Looking back: Fort Drum firefighter reflects on emergency response at ground zero
September 7, 2011
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Americans sat glued to their television sets watching in horror as the 9/11 attacks unfolded before their eyes. That terrorist act affected people across the country, especially firefighters and police officers who watched their brothers in arms enter the burning World Trade Center twin towers that later crumbled to the ground.
One of Fort Drum's own, Firefighter Capt. Robert W. Tennies, remembers what it was like to see the aftermath firsthand.
Tennies, who works at Fire and Emergency Services' Fire Station No. 3 on Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield, also worked as a part-time emergency medical technician for an ambulance service in Watertown. He and several of his co-workers volunteered to assist in the rescue effort at ground zero. After receiving permission for leave, he and nine other EMTs traveled Sept. 14 to the Big Apple to do anything they could help.
Although the group was gone only three days, Tennies said the things he saw at ground zero will be with him the rest of his life.
When they arrived in New York City, the group had to wait several hours for an assignment.
"A few hours into our standby, we were asked to go down to ground zero," Tennies said. "We had two ambulances, and we were going to perform emergency medical services if needed. We pretty much were in standby mode, but they allowed us to help on the 'pile' to dig."
Tennies said the city's empty, dirty streets were "eerie."
"On the way through the city, everything was barricaded and all the building faces were covered with dirt," he said. "It was very eerie going down (the streets) and then actually seeing ground zero."
Like Soldiers, Tennies said firefighters share a similar camaraderie with their "brothers," and he said knowing that 343 firefighters perished when the buildings collapsed was heartbreaking.
"It hurt. It hurt (knowing) 343 firefighters died, but then actually seeing (the site)," he continued. "It (hurt my) heart that so much devastation happened. The whole thing was just really overwhelming. It took a few minutes to catch your breath and realize what you're looking at."
Counselors were available around the site for the rescuers and law enforcement personnel who needed help, but people were not the only ones having a hard time dealing with the tragedy.
The search and rescue dogs became depressed, too, Tennies said.
"(The dog handlers) actually buried live people (in the rubble) so the dogs could find somebody alive," he said. "(The dogs) were getting depressed because they weren't finding anybody alive. They would bury live people, the dogs would find them, and they'd be happy (and they could do their jobs) again."
Although the dogs began feeling a sense of job satisfaction again, the overall feeling at ground zero was tense, Tennies said. When a team found a body, everything stopped. Local agencies determined whether the victim was a civilian, firefighter or police officer. If it was a firefighter or police officer, the respective agency would step in.
"They would move the debris and move their brother and take him out," he said.
At one point, there were so many people willing to volunteer that they were turned away to ensure law enforcement retained "some kind of command and control," Tennies explained.
Despite the devastation that the city, as well as the nation, felt after the 9/11 attacks, civilians who flocked to New York City were nothing but supportive, Tennies recalled. They were standing at the ready to provide gear or refreshments for the workers.
"The people of New York City shook our hands, they hugged us and were grateful for what we were there for, (which is a testament of the American spirit)," he said. "People came to New York City to do that (hard) job. It was just amazing."
Tennies also remembers when President George W. Bush addressed the nation, condemning the attacks.
"President Bush basically said we weren't going to sit down and take this from anybody," he said, adding that shortly after Bush's address to the nation, he began seeing Fort Drum Soldiers preparing for war.
"It was a really good feeling knowing (that Fort Drum firefighters were) going to take care of (Soldiers') Families while they're away to go fight for our freedoms," he said. "(Soldiers and Families) are our customers. While they're away, we're going to take 100 percent care of their Families, so they don't have to worry while they're gone."