Canadians rushed to U.S. to confront 9-11’s aftermath

Diana Mehta
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United Airlines Flight 175 approaches the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York shortly before collision as smoke billows from the north tower in this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo. — The Canadian Press/The Associated Press

TORONTO — The dust had yet to settle, the fires continued to burn, and the streets were still clogged with a tangle of concrete, metal and the remnants of people’s lives, but in the aftermath of 9-11 the only place these Canadians wanted to be was Ground Zero.

Ten years after the attacks that shocked the world, these Canucks still remember being driven by one thought --— the compulsion to go and do what they could to help.

Neal Kennedy, a 53-year-old fire captain from Brampton, Ont., was teaching a First Aid course at a high school when he learned of the attacks. With classes over early, Kennedy and three of his firefighter friends were in a car headed to New York City within hours.

“(Firefighters) are a brotherhood across North America,” Kennedy said. “There was reports of so many firefighters trapped, missing or possibly dead and we thought, ’We gotta go, we can’t just sit here.”’

The magnitude of the attacks hit home when they walked into Ground Zero the next morning.

“We kind of went through an archway to get into the 10 acres of devastation, because that what it was, 10 acres of total destruction,” said Kennedy, who remembers being greeted by an upturned fire truck which had been sheared in half.

“It was like, ’Are you kidding me?’ Oh my God...You just take a step back and you just, you can’t breathe.”

The group joined Ladder Company 8, part of the closest firehouse still standing near Ground Zero. They were told to grab a shovel and start digging. Spirits soared briefly when a woman was found alive. but hope of finding more survivors under the jumble of still smoldering debris soon evaporated entirely.

“You can’t compare that to anything. There’s no way to top that,” Kennedy said as he recalled the experience.

“So much happened. So many overwhelming things happened.”

Among his lingering memories was how kind New Yorkers were even in the face of their loss.

“As you walked out, (they were) clapping, and cheering and saying, ’Thank you.’ They couldn’t come to thank you enough.”

There were harder moments too, like when a stranger would grab him, crying, and with a picture in their hands, ask if he might have seen their loved one.

“You say, ’No I haven’t, no — there’s nothing to find,”’ Kennedy said. “You’d just be standing there going, ’I wish I could do more.”’

Andrew Travers, a 43-year-old doctor, was at Ground Zero hours after the attacks, and soon found it almost impossible to pry himself away.

Travers, currently Nova Scotia’s medical director for emergency health services, was an Edmonton resident who was in Brooklyn for a meeting when the towers were hit. The scale of the attacks began to sink in as the “walking wounded” began pouring over the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan. As he stood near the bridge, someone tapped him on the shoulder.

A police officer was looking for doctors to set up a first aid station at Ground Zero. Without thinking twice, Travers and a few of his colleagues were soon on their way into Manhattan under a crisp blue sky marred by an increasingly large plume of smoke.

By then, both towers had collapsed.

“I remember it was all the tiny bits and pieces of stuff, of everything. The papers, the clothing and stuff, everywhere,” Travers said of his descent to Ground Zero.

“What it was, was all the millions of tiny pieces of people’s lives.”

Dust hung heavy in the air, emergency response vehicles were destroyed and the noise was ear-shattering. The group moved a few blocks north of the epicentre and set up an outdoor emergency room below a building a few doors up from Tower Seven — the third building to eventually collapse on Sept. 11.

As he tended to cuts, bruises and chest pains, Travers glanced down the street at Tower Seven and saw what he thought were seagulls around the top of the building. In fact, it was shards of glass from the windows, which were shattering as the building started to buckle, sending a avalanche of debris their way.

“Everyone just surged back. Hiding behind posts, running in, you just have this wave of noise and sound and dust and I’ve never seen, nor will I ever see anything like it again.”

After surviving the onslaught, the medical team dusted themselves off and kept treating casualties, with many staying on site into the next day.

Hard as it was to eventually leave, 10 years later, there’s nothing Travers would have changed.

“I was privileged to have been a part of the response,” he said. “I think anyone and everyone who was there wanted to help.”

Marie-Elaine Delvin, a 38-year-old nurse practitioner, was working at a hospital in Montreal when the planes hit. After her shift, she joined four residents from the hospital and headed for Ground Zero.

“I just couldn’t be passive,” Delvin said. “If they would have asked me to wash dishes, I would have washed dishes. In a time of crisis like that you just like to see people being together and working together.”

Delvin’s group eventually found itself at a school in lower Manhattan being used as a first aid centre. The emergency nurse helped set up a triage system, cared for home-bound residents in the buildings around Ground Zero and treated numerous casualties for nearly three days.

She remembers a city on edge.

“There was still fear. There was a lot of stories saying there was more bombs,” she said. “I remember crying, going, ’Oh my gosh, this is real. What’s next?’ You feel vulnerable.”

But even as the city braced for the worst, its residents supported one another. Restaurants offered free food, clothing stores donated their wares, corner stores gave out supplies at no charge — gestures Delvin found incredibly comforting.

“It was beautiful to see people just come together and say, ’You know what, lets get through this.”’

From unprecedented grief came a remarkable sense of community.

Ella West, an employee at a Toronto telecom company, volunteered to go to New York with the Red Cross. She arrived almost a month after the attacks, when the initial shock had faded somewhat, but the city was still reeling.

“It was eerie,” she remembers. “It was silent and that is not what you ever expect to hear in New York.”

Getting there a month later meant West saw the toll the attacks had taken upon the city’s residents.

“You could tell by the looks on their faces that they were past themselves, they were tired, they’d been going at it for a long, long time,” said the 57-year-old West.

“They had been working so hard, for so long, and trying to do so much, and feeling the futility of whether or not they could really help do anything. It was devastating.”

Still, the drive to keep helping and keep looking continued. West remembers having to set up recliners for rescue workers at the Red Cross because they would refuse to go to bed.

“Eventually you could coax them to lie back,” she said. “They didn’t want it to seem like they were giving up or weren’t doing their part.”

West stayed in New York for almost a month, and through it all, she remembers the gratitude expressed from the city’s residents to those working at Ground Zero. As strangers stopped to exchange words of comfort and emergency crews worked around the clock, she was struck by the compassion around her.

“It’s those kinds of events that bring people together in a way that they’ve never been brought together again,” she said.

“You’d like the event not to happen ... but you see the best of people in the worst of times.”


Organizations: Canucks, Ladder Company, Red Cross

Geographic location: Ground Zero, New York City, TORONTO U.S. Brampton Manhattan North America Brooklyn Nova Scotia Edmonton Montreal Ella West

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