DAVID FROST: And what about the morale of the Fire Department? I mean obviously they're heroes and so on, but on the other hand morale must in some ways be shattered.

THOMAS VON ESSEN: Well the department is really broken, you know the spirit is, is so fragmented. You know they get through the day they're in the fire house, they'll have their moments of they're able to forget for a little while and have a few laughs, but you can't get away from it, you're constantly affected by a widow that might call, or a, a memory that you have of a co-worker, a citizen will come in to tell you how grateful they are. So the firefighters can't get away from it, they, they need to get home for a few days and be with their loved ones. And that's helping and it will take time, morale is down but they'll be back, it's the greatest group of men in the world and they'll be fine but it's going to take a long time.

DAVID FROST: And you must have felt, commissioner, this week with that terrible plane crash, oh no, God, not again - as every paper in Britain said. I mean that was a cruel addendum to everything wasn't it?

THOMAS VON ESSEN: Yes it was. When I got the original call I thought it had come down horizontally, I thought it would have taken out two or three blocks and maybe hundreds of homes. We were fortunately, a horrible tragedy for the four houses that it totally destroyed and the families that were lost, but in comparison, it was good the way it came down vertically. A horrible tragedy for all the people on the plane and for those affected but in a way from the big scheme of things we were very lucky.

DAVID FROST: Yes it could have been worse.

THOMAS VON ESSEN: Yes.

DAVID FROST: Well we thank you so much for being with us today and once again we feel that award is tremendously well deserved - and I hear you'll be back here to receive the CBE quite soon.

THOMAS VON ESSEN: That's right, I'm going to be a commander. I'm looking forward to going there and, back in January I think, and I'll be able to enjoy myself for a few days. I just want to thank the people at WALPOL and all of you folks for treating my guys and their wives so well. They've had a, they've had a ball over there.

DAVID FROST: Well in that case let me now say not only thank you commissioner but thank you commander.

THOMAS VON ESSEN: Thank you sir.


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