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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Numbness overcomes me and for a few seconds I can’t think of anything to say. I then introduce myself to Chief Fellini’s operations chief, Tom Haring, and we talk briefly about matters at hand. Knowing 7 World Trade Center is on the verge of collapse, he has already established a collapse zone and has removed all personnel from harm’s away. The chief is poised and seems to be getting a good handle on things. As he talks to me with a quiet confidence, the radio crackles with one transmission after another.

He addresses each one quickly and effectively. We discuss the hazardous materials aspects of the incident as we each realize this is not just a terrorist attack and resultant collapse of two tall buildings. There was a significant amount of toxic substances in the towers and it is a given that a fair amount of them had to be released by the compression of the buildings coming down, as well as the fire and smoke now spewing from the rubble. I offer to put together a list of what I believe may be involved for his review. He agrees, as this is a growing concern in his mind, in addition to everything else he is dealing with. Search and rescue is still the obvious priority. Chief Fellini leaves to go talk with other chiefs at the scene.

I stop for a moment and start running people that I have come to know in the FDNY through my head, hoping they’re not among the missing. I know that the downtown area is under the command of Division Chief Pete Hayden and he would be working this week, as I just talked to him yesterday. We would be meeting on Friday. Not now. I just hope we can reschedule, meaning that he is alive. He is a fine man and an excellent fire chief, as good as they come. I hope he’s OK.

One of the guys at the command post mentions to me that one aircraft still has not been accounted for and they are concerned that we could take another hit. It’s enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck, believe me. At that point, we couldn’t sustain another strike. It turns out that the plane that went down outside Pittsburgh is the one that’s missing and the only one that didn’t succeed in hitting a key target. It had been accounted for hours earlier.

Within minutes, I hear a jet overhead. I don’t worry for a second, though. Even before I look up, I note the unmistakable sound of a fighter plane and relief washes over me as I know that the skies above us are now safe and secure. The boys have our backs. It is odd, though, listening to the roar of fighter jets circling Manhattan, instead of the familiar sound of airliners approaching and departing one of the three major airports nearby. I discover later that the Navy is positioning an aircraft carrier off the coast to protect the city’s airspace.

It’s about 5 o’clock. After a little more conversation, I leave the pre-plan for World Financial Center Tower A with the chief’s aid and disappear to find water, as we are all getting dehydrated. It is in the upper 70s, even warmer standing on the pavement. As I wander around, I hear a loud roar. A large dust cloud is heading in my direction. Ducking into a store entrance, the cloud passes fairly quickly as the wind seems to pick up. I am told it was 7 World Trade Center coming down, a 47-story building, two million square feet. Working my way back to the site, I see that the latest “victim” lying on its side, blocking the street and burning intensely. Two nearby buildings on opposite sides were struck by collapsing walls. I pause for a moment, taking it all in. I find the command post again and approach Chief Haring to let him know I’m still working on some things and ask if there is anything else I can do to help. He states that he’s all right for the time being, just missing one more building. It occurs to me that he’s probably been standing there in the middle of the street, with his aide and status board, for hours. I tell him that I’m going to set up a command post for him. He looks at me quizzically and breaks into a slight grin as I take off to the north. I work my way back to the flow of traffic coming in on West Street and corral two volunteer fire department pickup trucks from New Jersey. Great guys and all too eager to help. We head back to my hotel. The hotel staff kindly offers any resources we require, so we take several tables and about two dozen chairs, along with a stack of pads and pens. This should help the chief and his officers keep track of everything. I dash upstairs to grab my camera, but forget my ID, which is dumb. It makes things much more difficult for me later, moving back and forth through the checkpoints until badges can be made.