WTC: This Is Their Story - Part I

Firehouse® continues to present the extraordinary stories of those FDNY firefighters who were at the scene of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.


We continue to present the extraordinary stories of those FDNY firefighters who were on the scene and operating in different areas before, during and after the collapse of the World Trade Center's 110-story twin towers following the terrorist attack on 9/11. The interviews were conducted by Harvey...


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We worked there all night long and that was the night where they had all those chains of guys handing stuff down one piece at a time, bucket brigades and stuff like that. I remember finding two Jersey City fire coats out in the middle of the pile. They had taken their coats off, those mustard-color Nomex coats. And man, every guy in the world was there, SWAT teams and cops from Groton, Connecticut, and I mean there was a million people there. There were firemen and cops from all over the place all in these lines digging. I remember asking for saws and asking for torches and they were just trying to tunnel down and dig into the pile in a hundred different spots.

They had to lift dogs into these holes. The dogs were not happy about being there and the cops were always trying to do their best with them, but these dogs were not suited for that work.

Firehouse: Were there any particular sights or remembrances that will stick with you?

Salka: The hole that was on that side in the ground on Liberty Street, I guess just south of the south tower. There was a hole in the ground like the Grand Canyon. Whether that was a wall that kicked up the dirt or something, it was cavernous. It was so deep it was unbelievable. I was trying to figure out how that happened, whether something dug in and kicked all the dirt out. I couldn't figure that out. I remember that was amazing to me, the size of the hole in the ground there between Liberty Street and the south tower, a gigantic hole. You could put five Goodyear blimps in there, that's how big this hole in the ground was.

Just the terrain was amazing. All of sudden, these mountains of steel and then these big gigantic holes right next to them and guys just looked like little ants on these piles. You could just go up and go over the crest of a hill and all of a sudden, more appears to you, it looked like miles. Actually, it's only 17 acres, but when you're going in on one edge of it looking at it, it was just piles and piles of stuff. In the background you could see buildings still burning. Here it is at nighttime, 140 Liberty Street was still burning. That was that old-fashioned-looking office building that already had scaffolding all around it. And that was burning. A couple of floors were burning. Here it is the second night, there was still fire going on in that thing. 130 Liberty I think was the one that had the big gash in it. That was amazing. That was one of the things in my memory. It must have been 40 stories or 50 stories tall and 30 stories up, there was a gash that started as a point and came down. It was obviously a big piece of debris came down and ripped right into that building and some of it was still hanging out of it. That was almost out of a King Kong movie, it was so gigantic.

Later on that night, some urban search and rescue team showed up. They were from the Midwest. They had real search dogs. On that same pile where they were carrying those police dogs in and putting them down and then having to carry them out, they went in with these dogs, unleashed them and said search. And those dogs covered a 100-by-100-foot square in two minutes. Those dogs were running around, jumping up and down, jumping - going into holes and coming back out. I mean 50 times more efficient, 50 times more appropriate for that kind of work than the dogs that they were trying to use earlier. Once I saw that, I said wow, those are the dogs that are really trained to do collapse rescue and void searches. These dogs were really, really sharp dogs.

Firehouse: How did they identify victims?

Salka: Guys would be going down into a hole saying somebody was in there. And eventually, they started doing it with paint. They started putting little X's or unit numbers or writing the word "Searched" on certain areas. You'd write "Searched" with an arrow pointed down and you'd see that they meant this big void that you're looking into so nobody would have to go back down in there again.

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Firehouse Collection
A tool van from the Special Operations Command (SOC) provided extra sawzall batteries, saw blades and a wide variety of equipment for use 24 hours a day at the scene.

We started working up on that tower that second night, up on the north tower, that high spot where you had to climb down. There was another one of those gullies along there, so it must have been something with the collapse that dug up the dirt because there was another one of those ravines, whatever you want to call it, along let's say the curb line between the north tower and West Street and they had ladders set up. You'd go down the ladders and there was rope strung so you could hold onto the rope and climb on the ladder all the way down to the bottom of this pile, which ended up maybe a floor or two below grade. Then you'd come back up the other side, pull yourself back up, walk up the ladder, several ladders strung and hooked, all just attached together.