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HomeAt Home & BeyondThe Bucket Brigade

The Bucket Brigade

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by Erin Daly

It’s a little after 8 am on Tuesday. I am a Sergeant Court Officer in the lobby of one of the busiest courthouses in the country, Brooklyn Supreme Court. I am the uniformed supervisor on the front line, working the metal detectors, checking civilians, escorting attorneys, greeting the same employees and co-workers, like every other morning. An attorney is on the entry line listening to a transistor radio  and exclaims “a plane just hit the Twin Towers.”

I find a TV and see, with my fellow officers, the first tower, flames bursting from its side. As the 2nd plane strikes, it has become clear that we are under attack. We begin to take measures to lockdown the building. The courthouse is evacuated and secure. I go up to the roof. The brown smoke is billowing from the buildings across the East River.

I see with my own eyes the first tower collapsing. What the hell just happened?  Reports trickle in about the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. Right then, I knew that our world had forever changed.

From my vantage point, I see thousands of civilians scurrying across the Brooklyn  Bridge. We move to assist in evacuating lower Manhattan.

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At the base of the bridge, streams of dust-covered people surge towards me. A  medical triage tent is set up on the corner. I scan the masses, keeping people moving to clear the bridge from bottlenecking. Those with obvious injuries are assisted to the side to be evaluated by emergency medics. Many of the shocked and terrified crowd have no idea where they are or where to go. All cell service is down. They cannot alert worried loved ones that they are safe.

The entire subway system is offline. Buses are directed to the downtown Brooklyn area to assist in evacuations. People are just getting on random buses, not knowing where they are headed except away from Ground Zero.

I go home to Breezy Point and back on duty in downtown Brooklyn the next morning. Court is canceled on 9/12. Our captain recruits volunteers to assist in the search and rescue at the fallen towers. Our group of officers heads over together.  The streets are empty, dusty canyons. Giant shards of twisted metal reach from the ground amid smoldering piles of concrete.

We join the closest bucket brigade. It is impossible to know what corner or avenue we are on. Five-gallon pails containing concrete and rebar are being passed back from the front, with empty buckets moving forward in the line. When the whistle blows, everything stops. Everyone is quiet, intently listening for tapping or cries for help from air pockets below the rubble.

If a personal item is found, we hand it up to an official standing atop this pile. If a  body part is discovered, the line shuts down while the medical personnel bag, red tag, and document the find. The front of the line shifts, a new line begins just a few feet away. We work past dark. Any trapped survivors have yet to be found. Maybe tomorrow.

On duty outside the Brooklyn Courthouse the morning of 9/13, I notice a beat-up car parked illegally in the crosswalk near the Brooklyn Bridge. It just showed up,  hadn’t been there a few minutes prior. Whoever drove it there has vanished. The windows are open, screaming for attention. We approach the empty vehicle. There is an odd-shaped, black taped box in the passenger seat with Arabic writing and the numbers “911” scrolled across the top. The Brooklyn Bridge is again shut down and the bomb squad is called. This turns out to be a decoy, one of many designed to create more terror and chaos.

I went back to the bucket brigade later that day and continued working on the pile for the next several months. I was part of a squad of officers on special assignment to the NYC Office of Emergency Management. We never did find any survivors, just remnants of the many who died. I was there the day they found firefighter gear bearing the name of my friend, Richie Allen.

Of the 2977 killed, 412 were first responders, including 343 Firemen, 37 Port  Authority Police Officers, 23 New York City Police Officers, 8 Emergency  Medical Technicians, 1 NYC Fire Patrol Officer, and 3 Court Officers, my co-workers, Captain William Thompson, and fellow Sergeant Thomas Jurgens and Sergeant Mitchel Wallace. In the following months, I attended many funerals that had no body to bury.

Strangers called us heroes and we didn’t feel we deserved praise, it was part of our civic duty and the civil service job we signed up for. The outpouring of support from our fellow Americans all over this country was overwhelming. It kept us going and showed how united our great nation really is.

Many who responded to 9/11 have later been stricken with cancer and other illnesses due to inhaling the toxic dust and benzene at ground zero. I will never forget those smells of dirt, metal, and death rising from the rubble and consider myself so fortunate to continue to be healthy. There were no masks those first few days. I am registered with and monitored by the WTC Health Program.

Our healthcare workers are currently at risk, trying to control this global pandemic that is overburdening many hospitals. We appreciate your hard work and dedication.

Our military servicemembers courageously fight and die to keep such an attack from happening again on US soil. Thank you for keeping our democracy safe from dictators and terrorists. Let us also mourn on this day the 13 service members killed in the explosion at the Kabul Airport. They, too, gave their lives without hesitation to protect Americans from the terror of our enemies.

For your ultimate sacrifice, we are eternally grateful.

On its 20th anniversary, let us never forget how our first responders ran towards danger on that terrible day because it is their responsibility to protect us. May we celebrate our current generation of firefighters, law enforcement officers, our military, and the medical personnel who put their lives on the line every day to serve our communities. May God keep you safe.

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