‘Closest thing to hell…’

Responders first on scene, last to leave


NEW YORK — Trapped beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center’s south tower, firefighter Jim Thompson scribbled a note to his wife and mother on a crumpled piece of paper:

If you get this letter, know that I love you. Let Kevin know who I am.

Kevin was Jim’s 2-year-old son.

Nearly six hours later, Jim scrambled to the surface after wedging open a door in a mechanical room.

He immediately went back to work, narrowly dodging death a second time when Building 7 collapsed. This time, Jim took cover underneath a parked tractor-trailer.

He spent three days at “the pile” — a looming mass of wreckage that would continue to burn and smolder for months.

A lack of cell service prevented Jim from calling his wife, Irene, to tell her he was safe.

Irene, meanwhile, was frantic.

The last time she’d heard from her husband, he had called on his way to the north tower, shortly after the first plane hit.

“One of the World Trade Center towers is on fire,” he’d told her. “I’ll be late tonight.”

But he didn’t come home that night. Or the next.

When Irene called the fire station, the dispatcher offered little information. “All our units are out, but we don’t know where our men are,” he told her.

Desperate, Irene visited her next-door neighbor, who was a fire captain.

“I don’t know where your husband is,” he said. “They’re sending survivors to the hospital.”

As Irene turned to leave, she saw Jim standing in the doorway, covered in a thick white dusting of ash. She ran to him, flinging her arms around his neck.

“I got a second chance,” Irene said on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. She wiped away tears. “My husband came home.”

But 343 other firefighters didn’t.

They came from everywhere, the men and women who raced to the World Trade Center that sunny morning.

Not just firefighters.

Thousands of New York City police officers, EMTs and Port Authority officers also ran toward the burning towers to help evacuate those trapped inside.

About 2,000 of those first responders were injured. Sixty-three of them perished.

So this year, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg — citing a lack of space — decided to exclude them from participating in the 10th anniversary ceremony and dedication of the 9/11 Memorial, many were stunned.

The brother of a firefighter who was killed in the attacks sent a letter to The Wall Street Journal expressing his indignation:

The firemen, being who they are, would never complain or bring attention to themselves, wrote Michael Burke.

I, however, am not a fireman. Just the son of one and the brother of another. To deny the firefighters and our first responders — these most humble and dedicated servants of New York — the opportunity to honor, at Ground Zero on 9/11, their lost brothers and sisters is atrocious.

Many of those who responded that day stayed, even after they realized that their rescue effort had become a recovery of victims’ remains.

They stayed and they searched and they dug with bare hands into blistering piles of metal.

If they couldn’t find survivors, they would locate bodies for grieving families to bury.

Lou Angeli, a Delaware volunteer firefighter and documentary filmmaker, headed to New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, for two purposes:

To help fellow firefighters at ground zero.

And to film their grueling work.

In 2006, Answering the Call: Ground Zero’s Volunteers premiered in New York City, Los Angeles, San Diego — and Mountain Home.

That Arkansas fire department had contacted Lou, hoping he would take his film to their town.

So Angeli added Mountain Home to his list of premiere showings.

Narrated by actress Kathleen Turner, the film pays tribute to all of those who worked “on the pile.”

Upon learning that first responders wouldn’t be participating or attending the city’s 10th anniversary ceremony, Angeli arranged a dinner on Saturday night for those who appeared in his documentary.

The next morning, Sept. 11, he co-produced a show that featured these first responders for Phoenix Television, a privately owned Chinese broadcasting company.

The show was broadcast live at the Hilton Millennium, which overlooks the 9/11 Memorial and construction of a new World Trade Center.

Ten years ago, these firefighters and law-enforcement officers were down there, feeling their boots melt off their feet as they clambered up and down the smoldering pile.

Sunday, they watched from a distance, four stories up and through thick-paned windows.

For long minutes, they stood shoulder to shoulder, looking down on a place that brought them horror, despair and proof of miracles.

As the supervisor of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Emergency Response Team, Jeff Johns has been called to terrible scenes — 30 “man-unders” that involved recovering mutilated or severed bodies from underneath trains.

But the carnage at the World Trade Center caught him completely off-guard:

A pair of severed hands, belonging to two different people, that remained clasped.

Shoes with the feet still in them.

The thud of yet another body part dropped into a bucket.

I can’t believe this is happening, Jeff thought.

He began working at the pile on Sept. 13. Most days, he went there after work. His shift ended at 11 p.m. He used up all of his vacation days.

But he felt called to the place, mainly because he was driven by the hope of finding a survivor.

Just one. If he could find just one.

After six weeks, he relinquished that hope. Still, he showed up every day for five more weeks.

At the pile, Jeff was a “digger” — someone who looked not only for human remains, but also personal effects that might identify victims: an earring, a key chain, a wallet.

At the front of the bucket brigade, night after night, he dug and dug, moving to the back of the line only when his fingers and hands stiffened.

He never got accustomed to the expression on the faces of all of the cops and firefighters.

These guys were familiar with grisly scenes. They didn’t show emotion.

But each night, when Jeff got off work and headed to the pile, he saw desperation etched on weary, tear-streaked faces.

Unlike many of those working on the pile, Jeff needed to talk about what he was seeing and feeling.

So he e-mailed dispatches to family and friends, describing precarious working conditions, such as 100-foot holes and unstable I-beams that weigh thousands of pounds.

Today I made it into the lower levels, where the food courts and shops were. I expected to see a real chance of survivors … what I saw was the biggest reason why I was on the pile, disintegrate before my eyes … I cannot tell the guys on the upper level what is down there …
One of the items down there was a baby stroller with broken and bloody restraining straps.

For a father of two young children, that stroller was a sucker-punch to the gut.

On Oct. 27, 2001, Jeff wrote:

We are now getting into the most difficult part of the operation, down we go, as the pile on top diminishes, the voids being exposed are too tempting not to go in. We now have plenty of portable lighting, but it’s still a crushed steel oven cave exploration. Outside it’s forty degrees and biting wind.

… Steam, incredible heat, and penetrating chemical smell await those whom would call themselves men. You can’t wear goggles or glasses of any sort, they fog up in seconds, everyone wears a mask, you can’t breathe without one.

It is literally the closest thing to hell anyone could imagine.

By mid-November, Jeff wondered whether they would ever be able to identify the victims of 9/11.

After digging last night, I have concluded that out of the three thousand still missing, we will be lucky to find two to three hundred, the rest have either been burned into ashes or pulverized into bone chips and muscle fragments.

Ground zero is still, by far, the hardest thing on this planet I have ever faced, it just seems to rip your soul out every time.

And I will not stop until the last brick is lifted and looked under.
One night, Jeff sent out an angry e-mail, asking why none of the friends receiving his missives was writing back.

His phone began ringing. Everyone told him the same thing:

“We didn’t know what to say.”

Out on the pile, Jeff befriended a woman, a search-and-rescue dog handler named Sarah Atlas.

Sarah, a member of the New Jersey Task Force One Urban Search and Rescue Team, was deployed to the World Trade Center immediately after the towers were hit.

She brought Anna, a young German shepherd with an innate ability to find people, living or dead.

Sarah remembers the 15-block walk to ground zero with other dog handlers, and how the firefighters called out in relief: “The dogs are here! The dogs are here!”

For 11 days, Sarah and Anna roamed the pile. Again and again, Anna stopped and stared. The sudden halt meant she’d found remains. A bark indicated a “live find.”

There were more silent stops than barks.

Anna and the other dogs suffered greatly at ground zero. One night, Sarah found a conduit that had melted onto Anna’s abdomen.

Just before their departure, Anna collapsed from heat exhaustion. As Sarah waited for a veterinarian to arrive with an IV and fluids, a detective ran up to her.

“Please, please don’t stop looking,” he begged. “You’ve got to find my son.”

“They’re bringing in more dogs,” Sarah reassured him. “This one is sick. She has to rest.”

The detective opened a brown bag, pulled out a shirt and thrust it under Anna’s nose. “Please,” he said.

And Sarah cried. There was nothing else her dog could do.

Eleven months later, after suffering through a bacterial fungal infection in all of her organs and a rare condition that caused the discs in Anna’s spine to erode, Sarah had to put her to sleep.

Anna was only 4 1/2 years old when she died. Many of the other dogs who searched the pile also had to be put down.

Something in that still-burning rubble made them very sick.

First responders also suffered from debilitating illnesses.

Sarah was hospitalized soon after leaving ground zero after experiencing respiratory and heart problems.

Several months later, Jim Thompson, the firefighter who was trapped for 5 1/2 hours under the south tower’s debris, collapsed while responding to a call.

His lungs and throat had been severely burned, doctors said.

Jim kept spitting up blood and “black stuff,” his wife explained.

Doctors predict that the damage will one day lead to cancer.

Jim was forced to take a desk job at the fire station, which he hated.

When he continued to go out on calls, his superiors finally persuaded him to retire. The couple moved to Pennsylvania, where Jim grew up.

Jim’s never talked about what he saw that day in the towers.

And he refuses to show emotion, unless he’s around other firefighters.

Even now, he still suffers from insomnia and nightmares. Anna continues to worry about his lungs and labored breathing.

“He lost 68 friends that day,” Irene said. “Everything’s changed. There’s no going back to normal.”

None of these first responders regrets the long days and months spent on the pile.

Jeff tried to explain why in his e-mails:

It’s been hard, so very hard … on everyone here … there are professional counselors and chaplains at the Salvation Army posts, which is a lot better than no one.

I think we all have made our rounds … no one on the pile is above this … and yet we have not slowed down for a second … I want to be surrounded by people like this for the rest of my life.

Take for example, Tobin Mueller, who, after commandeering a one-table doughnut and coffee stand for ambulance crews, managed to organize a 200-man crew who collected any and every item requested by weary recovery workers, from boots and socks to pizza and gloves.

Donations poured in, forcing volunteers to take over a warehouse on the pier.

Firefighters called the setup “Home Depot.”

Within a matter of days, Tobin, a playwright and musician, even had cruise ships stopping by with supplies handed out by young actresses — who also performed a cabaret for recovery workers.

That, everyone agrees, was symbolic of the support offered to them.

And each first responder can describe a miracle or act of kindness witnessed on the pile.

Sarah received a dog bed from a man whose own pet had died. She also was touched by the elderly woman who loaded a Radio Flyer wagon with ice cream cups for searchers and their dogs.

Jeff remembers being in the honor guard when the remains of “another hero” were found.

Lou recalls a petite, 20-year-old woman who persuaded rescue workers to tie a rope around her ankles and lower her headfirst into a small hole.

Her mission: To retrieve badges from the bodies of two officers in a police car that had been buried by debris.

Those badges allowed workers to identify two more victims.

On Sunday, Lou, Jim, Jeff and several other first responders reminded one another of these miracles as they watched the anniversary ceremony from afar — some of them wearing old uniforms from a lifetime ago, even as others still answer the call.


Sarah Atlas and Jeff Johns reunited in 2010 on the eve of 9/11. This is Sarah’s new search dog, Buscar./Photo by Ben Krain.

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