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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After I hang up, it suddenly occurs to me that all train stations, as well as airports, are going to be shut down very soon because it is obvious we are under attack by terrorists. I then decide that I am going to have to drive up there, if I can even approach the city by car. Given that Manhattan is an island, it is also a given that all bridges and tunnels into the city are going to be shut down, as they are prime targets.

The airport public-address system announces that the airport is now officially closed and passengers are to leave all terminals immediately. That’s not a surprise, but I still need my bags. I dash outside to be confronted with a line of about 200 people waiting for cabs. I “convince” the curb attendant to immediately set aside a cab that can take me all the way to New York. He, of course, thinks I’m nuts – I want to go to a city under terrorist attack.

I go back inside and note that the carousel is moving, with my flight number displayed overhead. I wait about three minutes for my bags, then say to heck with it and head back outside. As I leave the terminal, a TV monitor catches my eye. I stop in mid-stride and stare at it, not believing what I am seeing. The twin towers are burning. They look like two birthday candles right after the flames are blown out. Heavy, black smoke is pouring from the tops of both buildings. For a few moments, I can’t take my eyes off the screen, I’m transfixed. It’s as if my mind is failing to accept or absorb what I’ve already been told. An unimaginable tragedy is unfolding right there on live, national TV. It then hits me that those planes were not small propeller planes, as I had thought. Looking at the damage and number of fire floors, I know that they had to be jetliners – with a lot of fuel on board. Hijacked, no doubt.

I thought hijacking was a thing of the past in this country. Everyone on the planes and at points of impact within the towers are surely dead. The death toll must be catastrophic and I am stunned by it. This has to be a bad dream. I snap out of my momentary trance, rush out to the curb and hop in the cab, knowing that it is going to be a very long and challenging ride, with heavy traffic. I urge the driver to go as fast as possible, that I’ll take care of talking to the police if we get pulled over. It will take about five hours to get there.

Clearing the airport, I call the office and am told that the Pentagon has also just been hit. I turn to look back over my shoulder and see a huge column of smoke barely 10 or 15 miles away. God, I’m in a city under attack, trying to get to another city under attack.

I wonder if what I am doing makes sense. Should I head to New York or turn around and head toward the Pentagon? What will I do when, or even if, I reach either site? Can anything I do make a difference? Even though New York is much farther away, I feel there is where the greatest tragedy lies, where the most help is needed, and where our pre-plans and knowledge can do the most good. Although we have no data on the World Trade Center, we do have plans for buildings that surround the complex and are likely to be affected as well, by falling debris.

We continue on in haste to New York. I feel confident that if I can just get there, I should be able to offer enough assistance to the FDNY to at least make my presence justifiable. I decide to call Bob Drennen, a close friend and retired battalion chief from Philadelphia. We talk briefly about the two disasters and then he tells me the towers have fallen. I almost drop the cell phone. It hits me like a sledge hammer. Two 110-story buildings are no longer standing. We discuss the possible death toll and agree it is high. We realize there has to be a huge loss of firefighters, but talk of it only for a few seconds. It is a topic that neither of us wants to contemplate.

I wonder to myself how many of them I knew, then he tells me that another Philadelphia chief, Tom Garrity, is in New York, working on an assignment for us. The knot in my stomach tightens. The office didn’t even mention it to me. Knowing Tom, he’s somewhere in the thick of things, if he’s even alive. I’ve seen both guys on the job, riding with them years ago when I visited their city on business. They are extremely talented, aggressive and tough as nails under pressure. Bob suggests that the office try to reach Tom, to verify he’s OK, then notify his fiance of his status.