I thought that I would tell the events of Sept 11th and 12th as they happened to me. Confused and horrifying.
0630: I decided that I would go in to do a Coast Guard drill. I owe the Coast Guard 15 more days before the end of the month in order to fulfill my annual requirement as a Reservist. I arrived a little before 0800 and lined up my job for the day. I am a Marine Inspector and I survey Ships for the Coast Guard. I was waiting to go out on a tanker when someone noticed that there was smoke coming from the World Trade Center. The Coast Guard Command that I am based out of is on Staten Island. My office is on the third floor. We have a clear panorama of downtown Manhattan from our reception area. Immediately we turned to CNN to see what was going on. The early reports told us that a small plane had collided with one of the Towers. We were going back and for the between the window and the TV then to our utter disbelief we watched as the second plane crashed into the other tower.
By this time the command decided that a team of us should go to ride the Staten Island Ferries, to help with passengers boarding the ferries and to ensure that they weren’t overloaded which could cause a capsize. When our team reached the ferries, Staten Island side, the first tower went down. We boarded along with Firemen, Policemen and EMT’s. I was up on the Bridge trying to figure out how we were going to handle all of the panicked people trying to get off Manhattan. We decided that we would split up into teams and do our best to calm people boarding the ferries and reassure them that we would get them away from the city. By this time I had lost track of time. As we left in route to Manhattan the second tower fell. Just As we were pulling away from the dock, two Arab looking men quickly boarded the ferry with a large briefcase. In an heightened state of alert I thought that I would check them out just to be safe. I made a sweep of the decks of the ferry and couldn’t find them. I alerted two FBI agents and we began looking, guns drawn. After about 10 minutes of frantic searching we found them. False alarm, thank God.
As we approached Manhattan there was thick smoke engulfing the whole downtown area. The wind was blowing south which meant that we were landing in the middle of the plume of smoke. When we landed we were amazed to see that people trying to get off of Manhattan were eerily calm. They orderly boarded the ferry, and soon the volume of people decreased to a trickle. We had extra men. I took 5 guys with me and we went to the front of the terminal to help guide people to the ferry behind us. Before we knew it we were unloading and carrying medical supplies into the terminal to help set up a triage center. We unloaded stretchers, oxygen bottles, IV’s, all of the emergency equipment that was available from the ambulances and emergency trucks scattered all around. Doctors and nurses were showing up out of nowhere. Some in plainclothes and some in Scrubs, many completely covered in gray ash. Ash, soot and smoke was everywhere. There were ambulances covered in inches of fine powder from the pulverized cement of the towers. We were wearing dust masks but they didn’t seem to help much. Despite the smoke there was this fine dust in the air. There were injured people coming in, all minor injuries, scrapes, cuts, twisted ankles, broken bones and people having a hard time breathing. I remember helping a pregnant lady with a gash in her leg up the steps to the medical area. No life threatening injuries though. In fact after a while there were no patients coming in at all.
Meanwhile, a couple of the guys had wandered up closer to the trade center. I guess that they just wanted to see it for themselves. I had lost track of them. There was still a lot of confusion going on.
The next thing I know it is about Noon. The two guys that went up to the towers finally came running back very excited. “The Firemen need help” they said. We all looked at each other; there was no thinking about it. We put a team of guys together and headed up.
As we approached the Trade Center the smoke got thicker and the smells got stronger. Smells that I had never smelt before. I could smell burning paper, it was everywhere, then were the indistinguishable smells. Burning wiring, cars, buildings and other sweeter smells. I didn’t want to think about what some of the smells could be. The ash and dust was thick now, about three of four inches deep on the ground. As we traveled up Church Street, (the street that runs along the east side of the Trade Center). We came across small fires, blown out windows of buildings, demolished cars, cars on fire, it was like nothing I ever imagined, total chaos. As we approached the site I just couldn’t believe my eyes. Huge pieces of the Trade Center scattered all over. The towers collapsed inward but large sections of the outer façade were intact, but bent and twisted sticking out of the piles of rubble. Seven World Trade Center was a complete inferno. Fire was coming out of every window. You could feel the heat hit you when the wind shifted. Smoke in black and gray was darkening the sky, one minute it was dark as night and the next minute you could see the sun. The smells were more intense here. Again I seemed to shut them out. Firemen and Policemen all over, some working some just dazed. Police vehicles, and huge fire trucks were completely demolished. There was this special skyscraper ladder truck that had been turned into a pretzel and had burned up. People were trying to move large pieces of debris out of the road so the fire and emergency trucks could get by. We all pitched in. Twisted metal was everywhere. We were dragging huge chunks of the aluminum siding that once was the façade of the trade center, we were shoveling the street, we were helping carry fire hoses.
I stopped to ask a Fire Chief what we could do to help. He said we should wait by the command center until they were ready to search. The command center was a blown out Burger King. CNN was on a TV inside. There were more Doctors and Rescue people inside pacing and watching what was going on. Nobody was sure how many more attacks had taken place. People were exchanging information. There was water and food and people were taking a breather.
After a bit I was feeling useless and wanted to get some tasking. I located another Fire Chief; he asked me to take my team and search the first few floors of the Brooks Brothers building for trapped people. I knew that he was trying to keep us safer by putting us in a building but I was glad to be doing something. All of the windows facing the Trade Center were blown out. Thick soot and the powder from the pulverized cement was covering everything. We made a few sweeps and went as far as we could. We found no one. By the time we got out of the building people were going up onto the huge pile of rubble to search for survivors. We followed suit. There were I beams, chunks of concrete, the aluminum siding of the towers, destroyed office furniture and computer stuff, just all mixed up like it had been in a blender. Wire was everywhere entangled throughout the mass of rubble. Smoke was rising from rifts in the rubble. With our flashlights we were looking into crevices and calling out for survivors. Other better-equipped rescue people were climbing into the openings within the rubble. We stuck to combing the surface. We were climbing up and over huge beams and other obstacles, not a trace of life. In hindsight we were being pretty stupid. At any time pieces of the surrounding buildings could come falling down or something could cave in. We just weren’t thinking. Eventual we came across a partially buried person. Everyone pitched in and we had her freed in a little while. She was busted up pretty bad, I didn’t look at her face. I guess that’s when I realized that we weren’t going to find anyone alive up here. We dug a little more, finding evidence of people but nothing more.
I realized that I was smelling gas. The fire Chief in our area said I am pulling my men out. We pulled out too. As I was coming down I looked around. Right in front of us was the American Express building. About 30 stories up was an enormous hole that stretched for about 15 floors. There was a gigantic piece of the Trade center wedged into it like a huge splinter. Fire was raging there too. All of the towering buildings around were in bad shape. Most windows blown out, chunks of the buildings missing, fires.
We went back to the Burger King to catch our breath. I felt defeated. I looked at my watch it was 5pm. We regrouped for a minute and received a phone call on the cell. We were tasked to go and look for another guy down at the seaport who was helping to coordinate ferries to Brooklyn. We split up and headed out. Ten minutes after we left Seven World trade Center came down. I don’t think that anyone was hurt from that one.
We were rounded up and sent back to Ft. Wadsworth on Staten Island (The Coast Guard Base). We were in a little trouble. The Command had lost track of us. We tried to inform the Command what was going on but communications were useless and we didn’t have time to think about it. I made it home at about 9pm.
The next morning I went back to Ft. Wadsworth. I was assigned to bring a small team of guys back to Manhattan to provide security at the Coast Guard Building, my old office. The Coast Guard Building is right at the foot of Manhattan, next to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. We had an easy job and I was glad to be doing something. Generals and officials were coming and going, I was sending guys as escorts to accompany them.
I got a call at about 1030 instructing me to relieve my boss at the Office of Emergency Management field Command Center. The makeshift office was in the cafeteria of Public School 89, about four blocks from the Trade Center. I had to act as the Coast Guard rep for the emergency team. The team consisted of all of the city and federal emergency agencies. I felt a little out of place. I realized that the guy in charge was Tim Brown, we had worked closely on the production of OpSail a year earlier. I had attended meetings in his office, 7 World Trade Center, now a smoldering pile of rubble. I couldn’t imagine what he had been through or that he had slept in the last 40 hrs. After I gave my short brief I asked him how he was doing. He told me that his two best friends were dead. But it was good to see me.
I started getting questions from the various agencies and I got very busy. I received a call from the Navy, they had a connection with some refrigerated containers and wanted to know if the morgue needed them. I found my way to the makeshift morgue, about one block from the Trade Center. Body bags were passing through and being placed into a large refrigerated truck. I found a Priest and a Police Sergeant but they told me that the operation was being moved. Then the Police officer told me that he didn’t think that they needed the extra containers because they were finding mostly small pieces of bodies at this point. He didn’t think they would find many more whole bodies. As I was leaving I felt this presence next to me. I turned and it was a friend of mine, Pete Gleason. A Fireman. Actually he is retired but he came to find his two brothers, both Firemen. Thank God they are alive he said. We shook hands and parted.
I returned to the Command center and some other Firemen were looking for me. “We need a small boat” they said, “something that we can get into the Subway Tunnels”. It would have taken hours to get a boat from the coast Guard station so we headed over to the marina that was a block from us. We marched out onto the dock and commandeered a dingy. We all carried it, Firemen, EMS, Police, this one Police Officer, asked if the Coast Guard would take responsibility for this act of piracy. I in turn asked if the police dept could let this one slide. They disappeared into the tunnel, I don’t know if they found anyone. I headed back to the command center, my relief was waiting for me.
As I left the scene via a Tugboat, I still couldn’t believe that this could have happened. To see the smoke rising from the Trade Center as the sun set behind the Statue of Liberty just felt unreal. It was a site I saw many times from the top of the Trade Center when I attended a Wine School at Windows on the World. I can’t describe the sinking feeling that came over me. All of those innocent people, just gone.
I haven’t gone back to the Trade Center. The Coast Guard has activated me and I am assigned to screen tankers and cargo ships before they enter port. They have me stationed about 8 miles out at the entrance to New York Bay. I don’t know how long I will be doing this but it feels good to be doing something.