INDIANAPOLIS (WXIN) – As the 20th anniversary of the attacks of September 11 approaches, members of Indiana Task Force One are sharing memories from their deployment to ground zero in New York City.
“We heard that they were calling for thousands of body bags,” said former INTF-1 Engineer Greg Hess. “You try to prepare yourself, but you can’t.”
Task Force One received deployment orders to New York City on the afternoon of the 9/11 attacks. The team left Indianapolis around 5:30 p.m. and arrived in New York City at 8:30 on the morning of September 12.
“The first thing I saw was smoke from about 30 miles” Hess said. “Ironically, we were listening to music on the bus, I had grabbed some CDs, and Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” was playing. And I thought, ‘That’s right, it has.’”
After the initial shock of the scope of the destruction, Task Force Leader Gerald George was struck by the heavy military presence at the site.
“Just from the devastation that occurred and the number of military people that were there, like armed with 50 cals on top of Humvees,” he said. “Just made you feel like you were in a war zone basically, which turns out really that’s what we’ve been in for the last 20 years.”
“It was overwhelming, and you could smell it, you could taste it, you could feel it immediately,” said search team manager Anne McCurdy. “I thought that we trained better than any team, like our dogs were better trained, but I got there and was like, ‘Wow, you were not prepared for this.’”
Team members started their deployment by searching for survivors in the rubble at ground zero.
“Now understand, the pile was the height of Saint Vincent’s on 16 acres,” Hess said. “And how do you go play pickup sticks with pieces of steel that weight thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds?”
“People literally handing buckets of rubble,” McCurdy recalled. “I mean, we’re talking bucket brigades of a 110 story building. But that, you know, everyone was going to do whatever it took.”
“What you can’t see in a picture or on TV is the smell,” George said. “So that’s something I don’t think you’ll probably ever, probably ever forget.”
It didn’t take long, however, for hope of finding survivors to fade.
“You always hold out hope, but I think probably by the second or third day, we weren’t finding anybody,” Hess said. “These people disappeared”
It wasn’t until after the deployment that team members learned the twin towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed exactly they way they were engineered to, with the outer layers falling outward and the floors of the buildings crumbling straight down. That was intended to keep the buildings from toppling onto other structures in the event of a collapse.
“Think about it, a 110-story office building and there was really no office furniture left,” George recalled. “The only thing that survived was paper, and everything else was kind of pulverized by the way the collapse of the structure.”
After a couple days at the site, team members knew they were no longer searching for survivors but working to recover deceased victims. McCurdy remembers walking to the site each day past lines of people holding photos of missing loved ones.
“They were clapping as we went by, clapping as we came back, which was really hard because they’re clapping, and we found nothing all day,” McCurdy said. “We searched 12 hours. I can’t help any of you because I found nothing.”
McCurdy also remembers how the entire search site went silent whenever a victim’s body or remains were located.
“It was very proper, and everyone stopped and saluted,” she said. “If you got out of there, dead or alive, it was better than never being found at all.”
“The most vivid memory I have is seeing the faces of the guys from New York,” Hess added. “They were all just like ghosts, because they knew that there’s a hose line going in there. There’s got to be somebody on the end of that hose line.”
At the end of the deployment, team members say they were helped greatly by a debriefing that gave them the chance to talk about their experience with others who had gone through the same thing. It’s something that still helps today.
“Getting together with each other and talking about those things that everybody saw,” George said, “because those are the people that relate to what you saw.”
George says his time at ground zero changed his outlook on life. In particular, he says he doesn’t sweat the daily small things like he used to.
“Everybody gets angry or upset at something,” he said. “But, five or 10 minutes, I’m over that, and let’s move on because life continues to move forward.”
Several members of Task Force One, including Hess, are still dealing with the physical toll of ground zero.
“I was diagnosed with cancer in ’07, and they’ve attributed that to my exposures at ground zero,” he said. “I’m reminded by my incision from my colon cancer, and I’m reminded now that I’m missing a toe because of it. I can’t get away from it.”
Hess points out that he’s not alone.
“41% of the team has come down with some type of an illness, and four have died,” he said. “That’s pretty grim statistics.”