As we come to the 19th anniversary of 9/11, the New York City Fire Department has renamed its highest award for bravery from that of an avowedly racist newspaper publisher who supported slavery to that of the chief who died while directing operations at the World Trade Center.
After he nearly perished in the collapse of the South Tower, Chief Peter Ganci remained in harm’s way as he sought to evacuate its stricken twin. He died as an exemplar of the FDNY’s finest traditions.
“I’m not leaving my men,” he was heard to say in his final moments.
In permanently renaming the James Gordon Bennett Medal to the Chief of Department Peter J. Ganci, Jr. Medal, the current fire commissioner emphasized that the FDNY was not just doing its bit in a nationwide exorcism that began with the toppling of Confederate statues in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.
“This change is not meant to erase history, and it does not discredit the actions, memory, or valor of the 152 members of our Department who have been awarded this medal since its inception,” FDNY Commissioner Dan Nigro said in a written statement. “Instead, this important change is meant to help us create a better present and future for our FDNY, one we can all be proud of.”
Nigro was a chief serving under Ganci on 9/11 and had been making his way around the scene so he could report what he saw back to the command post when the North Tower collapsed. Ganci and other top commanders were killed. Nigro survived to now lead the FDNY in providing us with another example to follow.
Nigro began by making clear what the FDNY cannot tolerate.
“The James Gordon Bennett Medal was endowed by its namesake to honor Firefighters who saved his home. However, Bennett also held deeply racist beliefs and used his newspaper to repeatedly express hateful views in full support of slavery. These views have no place in any society, and I believe we must cease including this individual’s name, and therefore his legacy, in our annual celebration.”
Then Nigro took the FDNY beyond canceling to affirming, to seeking out and honoring what is best in the past, what touches us as most worthy of remembering, what can bring us together.
“Our highest honor for bravery to a Firefighter or Fire Officer should be named for an individual who swore an oath to serve others and who once crawled down a hallway like all our Firefighters have done to search for New Yorkers trapped by fire. It should be named for a legendary Chief who is still revered by all of us so many years after his death.”
Nigro further affirmed, “This award for bravery should not be tied to someone who never served the FDNY, risked his life to save others, and who advocated for hate and slavery. That award should be named for the Chief who was leading our troops on our darkest day, a great man who gave his life overseeing the greatest rescue operation in FDNY history.”
Selfless courage such as Ganci displayed at Ground Zero had often been shown by him and other firefighters in burning tenements and other fires remembered only by them and the people they saved. Ganci’s two firefighter sons and their present comrades do the same, a routine of the remarkable.
Each year since 1869, the department has awarded the James Gordon Bennett Medal to the firefighter deemed to have shown the most extraordinary bravery. The mythic status that the medal acquired in the FDNY had nothing at all to do with its namesake and everything to do with the firefighters who received it over the decades.
The name James Gordon Bennett was synonymous only with the bravest of The Bravest. Few if any of the recipients of the past century knew anything about the man referred to in an inscription on the back of the medal, around the outer edge.
“ENDOWED BY A FUND CONTRIBUTED BY JAMES GORDON BENNETT”
The recipient in 1969, the centenary, was Firefighter James Tempro of Engine Company 217 in Brooklyn. He and his comrades had been just around the corner when they received a radio report of a fire in a tenement. They arrived to see flames roaring out two front windows on the second floor.
The firefighter entered and quickly stretched a line up the stairs. But the blaze was becoming so intense so quickly that the officer, Lt. Harry Dresch, said they should pull back until the hose was charged with water.
Tempro was beginning to follow Dresch out when he heard a moan come from the blinding smoke and flames. Tempro immediately understood the significance of the sound.
“The person was alive enough to moan,” Tempro later said. “So, I turned and crawled back toward where I heard it coming from... I couldn’t see anything.”
He had gone maybe 15 feet, sweeping with his hands until he felt something he immediately recognized.
“A child,” he later said.
He felt the rush that he always experienced in a fire when he suddenly encountered a life in extreme peril.
“Your heart is in your throat,” he would recall. “When you make the discovery, it is an elation. But things are happening so fast, you’re asking, ‘How am I going to get out of here now?’”
Tempro immediately pulled the unconscious child under him, using his body as a shield. Firefighters are taught to concentrate on how they enter a fire so they will be able to find their way back out, but you can become disoriented in highly stressful moments when you have only touch and sound to guide you. Tempro was saved from that by the shouts of his comrades.
“I heard the guys yelling,” he recalled. “That’s what guided me.”
The fire roared between him and safety and he understood he had to move faster than crawling would allow.
“I got to get up and get out of here,” he remembered telling himself.
But he was crawling to begin with because flame and burning gases and deadly heat were directly above him. He continued shielding the child as circumstances forced him to rise to the height of a scramble and head toward the shouting.
“Right out of the apartment,” he later said. “I lost my helmet. They never found it. It was consumed.”
Tempro and a boy who turned out to be just 2 years old were both admitted to Cumberland Hospital for smoke inhalation and burns. The firefighter spent several days in an oxygen tent before he was able to check on the boy, who proved to be well on the way to recovery.
“I said, ‘You better become a good man because that almost killed us,’” Tempro recalled.
The following June, Tempro received the James Gordon Bennett Medal for the rescue. Tempro still knew nothing about the man for whom his mythic award was named when he retired in 1992, having served 32 years. His son became an FDNY fire marshal.
On September 11, 2001, Tempro and his wife, Beverly, an elementary school teacher, were at John F. Kennedy Airport on the way to see a niece in Buffalo. They had just boarded a plane when they were told that there would be no more take-offs that day.
Tempro knew dozens of the 343 members of the FDNY who died that day. Among them was Pete Ganci, with whom he had fought fires in Brooklyn. The number rose to 344 if you included retired FDNY firefighter Phil Hayes, who had been on the nozzle, putting water on a blaze in 1974, when Tempro rescued a 24-year-old woman and her 4-year-old daughter. Hayes was working as the fire safety director at the World Trade Center when he was killed.
Tempro still had the medal that people in the FDNY spoke about the way those in the military speak about the Medal of Honor. He came to ask himself a question in 2017.
“Who is this guy James Gordon Bennett?”
He googled the name.
“Holy shit,” he remembers saying as he read the results.
What he saw was all the more shocking because of something that was never a factor for him or his comrades in the blinding smoke.
Tempro is African-American. And he now saw that the medal he had so proudly received and treasured had been named after a newspaper publisher who expressed such sentiments in the New York Herald as “the whole history of negro insurrections proves that there is no race of men so brutal and bloody-minded as the negro” and “the negro, once roused to bloodshed and in possession of arms, is as uncontrollable and irrational as a wild beast.”
Bennett’s newspaper used a racial slur up to a dozen times on a single page. He described the conflict between the north and the south as Lincoln’s “n---er war.”
Some historians believe Bennett helped incite the bloody Draft Riots of 1863, during which gangs of whites burned down an orphanage for Black children and carried out numerous lynchings, while also torching the offices of a rival newspaper.
Bennett continued to voice support for slavery after the war’s end. He wrote that segregation and other racist structures that persisted in the South with the help of the Ku Klux Klan resulted from “the growth of two hundred years of political cultivation under the Constitution of the United States.”
But none of that appears to have been of any consequence when the fledgling FDNY received a letter from Gordon’s son on April 13, 1869. The son said his father had been particularly impressed by the firefighters who responded to a blaze at his country home the previous September and he was enclosing $1,500 to endow an annual gold medal. The father had sent another $500 to Tiffany & Co. to cast it.
A measure of Gordon’s prominence came when the department replied in the affirmative in a letter dated just three days later, saying, “Although it will be difficult to make the selection from so much individual merit, as the Department is developing, we accept the trust with a full appreciation of the compliment conferred in our selection as trustees of your fathers’ generous endowment.”
More than 150 years afterwards, one of those recipients was stunned and horrified to learn the full truth.
“As a Black man to wear that medal with what he stood for, with his racism…” Tempro said.
In September of 2017, Tempro told the New York Daily News that the time had come to change the name of the James Gordon Bennett Medal.
Nothing happened and Tempro contemplated returning the medal as questions of racial justice became ever more pressing in recent months.
Then, on Tuesday, Tempro’s phone rang. Nigro was calling.
“He told me they were changing the medal,” Tempro recalled. “I was elated.”
Nigro thanked Tempro for having raised the issue. Tempro was all the more pleased by what he heard next. Nigro told him that the FDNY was proceeding past canceling to affirming, with the new Chief of Department Peter J. Ganci, Jr. Medal.
Ganci had been in Ladder 111 in Brooklyn when Tempro had been in Engine 217. They had often responded to the same fires.
“We ran in together a lot,” Tempro said. “Pete was a good guy.”
Tempro again used that word “elated.”
“Especially for his family,” Tempro said. “You can imagine what that means for them.”