My September 11th Story
I was working a little-known thing called “counter-terrorism” for the Government. I had just recently been certified in my skill area.
I had to go to a seminar at the Pentagon the week of 10 September. By the Grace of God, I picked Monday, 10 September, to go because I hated the commute and I just wanted to get it over with. I and several co-workers went. The rest of our office was to go on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. My life, and that of everyone in the world, was about to change forever. We would lose our innocence.
The morning of September 11th was a normal, bright, sunny, and hot September morning. Work was the usual routine, except half of our office left for the Pentagon. We were in a secure, covert location and had no immediate access to radio or TV.
Shortly before 10 AM, the security guard came in to our space and told us that an aircraft, probably a small one, had crashed in to the World Trade Center in New York. He asked us to come watch on his TV. As we stood watching, I made the comment that this would be a hell of a fire to fight and people were going to die no matter what the firefighters did. I am a volunteer firefighter of 20+ years’ experience.
Just then, the second aircraft hit. We were stunned. I said a few choice words, and “Shit! That was no accident!” My boss turned to me and very sternly said, “We are at war. Go get your kids.” I was speechless. That shook me to the bone. We were at war, but why and with who? I had to make sure my kids were safe. I had to go get them and protect them at all cost.
We started closing down the office. Meanwhile my boss was trying to reach our program office at the Pentagon to recall our staff. He tried their cell phones too. No luck. All lines were “busy”. Finally, he reached our program office and was talking on the phone to a Program Manager. The line went silent mid-conversation. He told us he had talked to the PM, but they were cut off. Our people had left and were returning to the office. At some point, our people called from their car and said a huge car bomb had gone off in the parking lot, they were safe, but their car had a smashed windshield and had tar all over it.
My boss told us to leave ASAP and secure our families. “Do what you need to do and we’ll figure this all out later.” As I was leaving I watched the TV at the guard’s desk and saw the first tower collapse. I remember saying, “My God, WE were in there!” Meaning, my brother firefighters were in the building. I knew this was something of a magnitude that no one could handle. Lots of people were dead, dying, or seriously wounded. The office was secured and we left together. The rest of the evening was spent with my kids…trying to figure out who and why. The bastards had used our own technology against us.
During the night, I was called to duty as a volunteer firefighter. I was to report to the firehouse immediately. We were heading to the Pentagon to fight the fires. I had no idea what lie ahead. I kissed and hugged the kids and told them I would be back as soon as I could. I honestly didn’t know when that would be.
We got to the Pentagon before sunrise on the 12th. The fires were burning out of control. There was rumor that the entire Pentagon could be lost. Command had been established and it was orderly. We were a relief crew. To see the mighty Pentagon burning, with a gaping hole in the side, and lit by the xenon lights of the fire equipment was just surreal. It was hard to comprehend. I wondered how many dead we would find.
I managed to find our program office. It was in the area of impact. The phone went dead because our PM was killed along with many other innocent people. He was among the dead. And then, there were the passengers aboard the aircraft. All dead, including what appeared to be small children. We seethed with anger and rage. Parts of the aircraft were mixed with the building rubble and human remains. The Pentagon was insulated with horsehair and it burned and stunk horribly. We were told that fortunately, part of the building was not occupied due to new construction. That probably saved countless lives. I spent three days there fighting the fires and recovering remains.
I came home, rested for a day, and then left for what was now known as “Ground Zero” in New York City. Thousands of people, firefighters, and police were missing and had to be rescued, or recovered.
No photos could ever give you the magnitude of the destruction. It was surreal. It looked like a movie set. The wreckage burned and it was hot. Everything was covered with a thick gray powder. 40+ story buildings near the towers were abandoned, unusable, or destroyed. I can’t even describe the scene accurately. It was sensory overload. Once grand buildings were no more. There were signs everywhere for missing persons. Written in dust everywhere, “have you seen…?” Cars and fire trucks were smashed flat. Were people still in them? I didn’t want to know, or look.
I often thought, “God, what was it like for them to be in there? Was it quick? Did it hurt?” God bless them all.
We hoped for survivors, but due to the destruction and debris, hope was fading quick. People were theorizing (more like dreaming) of how long someone could survive. Only two live people had been recovered so far. Both police officers. If anyone was trapped below the pile, it would take a miracle to get them out. The dogs! Rescue dogs arrived! With the wag of a tail, they brought a smile to our faces. They gave us hope against hope. Although, by now, we knew there would be no more survivors.
We stayed at a local firehouse that was now a command post. On the assignment board were the chalk written names of the Engine and Truck crew on 9-11. They had all died. Somebody wrote “Never Erase!” next to their names. A moment frozen in time. A whole shift gone. God bless them.
When we marched to the “pile”, the streets were lined with people trying to offer us money, food, hugs, handshakes, kisses, booze, you name it, we were offered it. People felt they had to do something if only to greet us and give us strength and support. A little girl came up to me and handed me a beanie baby bear. It was purple with golden wings and said “Hope” on its chest. I hugged her as tears streamed down my face. I tucked the bear in my turnout coat pocket. I have that bear in my office and always will as a reminder.
There were no normal office debris that one would expect. No broken phones, no chairs, no cubicle parts. Just tangled metal, concrete, gray dust, and paper. Lots of paper everywhere. It wasn’t what I imagined. Everything and almost everyone had been reduced to a fine powder, like cremation. It was all so surreal. We were in a constant state of disbelief. It was like being on an alien planet. Death and danger were everywhere. It stunk and it was hot and hell itself.
We walked in to the pile under handmade banners that said, “Thank you, firemen”, another said “Under this sign walks America’s bravest, the firefighter”. I thought, “I’m not brave, I’m scared to death!” All the brave guys were dead.
I had tools in hand, a Haligan bar and an axe. They would be of little use, but somehow, they offered me comfort. They were the only things here that were familiar, nothing else was. We climbed to our assigned area in the pile. It took about 40 minutes to climb over the debris. We walked along twisted steel girders. You could feel the heat rise from Hell below. You could look down and see that the crevices were endless. One wrong move, one slip, you were dead. Steam rose up through the debris from the water continuously poured into the pile to quench the fires below.
We worked continuously, often ignoring call for breaks. We only stopped when we were forced by command. It was hot and several guys went down with heat exhaustion. The rescue dogs kept us going. To them, this was a game. Their tails wagged with excitement, and that gave us hope…and a smile.
When a body part was found, you held up your hand in a “peace” sign…that was what you found, a “piece”. When a body was found, you held up your fist. The location of all remains were marked with a GPS and the remains were removed with the utmost honor and dignity, no matter how small the body part was…after all, it was once an innocent person.
When a firefighter was found, all hands stopped. The firefighter’s body, or body part, was placed in a stokes basket, draped with the American Flag, and a line was formed by all hands. We all passed the stokes basket to a nearby bombed out church. There, the firefighter’s body was placed to rest for a while on the alter, alone with God. The pews were scattered around the inside of the church. Some of them, the thick gray dust had been swept away where someone had sat…like a ghostly soul grieving for the firefighter. I’m sure there were many souls in there. Outside, the graveyard was covered with the dust and papers. The trees had no leaves. It looked like something from Beetlejuice, or a Tim Burton movie.
I was standing outside the church as we passed a firefighter’s body through our gauntlet. We all tried to be strong and hold back the tears, but some wept out loud. Although we didn’t know who this was, he was a brother firefighter. Some civilian bystanders were behind me as I passed the body to the next firefighter. The woman wept and said to her husband, “How can they do that? How do they have the strength to just pass their friend’s body to each other and then go back to work?” He answered, “That’s what they do. They are firefighters. They are our heroes.” I thought, “I’m no hero, these guys are. I’m still alive. The heroes are dead.” They kept calling us “heroes”, but we weren’t the heroes, we were the recovery crew.
The days and nights were long. Finding remains in the pile was an insurmountable task. As days went by, large equipment came in along with more help. But, there was never enough. Dump trucks came in from all over the US to help. Firefighters came in from all over the world. Some didn’t even speak English, but that didn’t matter, we could all communicate because we knew the job. There were all genders, ages, accents, languages, religions, and colors. For that time, it didn’t matter, we were all Americans and proud. We were united in rescue, recovery, fight, and belief.
There was a guy there who had an Italian restaurant near Ground Zero. It was almost completely destroyed. But, every day, he and his staff showed up, got the kitchen partially running, and served us free pasta and drinks, 24/7. It was some of the best lasagna that I had ever had in my life. With all the destruction and debris around, they did their best to make us feel like we were dining at a 5-star NYC restaurant. Amid the trash, debris, dust, sweat, and grime, the staff had their white uniforms on and their best NYC “in your face” manners and accents. It was almost comical, and hopeless, but so damned good! God bless them!
At one point, I walked in to the Hilton, which was partially destroyed. There, on the bar, were partially drank beers, and other drinks covered with gray powder. Just like their customer had sat them down and were coming right back. It was all like a very bad dream.
Smashed fire trucks and ambulances were everywhere. Ladder trucks were twisted like they were toys. Some had been marked where victims had been found and removed. There was one street where they had started a pile of flattened cars and trucks. It looked like something you would see in a junkyard. It was all so surreal. There must have been 100,000 plastic buckets that were brought in to remove the debris, one bucket at a time. That would be how we did it, so that there was every possibility of finding the remains of a loved one and bring them home to their family for closure. Some were never found. They were vaporized.
At one point, we had to hide live firefighters in the pile for the dogs to find so they wouldn’t be discouraged. There was a rescue dog there, I forgot his name, who was seriously depressed like the rest of us. Nothing his handler could do would get him to play. It got worse. There were military veterinarians there to care for the dogs. The dog checked out OK, but kept getting worse. They were going to dismiss him and then he came back one night with his tail wagging! The dog was like a playful pup! We asked what was wrong with him? Not enough water? Not enough food? Sick? Nope. His handler had left his favorite “squeaky” toy in the car! Once the dog had “squeaky”, he was ready to go! All the dogs wore kevelar booties to protect their paws, which was pretty cool to see. We transported them to their search areas via ropes and breecher’s bouys so there was no danger of them falling in to a void. The dogs were amazing! They were also good therapy for us. For a few days, they too were human.
I was there for 10 days. At the same time, it was the most horrible and most wonderful experience of my life. When I got home, my kids and people asked me to explain what it was like. I just simply couldn’t. It still brings tears to my eyes. Photos just don’t do the magnitude of destruction justice. It was unimaginable. My daughter (12 at the time) asked me, “Daddy, how could someone hate us so much?” I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know.
We heard people talk of “forgiveness”, “understanding”, and “acceptance”. That was the “answer” and would make the world get along. This angered me to no end. No! No forgiveness, no understanding, and certainly no quarter for terrorists. They hit soft targets with innocent non-combatant civilians. They had just begun a new type of war and they brought it to our soil. They took our innocence. They awakened a sleeping dragon.
My American Flag flies every day in front of my house. It has since before September 11th. It always will.
Never forget. Never forgive. No quarter. Always vigilant.
America is the best country in the world. Never again will we be innocent victims. This was the end of the innocence.
That is my September 11th story. Thanks for listening.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” Inscription from the 1930’s on the National Archives in Washington, DC. Timeless.
Lt. Scott Robinson
343 Never Forget