Called to Ground Zero

Author: Patrick Burns ’86


On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in the Norfolk, Virginia, office of Commodore Scott Jones when someone came in and said, “Hey, you’re from New York. A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” We ran to the TV. The commodore and I had recently worked the joint forces fly-overs as part of the president’s International Naval Review held on the Hudson River on July 4, 2000. We knew the traffic patterns to Newark, LaGuardia and JFK and how careful and strict the FAA is. This didn’t seem right. The television images showed us just how terribly wrong things were.

A few days before the attacks I had been at my office in the Coast Guard building in Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan. You could see both towers of the World Trade Center a few hundred yards away from my third-floor windows. I had been working for six years in the city as the director of fleet support for the Navy, a civilian position that works closely with the mayor’s office, New York police and fire departments, the FBI, FEMA, the Customs Service and the Coast Guard, as well as more than 60 federal, state and local law enforcement, regulatory and nonprofit agencies and 120 vendors throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. My office coordinated the Navy’s major public events.

I had reported to the Norfolk naval base on September 10 to meet my two-week Naval Reserve obligation. Since Jones and I had worked together in New York City on the president’s Naval Review, he wanted me to support his command in Norfolk during my annual active duty.

Now, a moment after getting to the TV, my cell phone rang. It was Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington of New York City. “Pat, where are you?” he asked. When I said Norfolk, he said, “I need you here. I need that hospital ship.” He was referring to the USNS Comfort_, which he had toured a few months earlier during its port visit to NYC. After I hung up, Jones told me that if the Comfort was going to New York, I needed to be there, too.

Then the second plane hit. My cell phone rang again. It was Lieutenant Commander Steve Estrada, yelling into the phone, “A f—-ing plane just flew over me and hit the South Tower!” And I blurted, “Because we are being f—-ing attacked!” It was the first time anyone in the room had verbalized what we all knew.

Master Chief Don Westlye and Master Chief Bill Murnane were with me in Norfolk. Murnane’s wife worked in the U.S. Customs House, Six World Trade Center. I’ll never forget the look on his face. Westlye told me to go; they would catch up later. Then I remembered—my brother was to be in New York for a meeting with Cantor Fitzgerald at the top of the World Trade Center.

My phone rang again, and it was Lieutenant Keith Davids, the flag lieutenant to Admiral Robert J. Natter, the commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet. Davids told me that Washington, the deputy mayor, had called Natter and asked for help. The USS George Washington and her battle group were already at sea conducting exercises, so Natter sent them north. The USNS Comfort_ was being prepared; the USS Bataan and the USS Shreveport were available if needed. Air cover was already up with Navy jets out of Naval Air Station Oceana.

I left Commodore Jones and jumped in my car, still receiving a steady stream of phone calls. The deputy mayor called again. I had just left the base and pulled over on a side street so I could hear better. It was a beautiful day—sunny, crystal clear, a calm breeze. I was staring at a man in his front yard, on his hands and knees, tending to his picture-perfect flower beds while the deputy mayor was yelling to me over the sirens coming through my cell phone and into my right ear. “Pat,” he was saying, “There were people jumping out of the towers!"

Then he’d ask about the status of the USNS Comfort_, the battle group, the Navy jets. Soon he would come back to the horror of it. “It was raining bodies. We had to pull back. They just kept jumping.” I told him I was on my way.

I hung up and looked at the man enjoying his garden. He had no idea the world was changing.

NYC closed down
I drove north. There were no cars on the road, no people in the streets, nothing. I drove more than 100 miles per hour most of the way. It truly seemed as if the world had ended. Then the phone would ring, and I would have another horrific conversation, then nothing. One call came from Omar Alvers, the deputy mayor’s assistant. “Pat, the Dep wants to know if the military has 20,000 body bags. The city only has 6,000."

Sergeant Jerry Kane, assistant to Police Commissioner Bernard Kerick, called, wanting an update on what the Navy was doing. I got him up to date and told him Steve Estrada was running the Navy Office in Battery Park until I got there from Norfolk.

“Well, hurry up, you f—-in’ hump,” he said and hung up the phone.

The calls kept coming. One was Master Chief Westlye, who told me Murnane had found his wife. I had not heard from my brother.

Approaching New York on the New Jersey Turnpike, I learned NYC was literally closed. I was in uniform, and the police let me through. I drove by the long line of waiting cars and saw the blank, scared stares on the people’s faces. As I drove over the bridge between New Jersey and Staten Island, I saw the skyline for the first time. It looked raped, and I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I drove across Staten Island. No traffic. No cars. No people out and about. I pulled into the Coast Guard Activities New York headquarters, where I found Admiral Richard Bennis, the Coast Guard captain of the Port of New York and the incident commander for a tragedy such as this.

A friend and mentor, Admiral Bennis and his wife, Gloria, had helped me through my father’s battle with cancer, and now he was fighting cancer himself—a battle he lost 23 months after 9/11. He greeted me with a handshake, a hug and a heavy dose of sarcasm, “Glad you could make it.” I said, “You look like hell.” We both laughed the way you do when you’re trying to keep it together. He told me he had left Washington with the Pentagon on fire and drove home to Staten Island to see this.

That was the first of many times I would experience “the look"—the look that said, “Thank God you’re alive; that’s another one I can take off my list.” But no one ever actually said that, and no one ever asked if they knew if someone was dead or alive. These were like unwritten rules. Even in the command center at Manhattan’s Pier 92, agencies would post lists of the dead and missing at their stations, and people would walk up, silently read the lists and walk away.

We went into the Coast Guard’s conference room for an update. Bennis had closed the port. The Coast Guard had just evacuated more than 500,000 people from Manhattan Island, having no idea if the attacks were over. This exodus was one of the amazing feats of 9/11. The deputy mayor had ordered the bridges and tunnels closed, fearing they would be blown up when full of thousands of fleeing people. A few years later I was at the Imperial War Museum in London, and the curator stated that the largest wartime evacuation in history was the British evacuating some 300,000 out of Dunkirk in WWII. I told him this was no longer the case.

After the brief, Bennis arranged for a Coast Guard boat to take me to my office area just south of the World Trade Center. The power grid for the lower portion of Manhattan was down, but the Coast Guard building was on a different grid. We had lights, computers, phones and water. As I sat in the small boat headed to Manhattan, all I could do was stare at the plume of smoke rising in the air above what used to be the World Trade Center.

We disembarked at the finger piers, and I walked to my office, where I found Estrada and Warrant Officer Frank Indovino. I called the deputy mayor, who said he would arrive out front in a few minutes. From my office all you could see was a silent city covered in inches of gray pulverized concrete and debris. The news stands, the hot dog stands, the cars, the benches, everything was abandoned as people fled. I thought of Pompeii after the volcanic ash settled.

On to Ground Zero
Estrada, Indovino and I went out to meet the deputy mayor, his assistant, Alvers, and Clarice Joynes, the deputy commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs. The building had blood on the front and cracks in the safety glass from people who had tried to kick their way into it as they fled the debris. We walked across a silent Battery Park and up West Street. The debris field kept growing in size and magnitude. I counted 17 smashed ambulances as we walked into Ground Zero. We passed an airplane tire and part of its landing gear. Alvers mentioned that a decapitated body had been next to the tire earlier but someone must have moved it. I didn’t respond.

We continued into Ground Zero and up onto “The Pile.” Workers were pulling a hotel laundry basket up and over the maze of steel and concrete and vehicles. The deputy mayor said, “Don’t look in there,” so, of course, I did. They were transporting remains to the morgue. With the smoke and steam and gases, you could hear but not see the Navy jets thundering overhead. I finished a bottle of water that someone had given me and was looking around for a garbage can. I was standing on top of millions of tons of debris and looking for a garbage can. I realized then that my mind was not taking all this in, and I needed to focus on my job.

After I left Notre Dame in 1986, I ended up in the Iran-Iraq war as part of Operation Praying Mantis. I learned then to focus on my job and trust my training. I had the same reaction to the attacks on New York, but there was a big difference. I always believed I would do these things for my country but in far-off places. I didn’t think I would be responding to attacks on my home—the place I went for free concerts in the summer and Christmas shopping in December. The place I met friends for lunch during work or drinks after work. The place I went jogging. The WTC complex and the surrounding area was the lifeblood of Lower Manhattan. It was as much a part of my life as my apartment.

I was standing up on a debris mound near what was Liberty Street and the West Side Highway with the deputy mayor. We were looking at the long lines of people forming bucket brigades. They seemed to stretch on forever and then disappear into the debris and smoke. Someone asked, “Where is God in this hell?” No one responded, but I looked at the long lines of people in those bucket brigades and thought, “God’s right there. Can’t you see?"

A horn would sound, and hope would shoot through you. A horn meant someone thought he had heard a trapped victim. Everyone would stand silent and listen for anything—a noise, a voice, a cell phone ringing. Nothing ever seemed to happen. As time went by I learned to hate that sound. It came to mean more hopes had been dashed or more remains had been found.

We made our way over to the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Forward Command Center, where Tim Brown and Calvin Drayton were coordinating the response efforts. They eventually had to be carried out a few days later, suffering from exhaustion and sleep deprivation. All involved were doing everything possible under impossible conditions.

The deputy mayor finished his work at the OEM Forward Command Center. I talked to Brown and Drayton about logistics and the need for support by the USNS Comfort and Navy ships. They needed food, clothes, shelter and medical care for workers. As far as the number of injured, it was already becoming clear that you were either in the “kill zone” or not in the “kill zone.” Those in the “kill zone” were gone. I asked, “Gone?” The deputy mayor said, “They’re just gone.” I turned to Joynes, a former Marine, an unflappable woman from Queens who is one of my best friends. She looked at me and said, “Gone. You saw what they’ve been finding."

Carrying the flag
We made our way back to City Hall, where we ran into the mayor’s chief of staff, who said the mayor wanted to hang an American flag to help raise morale. Someone had produced a huge American flag. The deputy mayor, Estrada, Indovino, Alvers, Joynes and I headed back to Ground Zero and decided the best place to hang the flag would be off the 10th story of the American Express Building. It took four of us to carry the flag up 10 flights of stairs using flashlights and choking on the dust.

We made our way through the maze of office cubicles all covered in the same pulverized gray debris that blanketed lower Manhattan. We climbed through one of the shattered windows out onto the ledge. The five of us tied up the flag. As the winds blew, chunks of glass would rain down on us from the smashed windows in the 40 to 50 stories above us. I kept looking up, wondering if this was such a good idea. Then I turned and looked down.

From 10 stories up, the sight of Ground Zero smoldering just stopped me for a moment. But just then a badly damaged walkway pulled away from the American Express Building and crashed onto the West Side Highway. Firefighters on bullhorns were yelling to evacuate the building because it was coming down. We ran down the 10 flights of stairs and regrouped outside.

The building didn’t come down. But when we looked up we realized no one had unfurled the flag before we fled. We made our way back to City Hall. FDNY unfurled the flag later.

The deputy mayor went to the temporary City Hall Offices at the Police Academy on 26th Street. Joynes and I walked in the dead silence to my office in Battery Park.

When we arrived, the deputy mayor called and asked me to come to the Police Academy. The fighting had already started. The arguments centered on whether the City could request specific assets such as the USNS Comfort_, or whether the City could only request “capabilities” and FEMA would decide what assets would be sent. At the end of the day the USNS Comfort_ was ordered to NYC.

While at the Police Academy I ran into Richie Rotanz, one of the deputies at the OEM. Richie had 12 children. He told me he had been in the OEM forward command center in the Towers, and the workers had to evacuate by running across the WTC plaza as they dodged falling bodies. They ran to the OEM’s main command center in Tower Seven. Then it too was evacuated, and it came down almost an hour after Towers One and Two. Rotanz said he was trying to drag two ladies with him as he left. One made it; one didn’t. He was blinded by all the debris and knocked down. He said he crawled along the sidewalk to get as far away as possible. Two guys found him and took him to triage. Those guys were his two oldest sons.

I left the Police Academy exhausted and a little less idealistic. I started driving down the West Side Highway. People on either side of the highway were cheering and holding signs that read “Heroes” and “God Bless You.” I felt a bit ashamed; like I was stealing someone else’s parade. I hadn’t run into a burning skyscraper. I hadn’t evacuated Manhattan. I was alive and well. I slept Wednesday night.

Thursday the 13th, things took a turn for the better. My brother Tim called. He had stayed in Colorado for Monday Night Football and had moved his meeting on the 102nd floor of the WTC back to the afternoon of the 11th. He was stuck in Colorado. I couldn’t believe it.

Westlye, Murnane and I met Commander Ralph Jones, who headed up the USNS Comfort_’s advanced team. By now it was pouring rain. We walked into Ground Zero to assess the situation. Thousands of cops, firemen and volunteers were working, eating and sleeping in the rain-soaked mix of pulverized concrete, mud, garbage, debris and whatever else was stirred into the slop we were walking through.

On Friday we established a boat service between Pier 92 and Ground Zero and began to ferry rescue workers, National Guardsmen, firefighters and police officers to the Comfort for food, clothes, shelter, medical attention, or a psychologist, a priest, a rabbi, a place to sleep. The USNS Comfort_ did much more than they will ever get credit for.

When I finally took my brother Tim to Ground Zero, it was a cold, miserable day. He stood reading the board with all those names. He would occasionally say something like, “He worked for me.” Or, “That was a young guy who interned for us.” This was his time, and I just stayed silent. We walked past the name board into “The Pit” area. We stood looking and knowing how fortunate we both were to be there.

Photo of Patrick Burns by Scott Suchman.

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