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We must never forget!
The following has been reproduced with permission from the author,
Captain Cory Michaels, HCFD (Ret).
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Just thought you might like to hear the perspective of a firefighter who arrived several hours after the fact to assist FDNY in recovering survivors....this is my story.
Please understand that I have responded to hundreds of fires and other disasters. As a member of the state task force I am often called on to work plane crashes, earthquakes, and tornado strikes. But in all of my experience I have never witnessed such devastation. Perhaps it was the fact that this was intentionally done by human hands that made it so horrible.
As I stepped off of that bus into ankle deep dust I was simply overwhelmed. I too had watched this tragedy unfold on television several hours prior, but the reality was far more disturbing. It was just before midnight, and the scene was eerily lit by portable work lights and the glow from several gaps in the debris where jet fuel fires burned out of the reach of the firemen on duty. Everywhere I looked I saw the men and women of FDNY digging desperately through debris trying valiantly to reach their brethren with looks of exhausted determination on their faces. Others were sprawled anywhere they could find a place to sit or lay, trying to grasp what had happened here and drinking bottled water as they gathered their strength to continue their desperate task.
We were quickly assigned to one of the many temporary command posts, given masks, and sent into "The Pile" as it quickly came to be known. I donned my gear and followed a stout fellow who turned out to be the driver of one of the first rigs on scene that morning. He led me over massive piles of crumbled concrete and twisted steel to the location of his buried truck. There had been five other firefighters on board the rig, the driver, John ,had gone up to incident command to get instructions as the radio systems were overwhelmed by traffic.
As we climbed down into a crevice I could make out the sound of an injured man trapped inside the rig. We spent the next several hours pulling debris away by hand until we could get enough of the roof exposed to cut an opening. The man inside was the only survivor, he was in very bad shape and was unable to do more than groan in response to us. We managed to cut a big enough opening to gain entry using pieces of debris as pry bars to lift the twisted steel out of our way. I don't know if that man lived or died, but at least he was no longer trapped and alone. After we got him packed and transported to a medical facility we began the grim task of removing the rest of the crew. This took us until sunrise.
As the dawn broke the immensity of the destruction hit you like a ton of bricks. The entire 16 acre complex lay in a heap. The smell of jet fuel was strong, but the smell of death was stronger. Dust and smoke choked your every breath. For the next five days we worked feverishly around the clock to find any who might still be alive. A few were found, but most of what we saw were only very small pieces of what were once human lives. The search dogs sniffed in every little crack, the Army had brought small robotic cameras...most of us just carried long poles that we would poke into voids hoping to hit something besides steel or concrete.
Most of what we did recover after those first few days is not fit for description. I donít think I found any pieces that would not fit in a sandwich baggie. At the Oklahoma City bombing we found recognizable things, pieces of phones, sheets of paper, desk drawers, etc. But the World Trade Center had literally been reduced to dust. There was very little evidence that any people had ever been there. Even Hiroshima left corpses.
The people of New York amazed me. In the aftermath of the attacks, people who normally are what most would consider unfriendly on a good day, came together as a united force. Everyone did whatever they could to help. We never had to wonder where we could find food or water as we worked, there were piles of the stuff at every rehab location and every fire station. Clean towels and soap, even packages of underwear and socks. It was amazing.
In the nearly 5 weeks I was on the WTC site I met some of the most incredible people I will likely ever know. Amidst the death and destruction NYer's had become one people with one purpose. So I suppose even in the wake of such tragedy brought on by a few evil men, my faith in the human spirit has been renewed and my pride in this country and the American people is stronger than ever before. They proved to me that no matter what anyone throws at us, we will always unite and overcome.