Excerpt: 9/12

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The following is an excerpt from 9/12: The Epic Battle of the Ground Zero Responders by William H. Groner and Tom Teicholz (September 2019). 

In those first days, the disorganized mass of police, firefighters, emergency response personnel, construction workers, and volunteers who showed up at the site formed a human chain to remove buckets of debris and allow the search for what they hoped were trapped survivors. The bucket brigade snaked throughout the site, a sea of hardhats of different colors. They wore gloves but little other protection; some had paper masks, and some of the firefighters had breathing masks, but many, many on the bucket brigade did not.

Although at first the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) was in charge, the chief had died on 9/11, as had the first deputy commissioner and the deputy chief of special operations command. So those most qualified and prepared to command were gone, and as a result work at Ground Zero in those first days was disorganized and chaotic. To bring some order to the rescue and recovery efforts, within a week the city’s Department of Design and Construction divided the site into four quadrants, each to be managed by a different construction company. However, the Pile was still overrun by non-construction workers wanting to help find survivors.

When Candiace Baker showed up at Ground Zero on September 12, she was assigned to do perimeter security at the site. On that day and those that followed, she sometimes had to stand in place for twelve-hour shifts, answering questions of anyone who asked. She also worked on the bucket brigade. They were using their hands to lift rocks, move them aside, and keep digging because they were still hoping to find survivors in the rubble. She was breathing in dust that made her choke whether she was wearing a paper mask or had taken it off because it had become clogged. Baker’s fingers were hurting, blistered, and filthy. Her team hadn’t found even one person. She looked at the mass of destruction. Overwhelmed, Baker thought that even with all the people there pitching in, they were having little to no impact. She could move rocks for days and it might make no difference.

On that same September 12, NBC News, the New York Times, Slate, and several other news outlets reported that two former U.S. marines, later identified as Jason Thomas and Dave Karnes, had discovered two Port Authority Police officers, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, beneath some twenty feet of rubble. Karnes and Thomas were volunteers who had both separately rushed to Ground Zero to help. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, they climbed over the tangled steel of the Pile, Karnes shouting, “If you can hear us, yell or tap!” Then he and Thomas would pause to listen. Carrying flashlights and an infantry shovel, they peered into gaps in the destruction. After about an hour, Karnes heard a reply from deep below the surface. Thomas called out, “Is anyone down there? United States Marines!” McLoughlin and Jimeno hollered back. They were trapped deep inside the debris and had been buried for almost ten hours.

Karnes and Thomas sought more help. Several EMS workers joined them, digging for three hours before they could get to Jimeno. It would take another eight hours to dig him out and even more for McLoughlin, who was buried deeper. Once freed, they were rushed to hospitals for further treatment. Both survived.

That same morning, James Symington, a Canadian police officer, took Trakr, his German Shepherd search-and-rescue dog, to the World Trade Center site. Like thousands of other volunteers, Symington arrived without any official authorization; he simply felt he could help and that he needed to be there. And it was lucky that he was. Trakr found a survivor, Genelle Guzman, in the rubble just below the surface, pinned by heavy concrete and twisted metal. She had worked on the 64th floor of the North Tower, and on 9/11 she was in a stairway on the 13th floor trying to escape the building when it collapsed around her. Miraculously she survived a fall of some 130 feet as the building came crashing down around her; she had been buried for more than a day. After she was found, workers labored for several hours to free her and then took her to a hospital. Guzman would say that while trapped, she prayed and that an angel named Paul appeared to her and told her that she would be rescued. Guzman, who by some counts was the eighteenth (and by others the twentieth) person to be found alive, would be the last.

In the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster more than 2,750 people were killed, including 343 firefighters and 60 New York City and Port Authority officers. Although the formal search would continue until October 6, when the last federal rescue team left the site, no other living person would be found. Still, thousands were assigned, and thousands volunteered, to be of service and work at the site of where the Twin Towers once stood.

The attack on the World Trade Center was intended to devastate the U.S. economy. Wall Street closed on September 11, although President Bush and Mayor Giuliani believed it was imperative to reopen the markets as soon as possible to demonstrate the resilience of the American people and the American economy, and to show that the United States was not and would not be intimidated by terrorism.

Richard Clarke, a White House antiterrorism official at the time, recalled that on the evening of September 11, President Bush told several staff members, including Clarke, “I want the economy back, open for business right away, banks, the stock market, everything tomorrow.” Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill too heard on September 12 from one of his aides that the president wanted to reopen the New York Stock Exchange the next day. The concern was that a prolonged closure of the financial markets could cause the U.S. economy to spiral downward with long-lasting effects on the entire country, and perhaps on the global economy and financial markets. But the NYSE remained shuttered for the rest of the week, the longest closing since 1933.

On September 12, New York senator Hillary Rodham Clinton joined Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki at Ground Zero. Wearing paper face masks (Giuliani’s remained mostly around his neck rather than covering his nose and mouth), they walked on the Pile. “This attack on New York is an attack on America,” Senator Clinton declared. “It’s an attack on every American.”

On September 13 Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), told NBC’s Ashleigh Banfield that the danger from the air quality was “below any level that is of concern to the general population.” In a press release issued that day, Whitman stated that “monitoring and sampling conducted” had been “very reassuring about potential exposure of rescue crews and the public to environmental contaminants.” Tina Kreisler, an EPA spokesperson, declared, “The good news for the residents of New York is that the air, while smoky, is not dangerous. . . . It is not something we would classify as toxic.”

The morale of rescue workers was boosted on September 14, when President Bush, having declared a national state of emergency, paid a visit to Ground Zero. Standing with retired firefighter Bob Beckwith and not wearing a breathing mask, the president addressed the firefighters and rescue workers with a bullhorn, thanking them. When some workers shouted that they could not hear him, Bush answered, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

“I’m shocked at the size of the devastation,” Bush later said. “It’s hard to describe what it’s like to see the gnarled steel and broken glass and twisted buildings silhouetted against the smoke. I said that this was the first act of war on America in the twenty-first century, and I was right, particularly having seen the scene.”

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