Rushing into the line of fire

Duty: Baltimore County firefighters spent eight days searching for survivors amid the rubble of the World Trade Center.

September 29, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

George Drees' life might be closer to normal if his memories from the ruins of the World Trade Center didn't keep returning.

Drees is one of 10 Baltimore County firefighters who spent eight days on a search-and-rescue detail in New York, then came home with memories of the grueling experiences etched in their minds.

These recollections can be triggered unexpectedly by a smell or by a piece of clothing, as Drees discovered when he unpacked his gear and found the knee pads he wore throughout his 12-hour search-and-rescue shifts.

"Instead of cleaning them, you say, `That's too many memories,' and you just throw them out," he said.

The firefighters recall the jolts of hope that fueled their crawls through the devastation in search of a live person - and the rats scurrying across the civic center floor where the firefighters tried to sleep between their labors.

They were grateful for the throngs of people who filled the sidewalks each morning, waving American flags and cheering as they passed on their way to work with a police escort.

"When we got back [home], that's when it really started to hit me," said Kelvin Seigle, 39, a former Marine. "It's something that I'll carry with me forever."

The men, all with the county's Texas Station No. 17 at 9835 York Road, are part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency unit of rescuers from Maryland and Pennsylvania. The team is one of 27 established more than a decade ago to deal with natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

The county firefighters were summoned to New York on Sept. 11, the day of the terrorist attacks. While most of the nation was watching the replay of airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, the men were en route to the site, not knowing exactly what had happened or what they might find.

On arrival, they stood stunned by the devastation.

"Everything was in black and white," said Drees, 41. "It was the color of gray for three days. The rain made the debris heavier, but it brought out the colors. You could tell when there was a firetruck under there."

Some men worked through the day while others toiled at night. Through it all, they had little contact with the outside world. Their life was the mountain of debris, and the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, where they were supposed to sleep.

"You're so charged-up up there that it's hard to sleep," said Kevin Banister, 37. "We're just [now] getting back on a regular schedule."

Sometimes, the work took them 40 stories up. Other times, they crawled through holes that took them deep into what once were underground parking lots.

Each time they thought that they might find survivors, their hopes were quickly dashed.

"There were nothing but burned-out cars," said Seigle, a 14-year county veteran and father of two. "It was like an A-bomb."

The hardest part, the men said, was discovering the bodies of fallen New York firefighters.

"The New York City Fire Department has pride and honor," Seigle said. "We let the FDNY bag their fellow firefighters and take them off the pile."

The Baltimore County rescuers were comforted knowing that some of their Station 17 colleagues were among the crew: Capt. Tim Lowman, Capt. Bob Murray, Lt. Tony Folio, Lt. Mark Gardner, Battalion Chief Steve Lancaster, Lt. Gary Wheeler and Firefighter Chris Wilhelm.

More than a week after their return from New York, the experience is recalled in small bits.

"My mom gets 5 percent of what happened, my wife and family 10 percent and my family here at work 15 percent," said Drees, a father of two. "Maybe it will all come out later."

The men appreciate the support they received from home, particularly from Fire Chief John J. Hohman and Lt. Richard Muth, who stayed in touch with the wives of the men in New York, keeping them posted on the effort.

"That had a great calming effect for us and the children," said Banister's wife, Patricia. "I was thrilled that they came home unharmed and uninjured, at least physically."

This year has been "wild" for the unit, the firefighters said. The men were dispatched to Pennsylvania to rescue a man trapped in a cave, and spent several nights in downtown Baltimore during the summer, pulling railroad cars out of the tunnel fire.

But none of their experiences can surpass what they witnessed in New York, they said.

"It was good to be there and help out in what we could do," said Banister, a father of two. "But it was good to be home."

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