, Salem, MA

Special Report

September 9, 2011

Local FEMA team in the heart of a disaster

When disaster hits, most of us try our hardest to get out of the way. A few, the ones most of us would call heroes, head directly and without hesitation into the chaos.

When Anita Arnum saw the World Trade Center towers smoking on live television, she left her house and headed to the Massachusetts Task Force 1 FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team headquarters in Beverly before the first tower fell. Arnum, along with everyone else on the team, is a volunteer.

"I didn't even think about it: 'I have to get my stuff and report to Beverly,'" she recalls, 10 years later.

Another volunteer, Salem firefighter Gerry Giunta, said, "When I got home, my wife said, 'You're not going, are you? I said, 'Absolutely. That's what I've trained years for, to help people.' And out the door I went."

At 4:15 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, less than six hours after the towers collapsed, 78 team members from six states left Beverly in a caravan of school buses, Army trucks, RVs and vans. They were heading to one of the most dangerous places on the hemisphere. Tower 7, a colossal, 47-story building would collapse while Task Force 1 was on the road. Unsubstantiated media reports put the number dead at upward of 100,000. Fires spewing toxic smoke were still raging inside the massive pile.

The Massachusetts team arrived in New York late on Sept. 11, but officials told them it was still too dangerous to begin working. Their mission was to find and rescue any survivors remaining under the pile of debris. They would spend eight days digging through the rubble, but ultimately found no one alive.

A surreal landscape

On the morning of Sept. 12, the team left for ground zero. They had done everything they could to get ready, but nothing could prepare them for what they found.

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