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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Although a grim task lies ahead, resources are precious and it is agreed they must be used wisely and effectively. Searches must be concentrated on the highest areas of potential survivability. My notes and drawings are done on large sheets of poster board and held up for the audience by a team member. It is crude, but it succeeds in getting the main points across.
Everyone seems to be clutching a bottle of water, as it is warm and everyone is working at a feverish pace. The faces staring back at me display tremendous determination and grit. People from all occupations and backgrounds are working together as one cohesive unit. A team. We have been attacked, yet no one is faltering.
Jeff takes over again and the briefing concludes with the agreement we all meet back here in six hours. I head over to the tent to see what the guys are up to. As I’m approaching the entrance, a police officer suddenly walks up to me and advises that they have just received a message that several fellow police officers are reported to be alive, but trapped in the rubble. It was reported at the scene itself by a nurse in uniform. She stated that she talked to her husband, a police officer, and was told that he and several fellow officers were trapped at a specific location. This report, though, is a hoax, and the woman ends up being unstable. What a waste of time and resources! The question arises whether the other reports are legitimate, although they must be acted on until proven false.
The scene remains a flurry of activity. The pressure and adrenaline remain high. The sounds of helicopters, construction equipment and portable generators fill the air. The night wears on, seemingly endless. After traveling between the command post and the NYTF1 tent for hours, fatigue is beginning to overtake me. The last sleep I had was two days ago and as activity away from the site slows approaching 3 o’clock, I can feel the adrenaline subsiding. After a brief conversation with Chief Haring, who is still working like a machine, I walk back through the security checkpoint to the dimly lit tent. The search crews who were there earlier have gone to the site. The two guys manning the tent are exhausted and trying to catch a quick nap. They too have been working long hours and it shows.
It is relatively quiet, even the radio has minimal activity, so I sit in a chair to flush my eyes again. The constant burning is annoying. I tilt my head, my eyes clamped shut, letting the cool liquid work its short-lived magic. The urge to rest is overwhelming, so I lean forward and put my head in my hands, letting my thoughts wander, taking me back through the past two days. A single light bulb behind the desk begins shorting, blinking off for a few moments, then back on again, over and over while the generators hum away outside the tent, in perfect cadence. One hour until the next briefing. No time to stop now, so back to work. I need to study those drawings some more. The night slowly turns into dawn and we have been blessed with excellent weather.
DAY 3. A new day unfolds on this tragedy, another day of hope. Everyone seems upbeat that we will pull another victim from the rubble alive, yet we all realize time is running out. Spirits slip when we are told the rescue made yesterday was of a rescue worker who had fallen into a void space, so nothing after day one. At the tent, now designated as Special Operations Command (SOC) HQ, I meet another search and rescue specialist from the FDNY, Bob Athanas. Terrific guy. Extremely talented and knowledgeable, just like Steve and Mike. We talk about the effort and our rapidly diminishing chances of success. Still no live hits.
The estimate for missing firefighters is now up to 300 and rising. Damn! Why is it going up? Steve Spall walks in and joins the conversation. He enlightens us that in Kobe, Japan, a baby was rescued after 13 days in the remains of a building brought down by the earthquake. We agree to use that as our benchmark. As Steve leaves the tent and heads back to “the pile,” he pauses to say, “We’ve gotta have a miracle here!” Then he strides on in silent confidence … and in defiance of it all. I envy him for his resilience and his courage to believe in miracles.