Among the staggering statistics resulting from the 9/11 attacks are those associated with New York City’s fire department. On Sept. 11, at the World Trade Center, it suffered the loss of 343 firefighters, whose deaths represented 4,400 years of cumulative training, nerve and wisdom. When the towers collapsed, age and experience on the job were meaningless protections. Fate claimed chiefs and “probies” alike that morning.
When the south tower toppled and fell onto his command post, William M. Feehan perished. At age 71 he was the oldest first responder killed on 9/11. The FDNY veteran was also a living legend, having held every rank within the department from his 1959 appointment as a probationary firefighter through his promotion to firefighter (Division 3, Ladder 3), lieutenant, chief of department, deputy fire commissioner and first deputy fire commissioner. Although holding a civilian administrative title on 9/11, he had remained Chief Feehan in the parlance of thousands of uniformed firefighters who worked with him and alongside him. During his storied FDNY tenure, Feehan reportedly mastered the location of every fire hydrant in New York City. As the son of a firefighter, he was pleased when one of his sons joined the FDNY, extending the family’s career tradition into a third generation. Feehan, a native of Long Island City, Queens, lived in Flushing.
In the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s “In Memoriam” exhibition, Feehan will be remembered not only as a proud firefighter but also for the life he led off duty, which his four grown children take pride in recounting. This includes his distinguished service in the Army during the Korean War and his passion for military history, exampled in the expeditions he took to Civil War battlefields over the years. The cornerstone of his identify, however, was his dedication to the fire department, a reality honored in two extraordinary objects his family recently donated to the museum’s collection. The first, which is a New York State license plate reading 2 FD that was removed from the car in which Feehan sped downtown on 9/11, shows his status as the FDNY’s second highest ranking official. On that day he was also the second highest ranking FDNY official killed, after Chief Peter Ganci. Feehan’s colleagues retrieved the special plate and gave it to his children.
The second object preserves his rank in a more explicit but intimate way: a gilt badge, bearing four stars and his title as first deputy commissioner, that Feehan wore on 9/11. It was recovered with his body.
In 1992, an oral history with then-Chief Feehan was conducted by his son, Billy, and photographer Harvey Wang. The recording later was broadcast under the Sound Portraits radio documentaries name which preceded founder David Isay’s creation of StoryCorps. The 9/11 Memorial Museum is privileged to present a segment from it in homage to the integrity and devotion of the men and women of the New York City Fire Department, and for all those remarkable public servants who have risked, and paid the price of their lives, to save others in peril.
By Jan Ramirez, Chief Curator and Director of Collections for the 9/11 Memorial Museum