On Sept. 11, 2001 I went to work at 7:45 a.m.
The fire fighters were finishing off their last cup of coffee before starting on vehicle inspections. I grabbed a cup and went to my office. I had just started reviewing calls from the night before when the phone rang.
My wife said simply, “Turn on the news.” That was the start of my involvement in the attacks of 9-11. For the rest of the day we watched as four airplanes took the lives of almost 3,000 citizens. The second plane hit seventeen minutes later. Time after time the news replayed scenes of planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers.
We watched bodies drop from the upper floors, and then the first building collapsed. One hour and 42 minutes after the first plane struck, the second tower fell. The Pentagon had been struck and another plane had crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Fear was great that the Sears Tower in Chicago might be a target. Fire departments across Illinois were put on alert and requests were made to prepare to move staff and equipment towards Chicago if an attack did indeed occur. Security was increased and emergency responders were on high alert. As time passed, the concerns for an immediate attack in Illinois abated.
Within a few days, I received a request from The National Organization of Victims Assistance to prepare for a response to New York as part of a victim’s assistance team. I packed my “go bag” and sat it in the corner.
Being put on response alert is a dicey situation, you are expected to be able to respond to site within 24 hours, knowing you may not be dispatched at all. The City of Rochelle gave permission for my response, the fire department staff prepared for my absence, and my wife gave her blessing.
The call came on Sept. 19, be at O’Hare Airport at 5:30 a.m. the next morning. The flight was on American Airlines, one of the airlines that lost planes on 9-11. We started debriefings on the flight, working with the aircraft staff.
I arrived at the Newark Airport at 7:15 a.m. with five other Illinois responders. Our mission was to assist families, first responders and others impacted by the attack on New York. Little did I realize that this would be the total populations of New York City and New Jersey.
The first evening we responded to the Administration of Children Services (ACS) on Stanton Island. The morning of Sept. 21 the team was assigned to the Family Assistance Center (FAC) at Liberty Station New Jersey. The site is located on the shores of the Hudson River in full view of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the smoking remains on Manhattan.
We arrived at 6 a.m. and at 7 a.m. eight buses arrived with families of persons still missing at the Trade Centers.
For the next 11 hours I assisted families as they contended with the uncertainty of the future. Was their spouse, child or parent dead or alive? What would life be like starting tomorrow? On Sept. 22 I was assigned to the triage station at Home Port Stanton Island.
Here, the people working at the Fresh Kills Landfill would come to rest and recover from searching for human remains in the debris taken from the scene on Manhattan to the disposal site.
Obviously, these people were traumatized and re-traumatized with each truckload of debris. They would unload the truck, rake out the debris and hand search for identifying articles and human remains. Brutal work that would take its toll on the police and fire folks that had accepted this position.
And so, it went most days spent at the Family Assistance Center with families that had lost loved ones, or with emergency responders who felt that they had failed their comrades by surviving.
My second response to New York was on June 1, 2002. This was about eight months after the attack. The 10-story pile of debris was now almost completely removed. The “pile” had become the “hole.” Upon arrival, we toured the site and established our mission parameters.
This response, we were working primarily with construction workers, first responders and, to a lesser degree, families of the victims. One of our primary objectives was to work with local mental health workers to establish “September Space”, a facility that would provide aid to those impacted by the 9-11 attack after the site was closed and the world moved on.
Over the next eight days I had the honor of working with people who had spent the past eight months searching for human remains so that families could have closure, clergy that prayed over every remain found and families who simply visited the site and needed someone to talk too.
Many of these people will forever carry the scars of the attack on the World Trade Center. I, like them, will never forget the small part I was allowed to play when America was attacked.
Former Rochelle Fire Chief Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.