A somber and thankful group of Texas Task Force One (TX-TF1) team members returned home Sept. 26 from their search and recovery mission at the site of the World Trade Center.
“It was the toughest challenge we’ve ever faced,” said TEEX Director Dr. Kem Bennett. “There was just awesome destruction. The piles of rubble are 80 feet tall. It was a very dangerous place, and we were lucky there were no injuries.”
All 72 team members and four canines returned safely from the nine-day deployment at “Ground Zero” in New York City. It was the team’s first national call out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) since the team joined the federal system last year.
“The emotions you go through are staggering when you first walk up to it,” Bennett said. “Your first thought is What destruction!’ and you think about the victims and their families. But then you realize you have a job to do, and you think about what it is you have to do and doing it safely.”
“When you see the destruction, you feel that the possibility that anyone could have survived is wishful thinking, but there’s always a chance, a hope you hold on to. Crowds are standing around holding pictures of their loved ones. On a pole was a picture of a family with two little boys. Above the picture, it said, My Daddy is missing. Please find him.’ That hit everybody.”
TX-TF1 team members distinguished themselves with their professionalism and training, Bennett said. “I think everyone feels a lot of pride in what we accomplished. We took on a challenge that other teams turned down as too dangerous. Because our people are trained in high-angle rescue techniques, we were able to cut a large steel beam into pieces so the cranes could remove it. We got applause from the New York rescue workers, the other FEMA teams and even the New York iron workers!”
The most emotional time was when the team was working in an area that was between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, Bennett said. It was there that team members first located airplane parts, landing gear and a section of the fuselage of one of the aircraft that crashed into the towers.
TX-TF1 worked to uncover the top of one of the stairwells, where it was expected that many of the victims would be found. The team also searched in the basement, subway and shopping mall areas underground. Search technicians used sophisticated cameras and also some new search technologies not available to other teams. Bennett said the team was testing these for the Department of Justice and the Department of Energy.
Anytime a “void” was uncovered where someone might possibly be found, he said the dogs were called in. The dogs worked hard, he added, and they were checked by veterinarians each time they came off a shift.
And team members watched each other for signs of stress as well.
“I think we were mentally prepared,” Bennett said. “We had a week to think things through before we left, and our mental health was very good while we were there. One of the smartest things we did was to take along a chaplain (Rev. Bill Armstrong) who was skilled in counseling. And there was a lot of hugging and patting each other on the back.”
The team set up its base of operations at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. The center was about 30 to 45 minutes from the site. “Day and night, the people of New York City were cheering us as we went by on the bus,” he said. “The people of Texas kept us going too. We were representing everyone who wanted to go there to help. Our team felt the prayers and hopes of everyone in Texas.
“The e-mails and words of encouragement carried us through a lot of tough things,” Bennett said. He added that messages were posted each day and the message board was usually the first stop when team members returned to the convention center after their shift.
“The camaraderie of our team and among all the teams was very high,” he said. “You grow together when you’re living together and sharing an experience like this.”
Many lessons come from an experience such as this, including the importance of training and preparation and safety issues, Bennett said. But when asked what the team would do differently in the future, he replied, “We learned that we need bigger cutting torches.”
Note: Members of the TX-TF1 were featured on CBS in a segment of “48 Hours” on Sept. 21.