Almost a year has passed since the day that shattered our innocence. The nightmares are becoming less frequent, but I still cannot think about all that I have seen. However, I realize that my intimate involvement with both the Pentagon and New York recovery operations gives me a unique perspective on possibly the most historically significant event of my generation. The actions of humans inhumanity toward fellow human would be nearly too much for one to bear, were those actions not offset by some magnificent acts of compassion and self-sacrifice. I have seen the best of people, in their responses to the actions of the worst of people, and it is a few of these countless acts of heroism, courage, and kindness that I would like to share with you.
My involvement with the attacks of Sept. 11 was simple; like countless other Americans, I simply stepped forward to offer whatever help I could.
I am a volunteer firefighter who happened to be driving near the Pentagon when the plane crashed into it. I stopped the car and ran to the site.
Words cannot accurately describe the scene; the cacophony of sounds and the nauseating smells. It was total chaos. People were running and walking around in shock, not quite knowing what had happened or if more planes were inbound. We would carry someone out and as soon as we turned around someone else would appear out of nowhere. We could hear people calling out, clapping, or banging to lead rescuers towards them. Barely visible through the thick smoke, I noticed a man dodging falling concrete while walking with a severely burned woman. This man was Staff Sgt. Chris Braman, and the woman he was carrying was Sheila Moody. She was so badly burned that she could not speak to call out for help. All she could do was clap her hands and pray that someone would find her. Braman had answered her prayers by continuing to search through the smoke and fire until he located her. Behind him was another man, Lt. Col. Ted Anderson, also working his way through the debris in search of potential survivors. Braman is an Army Ranger, whose bedrock policy is to never leave fallen or injured comrades behind. Despite the smoke, heat, flames, and crumbling debris, Braman, Anderson, and several other military and civilian personnel risked their lives by rescuing victims from within the burning Pentagon. Many of these victims were seriously burned or otherwise injured, and it was quite wrenching to carry them out because in doing so we caused them even more pain. In the end, however, most of these people survived, including Sheila Moody.
About 20 minutes into the rescue operation, we heard something that still haunts me. An Army captain yelled out, Theres another plane inbound; two minutes out! Hearing this caused within us a horrible sinking feeling. We had no reason to doubt the accuracy of the report of a second plane, or the fact that we only had two minutes to reach a safe distance. What struck me was the fact that not one person left an injured victim behind to run for the nearby cover of an underpass. Every one of the rescuers stayed with the injured, carrying them to safety. When an F-16 came streaking overhead, there was a communal sigh of relief, and for some, a few tears. Fortunately the report was inaccurate and there were no more planes.
As the day progressed, it became evident that there would most likely be no new survivors, and the objective quietly shifted from search and rescue to search and recovery. Braman and I got to know each other over the next three days while working with the Army mortuary affairs unit and the FBI to locate, mark, and remove the bodies from the building. Lt. Col. Mahee Edmonson headed up the mortuary affairs operation, and despite the overwhelming task she was faced with, she proved to be an excellent leader and organizer. In describing what we saw, I think the words of Army Sgt. Maj. Aubrey Butts summed things up best when he told those of us about to go in, You are about to enter into hell. The things you see inside there will stay with you for the rest of your lives. Many of those tasked with recovery operations were young soldiers from the Old Guard who, despite excellent leadership by Col. James Laufenberg, were not quite prepared for the devastation and death they encountered. Even my experience as a paramedic could not have prepared me for what we saw. However, all of them performed their duty without losing their composure while working. Perhaps this can be attributed to some additional words by Butts and Laufenberg, which helped us through the grim process. Butts said, Bring them out with dignity, feet first, and remember to hold your heads up high and proud. This was followed by the captain, who quietly said, We will do our jobs as best we can, and like all good soldiers, we will save our tears for until after the war.
On the third day, we were all beyond exhaustion. Some of us had been there since moments after the plane hit, and were walking zombies. However, we were energized by some kind and encouraging words from President Bush and members of his cabinet, the leadership of various civilian and military personnel, and the hope that maybe, just maybe, there might be someone still alive. The FBI and the Fairfax County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md., urban search and rescue teams were responsible for the initial searches and stabilization of the building. Their professionalism and dedication was amazing to witness. They never gave up hope of finding survivors. That morning, some members of the FBI asked Chris Braman and me to go in and assist them, since we had been in numerous times and knew what to expect. The area where the plane hit was totally destroyed. Everything, including the bodies, was completely burned. By the time we finally had to evacuate the area due to structural instability, we were very depressed and demoralized. Our hopes of finding any survivors were quickly vanishing, and the images from the past three days were beginning to burn through the haze of shock. We had reached our emotional nadir. Braman and I were sitting solemnly on the back of a truck drinking Gatorade and trying, unsuccessfully, to make sense of what we had just seen. For some reason, we looked up at the hole in the building and saw an amazing and beautiful sight. In front of us, hidden from view from most angles, standing proud and tall amidst total devastation was an apparently intact U.S. Marine Corps flag. We stared at it for what seemed like five minutes, looked at each other, and simply nodded. It was the most beautiful, inspiring, heartwarming thing we had seen. The flag had survived!
Despite being less than two feet from the shear line where the walls had collapsed, the flag had withstood a plane crash, flying debris, a voracious conflagration fueled by thousands of pounds of jet fuel, a collapsing wall, secondary fires, secondary collapses, smoke, water, and initial demolition work. For us, feeling beaten, broken, and defeated, that flag represented good, defiant in the face of evil; hope, gently waving off despair; life, vehemently opposing death; and triumph, standing alone, stubbornly rejecting defeat. Almost simultaneously, Marine Maj. Dan Panteleo walked towards us. He too had seen his flag and must have realized what was on our minds. He asked, Are you guys thinking the same thing I am? The three of us spent the next couple of hours trying to figure out just how we were going to recover the flag from the fourth level, so close to the gaping, still smoldering hole in the building. We knew some of the firefighters with a ladder truck, and we asked them if we could use their long extension ladder. They loved the idea but sent us to the command center. Command also liked the idea but said it might have to wait, as there was too much debris to get the ladder truck close enough. The trouble with waiting was that demolition work had already begun, and the flag was so close to the edge that we feared it would fall into the smoldering rubble pile below. They gave us permission to recover the flag if we could figure out a safe way to do so that did not interfere with ongoing work. We eventually persuaded a crane operator to hook a basket up to his crane and raise one of us close enough to grab the flag.
A look at some of Jones' photos shows what he encountered in New York:
(above) a damaged fire truck with the American flag hoisted high; (below) one of the now-famous bucket brigades at ground zero.
Panteleo had been working tirelessly with mortuary affairs doing body recovery and in the refrigeration truck helping the pronouncing doctors. The refrigeration truck was the worst experience because those working in the truck had to view every body and every body part that came out of the building. The major was great at organizing recovery operations, communicating with fire department and law enforcement agencies, and looking after the rescue workers. He helped arrange for President Bush to come over and speak with a few of us. This meant a lot to us because we were scared, exhausted, and feeling overwhelmed. The words of the President and members of his cabinet did wonders to lift our spirits, and it helped give us the strength and courage to continue with the recovery operation. Panteleo was especially touched to see his flag still standing, and Braman and I agreed that since he was a Marine, he should have the honor of recovering his flag. We helped him into the basket, handed him some tools we had rounded up, and wished him luck. He got the flag, and we took turns carrying it up the hill to Marine headquarters, where we relinquished it to the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael Williams. I was particularly impressed by the way Panteleo and Braman handled themselves while delivering the flag. They respectfully declined media interviews, and they had no interest in anything other than getting the flag safely to headquarters. Growing up in a military familymy grandfather is one of the original Tuskegee Airmen and my father is a retired Air Force ColonelI have always respected and appreciated our military. Now I had a new respect for the women and men who serve our country so proudly. Panteleo and Braman are truly fine military men, and I am honored to have shared such a significant experience with them by rescuing our countrys flag.
What none of us had counted on was the effect that recovering that flag would have on people, especially the hundreds of rescue personnel, firefighters, law enforcement officers, military personnel, construction workers, politicians, and civilians at the site. I cannot speak for anyone else, but what I know is that before we got that flag, all I felt was disappointment, grief, and despair, and after we got the flag I felt a sense of pride, determination, and, most importantly, hope. If a piece of cloth could survive, perhaps we would as well.
The following morning, Sept.14, recovery operations were once again put on hold due to structural integrity concerns. By now the brief euphoria from recovering the flag had been replaced by the renewed realization that this was definitely no longer a search and rescue operation. I left the Pentagon disturbed but somehow confident that our country would be all right. I had great faith and confidence in President Bush and his cabinet, and I felt that our nation had competent leaders at the helm. I decided to finally go home and get some much-needed sleep.
This proved impossible except for a few brief naps, as my mind just would not release me into the arms of the deep-sleep fairy. The images were still too fresh and vivid. I awoke to the ringing of a firefighter friend, calling to tell me about the front page of The Washington Post. Apparently he recognized our picture with the flag, and was calling to make sure I was all right. He was also calling to ask if I wanted to join a group of firefighters going to New York to help relieve the exhausted New York Fire Department men and women who had been working and searching around the clock. Though I felt relief that we were able to pull a few people out within the first few minutes of the attack, I was still very disappointed that there were not more survivors at the Pentagon. In New York, I thought there was still a good chance of finding survivors, and I really wanted to be a part of finding someone alive. Therefore, I didnt need much convincing.
Because of Jones heroic efforts he was selected as one of two torchbearers who participated in the Olympic tradition in Washington at the White House with President Bush.
New York was a completely different scene. I had yet to see any television footage, so my first glimpse of the devastation was while driving across the George Washington Bridge. The cloud of smoke was so massive it could be seen for miles away. Driving to the site, rescue workers drove down streets lined with hundreds of people holding signs, handing out bananas and drinks, and basically just saying thanks. This helped give us the strength and courage necessary for what we were entering. Indeed, the strength and spirit of New Yorkers was incredible.
Again, words cannot describe the scene, but the word that comes closest is wasteland. Complete and total wasteland. Having not seen any footage of the collapsed towers, I was not really ready for what we saw. I would later realize that even had I seen such images, I still would not have been prepared, because even photographs cannot convey the magnitude of the destruction.
We reported to the search and rescue command and they told us to just join one of the bucket brigades. This involved hundreds of people, mostly FDNY firefighters, NYPD officers, and volunteers from around the country. Seeing people from all different backgrounds working together for a common cause was truly uplifting. Here, there was no such thing as race, religion, political, or sexual preference. It was purely one American, passing a bucket down a line to help find other Americans.
The night of Sept. 15 is perhaps one that causes the widest array of emotions for me. On this night, we had found a fire truck buried under tons of debris. It took hours to remove all of the rubble that had come crashing violently onto it, destroying the truck and killing its occupants. This was the most horrible sight I had seen because it was feared that so many firefighters had been near the truck when the building collapsed. There were approximately 50 people digging out and around the truck, but hardly anyone spoke. I am sure that many people wanted to cry, but no one did. There was a huge, twisted steel beam protruding over the fire truck. Sitting on top of that beam, silently observing the recovery operations below, was a New York Fire Department battalion chief. The saddest thing I have seen in my 25 years was the look on the face of that chief, and he stood silently, solemnly sentinel over his truck, as literally hundreds of his firefighters dug on their hands and knees for probably hundreds of his firefighters buried beneath him. Behind him was an American flag that had also been buried in the rubble but was still intact. Behind that was smoke rising from a smoldering fire, lighting up the otherwise pitch-black sky.
Time became irrelevant as the days turned into a continuous loop of dig, eat, rest, dig, eat, and rest. The time came when the general consensus was that it had been so many days that the chances of anyone still being alive were virtually nonexistent. This was a very hard pill for people to swallow, and it was at that point that I decided to leave. I spent a day just walking around the outskirts and surrounding buildings, trying once more to comprehend the scope of the devastation; it is something I have yet to fully realize.
While walking away from ground zero, I noticed several more moving acts of kindness, and a Red Cross worker lifted our spirits when she told us that even though we had not found any survivors, we had still succeeded in our mission. By finding bodies, and preserving the victims dignity, she said, we made it possible for families to properly bury their loved ones and say goodbye. Finally, on the roads leading away from the site, were the hundreds of people with their thank you signs and bananas, cheering and waving to the solemn-faced workers, doing what they could to help out.
My memories from those two weeks are composed of extremes. I witnessed life among death, goodness in the face of evil, hope surrounded by tremendous despair, faith through disbelief, and beauty standing stubbornly defiant among total destruction. But what impressed and simultaneously confused me the most was the dichotomy between goodness and evil. Perhaps one day I will understand how it is possible for human beings to be capable of such evil and hate yet also such incredible love and kindness.
In the time since Sept. 11, I have had a chance to reflect on what our country has endured. I will never again forget the sacrifices so many have made to defend and protect our colors. Our countrys leadership, and the incredible strength and spirit of my fellow Americans, make me certain that we will rebuild bigger and better, and that we will eventually triumph over terror.
Jones is congratulated in July upon receiving the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal of Valor, one of the highest honors awarded by the Department of Defense.
These attacks were about symbolism. Those who hate America thought that by destroying symbols of our prosperity and symbols of our strength, they could cripple our nation. But what they failed to realize is that America and patriotism were not founded on steel and concrete. The symbols that are the fundamental life-blood of our country withstood their attacks. Our sense of patriotism became even greater as our nation rallied. Our flagssymbols of our pride, honor, and freedomcontinue to fly not only at the Pentagon and in New York, but also on peoples cars and homes. Most importantly, our sense of national unity and our determination to prevail have never been stronger.
Those who would have us destroyed can crash our planes, destroy our buildings, and even take our lives. But they will never win, because there is nothing they can do that will weaken our combined spirit. They cannot take from us the things that make us truly a great nation: our pride, our determination, our resolve, and our love for this great country.
For no matter what befalls us, together we will stand, stubbornly defiant, saving our tears for until after the war.
Eric M. Jones, 26, received his BS degree in 1998 from The George Washington Universitys School of Medicine & Health Sciences. He also is a graduate student in public health; ultimately he wants to go to medical school to become a trauma surgeon.
His undergraduate major, Emergency Medical Services, and his work as a volunteer firefighter with the Prince Georges Fire Department suited him ideally to act quickly and decisively as he drove by a devastated Pentagon that bright Tuesday morning in Sept. 2001. The courage to act, though, came from deep within him. Eric has asked us to dedicate his memoir to all of his partners in the rescue effort, and so we doand to Eric himself, for he is our hero.
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