Earlier this month, I interviewed a former firefighter who worked at Ground Zero a month after the attacks as part of the recovery operations. I taped our conversation and the incredible people at Audio Transcription Center in Boston (http://ttctranscriptions.com/) gave me a transcript back the same day I sent in the tape.
By its very subject matter, the column is a bit graphic but I did my best to edit and censor that for general readership. It’s long; but it’s a story that needs to be told and on topic with 9/11 and the dedication of the memorial. Also, I had Bill review it and he only asked that a few more specific things be removed or changed, but he approved me running it.
It’s Labor Day, 2011. I’m with a former firefighter named Bill. He served his country during the Vietnam War and he served as a firefighter for over 25 years, local to Massachusetts. His life journeys have taken him across the country and some other countries as well. He’s crossed paths and worked with some of the rich and famous, and fought his own battles in life as we all do.
Bill’s a very private person and he’s asked me to omit some personal details, including his last name. It is important to understand the reason for Bill’s reticence — we’re talking today about his work at Ground Zero one month after the attacks. Bill was part of the firefighter brigade, one of the many groups of brothers of firefighters and police who made the decision back in October of 2001 to give up their free time, not get paid, and go to Ground Zero and help in any way they could and do the jobs that no one else could possibly do in the devastated ruins of what was once the World Trade Center.
There, in the unimaginable horror, because of what they saw, what they had to do to get the get the job done, what they heard, what they experienced — he and his firefighter brothers took an oath they would never use the experience for personal gain. For many, what they saw there has left scars. How could it not?
Bill agreed to talk to me because he wanted to honor the memory of the event, and those who worked at Ground Zero in the aftermath.
The work at what later became known as the pile was no longer a rescue operation, but recovery. Ten years later, this is obviously an extremely emotional topic for him.
He was quick to point out that help came from all across the United States, and that he’s not taking credit for anything here. He’s not making himself out to be a hero, but more of a patriotic American who did a job that most of us can never imagine doing.
In person, Bill looks like a tough guy that you wouldn’t want to get into a fight with, a tough guy but personable, and to talk to him, you can see it in his eyes, even ten years later, how profoundly the experience of working at Ground Zero affected him. As we talked there was the occasional pause, where he would be lost in a memory, the occasional rapping of his foot, perhaps belying the emotion of what he felt back then and now.
I had asked Bill what the ground rules were for the interview. I did not want to pry. And he said he wouldn’t talk about some of the things he had actually seen there. Obviously Ground Zero was a grave site at that point in time. So we tried to avoid discussions of the more gruesome aspects of the experience. And he asked that we didn’t identify anyone by name, or mention any of the names of the deceased he may have helped recover out of respect for the families.
So as a perspective on something that happened after 9/11 that a lot of people don’t know about, I sat with Bill to talk about his experience working at Ground Zero a month after the attacks.
RG: “So how did the trip to Ground Zero start? What made you do it?”
Bill: “I was in a contingent of probably 200 firefighters from Metro Boston to go down to 9/11 and help out fellow comrades with the clean-up after 9/11. My obligation going was pride in my country, the love of my country, the incident itself, and my comrade firefighters that were killed in 9/11. I felt — I just felt that something happened to us that they would do the same thing. And I and my fellow comrades from the Boston area decided to form a contingent. We were able to get 200 firefighters. And we took buses down there.”
He continues, going back in time. “We didn’t know what we were gonna find. We didn’t know. We just knew that our country is going to be at war. And we knew that the only thing that we could do — There were a lot of firefighters from the Boston area who went in the service after that. And being as old as I was, I couldn’t. So I felt the best thing I could do was to help out that way. A lot of the guys did. We had some guys that were not even firefighters anymore that went down. So there were guys in their sixties who went down and guys who were retired went down. We had guys who had a year on to guys who had put 35 years in with the department that wanted to go.”
RG: “How long were you there?”
Bill: “We were down there for approximately two and a half weeks. A lot of us had to go back to work. We took time off, but we were needed back in our own department.”
RG: “So this was on your own time?
Bill: “It was on our own time. Some of us had vacation time coming. And others didn’t. It was kind of a joint effort on the fire departments of the Metro area and of the firefighters.” He explains, “The only firefighters that were actually paid while we’re doing it were the New York firefighters that were on duty when they were doing it. If anyone offered to pay us, we told them to put it towards the fund that they had for the families.”
I never knew that so many of the volunteers at Ground Zero were not on the clock — they had volunteered to go to one of the most hellish places on Earth on their own time. I’d always assumed they were being paid for the work. My admiration for Bill and those who worked at the WTC keeps growing.
RG: “When did you get down there?”
Bill: “Maybe a month and a half after it happened. It took us that long to everything ready. Places where we were gonna stay when we got there. Well actually, the New York firefighters put us up in their homes.”
RG: “In their homes, or — the actual homes, or the fire stations?”
Bill: “I stayed on Staten Island in one of the firefighter’s homes.”
RG: “When you first got there, what did you guys do? What was the first thing you did when you first arrived there at Ground Zero? ”
Bill: “I got on my knees and prayed. I mean, it was overwhelming, knowing that it could happen to our — some — something with — in our country like that. And I was amazed. I couldn’t believe it. And I know a lot of the firefighters were crying’ and — Lot of us were veterans and that hurt even more. And it was overwhelming.”
RG: “You were in Vietnam.”
Bill: “I’m a Vietnam veteran, yes.”
RG: “Thank you for your service. ”
Bill just nods, the way so many veterans do when you thank them; that matter-of-fact acknowledgement that underplays their heroism.
RG: “I do remember the smell in the air. I remember that vividly.”
Bill: “Well, a lot of it was fumes from the jet fuel and was — you had broken gas lines. You had — I mean, death itself, there’s overwhelming stench of… It was overwhelming. It was beyond — I couldn’t even tell you what it was — I wore a mask, but it didn’t do any good.”
To be honest I’m wondering if I should be asking about this — this man has been to this horrible mass grave, extricating dead bodies. I’m feeling like an intruder on his memories. And there were times, as we talked, when Bill was clearly back there, remembering hell on Earth.
RG: “How do you get past that? I mean, you look around and it’s got to look so — kind of, like, “Where do I start,” or so overwhelming. What do you do?”
Bill: “Well, they had places for us to go. But everything — except the big pieces of metal, everything was done by five-gallon buckets. I don’t know if you ever saw, but we had lines. Say there was 20 guys. You’d find a guy way up in the middle of the pile. And anything small, anything, any piece of concrete, a piece of…” here Bill pauses, lost in the horror of that time. “… you’d put in a bucket. And you’d line — and the buckets would go down, like, a bucket brigade. And then they would go through everything with a fine tooth comb. Every piece of concrete, everything, everything.”
I stumble with, “That must have been horrific. ”
Bill: “It was. It was. It was.”
RG: “Do you reach a point where you just stop thinking and just do the job? I mean…”
Bill: “You have to.”
RG: “You were there for weeks, so.”
Bill: “Yeah. I was there for three — but you have to let it go. I mean, if you want to do your job, it’s, like, being a firefighter, I mean — I’ve seen a lot in my years. And I was a firefighter in a major city here in the Boston area. Just, you see a lot. I mean, you have to — I mean, it gets to you at first. But at that time when this happened, I was a firefighter and I’d seen a lot…”
Bill’s next statement floored me. He said, “Every time I picked up my head up and saw that American flag in the rubble and — it hurt. It did hurt, I had tears in my eyes the whole time I was there, I just… if I could reenlist — If I was younger and could reenlist, I would have. That’s how I felt about my country and the horrific –”
RG: “I remember the reenlistment and the enlistment rates skyrocketed — ”
RG: “– after 9/11. There were people signing up constantly. ”
RG: “But you were there. You were doing the job that no one else either could — really could do, the job no one could do.” I switched gears a little. “I remember when we were in the city” [eleven days after the attacks] “…but it was a very different New York…”
Bill: “It was a somber, the whole thing like a big funeral.”
I told Bill about seeing police and fire fighters red-eyed from crying; working on no sleep like robots.
Bill: “Three hundred and forty-seven firefighters, sixty police officers, and I don’t know about how many custom officers there were, because that was a customs building. But there were quite a few of them, and all the people — I mean, it was just — It was horrific, that’s all I can say about that. ”
I apologized for what I considered a cliché question as I asked, “What do you remember the most?”
Bill: “The smell. You know, you forget about things that you see, but that smell, it stays with me, that smell of decomposition and gas fumes and jet fuel and — even with a mask on that I was wearing, those paper masks, I was choking most of the time I was there. ”
RG: “Did you have a lot of interactions with the New Yorkers themselves, I mean, the people on the street type of thing, or — did you talk to people?”
Bill: “You know, even though we’re from Boston, you know — we didn’t have NYFD on our jackets, but they knew that — what we’re doing here. And they all applauded us, walking down the street. The New Yorkers were great to us, I mean, we’re all there for one cause. It wasn’t like the Red Sox against the Yankees. It was –”
RG: “My nephew had asked me about that after 9/11. He had asked, “Doesn’t Boston hate New York?” and I needed to explain that Boston and New York don’t hate each other, we have an intense sports rivalry but we’re sister cities and when people need help, you help.”
Bill nods. “Red Sox and Patriots were the farthest thing from our minds at that time. We were a country then, one, not people from different parts of a country, but we were a country then.”
RG: “I remember the flags. You couldn’t get a flag anywhere.”
RG: “And I remember when people got them, they’d be on the highway waving them. And there were a lot of thank you notes taped to the police mobiles and the fire trucks and things like that.”
Bill: “Yeah, we ate great for nothing. Restaurants around there fed us every day we were there. We were grateful for that, for the people up there. And like I said, I was put up in a home over in Staten Island and away from that. Some of the guys had to stay around there. But I was fortunate to be with a family from Staten Island. They were great.”
RG: “Were these friends of yours? Or just people you were staying with?”
Bill: “No. They had something in place when we got there. They knew how many guys were coming and they knew exactly where each one was gonna go. I mean, we weren’t the only ones. There were guys — there were people, firefighters from L.A. There were firefighters from Alaska. There were firefighters from Hawaii. Boston wasn’t the only contingent that was there. There were firefighters from all over the country helping that cause. So I don’t want to take any credit for anything that — we’re a part of a great organization in a great country that was there helping…
RG: “But you guys had the hardest job. When it first happened, I remember seeing on TV, the workers would think they heard someone still alive, and they would shout, “Okay, stop, stop. Everyone be quiet.” And all the machines would be shut down because they thought they heard someone. ”
RG: “By the time you got there, was there any hope at all that there might…”
Bill shakes his head quickly.
RG: “No.” A long pause. “No, that was — it was recovery operation at that point, and not a rescue? There was no chance of that? ”
Bill: “I think they — I think the first couple days, they found a couple guys, but after that, they didn’t find anybody.”
RG: “Can I ask you, as time goes on, do you still think about it a lot? Or do you try to put it away? Or do you kind of let it out once a year, or — if I’m being too personal, please tell me?”
Bill: “I think about it every September 11th. I think about sometimes why they picked that particular date. And we all know 9-1-1, the emergency call. I mean, I think that’s what Bin Laden had in mind at the time. I think that’s one of the reasons why he did it that particular day, 9/11. So thinking about 9/11, being a firefighter, 9-1-1, I think about it all the time. ”
I remember watching CNN’s coverage of the attacks, and when it first happened, there were cameras in that newsroom and one of the producers said something like, “Do you guys realize what today is? It’s 9-1-1.”
RG: “How are you doing with this particular year, being the tenth anniversary?”
Bill: “I was happy this year because we finally got Bin Laden.” Then he stops talking again.
RG: “We’re in Foxboro right now. And we’re a couple of miles from the memorial up by the Public Safety Building. And there’s a piece of girder there, like you said, that’s all you saw for the longest time…”
Bill: “There were so many of those there. I mean, they were kept — Every time we moved a piece of debris, they had to bring a crane in and lift one of those out. They were welded together. It was so time consuming. I don’t know how long it actually took to clean, about eight months or so…
RG: “Have you seen the memorial?”
Bill: “Well, I stopped by there once probably a couple weeks ago when they were building it. And just seeing that girder brought back a lot of memories. Some were good. Some were good that I was there helping. But others were bad because of the incident itself. I think every American wants to try to forget about it right now. And I know it’s an anniversary. But it’s good to remember the fallen victims of the tragedy. And that’s what my heart — my prayers will be on right now, the families of the tragedy. It’s good to — Like, for the memorial that’s good because it will be there for always, and the kids of our kids will understand what Americans did go through on that particular day when they hear 9/11. ”
He continues, “And things like that are very horrific that happened to our country, people don’t — you always want to make sure that the people who come after us are aware of what our generation went through as far as making so they have all the freedom now and things like that…”
He’s lost in the memories again, but recovers quickly. “I’m proud to be an American. I would do it again, and like I said, if I could, I would reenlist and go do anything that my country asked me to do, So that’s the way I feel. That’s the way I am. It’s because of the people like me who’ve been through — you know, that are true Americans and people like yourself who really care about what happened — You went down to 9/11 because you cared. You’re American. But that’s why our country is so strong, because people like that exist in this country… like the song goes, you’re proud to be an American.”
A week later, Bill attended the dedication of the 9/11 memorial here in Foxboro, and ended up speaking with a Mansfield firefighter who was also at Ground Zero. The two talked and shared the stories only those who have been to that hell can understand.
As Bill walked over to the monument, I shook his hand again. But in our short time together, I realize I know something about Bill that he doesn’t — he’s a hero. Bill doesn’t think of himself like that, he was just doing a job that had to be done, he says. But this good man is one of so many that when the call came, he answered it, as so many others did as well.
God bless him, God bless all the responders, God bless America, and may we never forget the events of September 11, 2001.