, Salem, MA

September 9, 2011

Local FEMA team in the heart of a disaster

By Jesse Roman
Staff writer

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.

Giunta likened it to seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. Your jaw drops. The immensity of it all is amazing yet terrifying.

"It was surreal when we got there. Everything was the same color, a grayish tone. There were no colors at all," Giunta said. "The ground looked like it snowed, there was so much dust. The buildings, the glass were all covered in gray, and there was paper everywhere. All the fire escapes had paper on them."

The scene was total chaos.

"There were all kinds of people everywhere" said Mark Foster, the team leader and its only full-time employee. "We had trouble finding room to put our equipment. There were all kinds of different uniforms everywhere."

Dust and debris were swirling so fiercely, it was hard to see or breathe, until a major rainstorm on Sept. 14 settled the dust a bit. Arnum, the medical team coordinator, told everyone to keep their dust masks or ventilators on anyway, but they were uncomfortable, and as the days wore on, the workers left them dangling around their necks. Arnum wouldn't say how many team members have had health problems in the years since, but "there have been some various issues," she said.

At least 40 of the 78 task force members are still in the federal health registry and receive annual screenings, labs and chest X-rays paid for by the federal government.

Back at ground zero, dust wasn't the only issue. There was also the physical and mental fatigue produced by the sheer enormity of the task. Team members worked 12-hour shifts, but with briefings and travel to and from the pile, days were up to 20 hours long, Giunta said. It was also becoming frustrating. Only one person was recovered alive by another rescue team and, after that, nothing. It was rare even to find a body intact.

"We have never done an official count" on how many bodies the team recovered, Foster said. "Every (team member) knows their own number."

Alarms sounding everywhere

Then there was the noise. Firefighters responding to the attacks had worn personal alert safety devices, little boxes designed to emit a sound if no motion is detected for a certain period of time. The sound is meant to alert other firefighters that one of their own is down or incapacitated.

The pile of debris was ringing with the high-pitched alarms, and for a while, the noise "gave us a little hope that we might find someone," Giunta said.

"You'd crawl through a maze of steel, but you'd always get to the point where there's a dead end and you can't crawl anymore. But you could still hear that noise."

By the eighth day, the team was exhausted. In the 2003 documentary "Looking for my Brother," filmmaker John Kenney chronicles his brother Tom Kenney's work as part of the Massachusetts Task Force 1 team.

"Tom calls; he sounds quiet and distant," John says in a voice-over in the film. "Whatever spark was there earlier in the week is gone. His voice is almost unrecognizable, he is so hoarse from yelling and from breathing in the smoke and soot."

Foster said, "I think we were all like that. We could either stay or go. After eight days, we realized that we would not be saving anyone."

Arnum added, "It was a hard decision. When we first heard (we were leaving), the first reaction was there's still a lot of work to do. People can survive in a structure X number of days, and we didn't want to leave with work left to be done. Then reality set in that we're not going to get the job done. It was going to take months and years to get this cleaned up."

In the aftermath

In a group photo taken at a rest stop on the trip home to Beverly, there's nary a smile, only exhaustion. The team arrived back in Beverly on Sept. 18 to cheers, pats on the back and an address by the governor. Giunta went home and slept for 24 hours. Arnum started digesting what just happened.

"Some of those experiences down there stick in my mind, and I'll never get rid of them. Some are good, some are bad," she said. "Working with this group of very unique people was an honor. You couldn't ask for a better group."

Giunta has plenty of bad images floating in his head, too, but it's the positives that he tends to focus on.

"It created these bonds, something that we will share for the rest of our lives," he said. "It's the kind of friendship that you don't get from cracking a beer with someone at a bar. It's more personal."

The rescue effort evokes strange and sometimes incongruous feelings for most people on the team. There's pride, for sure. There's also sadness, camaraderie, a sense of accomplishment and a sense of profound disappointment that no one was found alive. All of those things will stay with them forever.

"I always tell people," Foster said, "when you're in this job, you live it every day to some extent."