Firefighters, police officers and medical workers from northern Hudson County couldn't be stopped in their efforts to help out in the World Trade Center disaster zone over the past two weeks.
"Everybody wanted to go," said Battalion Chief Richard La Terra of the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue squad last week. The squad serves Union City, West New York, Weehawken, North Bergen and Guttenberg.
"We are only a stone's throw away," said President of the North Hudson Firefighters Association Glen Michelin. "We wouldn't not go."
More than 100 North Hudson Firefighters from the five towns traveled into ground zero the day after the collapse. A task force of 10 Union City Police Officers as well as a squad of five Emergency Medical Technicians also joined in the rescue effort.
However, there was still work to be done on this side of the river, and a team of North Hudson Community Action nurses volunteered at the Exchange Place triage center in Jersey City to treat the many rescue workers that came over by boat from the city.
They call it brotherhood
North Hudson regional Fire Director Jeff Welz said that the firemen were not instructed to go over to New York City on Wednesday, Sept. 12, but they went anyway.
"They wanted to help, and no one was really stopping them," said Welz.
According to Lt. Carlos Schlaffer, who is assigned to the chief's office, about 155 firefighters, comprised of both on and off-duty men, went to New York City on Wednesday morning.
"We volunteered just to help our brothers," said Battalion Chief Richard La Terra. "That is our job. It is the profession we chose."
"It is my job as an American and a fireman," said Firefighter Mike Voicu. "I want to do everything possible. If I can't find [their bodies], we can at least recover their remains."
When the engines first arrived on the scene, the engines had to be parked at least three blocks away. The firemen walked the rest of the way to ground zero.
"You really don't realize the intensity of the devastation until you are there," said Voicu. "It is such a senseless loss of life."
"Looking around, I didn't know here I was," said Michelin. "I didn't think it was the U.S.A. That's for sure. I have never been to war, but this is the closest I have ever felt to war."
"It was almost as if we were in a third world nation," said Battalion Chief Mike Falco. "It is hard to believe we were just across the water. "
"The pictures do not tell the story," said Falco, who lost his college roommate in the attack. "To go on the scene is absolutely devastating."
The firemen formed a chain on the bucket brigade. Voicu said they were digging out pieces from the debris and handing them down the chain to a dumping site.
"I went in hopes of finding some people alive," said Firefighter Lenny Calvo. "I knew it was a race against the clock. We were just passing each other pieces of building. We didn't even know what we were picking up."
After about five hours on the scene, parts of the site were evacuated because a nearby building was unstable.
After sections of the large area were evacuated, Schaffler said that the firefighters were more frustrated than frightened.
"It was more frustrating that we couldn't continue working to find someone else." said Schaffler.
"It was frustrating because we are trained to save lives," said Voicu. "We couldn't do what we are trained to do."
Many firefighters arrived on the scene hoping to find people alive, but mostly all they saw was death.
"All there was left was death and destruction as far as the eye could see," said Voicu. "We were all hoping on a wing and a prayer to find someone alive."
The spectators and volunteers along the site and on West Side Highway gave the firemen and other volunteers much needed support.
"What was impressive was all of the volunteers; that was emotional," said Schaffler. "Everything we needed on the scene was there."
"There were thousands and thousands of spectators along West Side Highway holding flags and carrying signs reading 'You guys are our heroes,'" said Voicu.
Some firefighters still have not given up hope.
"I still believe there are people alive in there," said Lenny Calvo. "The only consolation I have is knowing that the Lord is embracing my fellow firefighters who died trying to save others."
Even after the courageousness and tireless effort the North Hudson firefighters put out, they are not looking for recognition.
"The real heroes out there aren't the baseball and football players, as our kids would say," said Falco. "It is the New York City Firefighters and Police Officers who gave the total sacrifice on that day."
"We believe that the New York City Fire Department is the greatest fire department in the world, second to none," said La Terra.
Fifty off-duty officers went on both Thursday and Friday, according to Falco.
Men in blue
The firefighters weren't the only Hudson County men in uniform who helped out across the river.
After watching both towers of the World Trade Center crumble from a window in the mayor's office on Tuesday morning, Union City Police Sergeant Emilio Gonzalez knew he needed to help. As soon as he got off-duty on Sept. 11, Gonzalez formed a task force of about 10 officers that arrived in New York City by 6:30 p.m.
"No one knew what it would be like over there," said Det. Rich Rhodes, who was one of the officers in the task force. "It was just something that we had to do."
Gonzalez said no one expected what they saw.
"We have seen everything here from homicides to sexual assaults," said Gonzalez. "But nothing we've seen can compare to this."
"We brought more than 80 years experience to New York with us," continued Gonzalez who himself has been on the force for 13 years. "But this was the worst we've seen in our careers. What we saw there was devastating."
When the officers first arrived on the scene at ground zero, they helped in barricading the area from onlookers. However, after meeting a New York City detective, the men were brought to ground zero.
"It must have taken two hours just to walk the entire area of ground zero," said Gonzalez. "It was as if the world ended in New York City."
The police officers dug for more than 10 hours that day, but Gonzalez, who returned on Thursday with Sgt. Thomas Surowics, feels that they didn't even make a dent in the work that needed to be done.
" If I can move one rock or one piece of debris," said Gonzalez. "I feel like I've accomplished something."
However, even after being there, many officers still can't believe it happened.
"Still to this day it doesn't seem real," said Rhodes. "There is no happy or sad, it is just kind of a numb. I still can't believe it happened."
Dressing their wounds
Among the first medical rescue teams sent to New York from New Jersey on Sept. 11 were five Emergency Medical Technicians from Union City.
EMS Director Lieutenant Al Mendez said that the Port Authority was already asking for mutual aid before 11 a.m. Of the five ambulances in Union City, one was sent to New York City, another was stationed at the triage site at Liberty State Park and the other three were in Union City while other personnel were stationed at the Union City triage center that went unused that day.
Union City EMT Michelle Zeron, 20, one of the five EMTs sent to New York, remembers getting onto a ship from Exchange Place in Jersey City to get to New York. After docking, Zeron and the others were taken to ground zero.
"As we walked, I looked to my left, and saw benches with bodies on them," said Zeron. "Somebody told me they were just sleeping, but that didn't make sense to me. With all of the triage centers set up, why would they sleep on the benches? I knew they were dead."
However, what hit Zeron most was the empty baby carriages she saw in the park that she passed as she approached ground zero.
"Parents were in the park with their children and didn't know what they were in for," said Zeron.
After being mistakenly taken to ground zero, Zeron and the other EMTs were taken to a triage center at Battery Park.
"We were posted there, but there really wasn't anyone to help," said Zeron. "We only helped like three or four people. We all wanted to do more than we did. We wanted to help even if it was to take out people from the rubble."
After the initial day of the attack, more medical workers were needed to care for the many firefighters, police officers and other volunteers working in the rescue effort.
In Jersey City on Thursday
On Thursday evening, just two days after the attack on the World Trade Center, two of North Hudson Community Action Corporation's nurses volunteered at the triage center at Exchange Place in Jersey City, where many injured rescue workers were being taken for care.
Nurse Lisa Ortiz heard on the radio on her way into work that nurses and other medical workers were needed for the triage at Exchange place. After speaking to her fiance, who had escaped from a building across the street from the World Trade Center two days earlier, she decided to volunteer.
While at the triage, the nurses heard of another building that was unstable and might collapse. As they waited to hear word about a building they heard was unstable, North Hudson Community Action Corporation Registered Nurse Aurora Dalisay was on standby and waited to see if more injured people were going to come.
"There were a lot of people there just waiting," said Ortiz. She said that while at the triage center, the volunteers heard that another building was about to collapse.
"[Ortiz] was squeezing my hand," said Dalisay, who was glad that she wasn't at the triage center alone.
The rescue workers being treated at Exchange Place were being brought to the site by boat. Dalisay said that when one boat left with five workers, five workers came back on the next boat.
"There was only so much they could do in New York because of the suit and debris," said Dalisay.
"They were mostly guys coming back with eye injuries," said Lisa Ortiz who also remembers treating twisted ankles and one knee injury.
"You could see the mark on their faces from their goggles," said Dalisay. "Their eyes were so dirty."
Ortiz still remembers each of the workers that she treated.
"I remember their faces," said Ortiz. "Many of them had tears in their eyes. It was a blank look. They were just shocked."
North Hudson Community Action Medical Assistant Jessie Segara may have had one of the hardest jobs of all on Thursday night. Segara, a Hoboken resident, volunteered at Christ Hospital in Jersey City, where she answered phone calls from people hoping to locate their lost family members and friends.
"The call that got to me the most was one lady who was looking for eight people," said Segara.
Segara said that if the person they were looking for was not on her patient list, which included all of the area hospitals as well as some in New York City, she referred them to the armory in New York City where they were also taking names and records of anyone thought to be missing inside the wreckage.
Out of almost 140 phone calls Segara received, she was only able to locate one of the people that were asked for.
"I didn't want to answer the phone because I knew that I was going to have to say no," said Segara. "Out of the more than 140 phone calls I only actually found one person."