PORTLAND, Ore. — In the immediate wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the rubble left behind by the collapse of the twin World Trade Center towers — soon dubbed "Ground Zero" — quickly became a search, rescue, and clean-up operation of historic proportions.
Mike Lohrey and Mike Ferris were at that time both living in Oregon and working for the US Forest Service. Lohrey was incident commander and Ferris public information officer for the PNW National Interagency Incident Management Team 2.
This team, a Type 1 team, is the sort most qualified to manage major disasters anywhere in the US. In our part of the world, that's most likely to mean a major wildfire. But after 9/11, Lohrey and Ferris soon learned that they would be headed to New York City in order to take part in the efforts at Ground Zero.
"There was a lot of excitement, but also on my behalf, there was quite a bit of apprehension and anxiety because I really wasn't sure what I was walking into," said Ferris. "It was rather intimidating, also, to think that we were going to be part of something that was so massive, and had just occurred . . . and of course the country itself was still in a lot of shock."
"It was an honor to serve, a privilege, because I know every other incident commander wanted to be there to do that very first day," said Lohrey.
Lohrey described it as a strange experience. Ordinarily, an incident management team would take command of an entire disaster, like a wildfire, and lead the response. But the task in Manhattan was so huge that his Team 2 was just one component of a highly complex machine.
Twenty years is no short amount of time, but both Mikes said that there are particular things about Ground Zero they will never forget.
"Walking out onto the site was memorable. I'll probably never be able to get the images nor the smell out of my mind, out of my head. The smell especially was pretty ominous," said Ferris. "It had a very electrical, burning . . . heavy metallic odor to it and you know — nothing that I had ever smelled in my life could I describe it or compare it to, it was very unique."
"My first impression was that . . . looking at pictures, looking at TV screens, does not do the site justice," Lohrey said. "The smell, and just the dust . . . "
Lohrey recalled that, well after the towers fell, there were fires burning incredibly hot deep beneath the rubble. Firefighters dumped everything that they possibly could into the ruins, to no avail. He said that he thought to himself "we're gonna be here for years," meaning that the clean-up operation would take that long. But he was ultimately surprised at how quickly the work went.
"You're running on adrenaline the whole time you're there, and you just . . . go," Lohrey said. "You get back, there's still a lot of that adrenaline rushing — you don't have time to really digest what it was that you were doing and where you were. And I didn't realize the emotional toll that it took on everyone who was there until, you know, two or three months after the assignment."
New York City at that time was like a city prepared for war, Lohrey said, as people scarred by the horror of the World Trade Center attacks braced for the potential of more to come.
Team 2's primary mission in New York was to sort out the supply chain for the recovery and clean-up operation at Ground Zero. Ferris said that they discovered upon arrival that supplies of all kinds were being crammed haphazardly into a warehouse up the road from the site.
"It was just packed with stuff. You can say something and it was in that room — whether it was dog food, or diapers, or caskets, or food, or blankets," Ferris said.
They worked to organize the warehouse and then set up distribution points for crews working in the rubble. Once that was done, they could get personal protective equipment (PPE), tools, and body bags to the people who needed them.
"We knew when there was a call to us at the warehouse for body bags and flags, that was indicative of something that was going on at the pile — that they had recovered a body or remains of someone," Ferris said. "So that was also kind of hard to witness when that was going on, because everybody would stop and there would be that respect shown for that individual who was being removed from the site."
The 9/11 attacks and the resulting emergency response has forever changed emergency management in the US, Lohrey said. The incident management system that his team already employed became much more prevalent across the country because of the work they did, ensuring that agencies like the New York Fire Department could take produce their own command structure if disaster were to strike again.