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Four Days at Ground Zero: Volunteering at the WTC

Author: Paul E. Doyle/DEA Retired

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-10
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Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue.

Amtrak depot, Westwood, Massachussetts.  Late evening, Sunday, September 16th.  Five days earlier, thousands of innocent people had been killed by a group of fanatics from places most of us couldn't find on a map. Now now, I was headed to New York City with a friend named Kevin.

Why was I going? Was it altruism? Loyalty? A call to arms? The only thing I was sure of, whatever moved me came from the deep recesses of my heart.

Kevin and I had met years ago as volunteers with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. He's a crew-cut police sergeant from Malden. I'm a retired special agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The Amtrak conductor, overhearing our conversation about volunteering in the search and rescue at the scene of the World Trade Center disaster, told us that he was proud of us. The man behind the counter said we could order anything we wanted. He said that he wanted to do his part for America.

"Have a beah! Have sumpthin'. You guys desehve it," the man behind the counter told us in a thick Boston accent. "Um payin'."

When we got to New York, the train stopped for a moment on the Hell's Gate Bridge. The engineer opened the door at the end of the car to show Kevin and me a hellish scene. We looked at the location where the World Trade Center had stood. Powerful lights illuminated the devastation. Smoke and dust rose from the ashes.

We stood silently. After a while, I looked away and shook my head.

Security was tight throughout Manhattan in the weeks after September 11th.  Only ID’d rescuers and authorized vendors and civilian workers were permitted into the collapse area.  Media, souvenir hunters, and unauthorized photographers were arrested.  Photo by Jim Butler/NYPD

Early the next morning, Kevin and I went to the Javits Center, the Command Post where volunteers were given their assignments. Iron Workers, laborers, police, and fire fighters from all over the country bustled about, trying to get on a work detail. Determination showed on everyone's face, and a feeling of raw energy pervaded the scene.

Kevin and I were chosen to work at Ground Zero. An environmental police officer drove us down the West Side Highway, which was closed to the public. After passing through three roadblocks, we received our authorization pass, hardhat, respirator, and work gloves, and got assigned to a team. An NYPD van took us as close to the site as possible; we walked the rest of the way.

We stood nervously at the edge of the pile of rubble, near the Millennium Hilton and a Brooks Brothers store newly labeled with a hastily painted sign: "Temporary Morgue."

"Water!" someone yelled from within the pile. We hoisted cases of bottled water over to the rubble and watched as they disappeared down into it, passed from hand to hand by a chain of men. "Body bags!" voices shouted somewhere down in the rubble. A chill ran up my spine.

"I'll take the guys from Boston with me," a rugged-looking young redhead announced loudly. "I'm Sergeant McCormick." He looked at me. "Name?"

"Doyle," I said.

"Cell phone?" He explained, "In case we lose you. There are seven stories below us."

I gave him my phone number as the reality of the situation began to sink in.

We moved cautiously up the embankment that encircled the wreckage. On our right was a seven- or eight-story burned-out building that seemed to lean dangerously in our direction. Twisted steel beams hung over our heads. Out of nowhere, a ragged group of men resembling battle-hardened soldiers, faces blackened by smoke and ash, appeared.

One of them, the group leader, told us, "We don't know how many people there are in this building, but we know there are many. And we know there are sixty police officers in there. It's your job to find 'em and get 'em out. If you find firefighters, call in the firemen. If they find police, they'll call for you. Good luck, and be safe!"

Our squad headed up over the mound of debris and down into the rubble. One hand reached out to touch the shoulder of the man in front, the other extended out to maintain balance. We climbed over steel beams, avoiding the curlicues of rebar that jutted up randomly.

Deeper and deeper we went into the abyss, searching for sure footing in the maze of crumpled sheet metal, twisted steel, wire, and broken glass. I struggled to breathe through the cumbersome respirator.

The line stopped moving. Up front, several EMS workers in yellow suits began digging with small shovels. No one spoke. I looked up at the sun shining brilliantly in the pure blue sky. A shank of shattered steel, plucked from the pile of ruins by a giant crane, sailed overhead. Around us was a cacophony of men shouting, trucks hauling, tractors beeping. Suddenly, the shovels stopped.

"We need a dog!" one of the yellow suits said, a message that traveled to the back of the line. Moments later, a handler and his dog were struggling to maneuver around us without falling. Once they got to the front, the German Shepherd began barking and dancing about nervously. Then he stopped, stretched out his front paws as if to mark a spot, and scratched frantically. The handler moved the dog away, and the EMS workers began to dig again.

The shoveling stopped. The workers straightened up but continued staring down. Their body language told the story before they spoke.

"Body parts!" one of the workers yelled, frustration in his voice. Once again, the words passed down the line.

A hulking figure appeared in silhouette at the back. He pulled his respirator from his face. "Mark 'em!" he shouted. "Mark 'em, and move on! Another team will retrieve the parts! We're lookin' for people! We need to get 'em outta there!" he said with urgency.

In chain reaction, each of us began to move forward again. We stopped when the dog began to bark and the workers began to dig. The man behind me handed me a stack of five-gallon plastic pails, which I passed to the man in front. After we did this for several minutes, the pails began to come back full of debris.

Bucket after bucket, we removed the debris methodically, almost monotonously, from the front of the line, where they were working to uncover anything that would lead to a pocket in which survivors were hidden. We fought against the discouraging conclusion that no one could have survived this horror.

"Body parts!" the voice from up ahead called out again.

"Mark 'em! Keep movin'!" The same routine continued hour after hour, interrupted only by shouts. ""Saw blades! Water! Body bags!"

"Break!" We stopped what we were doing and straightened up in place. It was a little after noon. Without a word, we turned and started moving up and out of the rubble as somber-looking firefighters wearing helmets and long, heavy coats filed in to take our position. We reached out automatically to help each other go slowly along in different directions, exchanging momentary glances and gloved handclasps.

We reached the even surface of Chapel Street, then turned sideways to squeeze through a small gate in a chain-link fence. National Guardsmen in full combat gear scrutinized our passes at this innermost checkpoint to and from Ground Zero. Security was the tightest here: Ground Zero was still designated a crime scene. If reporters, photographers, souvenir seekers, or looters attempted to gain entrance, they were arrested on the spot.

We walked along Liberty Street between high buildings eerily shrouded with ash, went through another National Guard checkpoint, and then stepped out onto Broadway. I pulled my goggles over my head, unhooked my respirator, and enjoyed the coolness as the perspiration evaporated from my face and head.

Up and down Broadway, there were makeshift stands covered with sandwiches, soda, and other kinds of food and refreshments, stretching as far as I could see. I walked along and inspected the offerings.

"What would you like?" an old man behind a stand asked with a smile.

I took a small box of pizza.

"Good choice. We just put them out," he said. Then, with sadness: "It must be pretty bad in there."

"It is," I said simply, not really knowing what to say. There was kindness in his eyes. I knew he wasn't prying, wasn't looking for horrific details. I managed a slight smile as I walked away, and he acknowledged me in kind.

Everyone wanted to help in some meaningful way. Ordinary citizens of all ages, of all races, from all walks of life, were volunteering their time and money in record amounts. Had our patriotism been there all along, under the surface? Would it continue?

Back at Ground Zero, Sergeant McCormick told us we'd be searching in another sector for the rest of the afternoon. The squad worked side by side, and late in the day I could see the tiredness in everyone's eyes. The realization that we were probably not going to find any survivors today was registering on everyone's expression.

Lowered voices drew my attention to the line of firefighters working next to us. They'd found a firefighter's helmet. His body was uncovered several feet away. We kept working, but the news spread quickly, and a hush came over the entire sector.

Six firefighters, walking tall, with tears in their eyes, carried the fallen firefighter down the line and out of the rubble. I will never forget that sight. Everyone stopped what they were doing and saluted in silence. A short time later, the shoveling resumed, and the buckets started coming. We worked robotically, without a word.

Later, after word came that we were done for the night, Kevin and I walked back with our squad to the staging area.

"Hey, Boston!" a voice called from behind. Sergeant McCormick was holding out his hand. "We really appreciate you guys comin' down and workin' with us. You evah come to the city, look me up."

"It was an honor," Kevin said.

He was right. It was an honor for us to work alongside all these outstanding people. I was proud to be in their company. Their efforts reminded me of something I always tell my daughters: "The smallest light will overcome the greatest darkness."

On the way back to Javits in the police cruiser, a pair of NYPD motorcycle officers and an FDNY ambulance slowly passed by. Our driver pulled away from the curb and followed the convoy. 

“That’s the firefighter they found today,” he announced. I’m not sure why, but when he said that, it felt like a blow to the stomach.  If only this attack never happened, this fireman could go home to dinner with his family. I looked straight ahead, hoping that Kevin and the officers in the front seat would not discover the tears that were welling up in my eyes.

The uniformed police at the roadblock on West Side Highway stepped aside, then snapped to attention with salutes and waved us by. People waving American Flags lined both sides of the highway, cheering. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought about the signs held up by people of all ages that read, ‘NYFD Forever,’ ‘We love you,’ ‘Our Heroes.’  I thought it ironic that the real hero, in the ambulance in front of us, couldn’t see the signs that were written for him.

I didn’t know him, but I will never forget him

Paul E. Doyle is a retired Special Agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration of the Department of Justice.  A version of this article has also appeared in Northeastern University Magazine.



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