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Impressions of Hell: A First Hand Report from the WTC

Author: Joseph Nickischer/NYPD

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue. 

I’ve been involved in Search & Rescue for more than a dozen years and I thought I’d seen it all.  But the two days I spent in the hole beneath the collapsed World Trade Center is an experience I will never forget.

Initially, there seemed to be a lot of disorganization for the first several days as the leadership scrambled to keep up with the volunteers who showed up and the teams that were deployed to help out.  Most teams though, especially the FEMA ones, were well organized among themselves and were capable of running autonomously even if little or no input from higher up was forthcomming. 

It’s worth noting, of course, that NYC Emergency Management had to operate completely unconventionally.  Their EOC was destroyed.  Many of the top leaders of the Fire Department as well as the US&R experts were killed in the first collapse. 

The loss of the EOC was most likely the biggest cause of the confusion experienced at the WTC.  Forms, communications, status boards, contact lists, etc were all destroyed.  Imagine trying to run an EOC out of the back of somebody else's car.  You have nothing on hand and have to set up everything, from scratch.

These two NYPD officers watched the rescue efforts in silence for about an hour in the middle of the night on September 22nd, their thoughts to themselves.  Being at Ground zero in person was an overpowering mix of sights, smells, and impressions.  Photo by Dan Hudson/WA TF1

Prior to the arrival of the FEMA Urban Search & Rescue Task Forces, NYPD’s K9 teams were on scene.  Every New York Police dog capable of working was there at one point or another.  There was an animal MASH unit on scene that treated many dogs that were injured in their search efforts (mostly bleeding from the paws and legs).  There is also a local US&R team made up of personnel from NYPD & FDNY which was on site very early, before the FEMA teams were deployed.

I definately saw things coming together as the days went on, which is a big reason why they asked for no additional manpower after a few days. And there were a lot of people willing to help – both civilian and professional/semi professional teams. 

I spoke to guys from all over.  Pennsylvania Fire departments, lots of New Jersey cops and fire fighters, Long Island (NY) had hundreds of cops and fire fighters.  Cops and firefighters from Ohio, Boston, even Maine came down to help.  NY State Police, NY State Park Police, NY State Court Officers, NYC Corrections Officers, several military units and specialized teams (including SAR and WMD teams), although of course the bulk was NYPD and NYFD.

I also want to make special note of the civillians who came and worked.  Some were experienced contractors and/or demolitions crews, while others were competely inexperienced but willing to work – and work hard.

Some of the most memorable things that I will always remember include:

  • The smell of pulverized concrete.
  • The overwhelming amount of dust that was so thick it showed up like snow in photographs and laid almost an inch deep inside office buildings.
  • The two nurses who were handing out lolipops and little American flags while walking around in their scrubs.
  • The creaking and groaning sounds that we all thought was made by another building preparing to come down.
  • The college-age kids walking around in the hole who couldn't do enough for you: "Do you need water?  Do you need food?  Do you need new gloves? Do you need more buckets?"  They were our "runners" – when you needed anything and they went out of their way to go and get it.
  • The line of the bucket brigade which spanned over a hundred yards and included over 100 people on each line.  There were 4 or 5 lines, just in the area I was working, removing rubble one bucketful at a time.
  • The comaraderie shared by everyone, no matter what agency they were from.
  • The flash fires that would leap up from under your feet.
  • The amount of broken glass that was everywhere.
  • People sleeping just outside ground zero, covered in dust, with generators running beside them, while wearing respirators.  (Now that's exhausted.)

Finally, I want to share two of the most memorable quotes I heard, reflections of the integrity and horror I encountered there:

Stated by a US Army National Guard General in a staff briefing: "I don't care what's easier for the payroll staff to do, do what's best for the troops."

Described by one of my recent Advanced SAR graduates who worked on a different team: "I picked up a piece of carpeting and was about to throw it into the pile. Then I looked at it again and realized, this is not a piece of carpeting.  This is somebody."

Detective Joseph Nickischer, a 12 year veteran of the NYPD currently assigned to the warrant squad,  spent 2 days digging through the remains of the WTC in hopes of saving lives, and posted a version of this report on the Internet on Sept 22nd. He is also an advanced search & rescue instructor for the New York Guard and volunteers his time with Newburgh Rescue Supply, Glen Oaks Volunteer Ambulance Corps and the Civil Air Patrol.

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