WTC: This Is Their Story Part - IV

Numerous FDNY members volunteered for a month at a time to assist in the recovery efforts. Here is their story:

Firefighter Mike Fenick Ladder 48
15 years

Firehouse: I think somebody said that there were 14 teams of six guys each. Is that what they had?

Fenick: Yes.

Firehouse: Was that each tour?

Fenick: Each tour.

Firehouse: You worked with different guys from all over the city?

Fenick: Yeah, there were Bronx guys, Brooklyn guys, Harlem guys.

Firehouse: Did you work with the same guys every night?

Fenick: We worked with our same team every night.

Firehouse: What would your basic day consist of?

Fenick: You would get either the transfer station where the excavator would shake out debris in front of you and then you would go through it with the rake.

Firehouse: In the pit?

Fenick: They had one up high in front of 10 and 10 and they also had two or three of those down in the pit.

Firehouse: They told you what to look for and that if you found anything, you were supposed to stop?

Fenick: Yes, any kind of clothing, body parts, of course, and it's common sense, purses and anything that could be related to a human being.

Firehouse: So what were the kind of things that you'd see when you were there, let's say down at one of the transfer points?

Fenick: At the transfer stations, not much. Bags, handbags, really not like a woman's handbag. Attache cases. Small bones. Sport bags, some clothing, some shoes and sneakers.

Firehouse: Did you find any fire tools?

Fenick: No fire tools. A couple of radios we found smashed up.

Firehouse: Could you tell where they were from?

Fenick: Not the ones that we found, no.

Firehouse: Did you find anything that was recognizable besides rebar or steel?

Fenick: As far as debris, recognizable debris? You mean structural type?

Firehouse: Anything, like a desk or a computer or a chair?

Fenick: Most of it was pretty crushed. You would find a lot of books. One area was filled with books. It must have been in the library. You could tell some chairs.

Firehouse: Could you smell when you found a body?

Fenick: Usually you could smell it. You would also get a lot of smells and there would be nothing around. If you got by a body, you were going to smell it first.

Firehouse: Was it difficult to take a body out of the debris? Did you use other tools besides a rake?

Fenick: Rakes and rebar cutters. It could be difficult. Some of them took quite a while. We had a sifter. They were pouring buckets of dirt into that sifter, sifting it out, finding a lot of bone fragments in there. I did some torch work. That's about it as far as tools.

Firehouse: Did you ever have to go over to the SOC truck? They had the SOC truck over there with extra tools and supplies.

Fenick: No, they had a tool shack at 10 and 10 and you would just say send me this or that and the guy would come zipping down.

Firehouse: What would you ask for?

Fenick: Basically, rebar cutters or that's where they would bring the body bags from, buckets, the sifter.

Firehouse: When you did find a firefighter, was the company called after the extrication was completed, if you knew where he was from? For most of the remains, did you know where they were from?

Fenick: Somebody said there was like 80 in March. I don't know if that's true or not, 80 bodies they found. I would say close to it. I thought it was more like 50 firemen. Well, it could have been other people, too. There were civilians.

Firehouse: Out of the 50, many of them could not be identified?

Fenick: Some of them they couldn't identify.

Firehouse: So now would you put them in the body bag in the Stokes and then carry them up or would somebody else carry them up?

Fenick: That depends. If you were right there when it was going into the bag, you helped put it in the bag.

Firehouse: They called them down there if they weren't there?

Fenick: Yes.

Firehouse: If the guys happened to be there, they took them out or they'd wait for the company to come?

Fenick: If they were local companies, they came. You know 4 Truck came down.

Firehouse: Let's say they couldn't identify a guy, whoever was there walked him all the way up and everybody else got in the line?

Fenick: Right.

Firehouse: So if you were sifting, they just stopped?

Fenick: Time out, shut down all the machines. Everything shut down. Get the M.E. (medical examiner) down there, the chaplain down there.

The chaplain would say a prayer right over the body. The M.E., there was a little bit of a process with the M.E. He would tell you what to do, this and that and he would check all the I.D. Then they put a flag over it and then somebody carried it out. Put them in the bag, put the flag over it and put them in the Stokes.

Firehouse: So then they put an American flag on the remains?

Fenick: Yes.

Firehouse: Everybody then got into position?

Fenick: Everybody lined up on the ramp. Then they would have an honor guard.

Firehouse: So you have a 500-foot walk up that bridge?

Fenick: I would say that's a good estimate. That was a long, long way. So guys took a position all the way on either side. Yeah, all the way up and the ambulance waiting at the top.

Firehouse: When they did that, did everybody go to work when the ambulance left?

Fenick: Yes.

Firehouse: So did that happen sometimes several times in a day or a tour?

Fenick: Yes. The first couple of days I think they found - what did they find, nine guys in one day. They took them up three at the time or two at a time. We must have broke four or five times in one tour.

Firehouse: Were the guys happy that they found them or was there some other feeling that you felt when they found them?

Fenick: It's not a happy feeling. It's a rewarding feeling. I know it's a hard emotion to put a finger on. It's nothing to be happy about.

Firehouse: It's a tough job to do, but was that rewarding?

Fenick: Very rewarding.

Firehouse: That's why everybody was down there?

Fenick: I think so. Most of the guys were volunteers. It seemed like most of the guys had at least 10 years and over that I saw down there. The young guys I think were ordered. You could tell who wanted to be there.

Firehouse: Over the course of time when you were working, did you find a lot of bodies?

Fenick: Yes.

Firehouse: So the same process continued, with the medical examiner and the chaplain, and then getting the remains boxed up and bringing them out?

Fenick: Right. Stage them. Sometimes, they would stage them in an area and wait for the company to come. Everything was pretty much shut down. A couple of times, the fathers came down. I saw a wife go down there one time. We had a bunch of women.

Firehouse: Did many top chiefs come down there?

Fenick: Yes, Commissioner (Nicholas) Scoppetta led the procession. He would walk in the front with the chaplains and chiefs. And the guys would carry. A construction worker said something about what do you do with the civilians? We said we'll have an honor guard for them. Then the construction workers would carry them. We'd have an honor guard for the civilians when the construction workers carried them out which I thought was nice.

Firehouse: Did everything stay shut down when they did that?

Fenick: Everything shut down. They would stop every five minutes if they had to. If they found two guys, that's two recoveries. Then they would carry them up two or three at a time. If they found one, stop everything, honor guard, go back to work. Five minutes later find another one, stop everything. It slowed everything down there, but

Firehouse: Did you see any apparatus or anything?

Fenick: They pulled out an engine, I think, and a chief's car from the northwest corner.

Firehouse: Were you there when they removed the two trains cars?

Fenick: Yes.

Firehouse: How did they remove them?

Fenick: They put them on a big flatbed lowboy and drove them up the new ramp.

Firehouse: Did they have a crane lift up the train cars?

Fenick: Yes.

Firehouse: Were those the two rail cars that were smashed or were they in good shape?

Fenick: They were in good shape.

Firehouse: That's the lowest level?

Fenick: Yes, I would say they were down to that in most of the area except for where they had built those two dirt roads.

Firehouse: How about the "bathtub"? Were there parts of it that you saw that were cracked?

Fenick: There were some good cracks. There was some pretty good water seepage here and there.

Firehouse: Did you see anything unusual down there like some pieces of glass?

Fenick: The biggest piece of glass was about two feet by two feet. That was the biggest piece I saw. That's it.

Firehouse: Where were they, all the way down in the bottom?

Fenick: They must have came from the bottom of the south tower. Then some big chunks of concrete came out of that too after a while. One strange thing was we found a bag, an attache. It had the newspaper on Sept. 11, the morning before the planes hit.

Firehouse: How was the weather most of the time you were there?

Fenick: Most of the time good, a couple of cold nights. We had a couple of wet nights, a couple of rainy days. Those weren't too bad. There was plenty of rain gear to be had.

Firehouse: That tent across the street where they put those lights up - what did you do there? Did you eat in there or did you shower?

Fenick: We ate in there. They had a little area you could take a nap. You could take a shower. They had bathrooms. You could wash up, brush your teeth, eat. We got in there together to chitchat, have something to eat, gather, meet. It was nice. They had lots of volunteers all over the place - what do you guys need, can I get it, do you need this, do you need that?

Firehouse: So you felt rewarded that you did it? Are you pleased that you did it?

Fenick: Yes. It was very rewarding, probably the most rewarding thing I've done on this job.

Firehouse: And it was probably the busiest month that they had for recoveries?

Fenick: It was good month. The guys going off told us we were going to have a good month. They didn't find much. They were very disappointed. I kind of felt sorry for them. They were full of good advice, pace yourself. They all gave us their lockers with locks and everything. They knew that when they dug up that road, that that's where everybody would be.

Firehouse: When you left, how much would you say was still there? I know there was still a lot of work to do, but in the areas closest to like the bathtub and certain areas that they hadn't touched before, were they getting into those areas?

Fenick: I'd say 80% of it was to the bottom. Eighty percent of the bathtub was right down to the foundation.

Firefighter Declan Grant Ladder 48
Six years

Firehouse: Did you volunteer to go down or were you detailed?

Grant: I volunteered.

Firehouse: There was 14 crews of six working every tour?

Grant: Yes, five firemen and one officer.

Firehouse: Did you always work with the same group?

Grant: Yes.

Firehouse: Could you describe the average day when you went in and where the different teams were situated? Were you always in the same spot or did you move around?

Firehouse Collection
Firefighters search the debris as grapplers pick up pieces of the structural steel.

Grant: No, you moved around. Sometimes, you were at the base of what they call the tulley road. The first day we got there we got a guy. All we got was a piece of bunker gear with a bone in it, right above the knee, and it was cut and at the ankle. And like I said, it was all yellow and it was charred at the top right above the knee where it had been cut off, I guess, and it was all charred there. And the rest of it was yellow. Basically, it was just like a bone inside of it. I guess the other stuff had decomposed.

Firehouse: When the grappler was moving the material, was it easy to see around because it had bunker gear?

Grant: We smelled it first and then we went in with hand tools and dug it out. The grappler would take a couple of scoops. Someone watched what he was pulling up and what he was dumping out in case you'd see something. A lot of times, you'd see a flash of the yellow striping on the gear.

Most of the time, the grappler saw it before you did. Then he'd point and you would look through what he had. He may have seen something. Or once you got an odor, you'd stop him and you'd start hand digging.

Firehouse: Were you wearing the respirators and dust masks or what were you wearing?

Grant: We were given respirators and hearing protection and eye protection.

Firehouse: The ramp was installed two days before you started?

Grant: This ramp was put in service the second day we were there, our first two days there. They hadn't tested the ramp yet, so they weren't using it. They were still using that road to bring the trucks up and down. But they could see where they were, but they couldn't get to them because they didn't want them digging around at that. There was too much of a collapse hazard.

Firehouse: Did you find anything that was recognizable?

Grant: Parts of chairs, like the whole back of a chair or the whole seat of a chair or the wheels and the metal on the bottom. All the concrete dust was compacted and it was like clay, digging in it. So I'm digging around in it and I pull out an eyeglass case. The glasses were fine. It was like they were brand new, not a speck of dust or a crack or anything on them. And in the same area I got a ladies purse and I opened it and a calculator was on inside. Nothing in the bag was messed up. The outside of bag was dirty, but that's about it. It was fine.

Firehouse: Did you find any firefighter tools or radios or anything?

Grant: I found a radio case, but it had no markings on it.

Firehouse: And you said one day you found a battalion car?

Grant: Yeah, we found Battalion 1's car. That was the first week. It was all mangled up and we uncovered a little bit of it. The tires were all mangled up and the axles and we found the license plate and the license plate frame, not a scratch on them, about 20 feet away from the car.

Firehouse: Did they wind up uncovering most of the car?

Grant: It was pulled out by the time I got back there. They took it all out.

Firehouse: It said Battalion 1 on it?

Grant: Yes. We also found tool boxes. I guess they belonged to guys who worked in the building, tool boxes that were completely crushed flat. Others were half crushed. You opened it up and you found a lot of that kind of stuff. One was an electrician's tool box. All the wire nuts were in it.

Firehouse: The one toolbox that was flattened all the way down, could you open it up to look inside?

Grant: No, we just threw it to the side. We found boxes of Metro cards and I found a guy's credit card. It had expired on 9/11/01, that was the expiration date on the credit card. Literally and figuratively. I thought that was creepy.

Firehouse: What else?

Grant: We got a civilian. We just got an odor, so we were digging and we got a pant leg first and then you start going gingerly then around. We got his belt and from just above his waist and his full left leg with a construction boot on the bottom and maybe down to just below the knee of his right leg and his wallet was still in his back pocket. We got a name off his AAA card.

Firehouse: No other equipment or anything, Scotts or tools or axles?

Grant: A mask assembly. They got a serial number off of it.

Firehouse: When they were finding people, would you be in the procession and carry a guy out?

Grant: Yes, every time they carried someone out, everything stopped. Every machine stopped on the site.

Firehouse Collection
Grapplers and groups of firefighters search the debris several levels below the street as debris removal continues.

What happened first was this: If you were digging a person out, the chaplain would come there to whatever spot you found them. They would do a little ceremony there, just you guys, and then they would line everybody up. A lot of times they waited for a company to show up or a family member.

A lot of times, if they knew there was other people there, if they knew there was another body, they would bring one to a waiting area at the bottom of the ramp and they would wait until the second recovery or the third recovery was made and then they would take them all out together up the ramp. So we would all line up on the ramp and they would call over the handie-talkie, the chaplain would do another little service at the bottom of the ramp and then uncover and they do the service over the handie-talkie and recover and hand salute. Then they would carry them up to the top of the ramp and put them in an ambulance that was waiting and then you'd finish your salute and then we were dismissed.

Firehouse: On the month that you were there, there were a lot of recoveries, so were there some days you had many recoveries?

Grant: I think we got 11 recoveries on one night tour.

Firehouse: All firefighters?

Grant: No, seven firefighters and, I think, one was a cop and a few civilians. One of the days I was working, they recovered one EMS guy. But everyone would come, like the cops. If they knew we were doing a recovery, they would come and stand on the ramp with us.

Firehouse: Anything else unbelievable or that stands out that you'll always remember?

Grant: Yeah. When they took the trains out, not one pane of glass was broken on the train car. It was all charred outside. It looked like they could put it right in service the way it came out. I think there were X amount of trains. A couple of them were flattened down like pancakes. The rest of them were OK.

Firehouse: Did you find any helmets?

Grant: Yes, we found a helmet that was flattened. The whole helmet was flattened. Maybe it was an inch and a half to two inches thick, all the way from front to back, but you could make out the numbers and the company off of the frontpiece. Instead of being put it on your head this way, the thing was pushed down all the way down. I don't know if you heard about the civilian they recovered. She was standing up. Her hand was coming up out of the dirt.

Firehouse: Were you telling me about that there was a guy in a box beam?

Grant: The guy we got was inside a box beam when we found him.

Firehouse: How tall would that section have been?

Grant: It was maybe a 30-, 25-foot section of beam and he was inside. Here's the 25-foot, so he just fell and he was down over here. It was when it was lying flat that we saw it. I think they cut it and they moved it out of the way and we were digging through stuff. There was dirt compacted in there too. So whatever way he slid into it, he was inside there. We got wine bottles, full wine bottles, nothing wrong with them.

Firehouse: Is there anything else you could think of?

Grant: Just a lot of pictures, a lot of ID cards. They told us not to keep it. They said it doesn't mean they were in the building just because the ID was there.

Firehouse: Did you feel that it was a rewarding experience? Can you describe what you felt when they made the most recoveries?

Grant: Good is not the right word. It was rewarding. At least I wasn't there in vain. If I didn't find anything, I would have felt like I was wasting my time. It was trying being there and just all the work we were doing. A lot of times, you got this little four-pronged rake and you were raking through stuff that was only a couple of inches thick and it just seemed absurd at times and you'd get really frustrated. And then you'd find a bone, maybe, that was only two inches long - and you knew you had to look at it like if that might be the only thing that someone has of someone. That could be the only thing that someone gets. And if someone's religious, I thought it was real important because they can't have a funeral without a body part, the church won't give you a funeral without a body part. I guess most of guys all felt the same way?

We put it in a red bag and they would GPS where they found it and EMS would come and take it away. I think all those remains were going to the temporary morgue. I know when I was there someone told me they had 14,000 pieces. They were up to 17,000 the last I saw. It's probably way up higher than that now.


Earlier 9/11 coverage misspelled the name of FDNY Battalion Chief Charles Kasper of the Special Operations Command. After 9/11, he was promoted posthumously to deputy chief. Also, a quote by Firefighter Rich Rattazzi in the June issue was inadvertently transcribed incorrectly. It should have stated that he removed a chauffeur from an unknown company to EMS. Firehouse® apologizes for the errors.