10 Days At Ground Zero

The following story is dedicated to all the rescuers killed at the World Trade Center incident on Sept. 11, 2001. This tragedy portrayed the sheer evil hidden in man’s darker side and, in turn, the heroes who rise above it all. (Note: Because this...


The following story is dedicated to all the rescuers killed at the World Trade Center incident on Sept. 11, 2001. This tragedy portrayed the sheer evil hidden in man’s darker side and, in turn, the heroes who rise above it all. (Note: Because this article was written five months after the event...


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Military helicopters constantly circle overhead, while jet fighters continue to patrol from a higher altitude. At least they won’t be attacking anymore from the air, I’m thinking. I spend most of the day trying to track down any blueprints that can be found on the complex. No one seems to know where a surviving set might be and it becomes more frustrating. The crews probing the sub-levels are trying to search a site 16 acres in size, under extremely difficult conditions. Some can find no access to these areas because stairwells are blocked by debris. We could really use those prints about now.

Out of the blue, my phone rings. Cell phone service must be back up. It is a supervisor from the General Services Administration, who was given my cell number by the incident commander. He has a nearly complete set of drawings of most of the complex, except for the twin towers and sub-level shopping concourse. Finally, something goes right! He is at the Federal Building, about 10 blocks from where I am. Asked if he can get them to the command post, I am told no, as he has no security clearance to the site. I tell him, “Neither do I, technically,” but agree to go to him. He states they are in “lockdown,” so he’ll meet me in the lobby and will escort me up to his floor. I tell him I’ll be there in 20 minutes.

Working my way back through a checkpoint, I am challenged by a National Guardsman for ID. I tell him I have none with me, but have been at the site for two days and am working with the fire department. He then explains that I need a clearance badge. I’m directed to a nearby building where the police department has set up its command post. I go there, only to find out that they haven’t started making any badges, so I am told to use my driver’s license until an ID process is established. My license is back at the hotel in my briefcase (I don’t carry a wallet). I go back to the checkpoint and advise the guard, who in turn, tells me I need an ID or cannot pass back through.

Just as a spirited discussion breaks out, once again, someone comes to my rescue. A guy wearing an FBI jacket overhears the conversation about why I have to get to the Federal Building and steps in, whips out his badge and vouches for me. Instant credibility! The next thing you know, he becomes my escort and fast friend. For the rest of my time spent at the disaster, he gets me anywhere I need to go – or he feels I should go. I mean anywhere. The Federal Building, the Jacob Javits Center (temporary home of FEMA), police and FBI command posts, the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management headquarters, the mayor and governor’s command posts, you name it. He quickly acquires for me all the magical badges and IDs necessary to get around. His name is Mike (last name withheld for security reasons) and he is the real-life version of Superman. He’ll probably never forgive me for saying this, but I’m not kidding. He is a liaison officer to the FBI on loan from the NYPD, a select group called the Joint Task Force on Terrorism. In addition to being a detective, he is a paramedic and search and rescue expert, one of the best in the world. He is a member of both FEMA and New York Task Force 1 (NYTF1), an elite squad of police and fire urban search and rescue specialists. He has responded to, dealt with and investigated just about every major disaster affecting U.S. interests in the last 10 years. Everything from the two U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, to the U.S.S. Cole attack in Yemen, to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the recent Puerto Rico hurricane. Now here he is, doing his thing again on his home turf. (He later investigated the anthrax incidents in New York, as well as the Queens airplane crash late last year – he was even the first officer to handle the Tom Brokaw letter.) This man is unbelievable. He does it all and is extremely intelligent. Not the guy you want chasing you if you’re a terrorist.

My new pal, Mike, gets me over to the Federal Building, where we choose the prints that are useful to us and head back to the site. He takes me to the newly established NYTF1 tent on Chambers and introduces me to all the guys, including one named Steve Spall. Steve is another search and rescue guru with the FDNY and knows Mike through the task force. You can tell quickly by the way he acts and speaks that he is an ace too, clearly “knowing his stuff.” Soon, we are advised that a few people have called 911 dispatch centers and reported themselves to be trapped in various places in the rubble. One woman claims she is trapped in a clothing store in the mall called Strawberry, another says she is in Duane Reade, a pharmacy. They couldn’t offer any details as to where they were in relation to nearby streets, so we are left to our own means in determining their location. The fact that the sub-grade mall is the largest shopping center in Manhattan, totaling 200 shops and restaurants, makes our task that much more difficult.