We got up early on Wednesday. The Javits Center opened up the cafeteria and they were serving food to all the emergency workers. The FEMA Incident Support Team (IST) was just a skeleton, as most of them would usually fly in from around the country and all the airports were still shut down. Fred Endricrat was still pretty much on his own. At the morning briefing he said that the greatest need was for cutting torches. We said that we had several and could go to work immediately. Out Logistics Folks also got on the phones and started locating any cutting equipment that they could get their hands on. Unfortunately the IST was not up and running and could not place federal purchase orders. The last major event that the Task Forces were involved in was the Oklahoma City bombing and the FEMA US&R program had taken a lot of criticism for purchasing excess amounts of equipment at the scene. When I questioned one FEMA official about why we did not have robust FEMA logistical support at the Javits Center I was told “this will not turn into another Oklahoma City”.
In the absence of support from FEMA, my Logistics Manager Ed Seligman began using Massachusetts Task Force vendors like Graingers that had stores near the Javits Center. Ed also started putting purchases on his own American Express Card. Before we left Ed would charge over $8,000 of our expenses on his own credit card. Other logistic challenges faced Ed. Our first shipment of Mass Task Force shirts was sent to central receiving at the Javits Center. Several days later our members who had not gotten their shirts yet, noticed non-MATF workers at the pile with brand new MATF tee shirts! From then on, Ed sent all shipments to a Mail Boxes Etc, several blocks north of the Javits Center, and we never lost another shipment. This practice would be repeated at future deployments.
Around 10:00 AM the IST told us to get our day shift ready to go down to the WTC. I elected to be the day shift Commander and Steve Clendenin became the night shift Commander. I am an administrator and work better days; Steve is a Captain on the Framingham Fire Department, and worked days and nights. I figured this was not the time for on the job training. We both decided that we would work the first day shift together to get things going and that I would stay until midnight. He would return with the day shift and then relieve me at midnight.
Due to our short notice departure, we wound up using standard school buses for our deployment. Fortunately for us this turned out to be one of our best assets. School buses are low to the ground and have untinted windows. A school buses full of rescue workers is hard to miss, at the security check points the police officers would see all the rescue helmets in the windows and wave us through, the Task Forces that had tour buses had to be boarded and visually checked. In the entire time I was at the WTC the school buses I rode were never stopped at any checkpoint. Average travel time from the Javets Center to the WTC was about 25 minutes. Other Task Forces using coach type buses had travel times up to 2 hours because of checkpoints and inspections. Another advantage to the school buses was that they had a small turning radius. Our school buses could drive right up to the tents we had erected between building 4 and 5. Dave the school mechanic also became the ground zero driver. He teamed up with a New York State trooper who would meet us for each trip and Dave would keep our bus right on the bumper of the trooper’s cruiser as they sped down West Side drive with the lights and siren on. For some reason the troopers were not allowed “on the pile”. One day we made arrangements for the trooper to accompany us onto the pile at Church Street. He was reprimanded when returned as his supervisor noticed his uniform covered with the grey/white Ground Zero dust (only found on workers from the pile).
We proceeded down West Side Drive with our escort from the New York State Police. . On the 12th Dave got the bus to Church and Vessey, which was as far as you could go without a bulldozer clear the way for you. On the right side of the bus was a jet engine sitting on the sidewalk. We debarked and I met with Steve Clendenin set out to find the FDNY chief in charge of the sector. I headed for the sidewalk half way between Building 4 and Building 5 and looked for a place to unload the cache.
About this time our rack body trucks began to arrive and we started to unload our cache on the sidewalk. Thousands of people were all over Church Street. We had to push and shove just to make room to unload our equipment. People would ask if I needed help and I would give them a box of equipment to move to the pile and then never see them again, this happened over and over again. People were not stealing the equipment they were only helping to get an excuse to get closer to the pile. There were very few people organized into manageable groups. I did find a group of 8 volunteer firemen that had an identifiable officer. I asked the officer if he could have his men help unload our trucks. They did an excellent job. It is unbelievable how valuable this small bit of organization made such a big difference. At first we lined up the boxes of equipment in rows like a supermarket. Unfortunately this allowed to everyone to see our equipment and equipment started disappearing as soon as we would open a box. People were not “stealing” equipment, they needed the equipment badly. Directly in from of us rescuers were digging in the pile with their bare hands. A person in the pile would yell “rope” and then it seemed like hundreds of people would simultaneously yell “rope, rope, rope”. The next thing that would happen is several people would run over to our cache and if any rope were visible it would disappear into the pile. One of the most memorable events was when someone from the pile yelled “generator”. Everyone began yelling “generator, generator” and four people ran to our cache picked up a 300 lb Miller Welder and it “floated” across the top of the crowd and into the pile.
After spending 10 years personally buying all of this equipment with a very limited budget I was not about to see it disappear into the pile and then we would be unable to perform our job. I got some of our Logistics people and the officer with the volunteer firefighters to begin to construct a “Fort Apache” out of our Equipment boxes, fortunately for us our equipment boxes are specifically constructed to be stackable and we formed a six foot high wall 30 feet on a side in a horseshoe facing the pile. The Logistics folks would then stay inside the “fort” and issue equipment out the front.
Just ahead of the opening of “the fort” was total chaos. Key personnel form all agencies were running all over the 1-acre deck that looked out over the pit. Just to the right of our cache was a stack of plywood that looked like they were from a trench rescue set. I dragged one of those four piece handyman ladders from the cache and formed it into a “Z” and laid it on the ground in front of the cache. On top of the ladder I put one of the sheets of plywood from the rescue set and “presto” we had a table to work off of. One of the rescue squads found one of those “You Are Here” signs with a map of the WTC that was about the size of the sheet of plywood and put it on top of our table. Before you knew it most of the supervisors began gravitating to the table with the map on it and it eventually became the Command Center for the sector.
The fort also had another unusual feature. The right rear corner of the fort sat over a ventilation grate, and before long someone had fashioned a latrine out of the equipment containers. Before the end of our stay the cache would move at least four times and grow to six tents, 4 hard line telephones, computers, and its own cell site.
At first we were competing with medical personnel for space for our equipment. The sidewalk in from of building 4 and 5 was covered with nurses and doctor in scrubs with what seemed tons of medical supplies in boxes and on the ground. As far as I could determine there was absolutely no one in charge, as I would try to negotiate where our equipment went and where to more theirs. In the 14 hours I was there on the first day I did not see anyone treated. The medical personnel eventually faded away by midnight. Interestingly the medical supplies also faded away although I never saw an organized effort to remove them.
Throughout the first day there reports of unstable buildings. Our experience in Worcester in 1999 had taught us the value of using a theodolite to shoot a location on the side of a building and then have a person constantly monitor the spot for movement. This takes a degree of skill because the building will have some level of normal motion and the person watching needs to know what is normal and what is not. We in fact had purchased an additional theodolite at Worcester and now had three theodolites monitoring various buildings. On the first day there were many false alarms about buildings falling. Someone would yell to run and people would start running in all directions. The first time we evacuated the entire Task Force from the pile. Some of our people took over 45 minutes to get out of the pile. Our people were getting injured trying to evacuate due to sharp metal and slippery surfaces. After 3 or 4 false alarms everyone pretty much started ignoring evacuation orders unless they had an identifiable hazard and a place to go.
It appears the media was also monitoring our radio transmissions because one night there was a report of a bulge in the side of 1 Financial Place. Our engineers had been watching this all day and had determined that there was no hazard. Someone got on the radio and asked the engineers to look at the bulge in the building. Within 15 minutes of the radio transmission about the bulge I got a call from my wife at home asking me how close I was to One Financial Place, I said I was about 500 feet away and she said I might want to move because the Boston media was reporting the building was about to come down. I figure some media buff was monitoring our radio transmissions and interpreted them to mean there was a problem with the building. I asked Tim Lynch one of our Engineers if he though the building was going to fall. Tim is a pretty conservative guy and always lands on the side of safety. Tim told me that the building had a totally glass front with thousands of floor to ceiling windows, and if the building even moved a little bit the windows would start cracking and breaking. I took his word for it, the building was 50 stories tall and not a single cracked window. I never worried about 1 Financial Plaza again. But I did check the windows every now and again.
By the first night our squads had made it into the subways beneath the WTC. Even though there were no utilities at the WTC the subways still had utilities and power to the signals. Eventually we would get our telephone lines from the subway tunnel beneath our cache. By 10:00 PM on our first night of work we had cleared and marked the subways. Nine years later we sent a crew of MATF members to New York City to bring back a piece of the WTC steel. The Port Authority had utilized the Eastern Airlines hanger at JFK airport for an enormous storage site for items that were recovered from the WTC. When we arrived there we explained to the person in charge that we had been one of the first rescue teams at Ground Zero and he gave us a tour of the facility. Among the artifacts in the hanger was a subway car that had been recovered from under the WTC. Gerry Giunta explained that we had searched similar cars during our stay. When we circled around the cat to inspect it much to our surprise there was a MATF search mark painted on the side of the car.
By midnight some degree of order had returned to the Church Street Sector. I handed off command to Steve Clendenin just after midnight and returned to the Javits Center.