Fifteen hours at Ground Zero
Hadley Township firefighter recalls recovery operations 48 hours after Sept. 11 attack
September 07, 2011 - Doug Broecker became a firefighter because he wanted to help people in need.
The scope and extent of that desire took on a new dimension following the attack on the World Trade Center.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 Broecker, a 1985 Lapeer High School graduate, was walking into a local restaurant for coffee when news of the attack was broadcast on television.
"I was shocked," he said. "I finished my day at work—it was just the longest day. I discussed with another firefighter how we could get out there to help. The next day the area fire chiefs had a meeting and reported to us that FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) was not requesting any assistance in New York."
Still, the next morning Broecker, a Hadley Township Fire Department firefighter for seven years, and a fellow firefighter packed up their gear and sleeping bags.
"We left about 10 a.m. for New York—we drove straight through about 12 hours and arrived on the outskirts of New York City about midnight. I called a local radio station that was broadcasting information about where people can help. We had a map and ended up somewhere around 35th Street."
The pair drove back to New Jersey where they spent the night at a truckstop.
At 7 a.m., Sept. 13, less than 48 hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, they traveled back to New York City to a staging area.
"We sat there a long time. It was very disorganized. We boarded a city bus and went to Ground Zero. I remember all the different people on that bus—firefighters, steelworkers, even spelunkers and EMTs. No one talked. It was quiet like church. I tried to pay attention to the surroundings as we were driving."
They arrived at Ground Zero about dusk.
"It was all dark down there—it was pitch black, the power was out to a ring of buildings near Ground Zero. It was kind of eerie—at that point it struck home where you were. A few papers were blowing around—that's it— just a strange place to be. You really could notice the New York City Firefighters—we had to be a big moral boost to help them. They were very quiet—except they had a lot of banter with the New York City police officers. I would guess it was a way to alleviate stress—they did what the had to."
The pair went to a second staging area.
"A New York City firefighter told us we waited long enough and led us around past a lot of people through a fitness center with all the windows blown out to where the World Trade Center was—it was about then I remember the smell—it was very unpleasant. For weeks later I just could not get that smell out of my head. I'm not sure if it was just in my mind or in me—but it just never went away."
"We all teared up at that point. You just could not help it. We had carried tools with us down there—axes, shovels and ropes—but we just left them in a pile. It was all hand work digging through the rubble, loading debris from the north tower into buckets and passing them back like a bucket brigade. We'd collect plane parts, building parts and then human parts would be placed in a plastic bag. You work for a while and then move up in line because people would become tired. And the smell was so strong down there."
Broecker said he quickly realized it was not a rescue operation, rather a recovery.
"It seemed like we never found door knobs, desks or phones—everything was just so ground up. It was just so demoralizing. It was also very encouraging that so many volunteers came together. Around the ring of buildings near Ground Zero workers had anything they wanted. Restaurants would bring down food, clothes, blankets or water. Just ask and it was there."
Broecker and his partner spent 15 hours working at Ground Zero and returned home to Hadley on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001.
"We and others wanted to stay down there working. Remember, too, that many died in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon—we talked about that, too. It was just so overwhelming."
"Looking back on it, I wish I had not seen some things—it bugs me at times to think about all those lives lost and especially the families. On the fifth, or now the tenth, anniversary of the attack, we stop and think about the events of Sept. 11, 2001. For the families who lost loved ones, they think about that every minute of every day. They don't need an anniversary to remember."