What most people remember about the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, is serenity and a bright, blue sky.
“I remember the day was just a beautiful day,” said North Strabane Township Fire Chief Mark Grimm. “It was quiet, and then all chaos hit.”
The nation mourned as headlines screamed reports of a terrorist attack. New York City EMS rushed into collapsing buildings to save civilians, and first responders from all parts of the U.S. arrived in the Big Apple to offer disaster relief assistance.
“The first responder community is a tight-knit family. Whether we mourn one person or a hundred, it still impacts us deeply,” Taylor Hampshire, community outreach coordinator for Ambulance and Chair EMS, said in an email. “Those first responders who were involved in 9/11 wore the same boots I do, now. We have one mission, and that’s to help our community.”
“There are a lot of first responders and civilians that risked their lives for our country,” said Grimm, who served on Task Force Region 13 at the Flight 93 grounds in Shanksville. “It’s important that we always remember the day and the people involved.”
People like Mike Lauderbaugh, who began his volunteer firefighter career with the McDonald Volunteer Fire Department at age 16.
When American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., Lauderbaugh was working out of his company Petroclean’s Erie office.
“I remember, I think I was at the coffee machine, and the one secretary said, ‘Oh my God, a plane just hit the World Trade Center.’ And I said, what are you talking about?” said Lauderbaugh. “She turned on the news, and they showed the footage of it. I knew that I needed to get back, so I left Erie and headed straight back to Carnegie.”
Lauderbaugh and four co-workers rushed from Southwestern Pennsylvania to Ground Zero, where they spent two weeks working alongside first responders from across the country.
“When we got there, it was, obviously, it was total mayhem. There was a lot of confusion. The New York City fire department did an excellent job, but their command center was located in one of the towers,” Lauderbaugh said. “It was unorganized at first just because everybody was in shock.”
Lauderbaugh said crews spent 14 to 16 hours working in a surreal landscape at Ground Zero, with the bones of buildings rising high above the rubble.
“For me, it’s really hard to explain. It’s almost like it was quiet, but it wasn’t quiet. You could still hear the creaking of buildings, and you hear everybody shouting. It’s just, it was a weird feeling,” Lauderbaugh said.
After work, crews crashed on the floors of local engine houses. There wasn’t time to forge friendships, Lauderbaugh said, because when volunteers woke, it was back to work.
The work was shocking.
Lauderbaugh served on a bucket brigade at Ground Zero. The first man or woman in a line filled a bucket with debris. The bucket was passed down the line, from volunteer to volunteer, until it reached the end and was finally dumped.
Lauderbaugh also served as a spotter during victim recovery missions.
“They would bring in a big excavator with a grapple on the end,” he said. “They would pick up debris. They’d have eight people standing around in a circle when they lifted it up. If anybody saw an arm, a leg, a shoe, anything that looked like clothing or anything like that, they would set it back down and then everybody would go through it and try and recover what they could find.”
Debris was transported by barge to a landfill in New Jersey, which became the nation’s largest crime scene. Lauderbaugh spent time working alongside first responders there, too.
He and about 14 other volunteers stood, decked out in hazmat suits, beneath big, white tents, where the material was spread out.
“We would stand at arm’s length apart, and we would go through everything inch by inch. When they tell you people were recovered, you know, a lot of times they would find a wedding ring, or they would find a finger or just, you know. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to where they could run DNA sampling. In the break room, there was a big wall with pictures of all the people that were recovered up there,” he said.
After two weeks at Ground Zero and the grossly ironic Fresh Kills Landfill, Lauderbaugh returned home to McDonald. He spent a month sleeping and re-acclimating to normalcy before returning to the landfill, where he wrote site safety plans.
His second trip to New York, where tragedy was still unfolding, was more organized but just as unnerving.
“You can train and train and train all your life, and all of the local volunteers and career firefighters in the area do a lot of training, but nothing can prepare you for the magnitude of an incident that size.
“To be truthful, I don’t talk about it much,” Lauderbaugh said, adding his wife was surprised he agreed to an interview. “You get to a point where, um, you have to let it go and talk about it. I didn’t talk about it for quite some time just because of ... everything that went on and everything that you see up there.”
When he does remember his time at Ground Zero and the landfill, Lauderbaugh remembers it in snippets.
“It’s almost ... like in a movie, where they just flash from one scene to another one, to another to another. That’s kind of what I think of. I can’t sit there and say, I remember walking up the street and doing this and doing that. No. I remember standing there, you know, passing a bucket and hearing something and looking and seeing a building come down. And then I remember turning over here – do you know what I mean? It’s all different. Snapshots, maybe, would be a better word for what I remember or how I remember it. There was no sense of time.”
Hope is sprinkled throughout Lauderbaugh’s devastating memories.
“It’s tough to say there’s highlights to any of it, but the one thing that sticks out to me is just the camaraderie between all of the first responders,” Lauderbaugh said. “You had first responders coming from everywhere across the United States, dedicating and donating their time to help. When people say that in law enforcement or the fire service, it’s a brotherhood, it truly is a brotherhood. Seeing the outpour of individuals and supplies that were brought up there to try and help was pretty, pretty amazing to see.”
The outpouring of support extended to Somerset County, where Flight 93 crash-landed at 10:03 a.m. after a heroic effort by passengers to regain control of the United Airlines plane.
“It was surreal,” said Grimm, who spent the weekend searching for aircraft parts. “It was very quiet. I don’t even know how to explain it. It was very surreal, very quiet, very emotional.”
“9/11 changed for the good, for not only the fire departments, for all emergency services, how we do everything,” said Grimm. “It’s gotten better; we still have a long way to go. I think communications and intel is probably the biggest. That was one of the biggest problems they had during 9/11 was communication. They have upgraded nationwide. Washington County is in the midst of a radio upgrade, so hopefully, that will continue to grow as well.”
Lauderbaugh said additional training, including terrorism response, has also improved for firefighters and other first responders. The experiences at Ground Zero and in that Somerset County field shaped those who answered the call of duty and influenced children who watched the events unfold at home.
‘Part of history’
Taylor Hampshire was in second grade when the Twin Towers fell. She remembers leaving school early that day.
“My poor mother had tears in her eyes with my infant brother in her arms. She embraced me and said we are going to have a day at home today,” Hampshire said. “I remember sitting at the kitchen table watching the old box TV in the corner of the kitchen with the news blaring so my mom could hear it all throughout the house. I just remember my parents not really talking and just watching TV. The days after, they kept us from going to school or hanging out with neighbors. They just wanted to keep their kids safe because no one knew what was going to happen next.”
Like many millennials, Hampshire didn’t fully realize the meaning of 9/11 until she was older.
“9/11 impacted me years later down the road only because I did not understand at the time the severity of what happened,” she said. “Watching the videos later in life and seeing the first responders running into danger while everyone ran away pushed me in the direction of being the ‘helper’ in life.”
Helpers were born of terrorist attacks on our nation’s soil, while other helpers witnessed the tragedy firsthand. Grimm still has a walking stick he found at the Flight 93 crash site.
“We had found a bunch of sticks. I still have it in my office today. I kind of look at it and just, it’s a part of history and just kind of makes you appreciate life,” he said. “My perspective on life has changed. You appreciate what you have and spend as much time with your family as you can.”
He believes passing down on-the-ground experiences to younger generations is essential.
“It’s part of history. Even in our fire department with our younger generation, we continue to talk about that. We let them know. I think it’s important what everyone went through,” Grimm said. “The remembrance ceremony, they’re just important. There’s always evil people in the world, but there’s always just as much, if not more, resilient people who are going to stand up. If that’s your time and something happens, hopefully, everyone will remember you, as well.”
There are many ways to remember. A visit to Ground Zero or the Flight 93 Memorial is a somber sojourn for many, but Lauderbaugh isn’t ready to return to the site of such tragedy.
“I was invited back for the memorials. I’ve never gone. I guess the memories I have of it are ones that I necessarily don’t want to relive. I refuse to go to Ground Zero or the Millennial Tower. I just don’t want to be in that area,” Lauderbaugh said. “It’s tough to explain to people what, what you see and what you saw and what happened. I think people really miss the sacrifice, miss the point of the sacrifice that local and any first responder actually makes to the community.
“It made me look at things in a different perspective, in a different light. You can’t live your life being afraid of everything, and especially things that are out of your control,” said Lauderbaugh. “The biggest thing is, don’t take anything for granted. Life is precious. Live and love every minute of it.”