Tags: september eleventh | twin towers | rescue

Remembering 9/11: Digging for Survivors at the World Trade Center

Remembering 9/11: Digging for Survivors at the World Trade Center
Fire and rescue workers search through the rubble of the World Trade Center September 13, 2001, in New York. (Beth A. Keiser/AFP/Getty Images)

By    |   Wednesday, 11 September 2019 04:00 PM

After nearly a month of fires and heavy smoke and lost hope of finding survivors, the giant task of cleaning up what was the largest two structures in North America began.

There were 7 buildings in all, 13,400,000 square feet (1,240,000 square meters) of office space, now lying in a pile.

In this giant pile was the remains of over 1,500 souls who had yet to be found and needed to be returned if possible to their families. The largest disaster cleanup and the largest crime scene in world history needed to be cleaned up and searched for remains.

Cops, firefighters, steel workers, crane and heavy equipment operators and volunteers from all over the country and the world organized to repair this colossal mess.

The work was 24/7, it never stopped. Trucks from everywhere with supplies streamed into NYC. Tents popped up everywhere with anything we needed. I walked into one a block from the towers. It was easily 50 yards long. Everything you could imagine was inside it, organized into categories laid out on big tables. Feet wet? Grab new socks and boots in any size, jeans, jackets, gloves, hats, flashlights, batteries, gum, snacks, shovels, first aid stuff. Everything. Donated by Americans from every corner of the country.

They gave their time as well. People from all 50 states came to help. They raced to New York on their own dime many times and volunteered to help, sucking down the toxic dust right along with us. Truly, the uplifting feeling these Americans gave to us was incredible. You’d meet them everywhere, helping you dig or handing you food and water or lending their expertise in whatever they could.

The steel workers climbing the twisted steel to cut it away with torches so it could be removed and people with rescue dogs crawling through holes searching for remains.

Once a dog handler grabbed a few of us and asked us if we would hide in a pile of junk so his dog could find us. Seems the dogs needed this contrived success so they wouldn’t feel their work was in vain. Someone hid, the pup found him hiding, pretending to be trapped, we all cheered wildly and the dog was ecstatic, I think we all pretended that we found someone alive, even if it was for a moment and pure Kabuki.

A block or two from the Trade Center complex was a high school. It was evacuated and taken over with rescue operations for the duration of the cleanup. It was a beehive of activity 24/7.

First-aid stations for rescue workers, hot food served 24/7, chiropractors adjusting people, AA meetings, and dozens of recliners to grab some sleep with fresh pillows and volunteers that would bring you fresh linens and pillows. All around the outside of the site, companies sent supplies. Outback had maybe 10 giant grills setup under the FDR Drive cooking steaks, chicken, and anything else you wanted. Every office building anywhere nearby the site opened its doors to us. Companies with kitchens that served its employees would send people outside to literally drag us inside to eat. We’d eat in these corporate cafeterias and the employees would stare at us in awe. Walking in and out of the site which was closed off for security, we would be greeted with applause and cheers. On the Westside Highway for months there was a vigil of people 24/7 just standing on the side of the road just to wave American flags and cheer us as we entered and left the site. All night, every night.

Tens of thousands of cards streamed into the city from all over the globe. To this day, I don’t know where they addressed them, but they found their way down to us. Maybe a million cards, I couldn’t count or even estimate how many.

St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church on Broadway, just steps from the Trade Center, was an early respite center that we would go to, to grab a water and some hot food. The rear of the old church faced the Trade Center and was covered in dust and dirt and papers from the collapse. Its copper-colored stone bleached white temporarily from the debris. The pews were hard to eat in, but it was warm and easy to get to. Its pews were covered in letters from all over the world thanking us for our work.

Myself and my partner Rick went in one afternoon tired and dirty. We sat in a pew and ate a plate of food given to us from a volunteer from Oklahoma in NYC for a few weeks to help. Violinists from the NY Philharmonic came in to play in this small church that was completed in 1766. George Washington and John Adams and the members of Congress sat in these pews after his Inauguration in 1789 and attended Sunday service here for two years when NYC was the Capitol of the United States. For a time, it was the tallest structure in NYC, now a makeshift aid station for the former tallest building in NYC, that would cast a shadow on the ancient and historic church, now a pile of rubble barely taller than the church’s spire.

Its centuries-old, wrought-iron fence in front was now covered with photos of missing people hung there by families looking for clues or news of loved ones who worked at the Trade Center. I would get stopped by mothers or wives who’d show me a picture and ask me to look for them. Now I sat in these same seats reading handwritten cards from school children scribbled in crayon with crude depictions of the Trade Center burning and colored American flags thanking us for what we were doing. Washington sat here during the birth of our nation — now I was here in one of its darkest hours. The violinists playing "Amazing Grace" echoing in the church’s acoustics, I looked over at my hulking partner, who’d kill you if need be, he was bawling, face in his hands. There was just too much to swallow in a lifetime in that moment. The thought of dozens of school children gathered around their desk somewhere in small-town America eagerly writing us letters at the direction of their teacher is a vision I often think about. I’d love to personally thank each one.

I think it was on or about the 15th of September 2001. I was walking around Ground Zero looking and asking questions on my friends Company, FDNY’s Rescue 3, to see if I could find out where he was when the WTC came down so I could concentrate my search in that area. I was with a teammate from my narcotics team that was looking for his best man from his wedding, a firefighter. We found a member of his Ladder Company and he asked where his friend was. The firefighter raised his dirt covered arm and pointed solemnly towards the pile. I was covered in crap, tired, and very sad. I came off the pile and was walking to the church on Broadway. I was clomping through all the debris and junk that was scattered all around the streets still, when I came across 5 or 6 middle-school kids standing in the rubble holding a garbage bag in the middle of the street just inside the perimeter.

I approached and asked this one little girl, "What are you guys doing here?"

She said, "we are from Savannah Georgia, and we drove all night to come up here to give you this." She reached into the bag and took out a clear plastic baggie, inside was a bottle of water, a handmade peanut butter sandwich, and a hand-colored flag on a 3x5 card. On the back it says in children's scribble, “We are very proud of you; God bless America.”

I said to this girl, "You guys rode all night in a school bus and made these sandwiches and colored flags in a bouncing bus, to come all the way to NYC to hand this to me?"

She said, "Yep, it's the least we could do."

Savannah, thanks for the sandwich, best I ever ate, this flag is my most prized possession. I have it hidden, occasionally I pull it out and stare at it. This year I will mount it in a proper frame and hang it in my home where I can see it every day. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. I can see it in 4K if I close my eyes.

I hope this little girl remembers what she did and can see my dirty face and my eyes holding back tears and my sincerity in my thanks. I walked away through the dust and looked over at another haggard cop and just shook my head in amazement, I could hear the little kids talking to a group of firemen behind me who were about to experience the same touch of kindness.

Every piece of the 7 buildings was searched several times in an attempt to return the dead to their families.

Once at the foot of the Trade Center, construction workers would spread the debris out in a designated area and cops and fire fighters would walk through it looking for anything that resembled human remains.

Afterward, it was loaded on barges and shipped to the Staten Island Landfill where it was searched several more times. Spread out on a football field-size area and searched again by detectives, then scooped up by loaders and loaded onto giant sifters, searched again then loaded onto belts where lines of detectives would stare at the flotsam and jetsam flying by, grabbing anything of value to catalog and submit for DNA analysis. Oftentimes a torso or a jawbone was all that stood between a family getting something to bury and closure and nothing. This went on 24/7 till the job was done. We alternated later on in the cleanup between the landfill and ground zero. I saw tons of family photos that once resided on someone’s desk in the Trade Center, flying by on the belt, shoes and rings that never would be reunited with its owner who forever resided in the dust.

We arrived at the landfill at all hours, now befit in the proper gear for protection. We’d jump into our White Tyvek suits and hats and booties and walk solemnly out to our post like white ghosts. No rank showing, you couldn’t tell male from female, just white ghosts searching with rakes through junk in the middle of the night. Retreating to a small shelter to stay warm where we would joke and horseplay like kids, trying to block out what we were doing and the family friends who might be in the next load to be searched.

As painful as it was and still is, I am proud to have been there doing this work. There is nowhere I would rather have been. I never heard anyone say that they prefer to be doing something else, working cases or anything else. This is where we needed to be. Several times the subject would come up about the health risk of being here in this place. We all knew it wasn’t good to be here breathing this air. But who’s going to do it? I never saw or heard of anyone who wanted out. This notion that had the government only told us the air was dangerous that maybe we could have removed ourselves and not exposed ourselves to almost certain health issues and death is silly. I knew from the moment I stepped onto the site on 9/11 that it was bad and you couldn’t drag me away with a team of horses.

However, I am pissed off that it took 18 years to have our healthcare program fully funded for life. This only after people Like John Feal and others fought tooth and nail to get it done. Practically having to pin Congress to the ground to get it passed. Detective Louis Alvarez dragged himself in his last days on earth to the halls of Congress to get it done in an act of bravery that is humbling. The truck loads of benevolence I outlined above are all gone. The flag waving is no more; people now ask cops to leave an eatery because their mere presence offends them.

The healthcare has been passed, but the dying continues, two or three a week. I post every one. There is no bill that will change that. I am glad when I read a name these days and I can’t recollect the person. Some are friends some are nodding acquaintances; they are all people with families. The NYPD lost 23 on 9/11/01, we have lost over 200 to illness since that day and the FDNY the same. Many of the kind civilians who came down to help are sick and dying as well.

All of us as Responders wonder when it will be our turn in the barrel. How does someone like myself, who did over 700 hours at the site and landfill, get to escape while others who spent a quarter of the time are sick or dead years now?

I’ve now learned to deal with it by expecting it to happen. I hope I am wrong, but I prefer to enjoy what time I have being somewhat healthy. I look at my new grandson and my family and enjoy it more. My grandson is only a few months old, he looks at me, his soul stainless and pure and I can see the puzzled look in his eyes as he looks at me, the Towers falling and the digging is tattooed onto my face as they play like a movie in my eyes.

It will forever be a part of me, even after I am gone. I’ve accepted it, I no longer let it bother me, I only feel for the families of the lost and what will happen to mine if my time comes.

I remember vividly September 12, I was high up on the pile passing buckets backward, tired and dirty. I looked up and saw this long snake of men and women standing on this very dangerous pile of burning debris, to my left and right another 500 or so people doing the same in these bucket brigades, risking life and limb, not only on this day but forever more having exposed themselves to this toxic soup.

I was never more proud to be a New York City Detective. Looking at these huge lines of rescuers standing on a five story high pile of burning twisted steel and concrete with no safety equipment, digging to try to find survivors. I dug the first day with my handcuffs and a Gerber multi tool. To be here with this assembly of cops and firefighters, steel workers and volunteers in the most dangerous place in the world at that time, was incredible.

In Shakespeare’s "Henry V," a speech is given to rouse the troops before a great battle on a meaningless holiday that now will forever be associated with the battle about to be fought. It is long and powerful, but this small part I’ll share:

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember√®d—

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother;

Sadly, though this “day” has dragged on for years, the dying and the blood shed is not over. It’s a daily event for us. “Infinite"? No, not infinite, just until there are no more of us left. Which will be sooner than later.

Anthony Agnelli is an NYPD Detective-Retired.

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After nearly a month of fires and heavy smoke and lost hope of finding survivors, the giant task of cleaning up what was the largest two structures in North America began.
september eleventh, twin towers, rescue
Wednesday, 11 September 2019 04:00 PM
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