Two decades after the 9/11 attacks shook America to its core by crashing two planes into the World Trade Center, some of the men and women who were first to respond to the tragedy in lower Manhattan are recalling their harrowing experiences as this somber anniversary approaches.
James Hill, Gerry Giunta and Michael Gomes are members of the Massachusetts Task Force 1. The agency has responded to countless natural disasters since it was first founded in the early 1990s. But September 11, 2001, was the team’s first time dealing with a terrorist attack.
James Hill still remembers pulling into New York City a few hours after the World Trade Center towers had collapsed.
“We turned the corner and there was an airplane jet engine laying on the sidewalk,” Hill recalled.
For Gerry Giunta, it was the color from the building’s ash and debris that still sits in the back of his mind some 20 years later.
“Everything was monochromatic grey and as we got further it was like snow,” he said.
These three men were among the first to arrive in New York City, mere hours after the country was shaken to its core. But as they barreled toward New York City in old military vehicles, with no FM radios or cell phones, no one had any idea what to expect.
"It was really strange. Everything was grey. There was no color to anything; there was dust covering everything. You just had to take a deep swallow knowing what you’re going into and what you’re faced with,” Gerry Giunta added.
For eight days, with no sleep, the task force worked in coordination with New York City authorities, hoping against hope to find someone alive while sifting through what remained of the World Trade Center.
“It was 22 acres of utter destruction. You basically had two buildings, each floor was an acre, and the buildings were 110 stories high, so we were looking at 220 acres of concrete. And yet, we never saw a piece of concrete larger than a grain of sand,” Michael Gomes said about the impact of the towers imploding.
As the days passed, more and more families showed up looking for loved ones. Exhausted, this team continued to work, using the sphere from the World Trade Center, which survived the collapse, as their compass for every mission.
“All of that was a hole in the ground. We’d use that ball like it was a clock,” responder James Hill said.
The years have not been kind to those who were on the ground in those dark days and weeks after the towers fell. An estimated 4,000 first responders have died in the last two decades from illnesses related to 9/11. Two of them were from this task force.
“Out of 72 people, we’ve lost two. It’s something that’s always in the back of your mind, those aren’t great odds,” Michael Gomes said.
This team continues to move forward though, responding to new disasters as they unfold and using lessons learned from 9/11.
But like the memorials, now standing as reminders, the men and women of this task force are taking this 20th anniversary of 9/11 to reflect.