The First Eight Days at Ground Zero

By Mark Foster, TFL MATF-1

In the beginning of each month I worked for the Massachusetts Aeronautical Commission and perform maintenance checks on several Non-directional Beacons (NDB’s) at small airports on the South Shore. Weather wise Tuesday September 11, 2001 was a nice day and I started out about 6:30 am to get ahead of the traffic going through Boston. As I passed through Boston, off to the left I noticed two aircraft traveling north over Dorchester bay, a large passenger liner and a small commuter prop plane. It was odd to me as both planes flew almost wing tip to wing tip in their approach to the airport. It appeared to me to be quite an odd happening and I watched it for a very long time. I thought when I get back I will have to ask someone if anything odd happened at Logan that morning. For some reason I dwelt on Logan Airport and planes for quite a long time as I drove south.

The first stop was Marshfield Airport. After stopping at Marshfield Airport I then headed south for the Middleboro NDB. This would be about a ½ hr ride so I took some time to catch up on administrative phone calls and called Wanda Casey at FEMA HQ in Washington on some minor administrative matters I took care of business and also some small talk about anything interesting happening at FEMA, which Wanda said not much. The Middleboro NDB is in the middle of many square miles of Cranberry bogs. After Middleboro I headed to Taunton Airport when I got a cell phone call from Mike Bookman, who said that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. I remember crossing a large pretty cranberry bog at the time, and I assumed it was a small plane and told Mike that a B-17 bomber had hit the Empire State building just after WW2, I told him I would “listen up” and thanked him for calling. I called Wanda Casey at FEMA-Headquarters in Washington and asked her if she had a TV, and she said they had a TV on down the hall and would go down and watch it. I also called my wife Robin who was at home and told her to turn the TV on. I then proceeded to Taunton Airport and went to the tiny Manager’s Office. There was a small black and white TV on chair and it was tuned to Channel 7. On the screen you could see WTC #1 burning. No one else was watching the TV, so I turned up the volume and someone in the next room told me to turn it down because he was taking his pilots test. Just as he said this, I saw the second plane flash across the screen and hit the south tower. I shouted to come see what was happening on the TV but the person who was out of my sight again told me to turn the TV down. I left Taunton and headed for my last stop of the day, Mansfield Airport. After Mansfield I would head to the FEMA Task Force Headquarters at Beverly, as I was quite sure this was a terrorist incident of some sort.

As I left Mansfield, Rich Parker of Boston Fire called and asked if FEMA-HQ in Washington had called us to go to NYC. Rich was a Rescue Team Manager and had been with the Task Force since the beginning. I said that I had not heard anything but would keep him “in the loop”. He said if I needed anything to give hem a call. Right after I hung up with Rich, my wife Robin called and said one of the towers collapsed. I called Wanda Casey in Washington and asked if any Task Forces were being deployed and she said to call back in 15 minutes. I then called Rich and told him to call each of the Task Force managers and see who would be available to go to NYC, he said he would. I called him back about 5 minutes later and said even though we had not gotten an official “GO” from Washington I thought we should bring as many of our people in as we could, to get ready.

Several more task force members called me directly and I told them the same thing. I then tried to call Wanda back in Washington but all the trunk lines into Washington were busy. I tried a couple more times still without success. I then called my friend Roger Perkins the Management Information Systems Director for the Regional FEMA underground bunker in Maynard and asked him to patch me though on one of the dedicated lines to Washington. I finally got through to Wanda and she said I was to activate the Task Force and stand by for orders on where to report. This was significant as now I was allowed to have Task Force members leave work and their employers could hire back replacement personnel and FEMA would reimburse the Task Force for these as well as other expenses related to the deployment. It is worth noting that the Task Force received very minimal funding for non-deployment related activities and deployed vs. non-deployed status was very important as far as expending funds was concerned.

I called Rich Parker and told him that we were “Activated” and to get everyone to Beverly as soon as possible. He said that he would and most of them were on the way anyhow. Months later I learned that Task Force members had contacted the Fire Service mutual aid dispatch points and had them do “all community” broadcast requesting that Mass Task Force members report to Beverly for deployment.

Every Task Force member has a unique story as to where they were, how they were notified and how they got to Beverly. Some members went home to get their gear and some left directly for Beverly with minimal or no gear.

When I got to Beverly, Ed Seligman, the Logistics Chief had a good handle on the deployment. Fortunately, only three weeks earlier the Task Force had a three-day deployment exercise at Westover ARB. We had been scheduled to fly but our airlift, usually 2 C-130’s, had been canceled by the Air Force due to availability of aircraft. Alan Fisher, Planning Team Manger had been working on a scenario involving a terrorist bridge explosion with his employer, Cianbro for several months. Much work had been expended on the exercise preparation and I decided to change it to a ground deployment exercise, instead. It was not as exciting as a “Fly Away” with Air Force C-130’s, but it would give us a chance to check out our ground deployment plan. FEMA did not emphasize ground deployments because they had always relied on Department of Defense aircraft. Also if ground deployment was a primary mode of operation, then FEMA would have to start funding vehicle acquisition. At the current Task Force funding levels we had problems affording all the tools and purchasing vehicles was out of the question. Fortunately Mass Task force had a close relationship with the Defense Reutilization Materials Office (DRMO) in Portsmouth NH and we had acquired (at no cost) a significant fleet of vehicles that were excess to the needs of the military. I thought we certainly could put together some sort of convoy to make it to Westover which was about 120 miles to our west. For the Westover Drill we installed radios in 6 of our trucks that did not have radios. We also modified several trucks to be able to carry more gear. On the first day of the exercise the convoy went well, we had several slow trucks but they all made it to Westover. The trip home was not so successful. One of our cargo trucks broke down on the side of the highway with a plugged fuel filter. The problem was that may of the surplus property trucks and sat for long periods and the diesel fuel developed algae that plugged the filters and caused the engines to stop. . After that, Charlie Dunne our Communications Specialist and diesel mechanic made sure to change all of the truck filters and add Biocide (an anti-Algae additive) to any truck with old fuel. Since most of the trucks had made to 250 mile round trip, they also had fresh tanks of fuel. Other small problems with the fleet were corrected at this time. When called to action on 9/11 all of the trucks performed flawlessly both to and from NYC.

I went to my office and the team managers had pretty much the entire team up on the roster board. We did have some minor issues. Dr. Tommasoni was on his way down from Maine but Dr. Weir was still in Hartford. Logistics was working a way to pick up Dr. Weir on the side of the highway as we traveled through Hartford. As a back up Dr. Tomassoni was bringing Dr. Sean Stone from Maine Medical Center in case we missed Dr. Weir. Alan Fisher, Planning Team Manager and Structural Engineer, who has been the team since 1992, were also in Hartford and Logistics was working on a pickup somewhere along the Massachusetts Turnpike. Ed Stewart, Technical Search Specialist and his dog, also an original team member was on the road somewhere in Vermont and his Police Department was trying to locate him. Other than these 3 members everyone else was notified and on the way.

Mike Bookman a volunteer, from the Beverly Emergency Management Agency took an Ambulance and went to Daley Pharmaceutical, our emergency supplier of pharmaceuticals to get our supply of consumable medical supplies. Our agreement with Daley was over 8 years old and the company had changed management several times, but I was sure Mike would make it happen.

Another problem was we needed two buses to carry those team members that would not be drivers or shot guns in the convoy vehicles. Again the Westover drill saved the day. During the Westover Drill I had made arrangements with the Bill Burke of Beverly School Department to use school buses to transport members to Westover ARB. While they were not the most comfortable, they were capable of highway speeds, and I had promptly paid the School Department, so they knew I was good for the money. Also very help full was that I had reprogrammed one of the bus radios so it could talk to the FEAM truck radios while in convoy during our Westover exercise. I called Bill and the School Department around 12:00 and told him I needed two buses at 3:00 PM to go to New York City. He said no problem and would have two buses report to the Cache at 3:00. Julie was one of the drivers and Dave Muse the School Department Mechanic would drive the second bus. I knew Dave was a good mechanic and he was very resourceful as he was a one-man maintenance shop. This would prove very valuable when we got to NYC.

I stopped home and got my 24-hour pack and 7 day duffle bag. They had been packed for over ten years waiting for a major deployment. I quickly inventoried them and they looked good. I would find out two days later that there were no spare socks. I also got my laptop, digital camera and NEXTEL charger. I told Robin I would call her before we left. She said she would bring my two daughters Kate (17) and Sarah (15) to the Cache after they got out of school.

When I got to our Cache, things were well under way. All of our trucks were being loaded and the roster was being fine-tuned. I called the ESF-9 (Urban Search and Rescue) Desk in Washington and asked how many people we were allowed to roster for this event. They told me 62 people (a full team) and 1 driver for each truck. I got on the phone and asked Ed Seligman how many trucks we were taking and he said 13. I told him we would be adding 13 people to the roster. I think we decided each rescue squad would provide two drivers and Ed would add 5 Logistics personnel as drivers.

Our target departure time was 4:00 PM. This would have made our departure time 5 hours after official notification (11:00 AM). We were still fine-tuning the roster and our drug shipment from Daley was still at the Daley warehouse. I called Bill Burke at the School Department and told him to get the buses here as soon as possible. He said they would finish their school drop off’s and head for the cache. At this time our official destination was the Federal Staging Area in Edison New Jersey.

Robin and my daughters arrived at the Cache around 3:00 PM they stayed for about 20 minutes and then said good bye. I never realized it until later but I was lucky to see my family before departing. Many members never saw their wives or children before leaving. You have to remember that 47-story building 7 still had several hours to go before it would fall. The media was reporting that over 100,000 people were victims of the WTC collapse.

The State Police escort showed up and the convoy finally left at 4:15 PM. Almost as a bad omen half the convoy departed down Sam Fonzo Drive and the other half got lost and went down Cabot Street. Fortunately we got everyone on the radio and regrouped prior to exiting on to Route 128 southbound. The drug shipment had not departed yet from the warehouse, but I knew we had an ambulance there waiting and there was a good chance they could catch up with the convoy.

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Convoy departs Beverly on 9/11.

In addition to our heavy-duty trucks we would up renting three other vehicles. Two 15-passenger vans to be used for advance teams and local transportation in NYC and also a small camper to use as a Command Post while in route and at NYC. Rich Parker was chosen to drive the camper and I had each team manager plus Steve Clendenin, the Assistant TF Leader and Charlie Dunne the lead Communications Technician in the Command Post.

From the previous exercise, we knew there was a truck stop on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Natick. This would be about 45 minutes into the convoy and would make a safe place to check the load and make any necessary adjustments. About this time I heard from our ambulance and they said they had the drug shipment and would try to catch us somewhere along the Massachusetts Turnpike.

The Command Post was very useful (although it was the only piece of equipment that FEMA would not reimburse us for). Rich Parker drove as well as listened to the vehicle AM/FM radio and gave updates as we traveled south. You have to remember that most of the other trucks in the fleet were former army trucks and came without an AM/FM radio. Many members of the Task Force were out of touch with the rest of the world as we headed south to New York City. Charlie Dunne was able to get the on board generator running and we were able to charge up the cell phones and other personal communication devices in the camper as we drove south.

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Command staff in rented camper on route to NYC.

At the Connecticut border, we stopped the convoy at the tollbooth. Alan Fisher who had been in Hartford parked his car in the toll plaza and jumped in the Command Post. The ambulance from Beverly with our drug cache caught up with us. We held up the convoy for about 10 minutes and were able to transfer the drug cache from the Ambulance to our trucks. We then proceeded south through Connecticut. From the Command Post we were in touch with Dr. Scott Weir and we arranged to have one of our trucks stop on the side of the Highway in New Haven and pick him up. We now had a complete team. About this time I talked to the ESF-9 Desk and they decided to send us directly to NYC. We were to meet a New York State Police escort at the NY/CT border.

We arrived at the border and there was a truck stop where we waited for about 15 minutes while we got our NY State Police Escort. We then headed for NYC. As we got close to the city, there were portable signboards that announced “New York Closed to All Traffic”. We finally reached West Side Drive and headed down to the Javits Center. We were the first Task Force to arrive at the Javits Center and we took all our trucks right up the ramp into the convention center. Logistics and Communications set up a Command Post and the rest of the Task Force began unloading equipment and rearranging the convention center booths to form a large room for our sleeping, medical and logistics. The only FEMA folks that were at the Javits Center at this time were Dianne Wilson and Fred Endrikat (TFL from PATF-01) who was serving as the IST Leader. When I met Fred he told me that NYTF-01 TFL Ray Downey had not been heard from since the collapse and was feared lost.

We now began to form an Advance/Recon Team to proceed to the World Trade Center (WTC) Site. We took the mobile Command Post and two of the Ford Vans and drove down to about Church and Vessey. Wile driving south on Church Street I saw a four story high piece of Tower 2 that had fallen and impaled itself in the middle of Church Street. Temporary lighting had been set up on Church Street and the piece stuck in the street could be seen for several blocks. We had our FEMA Task Force radios on and I was surprised to hear NYTF-01 talking among them on our local channel. While on church Street I had got out of the van to see if we could drive any closer and about that time I got a call on my NEXTEL from the Javet’s Center and they ordered us back. We returned to the Javits Center about midnight.

When we got to the Javits Center, Fred Endrikat explained that it was too dangerous to perform night operations. We did send Bill Yee one of our Communications Technicians back down to the WTC to work with the NYTF-01 Task Force to set up communications for operations on the 12th.

I elected to sleep in the Command Post for the evening. Before I finally fell asleep all I could think about was the four story high piece of the south tower sticking out of Church Street.

Day Two >>