Interviews with Canadians who went to help in the aftermath

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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Neal Kennedy, 53, is a fire captain from Brampton, Ont., who went down to Ground Zero with three friends in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 to help however he could.

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"On the morning of Sept. 11 I was teaching at a high school, CPR, First Aid. I was off duty. It was a high school in Mississauga. They closed down the class early, we only stayed 'til 12.

I kind of just gathered information on what was going on and then headed down to New York with three of my co-workers.

We were all off-duty and it had nothing to do with our current fire department. We thought, well they closed the air space, we know we can’t fly, but it’s still North America so there’s still roads to get to it and we thought, lets take a chance to cross the border.

We left Peel Region at 5 in the afternoon, got to New York City 6:30, 7 Wednesday morning.

We are a brotherhood across North America — we go to each other’s funerals, for heaven’s sakes — and we thought you know what, 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 borders were closed, there were long lineups, but we drove on the shoulder of the road, identified ourselves as off-duty firefighters wanting to help. One of the guards asked me how fast my vehicle would go. He said, “Go as fast as you want. There won’t be a cop stopping you from here to New York.” They were pretty appreciative of us even making an attempt.

For whatever we thought going down, when we got there, we were never prepared for what we saw when we walked into Ground Zero. It was unbelievable.

We got to a certain section of Manhattan where the roads started to be closed off. We identified ourselves and said we were looking for the closest fire company to Ground Zero...hopefully they can use us. We were greeted by the FBI at one of the cross checks...we followed him, he kind of gave us a personal route all the way there, lights and sirens.

I’ll never forget, it was unbelievable. 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. As we went through the gate the first thing that greeted us was a fire truck that was cut in half, upside down, and it was like 'Are you kidding me?’ Oh my God.

You just take a step back and you just, you can’t breathe. You sit and look, you just can’t breathe. It’s just so overwhelming.

We’re with a company, Ladder Company 8...they said, “Let’s go guys, here’s a shovel, let’s start digging.” It’s like, “Where do you start in this 10 acres of devastation?”

There was tons of firefighters on Ground Zero in different locations. It was still a search and rescue the second day. It became a recovery by the fourth day.

The New York City fire department did find one lady alive on the Wednesday morning...and we were part of the brigade of carrying the stretcher, passing the stretcher from where they dug her up to the waiting ambulance.

That gave us all a little bit of high spirits but that was short-lived because that was, for me anyway, the only one that we found alive.

Of course there was dust. The first day we didn’t have masks, the second day on we were wearing dust masks so we wouldn’t inhale the concrete dust. There was burning, I think it was one of the longest known fires to burn ...We stayed upwind ... 10 acres, there’s piles everywhere of debris everywhere.

It was very rare, at least (for) us, to find a complete body. A lot of parts.

There was a rule with the FDNY guys that if we did stumble across one of their own we were to leave ’em and they will dig up their own. Which was respectful and we had no problem complying with that.

You can’t compare that to anything. There’s no way to top that...there’s nothing to compare that to. It was over and above anything.

So much happened. So many overwhelming things happened, not just the actual tragedy. The people in New York City, how great and wonderful they were.

There’s a lot of emotions for a lot of different reasons.

I’m walking out of Ground Zero and having all the New Yorkers sitting there, it’s almost like you’re in a parade. As you walked out, clapping, and cheering and saying, “Thank You.” They couldn’t come to thank you enough. And it’s like, don’t thank us, it’s not a good result.

Another occasion would be them coming up to us as we’re walking out, grabbing us crying and they’d have pictures of their loved ones in their hands asking us if we’ve seen their loved ones in Ground Zero, did we find them. And you just sit there, you don’t say anything, you say, 'No, I haven’t, no, there’s nothing to find.' You just didn’t know what to say to them.

You’d just be standing there going, 'I wish I could do more.'

I can never forget it. Three years after I came back I bought a sailboat and the name of the sail boat is dedicated to the 345 dead firefighters.

FDNY are the toughest firefighters you’re ever going to find on this planet and they couldn’t hold back their emotions...it was just very, very heartbreaking to see that, be a part of it all.

I am going back to Ladder Company 8, just to check in, say hi. ... The chance of me meeting up with one of them that I was with 10 years ago is probably going to be slim. But I’ll still go to the hall and we’ll talk about stories and catch up.

The people of New York city were unbelievable, they were the best, most generous, for a big city that size, it’s just crazy."

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Andrew Travers, 43, is Nova Scotia’s medical director for emergency health services and an associate professor at Dalhousie University. The former Edmonton resident was in Brooklyn for a research meeting when the 9-11 attacks occurred. He was then among a team of Canadians who set up a makeshift emergency ward blocks away from Ground Zero.

•••

"I was down there purely coincidentally, I was in Brooklyn as part of a network of emerg physicians, cardiologists, nurses and paramedics, that were all part of a research trial.

It was purely happenstance that we were connected into the response to 9-11.

We were in the Brooklyn Marriot, which is basically the first big hotel that you come to as you come off the Brooklyn Bridge.

We were just wrapping up our scientific meeting essentially and this person came in and said you have to evacuate the hotel. This is right at time zero.

There was essentially just people milling around and no real facts or information available. There was smoke overhead and lots of people on the streets but nothing clear.

During that time reports began to trickle in terms of an airplane had hit the twin towers...We didn’t have a direct sightline of things.

That’s when things began to escalate even further. Because we were basically emergency medicine, EMS...it meant we actually had a bit of linkage with the New York EMS system...we were brought back into the main room where we were originally meeting and that’s when we were briefed.

We began to say, 'OK, what can we do to help?' What began to happen was, really we thought we’d be able to help out at receiving casualties basically in the hotel.

Patients began to be milling off Manhattan Island, across the Brooklyn Bridge. By this time, an hour or two into it, you had literally tens of thousands of people coming down the streets.

I had a tap on the shoulder, and there was a firefighter, a police officer standing there who said, 'I understand there’s a series of people here who have medical experience; we want to bring a team into Ground Zero to set up a first-aid station.'

Myself and the two colleagues that I had volunteered to go on the bus with police and fire escort — we had about 18 people brought onto this bus and we began our trek into Manhattan.

We’re going across the bridge and we’re talking about the science of triage. Literally tens of thousands of people coming across the Brooklyn Bridge and us going across in this empty open lane with this escort.

It was beautiful blue skies and it was absolutely surreal, our bus was brought down right to Ground Zero at the time after both towers had both collapsed.

I remember it was all the tiny bits and pieces of stuff, of everything. The papers, the clothing and stuff, everywhere. It was not the big boulders, and rubble and fragments of metal and that stuff. What it was was the all the millions of tiny pieces of people’s lives which made it just surreal and bizarre.

Everything was covered in this dust. And you saw the emergency response vehicles which were destroyed. That’s when you appreciated the gravity of the situation.

There was just this massive amount of damage and terrible things...being up close to it, 100 feet away, it was overwhelming.

At Ground Zero, it was disbelief. It was fear about where we were standing. It was this whole smattering of stuff but it wasn’t that the team was scared...it was, 'How do we start?'

A decision was made for us to redeploy a few blocks north...It’s almost this veranda with eight tall columns that walked up into this high rise thing. You had Tower 7 right in front of you, you had a variety of noises because there were a lot of ambulances that were beginning to queue.

We arrived to find there wasn’t any what we call scene command, there wasn’t any structure ... Intravenous solutions but no IV poles, oxygen canisters but no regulators, like a mish mash of this stuff that hospitals were sending down, but they were all in bits of pieces.

We began to say, 'OK, in the next 20 minutes let’s set up essentially an emergency department in this outside veranda-foyer.'

As patients were brought down, we’d dump them into the ambulance right away to get them to the Upper Manhattan hospitals or treat them on site and we began to wait for the primary survivors, and secondary survivors and all those people. You’re treating people but you’re not tracking them.

There was none of the primary survivors, that’s what we were waiting for. But it became very obvious that people, they were either going to be dead ... or they were the walking wounded.

All the while Tower 7 was still standing just down the street from us, when you were looking down, you were seeing what looked like seagulls flying around the building. But what it was was the glass was breaking.

The only time that things were truly fearful for me was when Tower 7 went down. I’ll never see anything like it.

It was unbelievable, everyone just surged back. Hiding behind posts, running in, you just have this wave of noise and sound and dust — (I’ve) never seen, nor will I ever see, anything like it again.

But, after it went down, and this swell of people were all finding cover and stuff, it ended. And then everyone kinda came back out and we carried on, started seeing more patients.

I haven’t been back to New York yet, I’m looking forward to travelling with my family this year. I’m always curious to see just how close it was.

The hard part was the eight hours later. We were privileged to be a part of something right at the face of where all this had taken place.

The hard part was going back, leaving that site...you begin to realize, oh my God, you don’t have any control over what’s taking place. Leaving Ground Zero, we’re on a bus being shuttled back to the hotel. That’s when it began to get hard for me. You’re on the bus with these other firefighters, you’re hearing about fallen comrades.

The hard part there was putting it all together. It was that post shock thing...There’s been all these attacks, all these people who died.

I was privileged to have been a part of the response. And I was privileged to see people working together in shared interests.

I think anyone and everyone who was there wanted to help.

I don’t know why I got on the bus, but I was awfully glad that we did."

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Marie Elaine Delvin, 38, is a nurse practitioner working in Ontario’s Prince George County after several years spent in the North. She was working in Montreal at the time of the attacks and went down to help at Ground Zero soon after she heard of the towers collapsing.

•••

"I’m a nurse, I was working at the Jewish General Hospital. The day of 9-11 I was working there and we all heard what happened. All hospitals in Montreal, we were wondering if we’d have some casualties as well. We were hoping people would survive and need some help.

At the end of the day we realized that was not happening. At the end of the day I was sitting at home...my roommate came home and said, 'I cannot sit here and do nothing,' and I said, 'I’m feeling exactly the same way.' So she suggested two other residents wanted to drive down as well and I said, 'Well, I’ll join you guys.'

We left around 11 that night on 9-11 itself.

We arrived in the morning in New York itself. We went to the hospital and said 'Do you need more help?’ and they said 'No, actually you know where the smoke is, this is where you can go and see if you can help.’ So they gave us a box of gloves and a mask and said 'Walk that way.’

New York was really deserted.

There was nobody, we managed to walk down to Ground Zero. When we arrived there, there was a school that was transformed basically to do first aid, triage.

The minute we got there somebody came out and said, 'Is anybody a nurse here? We need help.' So I said, 'Sure.'

They needed people to help set up the triage system. The Red Cross came to find me. There were some people who were stuck in the buildings surrounding the twin towers (who) needed home care. So me and another nurse went to that building, we had to walk up the stairs, I think it was 10 flights up, go to her apartment and basically provide her with home care. She was somebody who was bedridden.

Came back at the school there and it was mostly treating and seeing people that were trying to find people. There was a lot of cuts, bruises, respiratory problems because there it was quite dusty.

I remember there was a homeless guy who was having a hard time breathing and I remember him saying, 'Nobody’s going to look for my homeless friends so I’m looking for them.'

All local restaurants would bring food for the volunteers that were going there to try to find people. There was The Gap, who came to donate some clothing.

You just want to be there to help. I had no clue what to expect, I didn’t even know if we could work, if we could do anything. But it was more like I just couldn’t be passive.

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...There’s good things in all bad things.

We were there for a couple of days only. Two, three days max...they wanted the army to take over.

There was still fear. There was a lot of stories saying there was more bombs in the city, the George Washington Bridge’s going to blow up, there’s more terrorists in town ... at some point I remember crying, going, 'Oh my gosh, this is real. What’s next?'

You feel vulnerable, really, and exposed. That was one thing I found more challenging.

I had to call in sick, 'By the way I’m in New York, I cannot come to work today.' They understood, they were like, 'Do what you have to do.'

There’s pride, because I’m Canadian. I’m happy I was able to represent my country.

It changed you because it’s an experience of a lifetime, you can’t even describe. It comes and gets you in places. Seeing people coming together and work together makes me feel good. The whole thing is horrible and the fear, but that’s never going to end right, it’s how we’re going to get through that....how can we cope with this, what good can come out of certain things.

It was beautiful to see people just come together and say, 'You know what, let’s get through this, let’s help each other, do what we have to do and see if we can bring some comfort.'

I’m not an adrenaline junkie, I’m not that kind of person...I did it really for the human experience.

As nurses that’s what we do on a daily basis on a different level. It probably reaffirmed even more that I was happy to be who I was."

———

Ella West, 57, works at a Toronto telecom company and has been a volunteer with the Canadian Red Cross for 30 years. She went down to Ground Zero a month after the 9-11 attacks to take over from some of the exhausted early responders.

•••

"I’ll never forget the day, because I was at work...My boss just turned around and looked at me and said, 'You’re going, aren’t you?' and I said, 'Absolutely.'

I went down as a logistics supervisor at Ground Zero.

Usually the delay occurs because usually they have enough people to immediately get things going. But when the first set of people are ready to shift out, they need other people to come in and that’s when we went in.

We have credit cards, a staff of people and we have requests and requirements coming from all over the response and our job is to go get it.

We had a badge that we wore, I’ll never forget it, it had the word 'No’ with a cross over it. Because you weren’t allowed to say no that you couldn’t go get something, you just had to figure out how to go get it.

We had to get masks for people to wear, and eyedrops, ice, just no end of requirements were needed.

It was eerie. It was silent and that is not what you ever expect to hear in New York....You heard nothing.

I still saw a lot of wreckage, a lot of extremely worried and vulnerable people. And 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.

They were still trying to remove bodies, they knew that there wasn’t anyone that they were going to bring out that would be alive at this point in time.

They were working from that recovery perspective because they wanted to have the burials and give the recognition to those who had passed.

When we got there, there were people standing on the islands on the streets saying, 'Thank you, thank you for coming, thank you for helping us,' I remember seeing all of that.

There’s still a lot of people walking around, even adults, with teddy bears, things of comfort.

What I heard from a lot of officials...you could just see it on their face, they wanted someone to talk to. They were still trying to get reasons as to why this happened to them, why did it affect their community.

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, you could see it on their faces.

The enormity of the devastation. Seeing it, how big it was, and seeing the reactions or the expressions and feelings of those who were at ground zero, working, trying and searching for anything they could find. And just seeing the futility on their faces, it was just, it could be overwhelming for people.

I remember at one time, the rescue workers that were down there, if we brought in beds for them to sleep, they wouldn’t lay down. So at one point we brought in LazyBoy chairs and they would sit in them and eventually you could coax them to lie back. It was because they didn’t want it to seem like they were giving up or weren’t doing their part.

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

You’d like the event not to happen and people to still be that way, but you see the best of people in the worst of times.

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Organizations: Ladder Company, FBI, Dalhousie University Red Cross Jewish General Hospital

Geographic location: Ground Zero, New York City, North America Manhattan Brampton Mississauga Brooklyn Nova Scotia Edmonton Montreal Ontario Prince George Ella West Toronto

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