hero narrates horror of N.Y. mission
Eagle photo/Stuart Villanueva
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.
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 forces 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 citys 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 nations 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 Donohos story, as told to Eagle staff writer John
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 wed leave out that day. We really did. We thought
wed be leaving on Sept. 11, either going to the Pentagon or
going to New York City. We didnt 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 werent leaving on the 11th, surely
wed 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 cant tell you, pictures cant tell you, all
the video footage in the world cant tell you. Standing there,
youd 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 cant recognize what it is, thats 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 didnt look like we made a dent
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 hadnt
turned it from a rescue mission into a recovery mission. Everybody
was still in rescue mode.
It was a rescue mission, and thats what we were told by our
leadership group the whole time we were there. But for the trained
individuals on the team it wasnt 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 didnt go all the way below
ground, that there would be people down there. Unfortunately, there
werent. 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 dont 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. Thats a lot of what we were focusing
on. Its unfortunate that so many people just werent
found. There just wasnt 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
youd think there would be humans and there were indications
that, yes, there should be humans, but there was nothing there.
If youve squished a bug and rubbed that bug long enough, theres
nothing there. The dogs would hit on a spot and youd find
damp spots. Then you would think, if we keep digging in this area
well find something. And we would dig and we would dig and
dig and dig, and you wouldnt find anything. There was just
nothing to find. Youd think about the people on the upper
floors who got drenched with burning jet fuel. And theres
nothing to find.
We saw some terrible things. But it wasnt just so overwhelming
that its all you could see around you. It just wasnt
like that. We saw body parts, we saw death. It was all around you,
and you could smell it, but you couldnt 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. Wed
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 wasnt so overwhelming that you were
just stepping over body parts. It wasnt 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 everybodys mind is this was very
unsafe people shouldnt 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 dont 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 werent 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. Youve 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
We worked from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Around 6:30 every morning, I started
filling my pockets with concrete. Im 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 Ill have a piece in there.
I just havent done it yet.
Im 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. Im just one of many. It was something
Im 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, were going to New York to help
do you want to go? I think everybody in the nation wouldve
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 didnt
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 didnt
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 werent part of seeing it happen.
I guess we just didnt realize the amount of support for folks
like us. We just felt like this was another deployment. Not like
weve been on a bunch of them, because we havent. We
just felt like it was a job that wed 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, Were
glad youre here. Every night as we got ready to go,
thered 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 cant say its 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 were supposed to be ready to go all the time. Part
of that was a chore, and thats 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. Thats just something were
trained to do. For those of us in emergency services I dont
mean for this to sound trivial ground zero was another response.
Still, its something thats with you all the time. It
doesnt take much something will trigger a response
and Ill 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
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 Im thinking about my next assignment. If theres
a dead armadillo in the yard that the dogs have killed, and I pick
that armadillo up and get a whiff, and its right back. Theres
a certain smell when you heat metal, or just seeing a cutting torch.
It just kinda takes you back.
I dont 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 whos 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? Whos feeding their families? Theres
3,000 people who didnt go home for the holidays. Thousands
and thousands of people were affected by this event, and thats
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,
Ive got a video clip that shows them bringing the baskets
out with the body in it.
Thats really as bad it gets for me. There were a couple of
instances where I saw stuff that I wish I wouldnt 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 dont have to mow my
grass. Ive 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 its not something that we expected and its almost
a little uncomfortable. If you asked everyone who went up there,
I dont think anybody thinks that were heroes. Thats
an uncomfortable title. I dont like that title. I tell people
all the time, were just ordinary people who are sometimes
called upon to do extraordinary things. Because of the training
and positions in the organizations we work for, thats what
we do. We dont want to be idolized for that. There are people
who have to do this. Im very proud of what I do, and when
something happens I want to help, but we dont do it for the
recognition. I think I speak for just about anybody on the task
force when I say that. Thats a heavy burden to carry when
people think youre special. We didnt do anything spectacular.
We just did the best job we could.
About tomorrow ...
Since Ive 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 dont mind talking to people about it.
In fact, its 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. Its their little
attachment to it Tell me what you did when you were
in New York. Im not going to go into long stories with
them, but Ill tell them Im proud to have gone, and it
was a great group who went, and weve got a great community.
I like being a community helper, and now I feel like Im on
the front line against terrorism. If an attack happens again, Ill
be disappointed if I dont get to go. My biggest fear would
be dealing with bioterrorism. Those things would really concern
me. But if I felt adequately prepared, Id be the first in
line to go. My wife might hit me in the head.
I dont think its been an overwhelming life-changing
experience. I think about things a little bit more, like whats
important. The day-to-day stresses of life dont bother me
so much. One thing I like to see and Ive seen this
in the fire department and also the task force since weve
had some swift-water rescue deployments in the San Antonio area
Ive heard people say, Lets stop and say
a prayer. And when its appropriate to stop and say a
prayer, thats what a lot of guys are doing. I think thats
important. Im not a real religious guy, and maybe thats
one of the subtle changes that I dont even recognize. I do
go to church and Im 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. Thats
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. Its just one of those events thats
with you forever. Because of the magnitude of this event and the
number of people involved, its kinda like, where were you
when the world stopped turning?
John LeBas e-mail address is