About 12 years ago I was interviewed by the Bloomington Herald Times after I returned from a two week assignment at Ground Zero following the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The focus of that article was how employees of the Hoosier National Forest assisted the FDNY with skills normally used on large western forest fires that burn for months. My role there was small, but I was an eyewitness to the search and rescue effort and I guess that’s why I was worthy of an interview. I arrived there on September 21, 2001 and my primary job was to check in firefighters as they arrived at Ground Zero. Indeed it was an extraordinary experience, and although it certainly didn’t equal the crisis on the day of the attacks, it nevertheless left a lasting impression. Here are some things I observed during the search and rescue effort:
- The work environment was extremely tense and grim, yet the FDNY chiefs were calm and methodical.
- The site smelled bad, it sometimes burned your eyes, and it was very dusty and noisy everywhere you went.
- You needed 360 degree vision to watch out for heavy equipment and debris, but fortunately they put huge screens over the remaining buildings to contain the ever falling glass.
- There were emotional scenes as well. Young widows of firefighters were occasionally escorted around the site. We were the keepers of a supply of coffin sized American flags and we knew what it meant when they were requested. That request would then be followed by a small impromptu salute ceremony as the remains of a firefighter or police officer were placed on a stretcher.
I had never been around that degree of death and destruction. Counting the three buildings that initially came down, the equivalent of almost 250 acres of office space were reduced to a 16 acre pile of dust and twisted metal. Not once did I see even a piece of anything: not a part of a desk, a chair, a computer, there was simply nothing left.
I found it remarkable that the operation was relatively efficient, particularly given all the various agencies and jurisdictions involved. Philosophical and jurisdictional gridlock was simply not an option in that situation. (Congress: take note).
So what happened at the site over the past 12 years? The cleanup effort was massive, with thousands of beams having to be removed one at a time. For years there was only a pit where the towers stood. But now, finally, the area is making a comeback. The outdoor memorial is open and the museum and Tower One are scheduled to be completed in 2014.
I recall a large banner draped over a damaged building with the words “we will never forget”. I think New York and America is making good on that promise.