USAR Team Member at the World Trade Center

Interview with Firefighter/EMT Kathleen Barton

I am a volunteer firefighter/EMT with the Hillcrest Volunteer Fire Department in Half Moon, New York, and also a member and the EMS coordinator of the G.E. Silicones Brigade in Waterford. I've been with GE for eight years and with Hillcrest for four. I have also volunteered with the Malta Ambulance Corps since 1972 as a paramedic.

I am a member of New York Regional Response Team 1 (NYRRT-1), which is the Capital District's Urban Technical Search & Rescue Team. It is based on the FEMA model, but it's not a FEMA USAR team. It was formed because of Ray Downey, who felt there was a need for additional resources and encouraged the governor to create it. The team was formed in 1995, and personnel from the FDNY did the training. I joined in September of 1997; there are about seven women on the team, which currently has around 130 members. (There has been a huge increase in interest since September 11, and the team's size has grown.)

The team was activated between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. on September 11. We left Albany in the early afternoon, and were at the staging area at Yonkers Raceway by 3:00 p.m. The team as a unit stayed at the scene for weeks, rotating fresh personnel in on four-day schedules. I was there from September 11-15 and then again from September 22-26.

My husband, who is a state park police officer, called me at work that morning and said, "A plane just hit the World Trade Center." I kind of blew him off, thinking, well, a plane hit the Empire State Building a few years ago. But I turned on the TV and a few minutes later, the second plane hit. Then when the first building went down, I knew we would be going.

We carry pagers, and around 10 o'clock we got the page that said "You've been activated for possible deployment to the World Trade Center." They told us to expect to be gone for at least 72 hours, which is what we're tasked for. We're different from the FEMA teams, in that we're supposed to be a regional first-response team that deals with the situation while FEMA is getting their teams deployed. But once we were on the scene in New York, they wanted to keep us, because they knew us -- they had trained us

We got to the World Trade Center that evening, probably around 7 p.m., though I really lost track of time. We were set up right next to the northern FDNY command post on the West Side Highway.

Despite all the media coverage, my first response in seeing the site was disbelief. And to this day, the thing that sticks in my mind the most is the papers. That just amazes me. There was paper just everywhere. We didn't find any desks, or file cabinets, or anything like that, but all these papers survived. Everything else just got crushed and burnt, while the papers blew out the windows.

What also struck me was the smoke and other stuff in the air. I have a couple of pictures taken the second night, and you can still see the stuff in the air. The dust was still there, plus all the smoke from the fires.

When we first got there, for the first 12-18 hours, things were still were pretty disorganized. They called for some of our tools, and for people to work with cutting torches. At that point, those phenomenal people from the ironworkers were just starting to get there, and didn't have their equipment yet. They were just amazing. I don't know where they came from; they just kind of appeared.

We were waiting to meet up with the people who were supposed to escort us down, and I was sitting in our little ambulance/emergency command center. I looked at the street corner, and there was a homeless guy with his little shopping cart. He had a blue tarp stretched between it and a light pole, and a little color television wired into the light pole. He and his dog were sitting there watching it. And I thought, "This guy knows what's going on, and we don't."

For the first 24 hours, I was pretty much responsible for the medical monitoring of our team. We stayed at the scene right through until the second night. We had brought our own sleeping bags, and we slept in the Verizon Building, with our equipment trailer parked right out front. There wasn't a lot of real sleeping; it was noisy, and a second wave of people from our team came down about 2 a.m.

As of Wednesday, September 12, we started doing 12-hour shifts. We were were involved in a lot of things that day, like setting up decon for our team. My boss from GE, Jerry, was with us as our hazmat advisor. Anybody who came off the pile had be brushed off and have his or her boots washed off -- the thinking was, these were unknown particles, and why take any chances? Jerry and GE just did great stuff there; we were lucky to have them.

I did a couple of entries onto the pile with the teams. Because I've taken a lot of training over the last several years, I'm multifunctional as a paramedic and a medical specialist, and can also function as a rescue specialist, am qualified to do void searches, etc. So I was doing that. I'm smaller than a lot of the guys and could get into some of the places they couldn't.

Going up on the pile, all I could think of was the last scene in Planet of the Apes, where you see just the top of the Statue of Liberty. That misty smoke and debris were surreal, unreal. When you were outside, on the perimeter, you could see places that weren't destroyed, but once you entered the pile, you were surrounded by total destruction.

We also have a lot of technical equipment -- cameras to look into voids, listening devices -- and we were using those. The first two days, we were really kind of hopeful that we were going to find people. There were people who got out alive after we arrived on the scene, though it would turn out they were the last ones.

We used the listening devices a bit right at the start, but mostly we used the search cameras. If they found someone from the FDNY, NYPD, or Port Authority police, they did the ritual covering the body with a flag and handing it down the line. Everyone would stop and take their hat off. That was one of the most emotional things.

We kept each other going. The FEMA team person on New York Task Force #1 would come around periodically and cheer us up, tell us to keep our chins up, make sure we were eating. Medical specialists like me would wander around eyeballing people, making sure they had their masks on.

The second night, we slept at a Salvation Army. By the third night, one of the team members whose mother works for a hotel chain got us hotel rooms in upper Manhattan. The people there were wonderful. They'd say things like, "Put your clothes out, we'll take them and wash them for you." I turned the TV on a couple of times, but every time I turned it on, I fell asleep.

The work was exhausting, physically as well as emotionally. I have short legs, so climbing around on beams and trying to go from one beam to another is very tiring. Most of the stuff we did was down, crawling down into voids. And lot of bucket brigade work.

I can't look at a bologna sandwich now. I'm not even sure it was bologna -- I think it was mystery meat, like you get in school. We also had beef jerky sent down from our area, and lots of bottled water to drink. People who I assume were residents of the area were making sandwiches in their own homes, bringing water to us from home. They needed to do something, and this was their way to contribute. In retrospect, it probably wasn't a good idea to take sandwiches, cakes, and cookies from these people. When we got thinking about it, we realized it could have been just a second wave of attacks.

It got to the point where it was almost embarrassing. When we left the area, it would be hundreds of people waving the flag and cheering and throwing bottled water and sandwiches and candy bars into the car at you. Or somebody would run up and stick a bunch of notes in the car: "We're glad you're here! You're our heroes!" And I was like, "You're talking to us?" You had to close your window so they wouldn't. You couldn't buy a beer anywhere in the city; they would just give it to you.

And the equipment on the scene: I couldn't imagine where it all materialized from. One time, we were sitting there and some higher-echelon guy pulled up and handed us 18 search cameras -- just gave them to us. They were brand new, still in the box. I have no idea where they came from. You'd walk down the street and the distributors from different tool companies would hand us things and ask, "Here, do you need these?"

We didn't really know Ray Downey was gone until probably a couple of days into it. At some point, somebody told us they had found his command car, and there wasn't any sign of him. Obviously they were still hopeful. I think people knew and didn't want to think it. Our team later produced a t-shirt (with the FDNY people's blessing) that we used for fundraising, with a list of the guys who were our instructors who were killed. There were six of them, including Downey. I think one of the reasons that what was left of the New York Task Force kept us there was because there was that personal connection.

When we got back the first time, it was mandatory to go to debriefing. We wouldn't get deployed again until we were debriefed. The second time, it was optional, if you felt you needed extra support.

People like me, who have a very strong fire-service oriented family, have that built in. I have support services I'm very thankful for. My dad had been chief of a volunteer fire department, and I went and talked to him. All of my brothers and sisters are in the fire service; one brother is a captain in Saratoga Springs. My husband is a cop. They understand. It all depended on whether you had close people who understood your feelings. So many rescue workers, their wives or husbands could care less -- that fire service stuff, so what?

When I came back on September 22, a lot of the debris was gone. I was absolutely amazed at the amount that had been taken away. The big cranes had come in, and they'd made a lot of progress. We developed a great rapport with the crane operators, and I swear those guys could pick a dime up off my hand. Some of these ironworkers and crane operator were the same ones who had put the building together. One crane operator came back after having been retired for about ten years. He said, "I had to come. This was my building. This was the last thing I did."

They were moving the big metal, and we were still finding a lot of body parts, turnout gear, helmets. And stuff was still burning, which meant when you did put the water on it, it would steam, and add to the smoke. But at least the other stuff wasn't floating around in the air. We had a body bag that was just labeled "Parts" and any time you got something you thought might be a body part, you put it in it.

I didn't think about whether it would be hard to go back, or whether I wanted to go back. I'm on the team, and that's what I do. This is my job, this is what I'm trained for. We didn't know then that we wouldn't be back for a third time -- whether there would be more. I never expected to get a paycheck for the days I was away from work. I didn't care. When the check came in the mail, I was shocked. That just wasn't my concern.

I did what I needed to do, and I would do it again if it happened again. I don't think this is over. We've been through the anthrax thing. We can't become complacent. We have to stay prepared. It's not going to be the same thing next time. It will be something different.

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