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Reflections from Ground Zero

Author: Dave Larton

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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

Since I returned from New York City as a Communications Specialist with California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3, I have been asked many times to explain exactly what the scene at the World Trade Center looked like.  I would quickly agree with others that the scenes on the nightly television news reports were only a mere fraction of what we actually witnessed during our two-week deployment.  It would be better to explain the situation there as a massive assault to the senses.   The words horrific, tragic and incredible do not do justice in measuring the true scope of the disaster.  Our time at the site (or the pile, as we called it; only the media called it 'ground zero') affected all of the senses, usually all at the same time.

It was a sight from hell.  As we confronted the scene each night, each of us would stand with mouths wide open and utter the same phrase under our collective breath, “...oh, my God...”

It was a noise.  A noise of twisting steel, of noisy generators, of dozens of back-up alarms sounding all at once, as massive pieces of construction equipment moved here and there among the ruins, picking up huge pieces of debris, to be dumped into trucks and barged to a landfill in Staten Island.  The noises and shouts of contractors, waving, pointing, directing you out of the oncoming danger that might be a huge skip loader bearing down on you or a crane lifting debris overhead. A noise of picks and shovels against concrete as tired New York firefighters and police officers scraped along the edges of the decks, searching for… what?  There were no tables, no computers, no walls, no calendars.  There was only rubble that was covered with grit and a gray dust that permeated everything. 

Members of California US&R Task Force 3 work with rescuers from Colorado Task Force 1. Impressions of “the pile” were unforgettable by day and by night.  The sights, sounds, and smells remain unique.  The amount of devastation to be searched unfathomable.

It was a picture. The one recognizable sign that made-made buildings had once been erected there was the steel.  The steel was everywhere, like some crazy game of pick-up sticks that stuck out at crazy angles from the rubble pile, looking like a giant had dropped them there in a bout of anger.  It was impossible to walk more than a few feet anywhere on any kind of even keel, and a sudden step in any direction could lead to a sudden fall.

It was a bright light.  Generators roared and created an artificial daylight that helped you find your way along on the pile; yet the shadows that the bright light created hid voids and crevices that threatened to swallow you up in a moment’s notice.

It was a smell. The smell of concrete, of dirt, of smoke, of death.  The workers called it “death dust.”  It was an odor that we had never before experienced; yet we all knew as we stepped off the crew bus exactly what it was.  The particle masks helped to a degree, but it still came.  Some of the rescuers used oil of wintergreen or Vicks or Tiger Balm on their mustaches to cut down the odor, but yet it still came.  The odor dug into the threads of our uniforms, down under our fingernails, and down into our psyches. Many of us developed sinus infections; I could hardly speak on the first day home and our throats grew sore as we constantly tried to clear them.

It was an expression.  An expression of the many rescue workers who worked tirelessly day and night, of blank expressions of the FDNY firefighters who had gone beyond their limits of endurance long ago.  Expressions of simultaneous grief and anger of the NYPD and Port Authority officers who came to the site in their regular uniforms, complete with their ties, badges, radios, side arms and radios, only stopping to don a pair of jeans and sneakers before going out to the pile. 

It was a look.  The looks of the family members of the victims who held up signs to us each night as we went to work on the pile. A young woman asked, “have you seen my brother?  He worked on the 92nd floor of Tower Two..."  She held up a well-worn picture of a handsome young man in a soccer uniform.  I smiled weakly and replied that we would look for him.  I had seen the young woman last night.  And the night before.  

Many of the hundreds of volunteers had the same look in their eyes.  The look of despair of people who wanted to do 'something' but weren't exactly sure what that 'something' should be. "Coffee?" one of them would ask.  I learned quickly the difference in their looks when I accepted or decline their generous offer.  With the dust in the air, eating or drinking on the pile was a risky endeavor at best.  “Wanna get sick? Eat something” warned a large poster near our Base of Operations.  Still, I preferred the look of relief on their faces as I accepted gratefully a styrofoam cup of steaming black coffee; I would pour it out only when I was out of their sight.

It was a smile.  A smile of all the people who came to our aid and provided us with food, pillows, blankets, and other items that helped us get through our off hours, as short as they were.  A smile from a volunteer who provided me with a set of shower shoes so I wouldn't have to walk to and from the mobile shower trailers in my bare feet.  The smiles from television and movie stars like Loretta Swit, Harrison Ford, and Sigourney Weaver, who served meals each night to weary rescue workers under makeshift tents and tarps in the rain, then thanked us for being there.  Without the glare of marquee lights, they came each night without makeup, in polo shirts and jeans because they wanted – no, needed – to be there.  Their dedication toward helping others made it just a little bit easier for us to rise from our Army cots each night and go back to work.

We are home now.  But, we, like America, have been forever changed.  After the two-week deployment, I feel quite a bit older, and perhaps a little bit more reflective, than when I had left.  To the people we left behind in New York City, in Pennsylvania, and in Virginia, we salute you.  We stand beside you.  We honor your efforts.  We will not forget you.

And we will be back.  We will come back and see what has been rebuilt from the rubble, and see your cities in better circumstances, discovering for ourselves why you are so very proud of them.

Meanwhile, I embrace the honor of having experienced some of the biggest challenges I have ever faced in my life.  I have never been so moved.  I have never been so scared.  But, for a dispatcher, I have achieved a goal for which I have been searching for most of my adult life: I believe that I, and the members of my team, have made a difference.  For that, I am very proud, and very humbled.


Above: A number of celebrities helped out in New York City, serving meals in makeshift tents.  After serving dinner, Sigourney Weaver signed this WA TF1 helmet. Photo by Dan Hudson/WA TF1

Associate Editor Dave Larton has been involved with public safety for 35 years, 15 of them in dispatch.  He is currently the State ACS Training Officer for the Auxiliary Communications Service,Telecommunications Branch of the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA). He also serves as the Deputy State RACES Officer for the state Radio Amateur in Civil Emergency Service (RACES) program.  A nationally known dispatch instructor, Dave continues to provide training and consulting services for dispatchers and PSAP managers through First Contact 9-1-1.


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