Thursday, September 8, 2011

Remembering 9/11.

September 11th was a day filled with disbelief. The news media had reported that an aircraft had flown into the towers, and to see it replayed on television, you had to think it was a mishap. Then, all of a sudden, LIVE, for everyone to see–there was a second plane, and you’re really thinking, “My eyes are playing tricks on me.” But it happened, and it happened on U.S. soil.

I got a call very early that morning, saying, “Turn the news on, turn the news on!” And when I first saw it, I was stunned. I was paged immediately by FEMA: “Get to New York!” My responsibility was to interface between the military and all of the FEMA teams coming in and out of New York City, including all of the urban search and rescue groups. Ultimately, 17 of the 28 national urban search and rescue teams assisted at Ground Zero. Flying in that night from California in the cockpit of a C141, we landed at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Off in the distance, you could actually see the lights and a smoke plume. Later as we drove into New York City with the other FEMA responders, we were all shocked and dismayed.

We arranged for the first helicopters that flew over Ground Zero on the 12th, and we saw the vertical view. It was so amazing because the destruction was so confined, just within a few blocks. And to see ALL of the activity from an aerial viewpoint was incredible — almost an orchestra of pieces and parts in motion. The first time that I was actually on the rubble pile was a surreal experience. There was every color of smoke that you can imagine. I remember learning the colors of the rainbow in science class, and I was thinking, “Wait a second, there are more colors here.”

There was a heat about the pile, about the ground—it was not just a construction site, it was not just another area, it was very, very unique. To me there was almost a silence about it. Certainly you heard the cranes, you heard the cutting, but it was almost like stepping into a church. You wanted to lower your voice, you wanted to be respectful— that experience has really stayed with me.

Seeing the devastation, we knew there were losses. And since the community of emergency responders is relatively small and close-knit the world over, we were thinking about the people that we had lost. And we thought of the people who’d had no idea of what was going to happen to them. Had it actually really happened like we’d seen on the news? But we couldn’t grieve then, because we were asked to do a job that day. I think the general feeling was that we were called upon to use our particular skill set to help others. We’ll never know what difference was made, but just being able to offer some service was our job. And not only at those major events like 9/11, but firefighters, police officers, emergency medical personnel – they do these things every day, every time someone calls 9-1-1. In some way, people’s lives are affected and the call is being answered. This was a bigger event, but our response was just an extension of what a community’s emergency response group does day in and day out.

The thing that I will never forget is the incredible resilience and attitude that Americans can show. We have disagreements, politically and socially, but during and after 9/11, everyone came together, and I have to say I was never more proud to be an American. The streets of Manhattan were lined with people who were thanking the rescuers. For our part, we didn’t need thanks. We were doing a job that our training and family support allowed us to do. We were actually more worried about the local community and making sure that they were okay. It was just a very special time that reminded me that the American spirit is an amazing thing.

Unfortunately, the reality that struck us was that terrorism had come to American soil. As we remember 9/11, we’re going to continue to be prepared and vigilant. We’ve learned to communicate better between different jurisdictions and with the federal government. Today, as a country, if something bad happens, we know we can pull together.

September 11th will remain a defining moment for our country, just as other world-changing events such as Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK and the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger have marked generations before. And as we pause to reflect on the events of 9/11 a decade later, we stand renewed in our resolve to never forget.

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J. Robert “Bob” McKee is the director of Texas Task Force 1 and TEEX’s Disaster Preparedness and Response Division. He was with the Ohio Task Force One on September 11th, 2001, and was deployed to Ground Zero in New York City.

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