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I'll Never Forget 9-11

'the Red Zone' click to enlarge
 I took this shot from about the 20th floor of the World Finance Center Building II on November the 1st, 2001. It's 'the Red Zone' inside Ground Zero. Smoke is still seeping out of deep pockets. The air is a fog of dust and will be for a few more weeks before the snow and rain bring the floating debris back to earth.
  Rising 400 feet above stands Big Red, the largest mobile crane in the U.S.A. It was perched on the spot that was once the World Trade Center I footprint.
  The Houston company that owns Big Red flew the American flag at its peak, just above the flag of Texas. Grapplers the size of semi-trailers worked 24/7 in the dust and haze that never goes away. In the background on the left, the skeleton that was World Trade Center 2 leans against the remains of buildings 8 and 9. From the back center to right are the burned shells of buildings 7, 6, and 5.
If you expand the photo and look closely you can see the billowing dust covering both vehicles and their operators as a grappler dumps its load into the waiting semis. 

I’ll Never Forget 9-11

By J.B Blocker

Ground Zero

The Red Zone

Late September 2001

   If I had walked another 30 yards I would have been standing at the former entry to the World Trade Center, Building IV.
  I could only describe it as the burnt-out skeleton of what looked like a trash-compacted parking garage. Blackened wires and girders were the only things recognizable. There was no visible glass. Every pane of the once glass-skinned building was gone!
  I was taking my first break on my first assignment into the ‘Red Zone’. Normally you might call it a breather, but at this time, and at this place, wearing a filtered cartridge mask was a part of life. I just needed to get out of the building I had been inspecting throughout the morning.
  The damage inside my first assigned building was surreal. The smokey haze was prevalent even in the buildings and added a ghostly pale as our team moved around the dust covered floor. The floor that was covered with the pulverized remains of ceilings, walls, and everything that was in between.
  I would find it to be that way in each of the other perimeter buildings I inspected over the next several weeks. Dust that was inches deep in places and swirling at times like the dust storms of my college days in Lubbock. Blinding, choking dust as fine as talcum powder clogged our cartridge mask in seconds.  
  I learned to carry several replacement cartridges and could spin one off and replace it in seconds while holding my breath.
   The first time I crawled into a tight space and caused a section to collapse around me I was immediately blinded and my mask completely clogged. I was sure I was in serious trouble but I had a partner who dragged me out choking and clawing for air. After that, I carried a spare mask until I perfected the quick cartridge replacement tactic.
Broken glass was everywhere.
   It was even embedded into marble walls. On the far side of the ground floor lobby of Century 21, a very popular retailer featuring designer products I found some of that glass, or rather it found me. A piece of glass sliced my arm when I fell against a dust-covered wall as I navigated around the rubble.

   Within my first hour on the job as a Disaster Recovery Supervisor I was already bloody with continuously irritated eyes and nose. I was totally covered in dust. Every time something was moved, the dust billowed like a cloud of smoke.
Disaster Recovery
  This was late September and I had just recently arrived in New York after a crash course in Environmental Hazards for the use of safety equipment and the available resources. 
  Our teams of CAT Supervisors (Catastrophe) would take 12-hour shifts. That way, two supervisors could manage 3 eight hour shifts of union supplied support workers each day.
  This did not include an hour on each side to coordinate that day’s work, gather the needed supplies, assemble, and assign tasks. At the end of each shift, we would have to meet with the replacement Super for a progress report. 
  The round trip from Midtown near Grand Central to the Red Zone was easily another 30 to 45 minutes each way if you were lucky. Any way you count it usually left less than eight hours to eat two meals, deal with your own issues, and sleep!
  It was 27 days before I requested a day off. I couldn’t complain. Wouldn’t have considered it. There were thousands trying to find ways to contribute. At least I was getting paid well.
  Teams of volunteers from the Red Cross and Salvation Army came and went from all over the world to spend a few days at a time. They didn’t worry about time cards and most probably worked 24/7 until they were replaced.
The Honor Line
  Off-duty FDNY were showing up in droves to be there if one of theirs was found. They wanted to be in the Honor lines that formed every time another was unearthed. 
  I stood in one of those lines that started at the entry to Hell when a group of firefighters had been discovered. Some of the hand carried stretchers only carried parts. Even a found helmet was carried out with all the dignity and respect that broken-hearted warriors could muster.
  When the higher powers decided to ban the off-duty firefighters from the grounds, all Hell broke loose. 
  I witnessed the Malay from the 23rd floor of WFC II. Police were reluctantly trying to enforce the ban but finally, the eminent showdown was organized. Firefighters from everywhere showed up.
  NYPD was assembled in mass and they met the wrath of firemen that would not be denied. Many fought and many were arrested.
Smoke is still pouring out of pockets below ground. Water trucks try to reduce the dust above and the fires below. Brave men are below ground defying the dangers to put out fires and search for bodies. Hell is everywhere and Angels wear hard hats and face masks.
   I could understand both sides. One police officer I had befriended, Robert O’Callahan was working overtime as perimeter security because his brother was a firefighter who had not yet been found. A few months later he invited me to join him and some close friends at Time Square. 
   Over a few brews, he announced that he had been accepted into the next Fire Fighters training class starting in February. You see, there has always been an O'Callahan from his family line in the FDNY and with the loss of his brother, in his opinion, he was honor bound to take that place!
    Even though several clearance ID’s were required to enter deeper into the zones, uniformed firefighters were rarely denied entry if they bypassed the National Guard sentry and went to the men in blue. If they weren’t on duty, they were showing up in droves to Ground Zero. It was wearing them out physically and emotionally but they couldn’t imagine not being there when the day came that a fellow fireman was found especially one from their Engine.
   With heavy machinery operating everywhere, there was choking dust and smoke and debris everywhere. The debris being loaded and dumped into the train of semi-trailers coming and going was raising even more air problems than the still burning pockets below and it was important to reduce unnecessary spectators. 
   To add to the moving equipment and the air pollution was more danger from above.  Giant panes of glass were still occasionally popping loose from the surviving high rises and floating down like giant sheets of lethal paper.
   On one occasion, I was about 34 floors up and looking down into the zone. As I walked away air pressure or the still-shifting ground below caused the very pane I had been peering out of to pop loose and fall to who knew where. It slammed into the building halfway to the ground and shattered into a thousand pieces just above a line of vehicles. I leaned out fully expecting to see some horrible potential injury. My repressed fear of heights was reawakened but I also knew I was safer climbing stairways than working on the ground.
   Multiply those dangers by the 343 firefighters who lost their lives and the thousands that wanted to be there for them and you can see why it was a real safety issue. A compromise was quickly made to reduce the number of firefighters allowed to man the honor lines at any time and the work went on.
   The first part of my job was recon. I was crawling in and around fallen ceilings and all the floor shelving and designer accessories that would all have to be dragged away before the real cleanup could begin. There was one twisted 18-foot long piece of metal that had flown through the west facing wall. It had been part of Tower I.  We were trying to devise a plan for what was basically excavation. All the while we were documenting the damages and anticipating the staff and equipment it would take to get the job done. 
  The powers that be were desperate to have some sign of retail operations open as soon as possible to give hope to the people and businesses in Lower Manhattan. Since this building had an entry on Broadway, it was a key location.
1000 Birds at Grand Central

Missing Posters
  When I arrived in New York I made my way to the Roosevelt Hotel near Grand Central Station. It would be my home for weeks.
  Those now famous ‘Missing’ posters were everywhere. ‘Have You Seen’, a picture of a loved one, a description, and phone numbers, or e-mail addresses were common on these pages. They were tacked on, taped on, and stuck on poles, buildings, window panes, and anything else that had a surface. Buses, escalators, and subway cars had become billboards for hundreds, no, thousands of these pleas for answers.

If you traveled around by foot you would see some faces over and over, a sure sign of the desperation of those left behind. I would see the same peoples face all the way from my hotel, along the subway system, and then several times on my walk from my exit to the ‘Red Zone’. Many more faces became etched in my memory as I ached for the families and admired their dedication.
  Over time those missing poster would begin to be replaced.
Grand Central Station
   Every day after my shift I would stop and read a few of the hundreds of ‘Missing’ posters on a makeshift floor partition that was at least 30 feet long and covered on both sides. This partition was out in the middle of Grand Central Station where they could be seen by thousands.  

On one day several weeks later, I saw a pretty young woman with a stroller and a small girl about 4 years old at her side. As I approached the make-shift memorial, I saw that she was solemnly removing one of the flyers. She replaced that one with another, seemed to say a prayer, and then moved off to the side and weakly sat on a bench facing the partition. She was visibly weakened and bravely composed as she gathered in the little girl and rocked the baby she had rescued from the confines of the stroller.
  I gave it a moment and then approached the replaced flyer. A family photo revealed a happy family. The handsome couple were cuddling their little ones and looked like their life was a wonderful adventure just beginning.
  I looked back at the sad figure on the bench and saw the beautiful young family in the photo but without a daddy. She glanced up at me and we nodded at each other. Then I read the page. It was a tribute. ‘We just want you to know’ was the start of a young wife’s attempt to honor a husband and father.
An empty building
  As I made my way down a side road on my first night, I passed a large glass-paneled garage door. It was covered with those pages and I glance at the photos of men and families as I made my way down the darkened street. I paused to look inside the building and saw a big, long, empty room. The floors were polished and I could make out a coat rack way back near a pole. In the dim light, I could make out a couple of lonely firefighters gear.
  The reality began to sink in. I stepped back to see that this was indeed a fire station! It was an empty fire station! As I looked back inside, it became obvious what I was looking at. There were no vehicles, no equipment, and no one inside.
  Now, I went back to those posters. At first glance, I had passed them off as more of the same pleas to locate a loved one that I had been seeing everywhere I turned. But these were different, very different! The men in these photos weren’t missing. They were to be forever remembered and missed! They were being celebrated. They were memorialized. They were Fire Fighters of FDNY!
  I caught myself sobbing as I read a wife’s tribute to her brave 1st responder. He wasn’t missing but he had not yet been found.
  I took my time and looked over each and every one. It was the least I could do. I read about beloved fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, and friends. Among the hundreds, I would read over time were family photos, someone with their dog, mountain climbing, fishing, cradling their baby. Those poignant pieces of lives lost but never to be forgotten.
  I spent a long time in the dim light absorbing the reality of this memorial. Giving homage to each man that had given their lives. I wondered how many other fire stations were just as empty. How many other clusters of private lives were being revealed? How deep and wide the loss! Over the next months, I purposely stopped by other Fire Stations between Mid Town and Lower Manhattan.
  By the time I returned to Texas, I had basically toured the Americana that is New York. The men and women of many ages, races, and experiences. I read about those who liked to cook, who could fix anything, who liked to sing, who was an artist, even who would have become a husband if 9/11 had been just another day.
  That wall like others all over Manhattan represented dozens of children left without a father and even a few children who would never be held by their father. They would be born fatherless.
  I bought an FDNY blue t-shirt on my second day. It is neatly folded in my collectibles drawer. I wear it on 9-11.

- J.B. Blocker is a media consultant and historian based in Collin County in North Texas. Advertise with J.B. by calling 469-334-9962. Email:

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