October 22, 2001
'Everything was gray'
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
In every direction as far as Lt. Kerry Langan could see, there was nothing but the color gray. It was several weeks ago and he stood on the site where the World Trade Center (WTC) once graced New York's skyline, now known as Ground Zero. "Everything was gray," he says. "Different shades of gray, but that was what the color was." The only time he saw a hint of color was when the skin of the building was cut off, exposing a red beam that had served as the support for the twin towers. "There wasn't one thing that wasn't gray, except a gold colored ball about six or eight feet across," he says. He doesn't know what purpose the gold ball had served or where it came from. But he does remember seeing a shining gold ball amidst twisted steel and crushed concrete. "Standing in the middle of the pile was unbelievable. I think the proper term is surreal. Just looking at it, it didn't make sense."
Langan also noticed how immense the 16-acre site seemed. "It took us well over an hour to try and walk around it," he says. "You're walking on debris, dust and everything else." He recalls how the air smelled, "The smell changes. There's a kind of a dirty dusty smell mixed with smoke to, in places, the smell of death."
Langan, along with fellow firefighter Ross Van Vactor, traveled to New York on Sept. 19 as part of the Puget Sound Urban Search and Rescue Team (US&R). Both men are with the Woodinville Fire and Life Safety District and volunteered to serve on the 62-member team, which consists of police officers, doctors, dog handlers, structural engineers and firefighters from surrounding departments. They were sent to Ground Zero to support the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) in the aftermath of the attack on the WTC complex.
US&R has provided search and rescue assistance in many disaster situations, including the Northridge earthquake, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Atlanta Olympics. It was established under the authority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1989 and is a framework for structuring local emergency services personnel into integrated disaster response task forces. The task forces are deployed by FEMA for the rescue of victims of structural collapse.
At Ground Zero, Langan searched for survivors and worked in the "bucket brigade." Van Vactor worked as logistics manager and coordinated the ordering of equipment.
Says Langan, "As a rescue squad, we were responsible for finding voids and determining if there were any survivors." He likened the rubble he crawled into to that of a giant steel wool pad compacted with dirt. "You can't fill all the holes and that's what we were going down into," he says. But before climbing through the voids, the task force had to cut a lot of steel that obstructed the way." You could hear the debris falling," says Langan. "It makes you very conscious of what's going on around you."
He never found survivors, only bodies. He sometimes found vehicles. "We found void spaces where cars were completely intact," he says and adds that in one void he found a dump truck flattened like a can in a trash compactor. In its crushed state, it supported part of the building above it.
Langan and Van Vactor worked 12-hour shifts for 10 days. Both were on the night shift and during the day they slept in a big room at their base of operation at the Jacob Javits Convention Center two miles away. Each day they rode a bus to Ground Zero. New Yorkers let them know their work was appreciated.
Says Van Vactor, "There were people on this corner who had signs of thanks and were cheering. Wherever we went, people would come up to you and express their appreciation." He says that on one occasion, the firefighters decided to grab a bite to eat at a restaurant instead of eating at their usual facility at the center. The men entered the restaurant in uniform and as soon as the patrons caught a glimpse of them, everyone stood up and applauded. "One patron ordered a round of wine for us," Van Vactor says.
Lt. Langan mentions his experience with New Yorkers, "There was always somebody saying thank you." A New Yorker asked me, 'How does the rest of the country feel about this?' The only answer I could give was, 'Anyone who wasn't a New Yorker, now is.'"
Both men were impressed with the thousands of rescue workers and firefighters who worked around the clock. "They'd work hard everyday," says Van Vactor. "I'd see them when they'd come off shift, they'd be tired and dirty. But I always said that with a little food and rest they'd be ready to go again. They didn't want to give up."
While Lt. Langan carried out his search of voids, firefighter Van Vactor made sure the search and rescue teams had equipment to do the work. He was responsible for procuring metal cutting tools and acetylene torches. "You name it, I tried to get it so they could do their job."
According to Van Vactor, their families at home had it tougher than they did. "It was harder on the folks back home just wondering about you. They were concerned. I speak of them as the 'forgotten heroes.'"
Lt. Langan agrees, "Everything we went through, spouses went through their own stresses too. It was more difficult for our spouses at home." He says that it isn't until now that he's begun to deal with his feelings about his deployment to New York and the enormous loss of life he witnessed. "As a general rule, our feelings were on hold. You can't be functional and thinking unless your emotions are on hold." He says that it has helped him to talk with other firefighters. "Basically, we talk to each other, talking through your feelings. Everyone is dealing with it differently."
Lt. Langan and Firefighter Van Vactor don't recognize themselves as heroes. They say they're only doing their job. Says Lt. Langan, "We work together as a team to get the job done whether we're at home at the fire station or out at a disaster as part of the US&R team."
But citizens in Woodinville may see it differently. Since the September 11 attack, citizens have been reminded that all firefighters are heroes as situations call them to place the safety and protection of others ahead of their own.