by Jerry Johnson, as told to Arizona Republic reporter Dennis Wagner
I knew immediately after the attacks that I'd be deployed someplace with other Phoenix firefighters, so we started packing up our search-and-rescue gear. But there were no planes for a week, so we just waited for a flight out of Luke Air Force Base.
My first assignment in New York City was to visit Fire Station 10 and pick up meters to measure gas seeping from Ground Zero. Walking through the firehouse, I noticed open lockers with keys and wallets and cellphones just sitting there. It was obvious that guys got a call while they were dressing and just took off. A lot of them didn't return, but nobody touched their stuff. Seven days later, firefighters were still waiting for their brothers to come back.
The pile at Ground Zero was just mounds of compacted steel and pulverized concrete and crushed furniture, eight or nine stories high. News coverage can't convey the devastation. Imagine going into a ravine at South Mountain and looking up at mountains of debris on all sides, so high that in some places you can't see the sun, just a wilderness of collapsed buildings, like rolling hills over 15 blocks, with canyons below dropping 50 or 60 feet to the subways.
It was so quiet. No sound except our machinery. No people except emergency crews.
The dust was a foot deep. Workers tried to power-wash it into storm drains, but gray powder enveloped everything. Fires were still burning, smoke pouring out of the wasteland. We weren't allowed near the burning areas, but you'd be standing on a steel rampart some distance away and all of a sudden your shoes were slippery because heat transferred along the metal truss, and your soles were melting.
I had the night shift, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. We were assigned to dig between the Twin Towers near the Sphere, a giant globe that somehow survived the debris shower.
There was a concrete archway, kind of tilted, and we walked across that to climb the pile. Looking down from the bridge, you could see several stories into the underground parking structures that had been cracked open by falling beams and building.
We couldn't dig from the bottom for fear of a collapse, so we had to climb on top. This was the reverse of building a pyramid: Piece by piece, rock by rock, dirt by dirt, we'd remove buckets of debris until we were exhausted. It was frustrating because you didn't know where to start.
My job was to find open spaces and explore them with a video camera. In the first hours, we discovered a hole, just a void space maybe 6 by 8 feet. It turned out to be a stairwell on a building corner. After getting safety clearance from an engineer, me and Jerry Bateman crawled in and found some shirts that were sticky with a kind of goo. We started noticing axes and other stuff used by firefighters.
We crawled out, and then Chief Ron Jamison and I went back down and discovered a shaft containing something that looked like a breathing apparatus. It was in a tight place we couldn't reach, but we managed to fish it out with a piece of rebar. One of the FDNY guys just looked at the equipment and said, "Yeah, that's ours."
This was a huge issue at Ground Zero - finding firefighters or their remains. When the towers collapsed, 110 floors fell, picking up speed second by second. The odds of surviving that kind of compression just aren't there. But hope lingered on the pile.
New York guys took over searching that area. When morning came, somebody said, "Hey, everybody line up. We've found some firemen, and we're going to bring them off the pile." It was the saddest thing I've ever seen: They brought out three firefighters in a small cardboard box with a flag on it. Not bodies, just little parts, and you're thinking, "What happened to them?" You realize that when the buildings fell, everything was pulverized.
We went to New York knowing we wouldn't find people alive in the rubble, but thinking we'd find bodies for the families. There just weren't any. And while we're searching, people outside are holding up pictures of loved ones, asking if anyone has seen them. That was the emotional part - seeing guys hurting and not being able to do anything about it. They didn't want to give up, but looking at the devastation made you realize there was no hope.
I grew up in Tucson and began going on emergency calls as a teenager, tagging along with my brother who was a volunteer firefighter. I started with Phoenix Fire Department in 1986, and I've seen trench collapses where people got buried alive in dirt. But nothing like this. There were moments when you'd think, "What are we doing - digging with little shovels?" But New York firefighters wouldn't leave the pile. At one point, they got upset because there was talk of bringing in heavy equipment to clear the place. They wanted to find their brothers, and I would have been doing the same.
It was a dirty, dangerous job. Moving around was a challenge, with unstable footing and giant steel beams sticking out at all angles. Rats were a problem and scavenger birds. It was cold and rainy some nights.
Usually, as firemen, you find humor to relieve the stress. There was nothing funny there, no joking. We'd been attacked. This was a war against our society.
We were on the pile nine nights, and that was about as much as we could take. The airplane ride was silent.
At home, I gave my wife and kids a hug, slept for a few hours, then took my daughter to dance class - just glad to return to something normal.
As a firefighter, you learn that people die and the world keeps on going. You grieve and you move on, deal with it and let it go. I talk about it with guys at work, but nobody else wants to hear that stuff or can even understand.
When I first started, an older guy told me, "Leave it at the station." He was right.
But 9/11 did change me, changed all of us who were there. When I got home afterward, I decided to let people know I care. It's such a simple thing. When you walk out the door, just say, "I care."
It seems the further we get away from that day, the more we've gone back to who we were before. Just talking about it brings back some of the brokenheartedness. Still, in a week, I think we'll return to our routine. We walk through life and don't really look at things, just muddle through.
But, since my time on the pile, I try to look around, be more aware and ask people if they're OK. We should be less self-absorbed. An act of kindness goes a long way.