When rescue specialist Larry Savage heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center, he began mobilizing immediately. The Sacramento Urban Search and Rescue Team was up for rotation, as was the team in Los Angeles. He’d be making his first trip to New York on military transport with 63 other firefighters. Other members of the team included two structural engineers and two dog handlers with canine rescue. The structural engineers were the men on point heading into the rubble to assess structural stability. The dogs and their trainers were there to sniff out signs of life. The firefighters were not only performing search and rescue; they were supporting the New York firefighters they knew and admired. As Savage recalls during a telephone interview from New York: “When I found out about this incident, I started calling my logistics people and we started going to where our cache of equipment is located and started buttoning things up and preparing. And we were moving and hit the ground even before we were officially activated … ”
Give me an explanation of the scene as you encountered it when you arrived.
Traffic was snarled. They had the island basically shut down as we were coming into it. As we came onto the island, there was still a visible column of smoke from the various fires burning amongst the rubble and such. When we came in, we set up our base of operations at the Convention Center and then worked our way into the scene to a forward staging area. It was pretty incredible, the areas we were working in. Almost beyond comprehension. You’d go around a corner and your jaw would drop, as far as what you’d see. And then you’d go around another corner and it would top what you’d just seen.
Give me some examples. What were you seeing?
Just the massiveness, the size of this incident is, you know, larger than any of us has ever seen and hopefully will ever see in our lifetime. This team went to the Oklahoma City bombing, so you kind of prepare yourself for something like that, but when you have a building collapsed here, a building that had fallen into another … you know, it’s not only the major buildings that went down but all the surrounding buildings received substantial damage from all the falling debris. It just amazes you how high some of these things stood, and how low they are now, if you will. I was standing on the roof of one building, this 47-story building, and it didn’t hit me until afterwards, the distance that I was looking down to the ground from the roof of the building I was standing on … I’d be looking at that same distance straight up to where the [World Trade Center] building actually would have been, and it’s just kind of hard to fathom that that much mass could be compacted into a relatively small space.
What is the area you’re working in like? Can you describe it physically?
I believe the area that they’re working in today is part of the main … is a section of the main debris pile. Describing it, it’s basically twisted metal, iron floors, dirt, sheetrock, wires, ducting, just all, you know, put in a blender and thrown out there, if you will. … It’s just amazing. You can take a panoramic photo and from side to side it would be totally filled with just disaster if you stand at certain points.
What is the mood out there?
Well, this is what we train for. This is the purpose of the team, to go out and work toward finding victims. We’re tired. It’s been long days. We’ve been here a week now almost. People are starting to get a little tired, a little sore. But at the same time, they’re pulling together. They’re glad that they’re being put to work, and that they’re hopefully making a difference. We haven’t been successful in finding a live victim, but even finding a victim gives us some satisfaction because you think of the thousands of people who are wondering about their loved ones and what their status is, and hopefully we give them a little bit of closure.
What are the men talking about out there while they work?
We have very little time to reflect on it when we’re out there. Like I said, we’re focusing on each other, on the task at hand, on the safety. I mean, we’re looking out for each other’s backs while we’re out here because there’s hazards everywhere you turn. There is talk of the loss of the life. It does come up. I’ve talked with members of the New York Fire Service here that lost entire companies that they knew, entire shift of guys from a single house … just the thought of not being able to see that off-going crew again. … There’s a lot of people hurting out here.
What do you think the chances are for finding live victims?
Oh, we still have hope because it’s a vast area, a massive amount of area.
What is your impression of the mood in the general city of New York? Have you had any chance to talk to New Yorkers?
I have had a chance to talk to some New Yorkers, and they’ve been amazing. Everywhere we go, people stop and thank us for being here.