Long before he died during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, FDNY First Deputy Commissioner William M. Feehan was a legendary figure among the ranks.
When he died at age 71 in the collapse of the south tower, Feehan was the oldest and highest-ranking firefighters ever to die in the line of duty at the FDNY. He was also the first to hold every single rank during his remarkable 42-year career.
Born in Long Island City in 1929, Feehan grew up in Jackson Heights. He graduated from St. John’s University in 1952 and then joined the Army and served in combat during the Korean War.
Feehan was a substitute teacher before joining the FDNY in 1959 starting a journey that led to a brief tenure as acting fire commissioner during the final months of the Dinkins administration. When the Giuliani administration moved into City Hall, Feehan stayed on in a leadership role.
On 9/11, Feehan was alongside Chief of Department Peter Ganci, another firefighting hero from Queens, when he spotted a bystander recording people as they jumped to the death from the raging inferno in both towers.
“Don’t you have any decency,” Feehan shouted.
At his wake two days later at the Martin Gleason Funeral Home in Whitestone, groups of firefighters arrived in their gear straight from Ground Zero as the NYPD blocked traffic on Northern Boulevard.
Former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone observed the scene outside the funeral home and described Feehan as “a rock.”
“They all need a Bill Feehan to tell them what to do,” Vallone said. “He was the power behind the throne.”
A new documentary film on Feehan will premiere during the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Titled “Chief,” in honor of the rank Feehan most identified with, the highest non-appointed rank that firefighters can achieve through promotions based on their service and experience, the nearly 25-minute documentary follows Feehan’s actions at the World Trade Center interspersed with highlights of his legendary career in the FDNY.
The film features archival footage and interviews with current and former FDNY brass — including Commissioner Daniel Nigro and former Commissioner Thomas Von Essen — as “always the first out the door” when there was a major FDNY response and as the “knowledge center of the fire department” who advocated for firefighter safety with the mantra, “What did we do for the guys in the field today? How did we work to make their lives better?”
The documentary pays tribute to his legacy of FDNY history — Feehan was said to have known the location of every fire hydrant in the city — and as an advocate for policies that improved safety for firefighters.
The documentary will also honor Feehan’s legacy by increasing awareness of FirstNet, the only nationwide, high-speed broadband communications platform dedicated to and purpose-built for America’s first responders and the extended public safety community. The lack of intra-service connectivity in the radios used by first responders wreaked havoc during the attacks.
“Chief Feehan and 342 of his fellow FDNY members lost their lives on 9/11 and we will never forget their bravery and sacrifice,” FirstNet Authority CEO Edward Parkinson said. “Following 9/11, public safety across the nation joined together to push for a nationwide communication network to help first responders keep themselves safe. FirstNet was born of their efforts. Today, as we work to support America’s first responders, we keep the memory of Chief Feehan and all those who selflessly responded on 9/11 at the center of all that we do.”
Chief will air on public television in New York City during the week of Sept. 6 and it will be publicly screened in person for the first time at the Museum of the City of New York on Saturday, Sept. 11.
Proceeds will support the FDNY’s George F. Mand Library archives at the Fire Academy on Randall’s Island to honor Chief Feehan’s love and deep knowledge of FDNY history.