The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Search for survivors
Derby firefighters rushed to ground zero on 9/11 to aid in recovery efforts
Gary Parker still remembers when he first heard that the World Trade Center had been struck by an airplane.
Parker, who was Derby’s assistant fire chief and director of public works in 2001, was in his car in downtown Derby when he heard the news over the radio dispatch.
He made it back to the office and turned on a TV, where he saw the north tower burning. Then he saw a second airliner crash into the south tower.
He immediately went out to seek the chief of police. He didn’t know what was going on, and he anticipated a rescue operation to extract a large number of survivors from the towers.
Then the towers fell, and he realized that wasn’t going to happen.
“Our focus changed, we became more keen on what was going on over the next couple hours,” Parker said.
Parker met up with the police chiefs from Derby, Shelton and Ansonia at 4 p.m. that day, and the group formulated a plan. A couple of fire department members from Derby and Shelton would go to the World Trade Center to lend whatever help they could.
Parker packed his firefighting gear, but didn’t take his coat since it had been warm that day. He put on his pants and boots and took flashlights with him. Then he headed to New York with Charles Sampson, a member of the Derby Fire Department, along with some volunteers from Shelton.
There wasn’t a lot of talking on the car ride into the city, said Sampson, who is now a police officer in Westport and a Derby alderman.
“It was actually pretty somber. We were all taken back by what had occurred,” Sampson said. “Back then initial reports were tens of thousands of lives lost, so we really didn’t say much.”
They made their way past a deserted Times Square and arrived in lower Manhattan after 7 p.m. They parked about 10 blocks north of the World Trade Center, where they could already see the effect of the attacks. Sampson said he noticed what at first looked like pulverized paper on the streets but he later realized it was concrete.
Abandoned FDNY trucks, and other city department cars were nearby. Parker said he was sure the people driving those vehicles had rushed into the buildings, where many had lost their lives.
Because the group was wearing their uniforms and arrived in a fire department car, they were able to get past the checkpoints. Parker met with the FDNY chief of operations, now New York Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. Nigro needed rescue dogs.
Parker struggled to make a call from his cell; the attacks had also knocked out cell service in the area. But he managed to get someone from the Derby police.
“I asked him to call the Connecticut State Police and bump it up to the regional level to relay that we need to get canines down here, so whatever they can muster,” Parker said.
He asked what else could be done to help. The recovery effort was already underway, and hundreds of city personnel, Parker assumed, were now seeking out any survivors into the night.
They stayed at the base of what was known simply as The Pile. They didn’t have the equipment to safely search for victims on top of the rubble so they turned on their flashlights, shining them into crevices or potential air pockets. The group marked locations that had deep crevices and warned the FDNY of them.
They kept going as hope for finding survivors dwindled. “We continued on ‘til the next morning, with the hope that we could find
somebody we could render assistance to, but we didn’t find anybody,” Parker said.
He said he couldn’t help but be shocked at how massive skyscrapers made up of tons of steel and concrete could end up mangled and torn, with bits and pieces burrowed into the wreckage.
“I remember vividly and what became one of the iconic pictures of the aluminum cladding that was on the side of the building that made the building shine so much, pieces of that were
just harpooned into the top of the pile,” he said.
By the early morning, a much more organized and sustained effort got underway. The FDNY thanked them and they drove back into the Valley by 9 a.m., where they got some sleep and went on with their normal duties and lives.
Parker became a member of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force for Massachusetts. He is still a member of the task force and is now the fire commissioner for Derby.
But Parker said his memories of sorrow were twinged with a sense of camaraderie and purpose that he instills in younger firefighters. “If you’re going to do the job, you have to be committed, and it’s not for everybody,” he said.
Sampson said it’s important to remember the events, but it’s not something he dwells on. But it was the worst thing he had ever seen, he said. “It’s good to remember, but you can’t live your life remembering,” Sampson said.