, Salem, MA

Special Report

September 9, 2011

Local FEMA team in the heart of a disaster


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.

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