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September 11, 2002

Reluctant hero narrates horror of N.Y. mission

Eagle photo/Stuart Villanueva

Interim Bryan Fire Department Chief Mike Donoho displays
the type of air filtration mask he and other members of Texas
Task Force 1 wore at ground zero last year.

Within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks, Texas Task Force 1 was called to action. The elite urban search and rescue team, which is based in College Station, arrived in New York City a week later to join the desperate hunt for survivors.

Interim Bryan Fire Department Chief Mike Donoho was one of those sent to “ground zero,” as the World Trade Center site quickly became known.

Donoho, a member of the task force’s blue team, worked in 12-hour shifts at ground zero alongside fellow rescuers. They sliced apart massive steel beams and sifted though compacted rubbish, surrounded by death and devastation. They risked life and limb navigating the unstable heap of broken building material, the tragic remains of the two 110-story towers that once dominated the city’s skyline.

During their one-week rotation, the 72 task force members sent to New York found no survivors — only remains of some of the 2,801 people believed to have perished.

A year later, Donoho remains characteristically candid as he talks about taking part in the nation’s biggest emergency response effort. The veteran firefighter now finds that the most mundane objects can trigger memories of his days at ground zero. His personal outlook changed in subtle ways; his role as an emergency responder has shifted more dramatically since Sept. 11.

Here is Donoho’s story, as told to Eagle staff writer John LeBas:

The initial wait

I feel like I was on a 14- to 16-day roller coaster ride. It started on the morning of Sept. 11 when the attacks happened. Right away we got a feeling that, quite possibly, we were gonna go do something.

We thought we’d leave out that day. We really did. We thought we’d be leaving on Sept. 11, either going to the Pentagon or going to New York City. We didn’t find out for a couple of days that we were in the second wave of task forces going to New York City. We assumed if we weren’t leaving on the 11th, surely we’d leave on the 12th or the 13th. Well, it ended up being a week after the attacks.

It was the largest emergency response in the history of the nation, and to be a part of that — as heart-wrenching as it was — it was a privilege.

We saw so much. The first night we went down to ground zero — getting there and seeing the tragedy first-hand and the magnitude of it was just overwhelming. Before they ever let us do our first job, they required us to walk around the exterior perimeter of ground zero, and that took us almost two hours. It was just a sense of awe and it was so surreal. It was hard to comprehend all that we were seeing. It was just hard to put it all together. The amount of devastation, and knowing how it happened, and seeing the end result first-hand, in person, was just overwhelming.

We tried to prepare ourselves as best we could. We talked about what we were going to be up against. We had a chaplain with us. We did a lot of praying. But again, I think everyone was overwhelmed at that first sight. Not having been to New York City before, it was hard to imagine what it looked like before this. I wish I could put you in my eyes so you could see what I saw and smell what I smelled. I can’t tell you, pictures can’t tell you, all the video footage in the world can’t tell you. Standing there, you’d look all around you and see eight to 10 city blocks of devastation and a debris pile that covered almost 20 acres, eight to 10 stories high.

The fires were still burning, and there was a tremendous amount of heat and smoke. The dust was everywhere, still that choking dust everywhere. The smells — again, we were there a week after the fact, so there were some decaying smells that were pretty prevalent. Everything had its own unique odor. The smell coming off the heat being generated by the fires underneath the steel. The decay. Everything had a unique smell.

Scope of destruction

Everything had its own look. In the area surrounding what was the two twin towers, there were several buildings still standing that were burned from top to bottom, and some of them were damaged by the collapse. But the two towers — they were 110-story buildings. And there was nothing that you could put your hands on that resembled anything that would tell you this once was two 110-story office buildings. What you had were large columns of steel that were just stuck into massive amounts of molten steel and other metals, that had just fused together from the heat and bonded together from the strength of the collapse.

We dug and we dug and we dug, and we cut and we cut and we cut, and we did not see anything that resembled any type of furniture, any type of personal belongings. We found some pieces of things like a telephone, things like that. I think we found credit cards a few times, and we found a couple of stuffed animals. But you would expect to see, like, a bunch of desks, a bunch of chairs. The only way I can explain it is, if you take a car and put it in one of those machines where they crush it and make it look like a cube, and you can’t recognize what it is, that’s what the whole area looked like. It looked like a massive, molten mess that had been fused together, like a car that had been cubed and crushed.

With all that heavy, heavy stuff, there were wires, rebar, concrete. Most of it was just steel. A lot of what we were walking on was just molten steel. We did nine or 10 rotations on the pile — I lose count — and the days we were there, I saw truckload after truckload after truckload of massive amounts of steel debris being carried away. But it didn’t look like we made a dent at all.

We were physically and emotionally exhausted. Everything we did was difficult. Our sleep cycles were flipped upside down, for those of us who had to work the night shift. We were dealing with an overwhelming sense of urgency the whole time. There were no survivors — I think we arrived three days after the last survivor was pulled out. But that sense of urgency — to continue to look, to continue to hope, to hope to find someone alive — was there. They hadn’t turned it from a rescue mission into a recovery mission. Everybody was still in rescue mode.

It was a rescue mission, and that’s what we were told by our leadership group the whole time we were there. But for the trained individuals on the team — it wasn’t something you would talk about or say, but I think everybody realized that there was no one alive.

The hope was that maybe someone somehow survived in the seven floors underneath the World Trade Center, where the subway tunnels and the shops are. That the collapse didn’t go all the way below ground, that there would be people down there. Unfortunately, there weren’t. But a lot of people escaped and got out of that area before the collapse.

Magnitude of loss

When we left College Station, we were thinking upwards of 10,000 people died. That was the number being thrown around, based on the numbers of people who worked not only in the World Trade Center towers, but in the complex and that area. The potential was there for 50,000-plus people to be in that area. You never can really pinpoint the number of people who were actually there and safely got out. A lot of people got out of there.

You don’t have a sense of numbers. You just have a sense of helping, of caring, of wanting to do something to help either a potential live victim, or to get a deceased person out and return them to their families. That’s a lot of what we were focusing on. It’s unfortunate that so many people just weren’t found. There just wasn’t anything to find because of the magnitude of this event, with the heat from the burning jet fuel, from the strength of the collapse. No human could survive that. And there were people who were smashed. Occasionally we would find areas where you’d think there would be humans and there were indications that, yes, there should be humans, but there was nothing there.

If you’ve squished a bug and rubbed that bug long enough, there’s nothing there. The dogs would hit on a spot and you’d find damp spots. Then you would think, if we keep digging in this area we’ll find something. And we would dig and we would dig and dig and dig, and you wouldn’t find anything. There was just nothing to find. You’d think about the people on the upper floors who got drenched with burning jet fuel. And there’s nothing to find.

We saw some terrible things. But it wasn’t just so overwhelming that it’s all you could see around you. It just wasn’t like that. We saw body parts, we saw death. It was all around you, and you could smell it, but you couldn’t see it because there was nothing there.

As we worked in a concentrated area, we would crawl up onto the piles, we would crawl down in the massive voids created by the twisted steel, and we would begin to cut the very large beams. We’d cut with cutting torches, and then a grappler truck would come in and start moving those big beams, and we would dig deeper and deeper. A lot of times when the grapplers would move something, there would be something under there that was recognizable as a human part or something like that. We would stop, they would get bagged and tagged, and we would dig in that area looking for more. That was going on all around you. But it wasn’t so overwhelming that you were just stepping over body parts. It wasn’t like that at all.

Elements of disaster

The first night we went down to ground zero and saw the devastation, the first thought in almost everybody’s mind is this was very unsafe — people shouldn’t be up there. But I am not exaggerating when I say there were thousands of people on that pile. It looked like fire ants swarming. I don’t know if the safety officers made a conscious decision to change that. But as we went down the second night, it seemed as though there weren’t as many people, and it was a more coordinated effort in certain sections.

They had engineers looking at the pile all the time, measuring the movement. Of course, as you moved certain portions of the debris pile, it would shift and change. It was constantly being monitored. They were constantly monitoring the air in the area. They were measuring for asbestos levels, silica levels, Freon levels, all those things. The buildings were built in the 1960s, so there was asbestos inside. When concrete disintegrates, it makes silica, which is another dangerous substance. You’ve got Freon gases from the heating and air conditioning units, and all the other gases created from the burning. We were working in a contaminated atmosphere. We wore full-face respirators the whole time we were on the pile, which was somewhat uncomfortable.

We worked from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Around 6:30 every morning, I started filling my pockets with concrete. I’m not sure we were supposed to do that, but everybody up and down this hallway in the fire station has got a piece of the World Trade Center. My brother-in-law is going to make me a shadow box and I’ll have a piece in there. I just haven’t done it yet.

I’m honored to be a part of the task force and especially want to acknowledge those from the Bryan-College Station area who responded and continued to respond. I’m just one of many. It was something I’m very proud that I got to go do, and I almost feel like it was an honor to help out. If somebody walked up to a group of people and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to New York to help — do you want to go? I think everybody in the nation would’ve said yes. We just happened to be a group that was trained to do something like that and got to go help.

The whole time we were there it was like being in a vacuum. We didn’t get to see a whole lot of news or anything like that. There were some TVs set up in the area where we were staying, but we didn’t have a whole lot of time to focus on that kind of stuff.

The amazing thing to me is all the changes throughout the country, in the way that there were patriotic banners and signs up. It all happened so quickly that we weren’t part of seeing it happen. I guess we just didn’t realize the amount of support for folks like us. We just felt like this was another deployment. Not like we’ve been on a bunch of them, because we haven’t. We just felt like it was a job that we’d done.

We got the feeling that there was this tremendous amount of attention being brought to us from the state of Texas, from our families, from the communities that we work and live in. While we were there, we did receive e-mails that were posted on a bulletin board everyday, and the e-mails were fantastic. They were from our friends, from our families, from our co-workers, and they were really inspirational. There was just hundreds of them. That kept us going. We were tired, we were emotionally drained.

Every morning, when we came out of the ground zero site, the streets were lined with hundreds of people with flags and banners and posters. “Thank you,” “God bless you,” “We’re glad you’re here.” Every night as we got ready to go, there’d be a mob of people. It was just odd. I wish I could go back and relive it again so I could pay more attention to what was going on around me. I can’t say it’s like being in a dream. It was just a strange feeling, from the time we left to the time we got back.

The return home

It was Sept. 26 when we got back. It was maybe just a couple of days before I went back to work. The first thing we had to do when we got back is ready our equipment in case we had to go out again. Everything has to be restocked, everything has to be cleaned, all the portable motors have to be checked. It all has to be reloaded, because we’re supposed to be ready to go all the time. Part of that was a chore, and that’s not something we all had to participate in — they had backup crews to take care of that. But you had to go home and get yourself ready. And you had to get your personal equipment ready. That’s just something we’re trained to do. For those of us in emergency services — I don’t mean for this to sound trivial — ground zero was another response.

Still, it’s something that’s with you all the time. It doesn’t take much — something will trigger a response and I’ll go right back. Something as simple as a plastic 5-gallon bucket. We used them for everything. We used them for bucket brigades. If you took a break, you sat on a bucket. If you were carrying tools, you carried them in a bucket. If you found something, you put it in a bucket. So when I got home, just something as simple as picking up a 5-gallon bucket to wash your vehicle, boom, you start thinking about it.

They had a barbecue out here the other day and they had this big white tent and tables set up. I went there and sat down, and boom, I was right back in New York, because that was how they had it set up at the convention center parking lot where we were staying. All of a sudden I’m thinking about my next assignment. If there’s a dead armadillo in the yard that the dogs have killed, and I pick that armadillo up and get a whiff, and it’s right back. There’s a certain smell when you heat metal, or just seeing a cutting torch. It just kinda takes you back.

I don’t think about the bad things. I just think about being there. Sometimes I think about people that I met there, some of the New York City firefighters that we came into contact with. I met a lady who’s an author, and she was doing a lot of sketching. She was going to try to put something together, some kind of book. She was there at the convention center, helping out, serving food, and she interviewed a bunch of us. And I think about what she ever did with her project. A group drove up from somewhere in Texas and cooked barbecue for us in the parking lot, just to give us a taste of home. Blue Bell flew ice cream up to us so the guys from Texas could have Blue Bell ice cream. Those are the things I think about.

Worry about others

October, November, December, January — those months were pretty tough. It was on my mind constantly. What was on my mind the most was, how devastating it must be to all the families that lost someone, how many people were affected by this. You think about those two 110-story buildings, all the little cubicles and people who worked there, and you take those away. You take away the other buildings in that area. Where are those people working? Are they bringing home a paycheck? Who’s feeding their families? There’s 3,000 people who didn’t go home for the holidays. Thousands and thousands of people were affected by this event, and that’s what I thought about during those months. February, March, April, May — probably not as much. June, July — probably not a whole lot. Come now, August, September — people have questions, the news stories, that brings it all back.

I very rarely think about the bad things. There were just a couple of instances that were real emotional. One night we dug and dug and dug for probably nine hours straight. And we knew that underneath the beam were two New York City firefighters. We finally got to the point where the bodies could be removed. Once we got to that point, the members of Texas Task Force 1 came down off the pile, and members of the New York City Fire Department — their shift mates — went up and removed those guys. We took our hats off and all did a salute. And there was a rabbi and a priest out there giving last rites. That was real emotional. Because we knew that they were two firefighters, and we had worked for a long, long time to help get them out. I think about that occasionally. In fact, I’ve got a video clip that shows them bringing the baskets out with the body in it.

That’s really as bad it gets for me. There were a couple of instances where I saw stuff that I wish I wouldn’t have seen, but I saw it. You just kinda deal with it.

There were three members of the Bryan Fire Department who went, and about a dozen community-wide who went. The support we had when we came home was incredible. They had a huge reception for Texas Task Force 1 when we got back to Austin, another one when we got to College Station. I found out while I was gone that the guys here went and mowed my grass for me, called and checked on my wife everyday to make sure she was OK. You know, they don’t have to mow my grass. I’ve got a big place, too. But they took care of it. My parents came up, stuff like that. It was neat to feel like people were treating us special.

But it’s not something that we expected and it’s almost a little uncomfortable. If you asked everyone who went up there, I don’t think anybody thinks that we’re heroes. That’s an uncomfortable title. I don’t like that title. I tell people all the time, we’re just ordinary people who are sometimes called upon to do extraordinary things. Because of the training and positions in the organizations we work for, that’s what we do. We don’t want to be idolized for that. There are people who have to do this. I’m very proud of what I do, and when something happens I want to help, but we don’t do it for the recognition. I think I speak for just about anybody on the task force when I say that. That’s a heavy burden to carry when people think you’re special. We didn’t do anything spectacular. We just did the best job we could.

About tomorrow ...

Since I’ve been back, I traveled around the state of Texas and presented a program on 9-11 to several different groups. I did some interviews while I was in New York, and TV programs and newspapers have contacted me. I don’t mind talking to people about it. In fact, it’s kinda therapeutic. We still have a small town, so if I go somewhere in town somebody will recognize me and, of course, they want to know something about it. It’s their little attachment to it — “Tell me what you did when you were in New York.” I’m not going to go into long stories with them, but I’ll tell them I’m proud to have gone, and it was a great group who went, and we’ve got a great community.

I like being a community helper, and now I feel like I’m on the front line against terrorism. If an attack happens again, I’ll be disappointed if I don’t get to go. My biggest fear would be dealing with bioterrorism. Those things would really concern me. But if I felt adequately prepared, I’d be the first in line to go. My wife might hit me in the head.

I don’t think it’s been an overwhelming life-changing experience. I think about things a little bit more, like what’s important. The day-to-day stresses of life don’t bother me so much. One thing I like to see — and I’ve seen this in the fire department and also the task force since we’ve had some swift-water rescue deployments in the San Antonio area — I’ve heard people say, “Let’s stop and say a prayer.” And when it’s appropriate to stop and say a prayer, that’s what a lot of guys are doing. I think that’s important. I’m not a real religious guy, and maybe that’s one of the subtle changes that I don’t even recognize. I do go to church and I’m not real outspoken about it, but I do appreciate what I have and I appreciate my beliefs.

There are events in your life that will stay with you forever. That’s just human nature. Those people who were at Pearl Harbor, survivors of the Titanic, people in the Vietnam War, World War II, they never forget those things. It’s just one of those events that’s with you forever. Because of the magnitude of this event and the number of people involved, it’s kinda like, where were you when the world stopped turning?

• John LeBas’ e-mail address is jlebas@theeagle.com.

The Bryan - College Station Eagle

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