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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Just when I think things can’t get any more tense, the storm front moves in. The wind begins to whip up, with gusts exceeding 30 mph, stirring settled dust back into a Maelstrom. Chief Fellini expresses concern over the broken window panes dangling precariously from tall buildings on all four sides of the site and the danger they present to the workers below. He had already assigned a contingent of men to clear glass from above, but there was a lot to do. The imminent suspension of activities until the storm passes forces Mike and I to head back to the hotel for some much-needed rest and food. After we make it back to midtown and the refuge of the lobby, the storm hits, unleashing a torrential downpour for several hours. Oddly enough, we are both too pumped to sleep, despite the overwhelming fatigue. Instead of heading straight to bed, we hang out in the lobby restaurant, talking, staring in disbelief as TV monitors portray the attacks over and over, from every conceivable angle. Our senses are continually bombarded by the madness of it all, hammering us to the point where we don’t want to look anymore, yet our eyes unconsciously turn back to the screen with every clip shown. Finally, at around 2 o’clock, we call it a day and part ways until the morning, each looking forward to a hot shower and a few unsettling Zs, as the rain comes down in gusty torrents outside. We agree to meet in the lobby at 7 A.M.

DAY 4. With the rain passing while we slept, Mike and I greet one another in the lobby, already looking forward to getting down to the site. It is sunny again, in the 70s. We eat a quick breakfast and then head back to work. After arriving, we are met with muddy streets and sidewalks where ash, dust and debris once lay, a foot thick in places. I’m still walking around in dress clothes, looking like a waiter and feeling very awkward.

Midway through a busy morning, I receive a cell phone call that my bags have finally caught up with me, due to the efforts of one of my employees. I had asked that Jim also bring with him 30 small 8 1/2-by-11-inch booklets containing all the site plans, USAR grids and “fire department summary sheets” for the surrounding buildings we have pre-planned. Labeled “F.D. Data,” these booklets contain valuable information and are quickly distributed to the OEM, fire and police command posts, in addition to all the FEMA teams. As a backup, Jim includes in his package extra complete pre-plans for the Empire State Building and the New York Stock Exchange, in the event they are targeted as well. I keep these at the hotel, in case they are needed.

After our morning talk with Steve, Bob and the guys at the SOC tent, I head out on my never-ending quest to locate the remaining blueprints we so desperately need, specifically for the twin towers’ sub-levels and concourse area. As I’m leaving the tent, I meet an entourage of federal agents who ask for me by name. I just know I’ve done something wrong and feel a sudden compulsion to place my hands behind my back to be handcuffed, or run like mad. They immediately ease my concerns by stating that they have been assigned to me to provide any assistance I might require in carrying out the tasks I’ve set out to accomplish. They are from the State Department and look like a serious group of people.

After some brief introductions, they let me know they have several vehicles staged and ready to take me anywhere. These are the same folks who provide transportation and added security for the President and other dignitaries when they visit the city. Each wears a dark-blue windbreaker with “State Department” emblazoned across the back in bold yellow letters and, yes, they carry big guns too. For the next six days, they prove to be an invaluable resource, taking me anywhere I need to go.

These folks are very, very good at what they do. They are highly professional, yet friendly and, as it turns out, great to work with. One of them even jokes about my “waiter look” and asks if I am going to be dressed like this the whole time we are working together. About this time, Mike comes to my rescue again, handing me three NYTF1 T-shirts and suggesting I put one on. He says it will help me in getting around the site and through security. My dress attire must be getting to everyone. Since I can’t take it anymore either and with my clothes finally having arrived, I ask the agents for a lift to my hotel. We are off on our first “assignment” together, in one of those big black Suburbans with the tinted windows. After quickly changing into some comfortable, casual duds and new T-shirt, I carefully double-bag all my clothes from day one, shoes included, and hand them to the maid in the hallway to be disposed of, along with a ten-spot. As contaminated as they are, I don’t ever want to wear them again and most certainly would not put them in my washing machine.

Out the door and to the Javits Center. The place has been transformed into one giant “holding pen” for all the FEMA teams. I hook back up with Mike and we walk over to speak with Fred Endrikat, the FEMA honcho and lieutenant of the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Rescue 1. Fred and I know one another, and it is good to see him again – and very good to see him here in New York. He is one of the best in the business in urban search and rescue and is a guy you want on “the big one.” His easygoing demeanor belies his commanding presence and strong spirit. With guys like him, Mike, Steve Spall and Bob Athanas, I know the people that might still be alive below grade are in the best hands possible. Their chances of survival couldn’t be higher with any other group of individuals. They are disaster specialists and are as talented as they come.