A Special Edition
10th Year Remembrance Of
THE WORLD TRADE CENTER DISASTER
with expanded details of:
The First Emergency Communications Deployment At "Ground Zero"
"My Next Assignment - Guns And All"
"Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder"
a link to BBC-4 Website "Unsung Heroes"
a special radio broadcast about amateur radio and the WTC Disaster where you will hear snippets of actual amateur radio communications including one of mine from "Ground Zero"
Written by Bob Hejl (W2IK)
a first responder at "GROUND ZERO"
(This article may NOT be reproduced without my written permission)
On September 11, 2001, the day our world changed, it started out like most any other weekday morning. I dragged myself into work at Farmingdale Public Schools out on Long Island, and began setting up my schedule. Like the rest of the country, little did I realize that my average, "routine day" would be torn apart. When I entered my office, I lazily turned on a television and heard the news that one of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, in New York City, had caught fire. I half-listened, thinking that there have been fires in skyscrapers before and that the New York City Fire Department was well-trained at extinguishing fires in such tall structures. Unfortunately, it didn't stop there. Things got worse. And soon, as the world was to discover, it was a terrorist attack upon the United States. The first of it's kind since the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941. When this was discovered, and I saw that horrific scene of the second plane crashing into the other tower, I quickly surmised that since there would be multiple casualties, they would probably need to evacuate numerous victims to the various hospitals located on Long Island. I also feared that this might be the beginning of an even larger series of attacks which could possibly engulf the Long Island area. I took leave from my job, after informing my superiors, quickly got into my car and sped to my town's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Islip, Long Island, twenty minutes away. As I was an Assistant Emergency Coordinator for my town, and knowing that my town's Emergency Coordinator was not in the area, while driving I decided to use my mobile radio and declared a radio emergency. I also started an emergency radio net on our town repeater. As I broadcast the alert to all amateur radio operators who might be listening, the local ARES/RACES (Amateur Radio Emergency Services/Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services) members started to check in. I asked one amateur radio operator to keep track of the check ins since I couldn't while driving, and watch the television broadcasts so he could keep me apprised of events while I was en-route to start a full radio call up (called a "net") and activate teams of radio operators to go into the area hospitals for communications duties. We were well trained at hospital activations for emergency communications coverage thanks to yearly drills. This was the first amateur radio activation for the World Trade Center disaster and I knew that the course I'd set would soon be monitored and followed by the other ARES/RACES units located in the surrounding towns. While driving to our EOC , I was told that two additional terrorist events had taken place. One in Washington, DC and the other was a plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania. All cowardly, inhuman deeds committed by sick people who had a total disregard for life. These additional assaults confirmed my suspicions that the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center were carried out in unison and there might possibly be many more. Upon arriving at our Emergency Operations Center, I quickly turned on a bank of radios and got our communications "war room" in order. Picking up one radio's microphone, I asked on our repeater for a formal list of check-ins. I also checked for the availability of ham radio personnel for deployment to hospitals, shelters, government buildings or other locations should any other terrorist attacks be committed. Our tightly knit ARES/RACES group constantly trains for such events, including terrorist actions. Each year we hold several surprise "events", such as a mock plane crash at our local airport or toxic waste spills, to test our ability to respond quickly and efficiently under difficult conditions. This is what we constantly trained for, yet dread. This time, it was no drill. This was real, horrible and it hit "home" for many of us because thousands of Long Islanders work in or have relatives who reside in New York City. I got an ever growing list of ham radio operators who had either been listening to the radio "net" or others who had heard via other means about the disaster and turned on their radios. I requested that one radio operator start calling our "phone tree" list to inform others in our organization who might not have heard about the attacks. Shortly after, I was joined at the EOC by another ham. This freed me up to begin phone calling the area hospitals we covered. I called the hospitals and asked if they needed us for any communications duty. One hospital requested our coverage, South Side Hospital in Bayshore, so I immediately dispatched two hams to cover that duty assignment. That particular hospital was told, by officials in New York City, that victims of the attack, who resided in our town, would be transported to our local hospital and it might number in the hundreds. Amateur radio operators are routinely stationed at hospitals to be used in case there are overloaded phone lines, terrorist attacks which might disrupt standard phone lines or a breakdown of normal communications from other means (ice storms, hurricanes, etc). Hams also have a forms of (digital) computer communications that is wireless, one we were using back then called "packet radio". This method allows information to be passed quickly and accurately, via digital means, and under more secured conditions. As more and more radio operators checked in, it became quite evident that we'd have plenty of communications professionals to hopefully cover any scenario which might unfold. The town "fathers" soon visited us and were quite impressed that a group of volunteers, like ourselves, had assembled so quickly and were in control of communications duties. Throughout the entire event, they would periodically call us for updates which they would then release to the local media. Some time had passed, and since there were no other additional attacks, I started to breath a sigh of relief. I knew a great deal of work would lay ahead of us with this disaster. A short time later, our "sister" town, Babylon, got their radio net in operation. When they contacted us, I told them what we had done so far, the hospital requests and my plans for our town's coverage. They said that they would follow a similar plan in their town and although they normally cover South Side Hospital they were okay with our covering that location. We always try to be "on the same page". A few minutes later, the television at the EOC displayed an even more terrifying scene when each of the Twin Towers collapsed. This, I thought, was unthinkable. How could this happen? I remember that in the late 1940's a military bomber struck the Empire State Building , yet it stood firm. Was I dreaming? Again, they re-played that horrible scene. Both buildings crumbled so quickly, like structures made from a deck of cards. An emptiness overwhelmed me. I also thought: "There might not be many victims to be transported to our hospitals." I continued getting our communications plan in order, all the while the mental picture of the towers collapsing kept sifting through my mind. More and more radio operators checked in, ready to work. About an hour later, I got a phone call from a New York City - Long Island ARES official, Tom Carrubba, KA2D, who had been monitoring our town's operations, and requested that since our operation was smoothly proceeding and under control, if possible, could I arrange to get amateur radio operators who would be willing to come to New York City and assist at various locations with emergency communications duties on behalf of Red Cross. I told him that I was sure we could supply several experienced operators who would respond to his request and that I would be one of those deployed. I knew that we'd get a call like this. There are a number of amateur radio operators on Long Island who have experience in emergencies such as the Long Island wildfires, plane crashes, winter storms and quite a number of hurricanes. These were the type of operators needed to be deployed in Manhattan. This was going to be not just a massive relief effort, but also a major communications undertaking. I calculated that with power shut off to the lower Manhattan area, there would be no cell phone service and no standard phone service. No cell phone company has emergency-type plans or back up systems for this type of disaster. Only the government and amateur radio operators are both trained and prepared for such communications emergencies. When the "Twin Towers" fell, so did the many antennas from varied agencies resulting in a key loss of communications at a time when communications was vital.
I consulted with a few ham radio operators, whom I considered would be able to work under what would be very stressful conditions, and they agreed to join me for duty in New York City. These were the same radio operators I had worked with during various other emergencies such as wildfires, the "Storm Of The Century", many hurricanes and several airplane disasters. They were all professional and experienced in their communications duties. I told them to get their equipment ready, listing other items they would need for this specific duty, and told them to meet me at the Islip train station in a half hour. I gathered up my own gear, leaving the town net control duties in the very capable hands of another AEC, Joe Lipton - N2IOZ, who had experience with emergency operations. Before I left, I gave him a short list of additional experienced amateur operators from our town who might be used in the event more operators were needed for deployment in New York City. With our town taken care of I, and two other hams, set our sights on the disaster in Manhattan. We had been drilled on having "go-bags" (bags that contained enough communications equipment, spare batteries, food bars, water and personal items) ready at all times. We knew that a simple one day event "go-bag" was NOT going to cut it. Luckily, I also had an extended-duty bag, which I stopped at my home to pick up, and updated it to cover whatever things I thought might be needed. Along with the request to come, we were informed that high-power radios would be needed, so I brought along my dual-band 50 watt vhf-uhf radio, a lightweight switching power supply and a magnetic-mount dual band antenna. I also included my HT (handi-talkie) with extended power and a charger. I hoped that some limited emergency power would be available wherever I might be deployed. I dressed in my ARES/RACES uniform and gathered up any credentials I thought would be needed. I put on heavy duty, steel-tipped work boots because there might be no telling where I would be assigned. (Little did I know I would be headed for the most dangerous assignment) I also packed another pair of pants, several pairs of latex gloves, rain gear and two flashlights. (This was to supplement what was already in my bag) With my "go-bag" loaded, it actually was at this point a large knapsack, off I went.
On my way to the train station, I stopped at a local "Home Depot" store to pick up painter's dust masks or respirators. I did this to share the masks with my fellow hams who were going with me. I did this because I had seen scenes, on television, of huge amounts of dust hovering over the entire disaster area. Home Depot had no masks, as they had already shipped them to the city. They also told me that every Home Depot and Lowes store on Long Island had shipped their stocks to New York City. A small hardware store did have a few paper dust masks, which I quickly snapped up. I met the two other hams from my town at the local train station, ready to board the train for what was to be, for me, a very long tour. There was no way any automobiles were being permitted into Manhattan. Fearing car bombings, they only allowed cars to exit the island, (it was in close-down mode), so the Long Island Railroad was our ONLY method of transportation. The government had, in effect, shut off the island of Manhattan from the rest of the world. Most subways traveling in Southern Manhattan were stopped and many people had to evacuate the lower Manhattan area by walking across the downtown bridges. There were several subway lines that could not run beyond an area because their tracks, not to mention a station, ran directly under the destruction that once was the World Trade Center. I had taken that same subway and stopped at the Twin Towers exactly one week before, escorting a mother and her daughter to a modeling agency! If the attack was at that time or you wouldn't be reading this.
Our train ride into Manhattan was very somber. We had NO idea what lay in store for us. We were full of apprehension and, to tell you the truth, I was a bit afraid that I wasn't qualified for the task at hand. We discussed some scenarios and what would be, considering our experiences and training, the proper responses. On the train, we noticed the stares of the very few people who were on board. I think a few of them were trying to figure out exactly what we were doing with antennas sticking out of knapsacks and carrying radio equipment. Most people don't realize that whenever there is an emergency, ANYWHERE in the world, some of the first people responding are amateur radio operators. Hams supply vital and accurate communications until the local infrastructure can be rehabilitated. Whenever disaster strikes, amateur radio operators are there. Sometimes, for example when a hurricane hits an island, the first and ONLY communications out of the stricken area is a ham radio operator. Many ham radio operators have "off-line" power via solar power, deep-cycle battery banks or home generator. This allows them to communicate should the local power grid become disabled.
When we arrived in New York City (Manhattan), the usual hustle-bustle of Penn Station was subdued. Everyone seemed to be moving as if in a trance. Their faces revealed a plethora of emotions. Some people were very frightened. Some were crying. Most faces were painted with a deep anger. The shock had truly struck home. This was the first real, large-scale attack on American soil since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, 60 years ago. We took a subway train northbound and got off at the station closest to Red Cross headquarters. Even though it wasn't that far away, Lenny, who didn't have a light weight switching power supply, suffered caring a heavy, bulky transformer supply with him. Walking up several blocks to the building, I was astonished to see a line of people wanting to either give blood or sign up to help. The line was several blocks long. Each second that passed, other people joined the line. Everyone had the look of helplessness in their eyes. So many people, all wanting to do something... anything. As we walked toward the building, people spotted us in our crisp, white ARES/RACES uniforms with official patches. Several people came running up and asked if they could help. They were eager to help. I could see it on their faces, a few, half in tears. I was moved and with a hard swallow, I told them that they should get on the line to sign up as a volunteer. When we entered the building, we were escorted into the Red Cross radio communications center where we were greeted by the ham who was responsible for signing in new operators. It was a "make-shift" center, hastily thrown together with whatever furniture they could scrounge up. There were at least twenty people working in that communications area. Everyone was busy, setting up and preparing for the difficult operation which was quickly enlarging. Most were busy, on telephones, attempting to get other amateur radio operators to report for deployment to the many Red Cross shelters that were being set up. With the airports now closed down due to fear of additional attacks using planes as weapons, there were thousands of displaced travelers who needed a place to stay. Red Cross helped in supplying much of the needed accommodations, most at area schools.
When the ham radio operator in charge of Red Cross communications spotted me, he stopped what he was doing, I had no idea who he was, shook my hand and said "W2IK! Bob, I am very glad you're here. I have a special assignment that I can entrust only to someone like you. I desperately need you at the command center at ground zero." I was then given a special cell phone, which I thought was very odd and probably totally useless, and told to board a waiting van. That was it! Those were my only instructions! In the building for two minutes, then out the door. The rest I would figure out in time. Every disaster has it's own set of operational procedures that evolve along with the time-line of the event. Amateur radio operators involved in this type of duty have to be flexible, yet follow the procedures no matter what they, personally, might think is proper. There are often reasons, unknown to you at the time, for following a system you might think is not correct. Saying too much or too little on the radio can be damaging. Down at ground zero I would develop my own "local" procedures unless I was communicating on the air. Ordinarily one does not do this. But, this was no ordinary situation. When communicating, it was strictly as requested. At this early stage of the operation, we had no special ID's. My ARES/RACES uniform, with my Red Cross badges hanging and my AEC badge, was my pass. Eventually, with the large influx of additional operators as the operation developed, there was a need to issue proper IDs to all radio operators and volunteers who signed in at the Red Cross headquarters. This was initiated when they moved their operational headquarters to Brooklyn. Photo ID's, with specific valid dates and limiting access to specific areas, were issued. It prevented "freelancers" or other unregistered volunteers from visiting sites or disrupting the communications process. As with firemen or policemen, there are a few people who sometimes pretend to be communications personnel or Red Cross volunteers in order to get the thrill of being at an event. As you will read later, I would intercept a phony "volunteer" at my post.
The other two volunteer radio operators, who came with me from Long Island, were also given their assignments. One, Kevin Stickelman, KC2CPF, was assigned to the Red Cross headquarters. He gave me a look that told me he was glad he didn't pull my assignment. The other amateur operator, Lenny - W2FX, got in the van with me. He'd be going to the mayor's command post at an undisclosed location. I later found out it was the Police Academy. His assignment was very hectic and high profile, but at a very secured, safe location. I knew that he'd be a perfect fit to work in the "political atmosphere" of the mayor's command center. Me, I worked better in the "down and dirty" arena of communications support. The van left, and as it went south, I felt another tug in my stomach. This was not going to be a simple assignment, such as being at a shelter. Handling communications in the average shelter is like being in-charge of your home phone when you are suddenly inundated by relatives who have come to sleep over. Where I was being deployed was totally different. This was being thrust into the "lion's den". Dangerous. I prayed I could do the job. (This shows you that even an experienced radio operator can be afraid)
INTO THE MOUTH OF HELL
The ride in the van to my post at ground zero seemed to take much longer than I had expected. As we went down the West side, the venue being closed off except for emergency vehicles, our travel path was quickly clogged with hundreds of emergency vehicles all converging on the disaster site. Fire departments, police and emergency units from all over New York, Long Island and New Jersey were responding. As we passed vehicles I could read the different emblems from the many departments that were responding. The methodically slow advance to the site also gave me time to mentally and emotionally prepare for what I thought was ahead. Again, I had that nagging pain in the pit of my stomach. Would I be able to do all that would be asked of me? Deep down, I asked myself : "What the hell am I doing here?". I did get some reassurance from Lenny who was on his way to his assignment. He told me: "If not you, who else?" At least a few of the voices I'd be talking to over the radio would be those of the two operators who'd accompanied me to Manhattan. That made me feel better, because we had always worked well together during other emergencies. When you work together under emergency conditions, after a while you know what the other operator is thinking or doing. I wondered what the disaster site would look like. Earlier, I had seen limited scenes on television. Soon, I found out.
As the van entered the disaster area, it looked as if several blocks of the city had been bombed out. A vast expanse of ruins. This was a new type of "war". Something our country had never experienced. Standing where I was let out of the van, and looking south, it truly looked like the mouth of hell. I still could not believe what had happened. Just a week ago I had been visiting this area with friends. We had even eaten lunch in the shopping area right below the Twin Towers. Now it was gone. The massive piles of "steaming" rubble, which once were two of the tallest structures in the world, lay directly in front of me. You could make out the broken skeletons of twisted steel, that only a day earlier were magnificent creations. Smoke and dust hung in the air and eternally dogged everyone for many blocks. Several other buildings, that were within range as the falling towers spread their fiery debris, were still ablaze. So many people, just living their own lives and not harming anyone, had been murdered. Not soldiers in a battle, just Dads, Moms and children. As your view panned across the area, your sight was awash with numerous "snap shots" of destruction and rescue. A myriad of emotions grabbing at you and engulfing your being. There were thousands of rescue workers and firemen, in countless variations of uniform, scurrying around amid the wreckage in what could be described as "planned confusion". Everyone hoping that some people survived. All of them driven to help. All of them, each with their own mission, and soon I would have mine. Before I could turn to say anything to my ham buddy in the van, it quickly sped away to deposit it's passengers at the next location. I wondered if he felt the same loss I felt. I thought about the countless victims. They were all strangers to me, yet I felt a connection to each one of them. They were all gone and now my only contact with my "old world" had just left in that Red Cross van. I watched the van disappearing down the street, until I could no longer see it amid the dusty haze and the commotion of men and vehicles. At that moment... I felt truly alone. It was up to me, to handle probably one of the most important communications tasks I or anyone might ever encounter during peacetime. My legs did not want to move, but it was time to go to work. Burying my emotions, I asked a policeman where the command center was. He pointed to a building, an elementary school blanketed in a cloud of dust, closer to the site than I was standing. As I slowly walked in the direction of the school, I finally noticed a unique smell. I call it, the smell of death. We had lost almost 3000 human beings in that cowardly attack. Most of the bodies had been consumed in the fires, their ashes combined with the pulverized building materials and constantly drifting and falling as a fine, gray dust. The dust was a constant reminder of the souls that were lost through no fault of their own. There was also something in the air that reminded everyone of the possibility that innocent people were still alive... still buried beneath the scarred remains. Both men and machine were there, trying desperately to find survivors. I would be a part of that team for the next three days. At that point, I became focused to the job at hand. I had no time to feed my fears about doing an inadequate job. I just started doing what I had been trained to do.
Upon entering the command center, which was a-buzz with activity, I carefully looked around and took "mental stock" of my surroundings, supplies that might be available and who was doing what. It is always a priority to check your resources in case you have to improvise. There were all the "major players" in this rescue venture. Police, Fire , Military and other officials. Their only superior was the mayor, who was elsewhere, in his own command bunker. I reported to the Red Cross official who was in-charge and told her that I was here on behalf of ARES/RACES to perform communications and any other tasks that might be necessary. She looked very tired, even though she had only been here a few hours. Working under such emotionally tearing circumstances will take it's toll on anyone's soul. She introduced me to the five other Red Cross workers, all of whom had the look on their faces as if their own families had died. She then showed me where they'd been working. It was at the very back of the main room, which was encapsulated to keep the dust out. Filtered air was flowing in thanks to the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority). They had special air conditioning units that were made to supply filtered air for any fire in a subway tunnel or station. It did a great job of keeping the air in that room somewhat clean and cool. I asked where I should set up my rig and was told that anywhere would be fine. There was no building electrical power, but again, thanks to the MTA and their diesel generator, there were many power cables with breakout boxes to supply the electrical needs of the room. Plugging in my radio, putting my mag-mount antenna on the metal frame of a folded twin lunch table and placing it up as high as possible, I attempted to check in to the repeater the Red Cross communications was using. No one answered my call. I didn't even hear the courtesy beep to tell me my signal had made it into the repeater. It soon became apparent that I could not reach the repeater station we were using. I was in what was known as an "RF hole". I made several other attempts, with my antenna at different locations, all with no success. I felt helpless and thought I would fail with my communications duties. I was almost frantic. In an air- cooled room, I was sweating. I could hear, but not reach, the repeater. Even my HT (handi-talkie) could hear it.
Regaining my composure, I knew that the only solution was to go up. I couldn't get a room on the second floor because those rooms just above us were being used by the different agencies as briefing rooms. I opted for a third floor classroom. But where to get power? This is where my training came in. I went below, outside, and there in the playground were about twenty large, long extension cords. "Stealing" one, I went back up to the third floor and dropped one end of the cable out the window. Then back down in the playground, I snaked the cable to the MTA diesel generator which was parked in the street, on the south side of the school. I asked if I could "get some juice" and they plugged me in right away. I raced back up to the third floor, setting up my radio on a student's desk near the window and then placed my antenna on an indoor metal ledge. Holding my breath, I keyed the microphone and gave my call sign. Back to me came the Red Cross headquarters communications team. Full quieting.... good signal. I was so relieved. It was like a weight had been lifted from me. I now could do my job. I told Red Cross HQ my situation and said that if they ever needed me, I could hear them from down stairs with my HT, but they'd have to wait for my reply. The setup worked very well. The only real problem was when the Red Cross headquarters changed shifts every twelve hours. I had to repeat, to the new operators on duty, my communications conditions. In retrospect, I should have brought with me a twin-lead "roll-up J pole" antenna with a long run of coax so the antenna could have easily been hung from the second floor and my operating area could have remained in the main area on the first floor. Remember to always have one of these antennas with you whenever you deploy during an emergency.
Red Cross HQ immediately gave me a "laundry list" of things to ask the "Shelter Manager", that was her designation, even though it wasn't a shelter per-say. This was done because there was still a nagging fear that if my location was found out to be a command center there might be a chance of additional terrorist strikes to inhibit the rescue operations and to advance fear throughout the city. We were all very much aware that even our own communications might be intercepted and used against us. I even had to send some phony messages so it appeared that I was at a shelter. This was an idea that I concocted with the two radio operators who traveled with me to Manhattan. It was an old ruse that we had used on another emergency assignment to confuse intentional jammers. Not having communications with ground zero until I arrived, Red Cross HQ needed an update of several conditions, such as food, cots, clothing (gloves, etc) and water. I was also asked to go to the high school, across the side street to the north, once each hour to "take stock" of that situation (a relief / first-aid center) and report back any needs. That center remained very busy feeding and looking to the needs of workers in that area. The command center was technically "off limits" to most workers as it was the place where coordination was emanating from and they felt that too many regular workers in the building would impede the process. There were other relief sites in the area, not covered by Red Cross. There were also many relief vehicles from other groups, such as the Salvation Army, that supplied food and water. I wish I had a dime for every steak sandwich which was given out by "Out Back Steak House". Luckily, I had learned a long time ago to keep a small spiral book with me to take notes, so requests were reported exactly as given. It is very important, in emergency communications, that things be reported or words relayed exactly as given. If I thought that any information they wanted me to relay using their words might not be understood properly, especially if intercepted by the media, I helped them rephrase the request. I never took it upon myself to change any message. All communications sites, ground zero, the mayor's command center, the various shelters, etc. were requested to also give updates each hour, listing our personnel, Red Cross included, workers and "clients" served, supplies and other information. We used tactical calls, ones that would not give exact locations away because there was still the fear of further terrorism. As each hour passed, and as each communication was completed, I felt more and more at ease with my abilities to handle the assignment. I had no idea that my "12 hour shift" would last three days. The Red Cross personnel, including the shelter managers and all the volunteers, did standard, 12 hour, tours of duty. At the end of each shift, you could see how drained each volunteer was. They had all aged. One even came back a day or two later and was surprised to see me still working there. I was annoyed after hearing on the radio, time and time again, that another 12 hour shift of replacements, including all the other radio operators who were assigned elsewhere, did not include a replacement for me. I knew they were aware of the time I had spent there. Part of me became angry. Most of me knew that I had to bury this emotion, as well as the many emotions felt being at the disaster site, and do my job. In retrospect, my location was a "hot spot", unlike a shelter detail, and smooth, continuous communications was needed. This was not a duty site for a beginner. I have since heard that most radio operators were fearful of deploying down in the area due to the filthy air and also fearful of the fact that other terrorist strikes in this area might be forthcoming. I understand this and do not slight anyone for not wanting to be at this dangerous location.
There were a great deal of requests that I had to pass via my radio. I knew that the press was also listening in on our operating frequency so I tried to be as professional and as precise as I could. One slip, or saying the wrong word, could easily be misinterpreted by the press and reported to the public. In the early stages, I arranged with my ham counter-part at the mayor's command center, to use a unique frequency that would be shifted on a "time-basis" so it would be harder to intercept. Even Red Cross had no idea this was being done. It was our form of a "secured line", something we used only for a few extreme emergency communications. With my not being part of the shift changing, I had to grab 15 minute naps when I could. It certainly was a high-stress area. At times, things unfolded with great swiftness and people had to react accordingly. There was always sorrow when another body was uncovered from the wreckage and removed. Everyone paused and looked to see, if perhaps, a survivor would be removed. Hopes went high, then low. We all moved in a slightly slower, more respectful manner during those times. It was even sadder when it came to pass that there would be very few bodies to be found.
When I took one of my excursions closer to "the pile", there were many sorrowful signs that lives had been unexpectedly snuffed out. Paper, that hadn't been consumed in the inferno, littered the streets surrounding the destruction. Picking up one such piece, I read what was a page from an appointment calendar. It had belonged to a person who worked for an insurance company in one of the towers. Although charred around the edges and somewhat blackened, I could easily make out a list. It was a list of things he was probably asked to pick up on his way home. I reverently placed it back on the ground. So many brave rescue workers were trying with all their capacity to find survivors. It was hard to imagine the emotional tug-of-war inside each of them whenever they found a body in the debris. When I would go outside, I could see so many of the rescue workers... sitting.... standing... all going through their own personal hell. Some workers just laid down on the dusty cement sidewalks in a heap. When they could, they napped. Perhaps this offered some emotional relief for them. Major status meetings in what was known as the "war room" of the command center were held twice a day. Nonessential people were evicted from the room. Each agency from the city was represented, as were agencies from the state and federal governments. The Red Cross shelter manager and I were allowed to stay. Each meeting was a sobering event.
A representative from each agency read a report reviewing what their agency had done and planned to do. This was done so agencies could synchronize the entire operation and duplication could be avoided. The Police Department official had the final say when any conflicts arose. As time passed, more and more of the entire process became routine. That is not to say there weren't surprises. But as each hurdle was thrust upon the agencies, each challenge was handled with strict professionalism. (More about a few SCARY surprises later....)
NOT JUST A "RADIO HUGGER"
I had opportunities to busy myself when I wasn't observing, communicating or assisting with Red Cross duties. Keeping active allowed you to remain focused on helping and not turning your thoughts to sorrow or emotions that could have crippled your ability to successfully do your job. There was a point when I was able to take a very short walk after checking the relief-first aid site at the high school. Nearby, there was a covered pedestrian bridge which spanned the roadway that led to the ground zero site. It was about a block away from the entrance. People were allowed to be on that bridge and they could look into the site. Many people were taking pictures or discussing what had been and what was now left. As I walked up the steps to the bridge, people who had lost family or friends were beginning to post "missing persons" flyers. It was a very sad sight to see so many posts and so many photos of these innocent victims. Eventually there were thousands of these put up at multiple locations. I tried not to look at them, lest the grief overwhelm me. I went back to the command center to see what else I could do. There was one point, that I assisted the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) to get a diesel generator working again. It was the same generator that I mooched power from for my radio. My back was turned to the disaster site, when all of a sudden I felt a wall of dust and debris hit my back... It was as if a dirty wind had struck me. When I turned around, WTC Building #7 had just fallen! The World Trade Center is not just the Twin towers, but rather a complex of many buildings. We had expected building #7 to fall eventually, because it had been burning for many hours, but it was still a surprise, especially to me, when it occurred. It's collapse took just seconds. Once again, the downtown landscape had changed. No one stopped to ponder it's demise. There was too much work to do. And there was no time to be afraid. No one seemed to be separated from the single mind-set goal of doing their part in the rescue attempt. There was no show of great sorrow that yet another structure had been destroyed. So many other structures, along with the towers, had been literally vaporized. At least that building had been evacuated so there was no additional loss of life. The rescue workers that had been working nearby, to get fires under control and search for victims, were not in harm's way when building #7 died. The only emotion was that of renewed determination in doing what needed to be done, regardless of the personal risk.
I wasn't just a "radio hugger", doing communications only...I also did whatever needed to be done. (SO SHOULD YOU IN SPECIAL SITUATIONS LIKE THIS) I passed all the communications asked of me, including all requests and hourly reports to the Red Cross. We were always trained in the past to do just communications work and nothing else. I wondered who these idiots, who thought up this "rule" were? It was quite obvious that they had never really been down "in the trenches". The human spirit, which dwells in all of us, is that of giving and helping. So, besides my communications work (which always came first), I also helped with other things to make the entire process go more smoothly ...whether it be unloading cots so tired bodies could rest or distributing food or running power cables to support the MTA's task of supplying power. There never seemed to be enough cots, so when a Red Cross vehicle came with some supplies, I "obtained" the extra cots that I spied onboard. I did this because I knew that they were on their way back to storage in Brooklyn. Luckily, on that ERV (Emergency Response Vehicle), I knew the radio operator who was traveling onboard. He lived on Long Island and I had been at various county ARES/RACES meetings with him, so he allowed my "heist". It was amusing at one point when I was unloading the cots. I needed help, so I barked out orders for several men (soldiers), who were standing nearby, to grab some cots from the ERV and bring them up to the second floor in the command center. They leaped to it, and while they were doing so, I noticed some "metal birds" on one soldier's collar. Oops ! When materials were needed to complete a task, say running heavy-duty extension cables for powering up lights, NO ONE cared or questioned if cables, etc. were taken from piles that had been deposited from other various agencies. They all worked together as if from one family. It was a good feeling. Since the entire area had been shutoff power-wise, there was a great deal of scrambling to ensure needed lighting. Each night, because the rescue teams and additional service agencies grew in number by the hour, so did the demand for illumination. While the MTA supplied the electricity for the command center, Con-Ed had several generators to supply the power and lighting needs at "the pile". This was what the debris site was called. My communications location on the third floor had no building lights, so I plugged in the classroom's overhead projector into my power cord from the generator to supply light in an attempt to do my communications and writing. That light, along with the ambient light, which seeped in through the dust-covered classroom windows from the temporary towers supplying spotlights to "the pile", combined to allow me enough illumination to function. When I had to use the men's room on the third floor, I would use my flashlight to guide me down the hall and then a quick left turn got me there. Using the "facilities" in the dark wasn't much fun. I constantly hoped the batteries in my flashlight didn't die. This was just one of the many inconveniences I had to deal with. Every now and then, a fireman or two would come up to the third floor to look out the windows at the end of the hall. These windows faced "the pile". Words cannot describe the sight they saw. Most men were speechless. A few took some pictures, then left without saying a word.
At night there were times when the only sounds you heard were the hum of the many generators supplying power for lighting. It seemed like a peaceful, soothing sound, covering up the working noises of trucks and men, as compared to the louder daytime racket of workers and officials barking orders and vehicles streaming in and out. The nighttime operation seemed a little more relaxed than the "craziness" of the day. Work didn't stop, it merely functioned at a different level. From my third floor vantage point, I could see the night being lit up by welders cutting up huge twisted steel beams so they could be removed. It was a very dangerous job for them. They always had to be mindful of the fact that "the pile" could shift and bury the workers who were removing the tons of debris. The welders, themselves, often worked from bucket trucks or "cherry pickers" to keep their exposure to hazards at a minimum. Working at ground zero without a protective mask wasn't much fun because the dust kept hovering like a plague. It was so fine that it even permeated into the closed buildings. Gray. It had the smell of death. A smell I will always remember. It haunts me almost two years later. If you stopped to think, the dust was part pulverized building materials, including asbestos, and part cremated victims. I did take some time to fill a large, empty "Gatorade" bottle with the dusty sediment. It was not for my own personal needs. When I was finished with my rescue support work, I filled almost two dozen plastic "test tubes" with the dust and sealed them. These I gave to families who lost loved ones so they could have something to bury at the countless services and in doing so, help them form some sense of closure. I also gave one vile to a town on Long Island during a very large memorial service that was attended by thousands of people. They were going to create a memorial, in the form of a plaque and a huge memory book, dedicated to all those who were lost, so they were happy receive the encapsulated "remains". With each vile I handed out, it felt like someone was "returning home". Paper masks were next to useless... and even they were very scarce. A few of us, firemen, police and additional workers soon found that the paper masks would get in the way of our working and easily slipped off, so we rarely used them. If you weren't in the encapsulated large room, the "War Room",which had filtered air with a positive pressure so air flowed out instead of in, you were subjected to, as one doctor there told me : "Enough particulate as if you smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for 5 years." As I said earlier, I set up my rig on the third floor in the school because it was difficult reaching the repeater that we had at our disposal. Even in that newly opened room, three floors up, there was a layer of dust on every desk and chair. There was a sink in the room and I must have washed my hands, arms and face at least thirty times trying to get the dust off. It helped, but only for a short time. Getting to that location, via the stairwell, was like walking into a dusty cave. There was no lighting, so I had to use a flashlight. The walk up/down, as my flashlight's beam pierced through the "gray fog", was surreal. The room I "borrowed" to set up my communications post was a 3rd grade, I think, classroom which had windows that faced the Twin Towers. Looking at their morning schedule, which was posted on a board, the students, luckily, were at gym class when the planes struck. Throughout the room, I could see evidence of their day and how it abruptly stopped... "brown bag" lunches were still in their places, lesson plans left on the blackboard, students' personal effects still on their desks. All of this was a glaring reminder of how their young lives would be changed forever. When things got back to some degree of normalcy, those students were transferred to another school until their building could be cleaned. I'm sure that the job of cleaning every inch of the school was also a tremendous undertaking because there was a great deal of asbestos in the air and it had sifted onto everything indoors. I hoped that when they finally returned to their school, the teacher kept the windows which faced the disaster site drawn shut so they couldn't see the grim reminder of those madmen's horrible acts.
As the dust migrated indoors, it got over everything, including the food we ate. Even though the room was encapsulated, a lot of dust was brought in on the clothes of people who entered. We did our best to cover food that wasn't prepackaged. Unfortunately, if it wasn't either pre-wrapped, covered or consumed right away, it quickly got contaminated. At one point, I obtained plastic wrap from the school's custodian, who had gotten it from the school's kitchen. It was a big help in covering anything exposed. A few days after 9/11, there was a night time rain shower which did a great deal towards washing away the dust both from outside areas and it also helped decrease the amount of contaminants in the air, leaving the working conditions a bit easier. The dust, however, remained locked within the buildings we operated from. In the command center, there were all different types of food including boxes and boxes of "government" frozen cheese sandwiches that were laid out, but I swear I never saw anyone take even one! The prepackaged food was great and rescue people couldn't get enough of the "power-bar type" food. They could come in, stuff a few bars in their pockets and go back to work. I do have to say that although a lot of food was available at the command site and the relief-first aid site, food WAS scarce at other locations. I heard from firefighters that in some cases they had nothing to eat. The local businesses did a fantastic job in trying to supply food. The small food establishments all contributed what they could. This was a group effort. The spirit which was displayed by the people of New York was truly heart warming. Everyone did or contributed what they could. No thoughts of praise or thanks, just cooperation. We did run low on bottled water a few times and EVERYONE would have "killed" to get a can of soda. As most firefighters know, soda has a more soothing, cleansing effect on the throat. I remember being across the street in the relief- first aid center at the high school, I had to check the conditions there on an hourly basis. This site was not encapsulated and dust was a great problem, when right in front of me a worker placed a huge tray of freshly made White Castle hamburgers!! As he uncovered these hot little beauties, I said "Wow, White Castle !" I quickly grabbed a few. When I turned around I saw that a line had quickly formed behind me to get at those "vein cloggers"! I have to tell you, the line was made up mostly of doctors and nurses who should have known better than to eat that stuff, but I think it served as a great "comfort food". I know it did for me.
The line behind me, for "White Castles", wasn't the only amusing tidbit from working at ground zero. Now mind you, it wasn't my job to judge requests. It was my duty to pass those requests along to Red Cross HQ. Twice during my tenure there, I am afraid to say, I had to request, among the hundreds of other requests for food, clothing, water and other items, that Red Cross supply cigarettes! Yes, you read that correctly. Amid all that terrible, filthy air they had to breathe, they asked for cigarettes. Red Cross, at first, thought I was joking. I finally convinced them that I was serious. I can imagine the chuckles when that request was delivered to the next department at Red Cross. And to answer that burning question...no, they didn't fulfill the request. Changing shifts of Red Cross personnel at ground zero meant meeting new volunteers and making fast friends. Under those conditions, you were all automatically friends with but one goal. There seemed to be that common link of caring within everyone who was assigned there. At one point, I met this nice woman who had been a volunteer for Red Cross for many years. She had been to, among many other places, Turkey (during earthquakes), doing relief work, so her experience was very extensive. During the rare lulls, you talk and get to know each other a bit. I invited her to join me when I went to the high school during one of my hourly checks. Along the short trip, she jokingly said that there were a lot of nice looking firemen down here, and her being single, she wondered how to meet one. At the entrance, some government "official" had two handwritten signs, one taped on each door that announced: "This building has been tested for asbestos and found to be safe."
I laughed... What a lie. They were just trying to cover their governmental "butts" and also to prevent volunteers from being scared off. It has been reported ten years later that people who were at "ground zero" for long periods of time during the rescue process are suffering from the effects of that dirty air and developing cancer. A recent (2009) chest x-ray of my own lungs has revealed a substantial buildup of this dust which is why I have bouts with "WTC Cough" and need to get annual x-rays so any abnormalities can be spotted.
We went inside the relief-first aid area and I took a check of what was needed. I also asked the workers there if they needed any additional supplies. There was plenty of food, water and juices. We took a few items to restock the command center. Talking to the people at the relief center, you could see who had been on duty the longest. The new workers were all fresh and eager. The people who had been there for hours had the signs of wear on their faces and in their eyes. Even though their work was not labor-intensive, it was very emotionally draining. Being involved , even with "busy work", was better than standing, waiting and thinking about the incredible loss. You had to keep mentally active, even with inane thoughts, rather than lose a piece of your soul with the horrors that could have easily crept over you. On our way out the door, I spotted several large chocolate candy bars on a table. I grabbed four and as we walked down the steps and out of the building, I gave them to her and told her if she wanted to meet a nice fireman she should wave these outside. As soon as we encountered a group of firemen taking a break, she did just that! It was like catnip to a cat! The firemen quickly came over and she struck up small talk while handing out the candy. Little actions, such as this, helped us all emotionally survive. I admired the fact that this operation didn't leave this woman as emotionally drained at the end of her shift as it did other volunteers. I did ask her, with her broad experience in relief operations, how this compared with her past endeavors. She told me that each assignment she had been on was different. There were no etched in stone procedures other than helping where she could. I agreed, knowing that even with my limited exposure to emergency operations, this was a script that had to be written "on the fly". If there was anything to be learned from this, on the amateur radio communications support end, it was that you needed to be flexible and remain focused. I think that after this disaster the ARES/RACES training manuals have to be entirely re-written. (They were NOT.)
Later in the evening, there was the second of the twice daily briefings in the war room. They tried to make sure that only essential personnel remained. It was to be the most serious meeting at the command center. There were different looks in the eyes of several officials. I stayed, sitting very quietly in the back of the room. It was then they revealed some terrible truths. Things they didn't want the public to know. To this day, many people are unaware of some facts. Facts that could have caused panic. Someone, whom I never saw before, started to talk. He had a list of things that not many people even considered. One by one, he listed all different types of very toxic chemicals that were part of the twin towers everyday operations. We were shown many charts with list upon list of toxic chemicals and their amounts. The tons of freon used to maintain the cooling systems. The hundreds of gallons of acid in the battery back-up systems. Tons of asbestos. PCB materials galore. The list was long, extensive and horrible. By themselves, each was a deadly toxin. Then, he started running scenarios if some of these chemicals were mixed into "soups". One soup he mentioned, which caused all of us to get very still, was a form of mustard gas. A World War One type of blistering agent. There could have been enough to sicken thousands of people for many blocks around the area. We all listened with grave concern. Pockets of these toxic mixtures might be easily uncovered as the rubble was gradually removed. They represented an unintentional type of booby trap. When the incident commander said "How am I going to deal with the press about this?" a voice from the back of the room chimed in with: "Why cause panic when no real condition presently exists." We were then ordered not to reveal this information to anyone or risk arrest. (I'm glad he took my advice)
Just when you thought things couldn't get worse, they did. We were then told that one of the smaller buildings, number 7, which had been destroyed, contained a medical unit so there was also a chance that biohazards might have been spread all over the area and could also have been released into the air. All of us got the message. We were all emotionally numb with what had occurred before this meeting. This was but another bitter pill. It was a much more hazardous place than anyone had ever thought. (TALK ABOUT A DOUBLE-EDGED HAZMAT SITUATION) At that point, the requests for full-face respirators increased. Red Cross didn't supply them, the police department and fire department did have several, but not enough to go around. We were told that if such a cache of poison were to be unearthed during the debris removal - victim search, we would have to evacuate VERY quickly, dropping everything we had and running for our lives. Our ears quickly became "tuned" to any loud noise that might resemble a shout to evacuate. This increased our edginess. With this new information, it was decided to increase the security in the "working area" by containment methods. They would allow fewer workers into the rubble area to search or remove debris. Some people, who had no knowledge about the horrors we were told, were quite upset that things weren't done faster. They complained both privately and to the media. There were even protests by rescue workers. The officials took the flak. No one was happy, but the safety of the workers had to be considered. For my part, I continued doing what I had. My hourly reports and requests took little of my time, so I was able to help in other ways. As time went by, and the event changed to less of a rescue operation and more of a debris removal job, the requests for additional items slowly decreased. Hope that there might still be survivors, although still there, was slowly eroding. To be sure, we would still be needed, but the shift of our role made it less hectic. I even had a chance to try that fancy cell phone I was given when my tour began. It didn't work. No one's cell phones worked. The reason.... most local cell sites were either destroyed or had no power to operate from. So much for the deal about using cell phones in an emergency. The only real way to communicate was amateur radio. I was able to make a call or two if I was on the third floor of the school and stood just so, on an area by a window in the hall. I marked the single floor tile with some masking tape just in case I had to use the phone.
Every now and then, the MTA had to refuel their generator, so power needed to be shut off. They were great at informing everyone and even told us when power was going to be restored. Their "power-downs" took place only during the day. This gave me a chance to inform Red Cross HQ and shut off my radio. I did this so any spikes into the electrical system upon power up wouldn't damage it. At one point, they were running low on fuel and had none stored. I pointed out that across the street, to the south west, was a group of parked trucks at some sort of depot and if they had some cans they might be able to siphon fuel out, enough to keep their generator running until fuel could be delivered. They liked my idea and started to scrounge around for empty cans. Fortunately, fuel arrived before the need to go on a "siphon fuel" mission.
MY LAST DAY IN HELL
They began to encircle the ground zero area with a high fence the day I was relieved. They did this because there was word that the President was coming for an inspection of the site in a day or so and they wanted much tighter security. Earlier, there had been several groups and "wannabe's" who had snuck into sensitive areas. One religious group was even there hunting for body parts because they felt that each of the remains should have it's own burial. A woman came into the ground-zero command center on the second day pretending to be a nurse, with phony credentials, and almost had officials get her transportation, in the form of a military bus, to help bring in nurses on "Red Cross's behalf". I spotted the phony Red Cross ID and notified the police. She was found out in time and there were no "other nurses". She was quickly escorted out of the area. I had heard on my ham radio, though never saw, that there had been incursions on the southern edge of the site. For what purpose I do not know. Perhaps they were there for honorable intentions or just for looting. I do know that the police did a great job in keeping nonessential people out. It made everyone's job a lot easier. Hundreds of onlookers were kept a safe distance from the workers and support personnel. The command center at ground zero, from where I operated, was at an elementary school and it's location was kept a secret for a time as they feared more terrorism. It soon became even more secured when it was within the fenced-in area. On the last day, I "borrowed" a respirator from police supply and when I left I gave it to a nurse who was stationed at the high school, a relief site, across the street. I traded it for a nebulizer treatment.. the residue, which I coughed out of my lungs, wasn't pretty. The relief site at the high school was a busy place. I admire the doctors, nurses and other personnel who had to work under such dingy, trying conditions. Although there were no victims of the disaster to care for, they did a super job treating the minor injuries of the rescue workers and search teams and supplying a place just to grab a "cat nap". Before I was relieved, a new "breed" of rescue help had arrived. These were, of course, the search dogs. Dogs of all shapes, sizes and ages. All professional and I salute them and their handlers. The commotion at the site did not deter nor distract them from their job. It was amazing to watch them at work. In the bitterness of the wreckage you could see them gently sniffing, climbing and searching. When they searched, each dog wore protective "booties" so any sharp objects didn't cut their paws. I must tell you that they were also well taken care of. There was a HUGE trailer courtesy of Suffolk County, Long Island, ASPCA, parked nearby just to take care of their needs. The people who arranged for their care and organized such an undertaking are to be commended. A truly professional group. These animals were heroes as well, facing deposits of dangerous chemicals and rubble which could have given way causing them harm.
On my last day at ground zero, there were assembled "Damage Assessment" teams. These teams, trained by Red Cross in assessing damage to structures, were needed to insure that surrounding buildings were safe for residents to return to. I had this training a few years earlier, but I am sure this wasn't the type of duty Red Cross had in mind when they taught us. Our training mainly dealt with single-structure houses, not buildings. I didn't envy those inspectors going into dark buildings, checking for structural damage armed with only a flashlight and most without proper breathing protection. I doubt if any of them had ever been asked to inspect multi-story structures such as these. It would be a new experience for all of them. The buildings they inspected were only residential structures, but they needed to be checked out before people could return home. I had heard that many of the people who lived in that area, and were displaced, were anxious to return home. A few people feared looting of their apartments. Anyone wishing to go back to their apartments had to show identification to the police. There also was pressure applied to officials to allow people to get back into their homes. I do know that in a few cases they had some volunteers escort them to their apartments to allow them the opportunity to pick up some of their belongings and then leave. I saw pictures, later, of their apartments. They, too, were heavily coated with gray dust. I am sure the city also had their own crews to give much more detailed inspections later. This disaster displaced thousands of downtown residents. Many were housed at the over dozen Red Cross shelters which quickly sprang up when the crisis began. The shelters also housed people whose trips were interrupted when the airports were closed. All of these shelters were manned by Red Cross personnel and amateur radio operators, who constantly handled "traffic" to and from the Red Cross headquarters. My next assignment would be at one of these shelters.
I had no communications from Red Cross involving a replacement for me, so I had no idea when, or if, I would be relieved. I had resigned myself to the fact that I might be here for a much longer period of time. When you are actually at a disaster site, such as this, you lose contact with the outside world and what was being reported. I was very surprised when all of a sudden an amateur radio operator came in and told me that he was my replacement ! He showed me proper identification and I also double checked with Red Cross headquarters on the radio. Sure enough, my work, for this detail, was drawing to a close. I gave him a complete briefing on what I had done, what operations were taking place and introduced him to the personnel he'd be working with. I also told him that he should be prepared to spend a LONG time at this duty post. His reply was that he told the Red Cross communications people that he would only spend ONE duty shift here... 12 hours. He also told me that the reason he volunteered was that he had been watching a local outlet of ABC news on television. They had a ticker running along the bottom of the screen that at one point revealed the fact a lone ham radio operator had been at an undisclosed ground zero area for several days and there was a desperate need for a replacement radio operator with experience in emergency communications. That was proof that the television stations and reporters were listening in to our communications. Thank you, WABC-TV.
The most moving experience, for me, was my getting back to Red Cross HQ when my extended shift at ground zero was over. It was VERY late (after 2 AM)....my body and clothing and "go-bag" were stained with that gray dust... The Red Cross van that dropped my replacement off had left without me. It seemed the driver couldn't wait for me to give my replacement a run down on events, procedures and information. I went out into the street and asked some police how I could get transportation uptown. They told me to just flag down whatever vehicle I could and hop in. Unfortunately, at that time of night, most of the transportation was still coming in, not out. The only real outbound traffic were the huge trucks removing debris. There I stood...when three nurses, who were also getting off duty, came up and said they, too, were looking for a ride uptown. I couldn't get over the fact that their uniforms were still white, while I was a walking gray ghost with all the dust I had been subjected to! Together we searched...I was sooooo tired. Someone told us that we might have a better chance if we walked a bit north. We took their advice and started our hike northward. Fortunately, one block north we spotted an SUV with a makeshift cardboard sign on which was scribbled "Rides Uptown". There was no driver, but all the nurses immediately piled in so I jumped into the front seat and waited. Slowly, out of the gray haze, a big, hulking man came and took the sign off and got in. On any other day, I'd swear he was a drug dealer. At least in my neighborhood on Long Island, he would have gotten glances. He started up his SUV and asked where we wanted to go. We told him and off he drove ...we all HOPED to our destinations. As he drove uptown, his cell phone rang... he told the person on the other end "Too bad, I can't come now, I have to do my "bit". He dropped us off near Penn Station, the big midtown train station. That is where the nurses wanted to be taken so they could catch a train to go home. I got off too, and thought I'd make my way to the Red Cross Headquarters, which was still in Manhattan at that time, they moved shortly after to their Brooklyn complex. It was up too many blocks for this tired, dirty, old body to walk. I felt "brain dead", so I couldn't figure which subway line to take. A cop spotted me and saw by the gray stained clothing that I had been working at ground zero. He asked me where I needed to go. I told him where and in a flash he jumped into the street, stopped a cab and ordered him to take me there. The cabbie didn't even charge me for the trip. New Yorkers' all helped in little ways. On a sidebar, the cabbie was of Arabic descent and he told me how horrible he and others of his family felt about the attacks.
The most TOUCHING part of ALL of this was the trip in the SUV. Part of me was thankful to be leaving. Another part felt like I was abandoning all those whose lives were lost. As we went up the West side, and although we were quickly passed through most stoplights by the police, we did have to make a few stops. AT EVERY CORNER, AT 3 AM IN THE MORNING, THERE WERE CROWDS OF PEOPLE CHEERING US ...hundreds ...whistling, clapping, holding signs that said "Bless you, our heroes", etc. At one stop, a young woman ran up to my window and gave me a flower and said how grateful she was that we helped. Ever see a grown man cry? I am no hero. I am just an amateur radio operator, doing what I could.
"WTC 9/11- MY NEXT ASSIGNMENT" EPILOGUE: MY LIFE IN A SHELTER
"GUNS AND ALL.."
After a short respite at home, I once again volunteered for duty as a communicator. The Red Cross, by this time, had moved their operational headquarters for this disaster from Manhattan to their Brooklyn complex. Never having been at this location, I carefully followed the directions I had gotten from another amateur radio operator and drove to Brooklyn. The directions weren't as concise as I thought. It was very early in the morning and the average person wasn't active so the roads were fairly empty. I ended up driving around unfamiliar territory for an additional twenty minutes until a man driving a street sweeper gave me better directions. Luckily, my meanderings had me just a few blocks away from my destination. Driving closer to the Red Cross building, I saw that it was crowded with both Red Cross ERV's and cars belonging to volunteers. With the parking lots full, I opted to park on a side street. This street was also full of cars , although it was a "no parking zone". I squeezed in a spot and put my large, laminated "Emergency Communications" plaque on my dashboard hoping that it would protect me from either a ticket or a tow. Having replaced my "gray-ghost" go-bag with a new knapsack, and replenishing items used before, I got all my gear from the trunk of my car and walked into the Red Cross building. Even with my ARES/RACES uniform, I still had to show ID before I was allowed to enter. There were scores of people working, entering and leaving, so I imagine it was a bit difficult to keep track of everyone and make sure only qualified personnel were allowed entry. I was told where the radio operators were and I quickly wound my way around a few halls and up some stairs. This was a much more complex set up than I had encountered before. In the beginning of the event we seemed to "fly by the seat of our pants". I went into what appeared to be a meeting room and sat with about twenty other operators who were waiting for assignments. There was being passed around a clip board which we were required to sign in with our names and call signs. Most of the radio ops at this point were very young. I must have been the "old man" of the group. I introduced myself to the amateur radio operators who were sitting close by. All of them were here on their first assignment. After about an hour, the person in-charge of the communications operation came in and briefed us on what duties we might have. I am afraid to say that a number of communicators were unprepared, having no real go-bags and just armed with a handi-talkie. This might be enough for a parade or a simple operation, but our assignments were much more complex than that. These people would be given work at the Red Cross and not sent out into the field. (an example of how having a go-bag can mean the difference between a good communicator and a person who means well but adds little) After a short briefing, we were given our assignments. Mine would be at a shelter at a high school in midtown Manhattan. This was quite a distance from the disaster scene and housed mainly people who were either displaced when their buildings were damaged or people whose travels were interrupted when the airports were shut down. This time, I was told that the tours of duty would be about 12 hours. (hahahaha) With our assignments given, we were then issued special photo IDs. These not only listed our names, call signs and duty date(s), but also limited our access to areas. Guess what..... mine said "No Ground Zero"... I guess they thought I had spent enough time in hell. This form of ID was needed to prevent a few "go-getters" from taking it on their own and going to places they weren't needed. It made a lot of sense. This ID program included every active volunteer from Red Cross and not just communicators. A few of us were then escorted to a van that would transport us to our duty sites. As we drove into Manhattan, we were slowed by several check points where all vehicles were subject to very close inspection. The police were making sure that no one without specific business came into Manhattan. They were especially suspect of vans and trucks, which might conceal explosives. Tensions were still running very high. Once in Manhattan, it was much easier to get around. The everyday life was beginning to get back to normal. I was dropped off at my assignment and was told at the school that the shelter was up several flights, in the gym area. There were several police that were permanently stationed at the school. Classes were not yet in session. It would be several days before school was to resume. Getting off at the proper floor, as soon as I stepped out of the elevator, I could see boxes and boxes of items that were donated to the shelter by local businesses. Again, whenever an operator reports to a location, it is always wise to take mental notes of what is there in case the need to improvise occurs. This should be a rule in any EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS training manual. It is very important.
I reported to the Red Cross shelter manager and she introduced me to the other volunteers there, including the amateur radio operator whom I would be replacing. The radio op gave me an operational "rundown" of the shelter and while he was still there I set up my radio equipment. This was quite different from my last duty. They had electrical power and being up several floors it was easy to contact the repeater. I checked in with Red Cross headquarters and told them I was at my duty site. I then thanked the radio operator and told him I hoped he had a safe trip back to Red Cross HQ. His tour had been a mere 16 hours. Since there were no requests to be transmitted, I walked around the area to get a feel of the layout. I also engaged in small-talk with the other volunteers so I might get an understanding of how they operated and their past experience in shelter life. It was typical of so many other shelters that I had been assigned over the years during Long Island's many winter storms and hurricanes. There always seems to be a great deal of "turn over" with volunteers. During one hurricane on Long Island, I met a shelter manager who was to have completed her training the day the hurricane hit! Most people here had little, if any, experience in the field. Having experience in both this event and other disasters, I was often asked for my opinion regarding the operation. The people who were displaced, we call them the "clients", were housed in the gym. At that time, there were about 30 clients housed. This was down from a high of about 120 when the disaster first took place. There were two nurses stationed at the entrance to the gym to look after any health needs. Although qualified people I knew who wanted to volunteer as mental health workers were turned away after being told by the Red Cross that they had plenty, there were no mental health workers stationed here. As a matter of fact, when the hourly checks were reported to Red Cross HQ, I noticed that only one shelter had a mental health worker stationed. Outside in the hallway there were about six tables. On the tables were bottled water, box juices, a coffee urn, wrapped snacks and other foods. With breakfast over, it was about 8 AM, I thought it would be a while before the manager wanted to send the lunch request. At what I thought was early (9 AM), the shelter manager instructed me to transmit the lunch request. She told me that Red Cross was VERY slow at filling requests. I was also asked to request additional towels as the clients had taken morning showers and there were none left. I repeated the same request at 11 AM. The other shelters requested their lunches several times. There was no reply to any requests about when they would be delivered. A very bad omen. Thankfully, the local businesses, on their own, did supply food and other items to shelters. In our area there was one Chinese restaurant that supplied us with a seemingly endless supply of trays of fried rice and other food. Without their help, our clients would have gone hungry. I say this because when "lunch" finally did arrive, it was at 5 PM. That made it nine hours between official breakfast and lunch. We were also told it would have to do as SUPPER as well. It consisted of a tray of warm peas, a tray of dried chicken breasts and a tray of pineapples. I was embarrassed. With all the millions of dollars in funds being donated for this event, all they could manage was this? I found out later that is what every shelter got. Word was relayed to me a few days later that the Health Department admonished the Red Cross for serving food not at the proper temperature. I also found out from a friend who was a radio op at the Red Cross headquarters, that the radio ops and people in Brooklyn Red Cross had "catered" food.
The towels never did arrive. Neither did some other items that were requested. The volunteers, myself included, were contemplating donating our own money so a volunteer could gather up the old towels and go to a laundromat. The shelter manager decided to wait a while longer. I ended up giving my sets of rubber gloves to the nurses because they were out of their own. As this type of duty can be very boring at times, I also loaned out a deck of cards I had in my go-bag. It helped pass the time for some.
The Red Cross is required by law to accept anyone who asks for shelter. It was quite obvious that there were several homeless people who sought a place to stay. For one, it meant trouble for us. That night, at about 3 AM, one homeless man, who had snuck in some sort of booze and had become drunk, waltzed out of the gym and into the hall brandishing a handgun and announced "I want to shoot me some Arabs". Everyone took cover, except the not-so-bright amateur radio operator. Me. I Looked at him and said "Wow! I had a gun like that when I was in Vietnam. It might be the same model. Can I take a look at it?" He, in his state of drunkenness, said "Sure" and handed me the gun. While I was making small-talk with him and pretending to examine the gun, another worker got the police who were still on duty downstairs. They quickly cuffed him, I gave them the gun and it was over. Never had ARES/RACES training in that, but it needed to be done or people would get hurt. As it was, no clients were even aware that it happened. No mention to Red Cross HQ was sent. There was no need to discuss this on the radio because if it got intercepted by the media it might cause a frenzy. It remained an "in house" event. MORAL: SOME THINGS ARE BETTER LEFT UNSAID. REMEMBER THIS AND COMMUNICATE AS THOUGH THE ENTIRE WORLD IS LISTENING.
As dawn approached, another call was placed, above and beyond the hourly checks, for breakfast and TOWELS. This was repeated several times and breakfast, in the form of cold scrambled eggs and boxed breakfast cereal came several hours later. Again, no towels. The clients started to complain to the shelter manager about the lack of towels. A bulb lit within my head. I had seen a huge box of bathrobes donated by a hotel. They were made of terry-cloth and I suggested that the clients use them as towels. Problem solved. After breakfast, Red Cross sent over a "relocation" team to help get most people out of the shelter and either placed at hotels or routes to get them home. I must say that these volunteers were very well skilled at doing this. Before you knew it, half of our clients were gone. The rest of the day was uneventful. As you know, the Red Cross volunteers stationed at this shelter did 12 hour, or slightly longer, shifts. I had been there, by this time, 32 hours. So much for the 12 hour shift promise. Soon, however, a van came and with it my replacement. I had the police HOLD THE VAN this time, until I could give my replacement the details on the shelter. I then hopped into the van and on the way back to Red Cross headquarters we picked up several other operators from different shelters. When we arrived at Red Cross headquarters, it was like walking into a firestorm of angry radio operators. There was a great deal of shouting and complaining about the support from Red Cross. I didn't need to brief them about my operation at the shelter, it was the same from every operator. Few shelter requests were ever met. It was as if every request went into the "circular file". Frustration on the faces and out of the tongues of all the operators who were relieved. I eased myself out of the room and got into my car and drove home. I had "done my bit". Twice. There were many questions asked by the amateur radio operators at the briefing and after the event. I think very few, if any, were ever answered. After my own investigation, I know the answers, but I am a professional and will keep them to myself. The one thing I will say is that if I had to do it all over again, I would. Exactly as before. I, like many radio operators, do it for the public and not for the "glory" or any "agency, league or organization."
In 2009, I Developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
In March of 2009, I went through my very first bout with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) which was undetected following my Emcomm deployment during the 2001 WTC Disaster at “Ground Zero”. That’s over 7 years ago.
PTSD can happen at any time after an event. As in my case, even years after. There is usually a “trigger” (a word, smell, image, another experience, etc) which can set it off, and in my case it was just a thought that popped into my head.
Allow me to explain.
In 2009, I worked at a place called “The Center For The Intrepid” or CFI which is a special rehabilitation complex on an Army medical base, Brooke Army Medical Center, in San Antonio. (After the WTC Disaster I relocated to Texas) At CFI, they have all the “Wounded Warriors” (Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines) who've lost limbs or have serious burns during the Mid East conflict. This building is the first of it’s kind. They develop special prosthetics and also help through physical therapy until most soldiers can walk just as good as you or I.
It’s amazing how the latest technology can help these amputees. Each prosthetic device can cost anywhere from 12 thousand to 100 thousand dollars. I, for one, am glad the government is taking such good care of these heroes.
I see them every day. There are dozens and dozens of these heroes. We interact and they enjoy talking to a civilian who is also a veteran.
One day, in April 2009, while noticing quite a number of them in the lounge, I started thinking: “If the World Trade Center Disaster didn't occur, probably all of these brave men and women would still have their missing limbs.”
Whether correct or false, this set off my “trigger” and began my first bout with PTSD, even though I had no earlier typical symptoms such as dreams or nightmares of the event. I began having breathing problems, but only at night. I could not sleep because it felt as if I was having an asthma attack even though I don't have an asthmatic condition. It felt like I was suffocating.
My house was thoroughly checked for irritants such as mold, etc. Nothing was found. I even had a chest x-ray which revealed no serious problems other than lots of small particles that are stuck in my lungs from the WTC exposure (which includes building materials and "cremated remains") but not enough to cause this type of breathing problem so quickly. I found out that could I easily fall asleep on a cot out on my porch, but not indoors. This was how my PTSD surfaced.
Upon consultation with experts in the field (and there are several at CFI who deal with the soldiers’ PTSD's and emotional problems) it seems that my subconscious had a fear of being trapped in a collapsed building. I am still working through my PTSD condition through consultation and medication.
In a few weeks following the discovery of my having PTSD, I could actually sleep indoors as long as some windows were open and I faced one. Taking an all natural sleep enhancer was also needed. Slowly, I returned to a normal sleep routine.
Now that I've discovered that I actually have PTSD, it is something I'll have to deal with for the rest of my life, just as I have to keep a careful eye on the particles in my lungs. There is no such thing as a “cure” for PTSD and it could crop up as other symptoms.
In passing this information along, I am hoping that other Emcomm workers who might have been or will be exposed to sad events such as a plane disaster, etc. will take heed. Think about how any emergency event might affect you. PTSD can sneak up on you, as it did for me. Know that it might be a possibility and read more about PTSD.
Emcomm is a very important part of assisting in a disaster. We need to keep responding as the professionals we all are. Just be aware that ALL rescue workers can be at risk from developing PTSD whether you handle an axe, a tourniquet or even a microphone.
A BBC BROADCAST - "UNSUNG HEROES"
The BBC broadcast a special documentary a few years ago about amateur radio and it's involvement in the World Trade Center Disaster: "Unsung Heroes" and may be listened to at the following Internet web site:
In the middle of this broadcast, you will hear a short snippet of my actual communications from "Ground Zero". (You'll notice that I said in my transmission that I was in a shelter NEAR "Ground Zero" since I didn't want anyone listening in to know I was at the ICC for fear of additional attacks - net control knew exactly where I was) Proof, again, that you never know who is listening when you perform your emergency communications duties.
Bob Hejl email address: firstname.lastname@example.org