They came to help at Ground Zero. What they experienced they can't forget
By Marci McDonald
n the edge of the Boone County Public Works yard outside Columbia, Mo., a makeshift mound of ragged concrete slabs and junkyard flotsam rises above an abandoned field. Lee Turner, a bewhiskered paramedic, leads a tour with a mix of pride and disdain. For six years, he helped build it, corralling old culvert pipe, rusted refrigerators, and even a wrecked school bus. For six years, he and 185 other members of a federal urban search and rescue squad known as Missouri Task Force 1 (MO-TF1) had trained on it, unpaid, waiting for the call to be deployed.
Like him, most were volunteer Boone County firefightersadrenaline junkies with regular jobs who spent their spare time burying themselves under debris so search dogs could sniff them out and learning to handle concrete-cutting chain saws. For six years they had regarded that hillock of rubble as a whopper that readied them for any rescue mission. Now Turner scoffs at it as "a gravel pile." In the predawn darkness of September 12, barely 18 hours after MO-TF1 got the order for its first deployment, he jumped off an Army truck at the World Trade Center site and stared at a smoldering rubblescape that stretched as far as he could see. "There was nothing but acre after acre of twisted steel and this sticky white dust," he recalls. "We'd never seen anything like it."
Born and raised in Columbia (pop. 85,000), Turner had never been to New York City. Nor had many of the 61 others dispatched from Missouri. Flying into New Jersey's McGuire Air Force Base at 3 a.m., they couldn't imagine what lay ahead. Unlike other Americans, bombarded by horrific TV images, the team had been holed up on military bases or strapped into the hold of a C-130 cargo jet with 60,000 pounds of equipment and four dogs. Barreling across the Brooklyn Bridge in a convoy of borrowed tour buses and 18-wheelers, many caught their first glimpse of Manhattan's fabled skyline, shrouded in smoke. "Here we were comin' through, a bunch of hillbillies from Boone County," marvels Jerry Jeffries, a wireless communications rep, "and it was the exact opposite of everything I'd ever heard about New York. There were people lined up, screaming, holding signs saying, 'Our Heroes.' It felt like the cavalry had arrived."
They were pumped for action when the bus pulled into the makeshift central command post in the city's Jacob Javits Convention Center. Ordered to the southwest corner of the disaster site, John Metz commandeered the manager's office at the Gateway Plaza apartment complex as a forward base. At the site, where office towers had once stood, what struck him was what he didn't seeno desks, computers, or phones. He marveled at the number of shoes and wondered, "Were they shoes left by people running?" Weirdest of all, the rubblefield was improbably littered with paper. Skyscrapers had crumbled to ash, but photos, letterhead, and business cards somehow remained. "I tried not to focus on things with people's names on them," Metz says, "because that would humanize it."
On every side, debris mounds and mangled buildings cried out to be searched. For the task force, that was the nightmare. Deputized as federal employees, they couldn't rush in as they might back home. They had to wait for orders from local authorities. "Here you had this can-do crew, gung-ho and wanting to get going," says Doug Westhoff, the task force leader. "We knew the clock was ticking and with every hour the survivability profile dwindles." They sensed the New York Fire Department scorned them as Midwest amateurs. That particularly grated Westhoff, a fourth-generation firefighter who had been rushing to disasters since the age of 2 with his father, Boone County's former fire chief. But what made it worse was their get-up. Every other task force wore navy or gray. Missouri had opted for yellow fireproof shirts and helmets like those of wildfire crews. "We'd take battalion commanders lists of things we could do," Westhoff winces at the memory, "and they'd say no."
Slowly, the task force won them over. They threaded their fiber-optic cameras down whisker-size cracks probing for signs of life. And their four search dogs worked so hard unearthing cadavers that Turner's Aussie shepherd, Tough, was on the brink of burnout. Turner himself crawled through an opening and down crumpled stairwells to the subway, five levels below ground. He remembers seeing in the darkness a distant, pinkish glowmolten metal dripping from a beambut found no signs of life. Back on the surface, he knew there had been a breakthrough in trust when he heard a New York firefighter shout, "Hey, we need a yellow shirt over here."
As soon as the team sighted a helmet or trace of fire insignia, the Missourians stood aside and radioed New York firefighters to carry out the remainsa fire service tradition. But Kurt Doolady, a 34-year-old auto parts salesman from Columbia, can't forget the day his crew found a buried firetruck: The New York battalion chief motioned for them to stay and help remove the bodies. "That," recalls Doolady, "was a real honor."
On the fifth night, Ted Kettlewell had another kind of turning point. Co-owner of civil engineering firm OCCI Inc., he had spent days checking the soundness of damaged structures like the Merrill Lynch tower with his survey instruments and hadn't slept for 72 hours. Then he saw the rescue site fall silent as a handful of a New York firefighters' remains were passed hand to hand off the mound in a flag-draped body bag. "That was my night of going to pieces," he says.
Kettlewell wasn't unfamiliar with tragedy. On his dam sites, he'd seen terrible accidents. But suddenly he realized the task force wasn't going to find any survivors. "Right up to the end, we'd hoped we could go in and find somebody living," he says. "Now I saw that was not going to be possible. I felt horribly, horribly insignificant." Every MO-TF1 member had a similar moment of reckoning.
When folks back home ask Lee Turner what it was like at the World Trade Center, he steers the conversation elsewhere. They think he can't bear the memories of gruesome finds. "But we did not see that much ghoulish stuff," he says. "We're trained to pull out live people, and we didn't get to do that. That's what messed people upthere was just this pulverized dust."
None of their lives have been the same. Most find they can't talk about the experience with outsiders, even sometimes their own families. John Metz dreamed he was trapped in a stairwell under the trade center and his helmet light and flashlight had gone out: He couldn't escape. Now he makes sure he tells his wife and their 3-year-old daughter that he loves them every day "because in this business you never know."
Kurt Doolady took his two boys fishing more often this summer at Lake of the Ozarks. He's haunted by the freeze-frame images from his search of the 82-floor World Financial Centerdesks left with half-eaten danishes and conference tables fled.
Ted Kettlewell still finds himself close to tears when he hugs his two daughters goodnight. And at work now, he has "absolutely no time for pettinesszero." But for two months, he had a recurring nightmare: He was rushing around the trade center site and couldn't find any survivors. His wife complained that he was irritable. The truth was he couldn't get New York out of his mind. "What finally got me through was to pray," he says. "I hadn't been able to do that in New York."
Then one summer day on a business trip east, he caught a flight to New York. He retraced every step of the task force's odyssey. He roamed the fully operative Merrill Lynch tower and watched kids playing outside the once desolate Gateway Plaza apartments. Even the acrid smell of fire and rotting flesh that he hadn't been able to shake for months had vanished. "All the bad was gone," he says, "and all the good remained."