chapter 22 11 September 2001
THIS CHAPTER IS IN OUTLINE FORM
This is a rough draft of Chapter 22 of my book. The book includes behind the scene ‘real life dramas’ of espionage ( most national rescue teams have intelligence officers implanted into their team) , murder ( Can you think of a better time to murder someone than a major disaster with 100,000 bodies needing to be buried immediately and all resources are overwhelmed), the FBI looting at 911, FEMA using it’s Fairfax County ( CIA) Rescue Team for covert military intelligence operations, the Yakusa or Japanese Mafia being the only source of water, food and blankets (in Kobe Earthquake). I have been there. I have seen it and I don’t have the good sense or sense of preservation to keep my mouth shut…here is a little bit of 911 info that wasn’t made public….
Remember I said earlier that 60% of people die in their first confined Rescue, and that I had been inside 894 collapsed buildings? Well, there will never be an 895th, because building number 894 broke my back, and left me dying by slow degrees. I met my nemesis on September 11th, 2001. The World Trade Center has, in all probability, killed me. My doctors are astonished that I have survived this long.
I was living in New Mexico, so for me it was 7.15 am when the first tower got hit. I did not have the TV or radio on: I had no idea it was happening, until I got a phone call.
The more bizarre your life, the harder it is to introduce yourself to people. For me, that makes introductions damn near impossible. But the impossible is what I have done every day for the best part of twenty years, so what the hell, here goes.
My name is Doug Copp. I am gen erally considered to be the most experienced Rescue person in the world. What I do is this: whenever there is a serious large-scale disaster somewhere in the world, I find a way to get to it – somehow, anyhow – and when I am there, I try to save lives. I find survivors, and I pull them out. At least, I used to; but since the World Trade Centre I can barely even walk across my bedroom. I started in Rescue in 1985, and since then I have saved lives at more than a hundred major disasters around the world. My Rescue Name – the name given to me by my fellow rescue workers – is la Cucaracha, the Cockroach. They call me that because I can crawl into any ruin , and because they think I am impossible to kill. Until recently, I believed them – and there were statistics to back me up .
The proof is in the numbers: 60% of all rescuers who go inside a collapsed building to search for survivors never come out again. More than half of all rescuers who go in, are killed in their first attempt. Knowing the statistics, very few rescuers ever take that first risk. Fewer still will risk it a second time – and there are only three or four rescuers in the world who have been inside ten collapsed buildings or more. I personally have crawled inside eight hundred and ninety-four. That is around eight hundred and fifty more collapsed buildings than any other human being on the planet.
I have wrestled more than three hundred people away from certain, gruesome death in the aftermath of major disasters. The team I put together has saved several hundred more. Plus, if you count lives saved through education, prevention, and the fact that my team stopped dead an outbreak of bubonic plague after a quake in India, then I reckon that between us around a hundred and twenty-five thousand people who are alive today would otherwise have died. That is a lot of people. It turns out that I have a gift for rescue. I discovered that gift by accident, and I have used it – because if I do not, then no one will – and people will die who could be saved. I do Rescue because I can, and because others cannot. There is a need I can fill: I fill it. A hundred and twenty-five thousand lives saved indirectly, or three hundred directly, take your pick. Either way, what could possibly be more important?
But there is one life I may have failed to save: my own. I am dying – or perhaps just barely surviving, I still do not know which. It has been this way for almost two years. My doctors are all astonished I am alive at all; they all assure me that it is just a matter of time. At the World Trade Centre, the Cockroach finally met its match.
Actually, in one way, I was dead already. At least, that is what Hartford Life Insurance told me. In 1989, my fourth year in Rescue, I approached them about life insurance. I had just got remarried, and I wanted to make sure Paulina would have a secure future despite the dangers of my work. They patiently explained that they were always prepared to quote a price wherever there was a quantifiable risk – a chance of death and a chance of survival – but according to their analysis, I should already have died, within two months of my first Rescue job. From their point of view, there was no risk involved at all – I had long-since passed the point of actuarial certitude of death. For me, the extra fourteen years I have has since then are pure bonus.
And fuck death anyway. I have faced death before. And, in any case, a sick Cockroach is not the same thing as a dead Cockroach. On my good days I still think that just maybe I can even get out of this one alive.
But it is the bad days that have made me want to write my story down. On the bad days I cannot even suck in enough air to sit upright. On the bad days, the deadness in my legs spreads up across my back and fans out into my arms, and eventually even my fingertips are numb. There are days – weeks, months – when pain clamps itself hard across my skull and I can feel myself fading. Sometimes, I am almost tempted to let go. These are the days that make me want to tell my story.
You see, I don’t see why I should stop saving lives just because I am probably dying. There are things I can tell you, things that could one day save your life. Disasters do happen, after all; and there are things you should know. For example: never duck and cover during a quake; it will almost certainly kill you. Did you know that? I bet you were taught exactly the opposite.
And there are people I need to warn you about, too. Many of those who flock to the scene of a disaster are profoundly evil. As you would expect, any large-scale disaster is horrific. There is chaos, a stink of death so you thick you can barely breathe, desperate survivors searching for their loved ones in a sea of chaos. There is rot, rats, corpses everywhere, shit flowing freely through the wreckage from ruptured sewers. The aftermath of disaster is a meaningless mangle of concrete and ripening pestilence.
But all that physical horror is trivial: the real horror at any large-scale disaster is less tangible. It is the horror not of natural forces, but of political ones.
When America sends a government rescue crew to help with a disaster in another country, it is members of their internal disaster agency FEMA… Except that, if you care to check, you will discover that FEMA has never heard of these people – these are people who are not even rescue engineers at all. . The American spies neatly peg out the area they are supposed to be searching – and then they disappear into the night; if you are alive under the rubble in the patch allocated to the American FEMA team, you are going to die – you are going to die – because they will not even try to find you. The CIA is not interested in lives, it is interested in how countries respond to chaos and emergency. In the name of the American people, these Americans let people die – this, from a country which they regularly ask God to bless… Well, I hope God has a sense of humour.
There is more. I have seen a country’s president halt all rescue efforts for five hours until the media were there to film him walking through the area caring; his own citizens were dying right under his feet – for a photo opportunity  . I have seen Japanese bureaucrats prevent foreign teams from doing rescue work, because they wanted the credit to go to their own team – and by the time that team arrived, all that was left to pull from the ground was corpses. I have seen FBI investigators looting stores after the World Trade Centre disaster. I have seen the greed of the American Red Cross kill people.
And I have seen another president  announce that the American people are forever in the debt of those who risked their lives in the aftermath of 9-11, in the hope of saving others. Debt? I am bankrupt! I am dying! And it took them a whole year just to issue the form to apply to the 9-11 fund; and when it arrived it was a pile of paper six inches thick, requiring expensive depositions from doctors, lawyers, economists – and a stamina that is generally kind of hard to find while you are busy dying. Debt?! I wish I could laugh at that – or shout – but my lungs are too fucked. Not to mention my liver, my kidneys, my eyes and my broken spine.
I have debts. I owe my doctors tens of thousands. I owe my lawyers. I owe rent, I owe the supermarket for the food I eat. I have to take a hundred and twenty-five separate medications every day just to have a chance of seeing tomorrow – and that costs me $3,000 a month. It is all money I do not have, because while I was even half-alive I put every penny I ever earned into Rescue. Debt?!! Hey, Dubya, come live with me for a week; because right now you do not even know the meaning of the word.
OK, so I think we have probably established that I am a tad bitter. Who would not be? But the bitterness is only partly from self-pity. True, the neglect of people like George Dubya Bush is helping to kill me, and that does tend to piss me off; but I am mostly bitter for all the lives these people could have saved – could still be saving – but choose not to.
Disasters have a kind of magnetism to them. They draw both good and evil things towards them. In my life in Rescue, I have seen miracles many times – and just as often, I have seen monsters. In the aftermath of any great disaster, when the normal rational world is in ruins, dark souls appear – and they revel in the destruction and the pain and the endless, overwhelming despair. But in twenty years of Rescue, I have met very few ordinary people. I have yet to meet anyone who has not actually been at a disaster who can grasp what it is really like: how intense, mystical, nonsensical, horrifying, and downright funny a massive disaster can be. Laughter and near-mystical experiences and horror are strange bedfellows: I think perhaps they are the only things in a shattered world that remind you that you truly are still human. So if anything in these pages seems strange, or so comic or so obscene that you cannot quite accept it, please remember: my only reason for writing this book is to tell the truth. And the truth of my life has been so strange that I could never have invented it.
This is the story of a life spent saving lives – and of how saving lives has killed me. I hope it will be an education and a warning. For me, it begins one night in Mexico City in 1985, in a primary school.
At least, it had been a primary school until just over a day ago. Now, it was just a pile of rubble, two hundred feet across, perhaps eight feet high at its tallest point. Each storey was pancaked down to two feet, a four-storey school collapsed into an eight foot sandwich. Three hundred kids in there, the French guy who brought me here had said. So I asked him if he thought we’d save many. He stared at me. Then he laughed.
Whatever it had originally been, now it was just a mangle. Slabs of concrete eight feet across at crazy angles. Boulders of concrete, concrete grit, grey concrete dust coating everything in a slippery film that clogged your eyes and choked you. Tangled shards of metal window frames, shattered chair legs, tiles, glass that had shattered into powder. The moonlight smeared it all to grey and black.
In the middle of it two slabs had collapsed together to form a triangle, maybe two feet high and one and half wide, a gaping triangle in all the grey, blacker than the darkest moon-shadows. This was the moment I had to choose: die inside there – 60% die their first time in, Doug, that’s more than half of them, Doug, don’t do this, Doug – or else stay safe, but die somewhere inside myself.
As I walked towards that gap, the world slowed down. It was just me and this building, the slow crunch of my boots in the rubble, the black hole waiting for me. I was scared. There was fear in my mouth. It was in there with the concrete dust, caked, packed-in, dry. This building could kill me. So I let my legs do the walking while my thoughts had the debate.
Hey, Doug, you’re not serious, right? Right, Doug?… Doug?
I gotta do it.
Yeah, but we’re gonna die.
Gotta do it.
You’re gonna die, Doug.
Dead anyway. If I don’t. Dead inside.
But you got a life.
Lucky me, right?
A good one. What about Natasha?
Hey, I care…
You don’t. You can’t.
I do. For real.
You’re insane, dead man.
Oh, you’re scared?
I’m scared. Oh God…
How could the French guy be so sure anyway? Maybe there was someone alive. I mean, that was the whole point. It was why I had come to Mexico while everyone else fled the chaos and the aftershocks. I had to go in there: it was why I was here.
60%, Doug. Just walk away. Just leave, Doug, we can do that.
Dead inside… Remember?
I freely admit that I was scared as all hell. There was this huge split inside me: one half had all the purpose and determination, and the other half was absorbed in a reality-check – aware of the insane risk, worried how this would affect my daughter Natasha, my girlfriend, me… And if I let that part come inside a collapsed school with me, ‘he’ would get us both killed without a doubt. So what I did that day is what I have done every time since: I temporarily ignored the part of me that held all the fear, the part of me that is beset by care, horror, imagination, love… Because to rescue effectively, you have to become a kind of machine; that is the only way you can function. And if you fail to function, you die, and you take with you whoever you were trying to save. The only thing that has saved me all these years is Purpose.
Don’t, Doug. Listen –
I leaned forward, settled onto my elbows and knees, and snaked in between the slabs, my shirt and jeans slithering on grit and fine dust.
I made my first turn before my feet were even inside. A jagged edge of a slab stuck out at me at an angle, with twisted ends of steel bar sticking out from it. I shifted my torch to my mouth, kinked my upper body round to the left, careful to keep my hips and lower legs absolutely still – because brush something and you die. There was nothing obvious stopping the ceiling a few inches above me from collapsing – leftovers of cinder block, crammed-in rubble, what remained of wooden door supports, splintered and dangerously leaning. Catch yourself on something, and it will almost certainly trigger further collapse. With five concrete floors above me, if that happened I would be paste. I could see for maybe three feet in front of me, after that the mangled remains of the school obscured my line of sight. There wasn’t an obvious path through, not even one with twists and turns. I just edged forwards, inch by inch, careful – careful! – to make sure my whole body followed the exact path set by my head and shoulders. And eventually I reached my three-feet-distant goal – a slab, maybe, or the twisted ruin of an aluminium window frame – and I wrenched myself around, back muscles groaning, until I saw another tiny void that might move me a few feet further in. It wasn’t a path, there was no certainty that the next turn would not leave me with no way forward; I just kept going, inch by inch.
It took me fifteen minutes to get twenty-five feet into that school, no more than three feet of it in a straight line, with the ceiling often threatening to scrape my back, and with my elbows inches from the wreckage that held up my roof, with my body following my head like I was a snake. Or a cockroach, maybe.
Eventually, a crushed-down room stretched out ahead of me. I could see four or five feet ahead. It felt like miles. On both sides, there were desks, flattened down to a foot or so, their undersides smashed flat against the floor, half hidden in concrete rubble. A classroom. I hitched myself further round the shards of door jamb, twisted my hips to ripple them over the ground-up block that I had been holding my chest away from – and I slid into the room. Four relatively clear feet, and I had to dog-leg left to bypass a slab-edge that had tipped down onto the floor. I hunched round the end of a desk, more caterpillar than cockroach now, and found another space in front of me, maybe three feet, the width of a kid’s desk.
They must have been good kids at that school. Because they had all done exactly what they were told to do. Duck and cover, you have to duck and cover… They had hidden under their desks.
A hand poked out from the thin slit of space between the desk and the floor. It looked like the way a child’s hand can look if it is hung over the edge of a bed while they’re asleep. Except it was grey with dust, limp, and grotesquely larger at the wrist than the gap under the desk it came from. I looked at that gap for a time. It was just shy of one and a quarter inches. The child under there was now one and a quarter inches thick. A few inches out from under the desk, and that kid would have been alive – because I was just next to the desk, and I was in a space almost two feet high. But they had been good. They had done what they were told. And now they were dead.
The next hand was a few desks down. This hand had its palm facing upwards, absolutely flat-grey with the dust. The fingers curled gently upwards, the wrist tilted slightly down. Half the forearm was there too, smooth and hairless and utterly grey. I almost brushed it as I squeezed past. If I had, it would have fallen off; all that held it in place was a paste of flesh one and a quarter inches thick.
Poking out from the next desk was a foot: a white sock and a buckled-up sandal, and the ankle pinched into the one and a quarter inch gap under the desk.
I reckoned the kids must have been ten or eleven, but there was no way to know for sure. That guess was based purely on the size of their hands and feet. Boys or girls, or both? I have no idea. Truth be told, I don’t care. Take a man or a woman, any age you choose from eight to eighty, any colour skin – then smash them to a paste, and cover the remains in concrete dust so thick that it swells your tongue and you can’t talk and every breath is a rasp – and then try to classify what sex or race or age they once were. You wouldn’t even want to try. They were kids, that was all, and they were dead.
So was their teacher. She was lying in the largest space I found in the whole school, next to her desk. I could see for nine feet in every direction. She was dead, but unharmed – by which I mean she hadn’t been smashed to a jelly. What I could see of her legs were blue and green, a mass of bruises. Thinking now, that probably means she survived the quake and died slowly afterwards – because dead bodies don’t bruise.
There was a dark shape on her leg. I shone my torch at it. It was a rat, one of the largest I have ever seen – and, trust me, I have seen a few. It was eating her – and it was not alone. When the torchlight hit, it lifted its head and stared right at me. Alert eyes, bright and assessing. I didn’t stare back, I glared; I could feel the hatred pouring out of me, like a thing you could touch. The rat snapped its head round and bolted. Three other shadows scrambled after it.
But apart from the rats, there was no sign of life, so I moved on.
It was maybe an hour later when I found myself at an exit point. A section of ceiling had caved in – and so had the floor above, and above, right up to the roof, perhaps six feet over my head. Moonlight shone in. I snaked up onto the mound of rubble in the centre of the hole, poked my head out, and looked around. I was about seventy-five feet from where I had gone in. The French guys had set up lights while I was inside, and I could see them all clearly: they were around two hundred feet away. I waved my torch. One of them noticed, and started waving frantically at me. I was so relieved to see them that it took me a few moments to realise that this wasn’t just because he was glad to see me. This guy had something serious on his mind. Something urgent. Puzzled, I turned around.
Twenty feet behind me was a bulldozer, grinding towards me, sweeping rubble and debris into neat rows, like a snowplough. It was pointing straight at me, and moving fast. I had seconds. I moved. Fast. I was out with maybe a handful of seconds to spare. I scooted over the rubble and rejoined the French team, shaken and very alert. I glanced at my watch. Nearly midnight. The night of the 20th September, less than twenty-four hours after the earthquake had struck.
My first building. My first attempt at Rescue.
And I had survived.
Before I ever started in Rescue, I knew why collapsed buildings are dangerous; because in my life before Rescue, I collapsed buildings for a living.
By the time I left college at twenty-two, I had a degree in Philosophy, but I also had three business ventures up and running, earning me something like $150,000 a year – seriously big bucks in 1975. I had set up a company assembling bespoke hi-fi systems (and at the time, hi-fis were expensive and damned fiddly); I had used the cash from that business to buy nine properties which I was renting out and doing well on; and I did xyz … By 22, I was one of Canada’s self-made rich, a full-scale entrepreneur in the making: I was worth a million, I owned nine buildings, and more cars than I could drive. And with college behind me now, I had time and energy to burn. I started looking for new business opportunities – and the first one that came along was a demolition contract.
It was a government job: a complex of administrative buildings on the outskirts of , now disused. The government wanted to redevelop the site. I figured that smashing things apart could not be that difficult, so I went and took a look. The guy who showed me around was helpful enough; he told me all about the problems of demolishing the place, and even suggested what kind of quote the government was hoping for; the other firms who were tendering had all quoted about the same, he said… I quickly realised that demolishing buildings cost a lot of money – the quotes ranged from $100,000 to $1,000,000. And that puzzled me, because assuming all these other guys were right about the costs of taking the place apart, I could already see a way to do it for almost nothing.
One floor of one whole wing of the primary building was covered in beautiful wood panelling, and there were thousands of feet of redwood beams. I could sell the wood in there for at least $200,000. None of that made any difference to how much the building was going to cost to dismantle, so for me the calculation was simple enough:
Cost of demolishing buildings $30,000
Value of contract $35,000
Value of salvaged wood $250,000
…Well, you work it out…
With a quote of just $35,000, I easily won the contract. In my first month as a demolition contractor, I made $255,000 clear profit. I had just turned twenty-three.
So by the time of the Mexico City quake in 1985, I had been involved in the demolition of many hundreds of buildings. I had also had a messy divorce, left Canada, and taken a job with the California Wrecking Company – one of the three largest demolition contractors in the world. When it came to making buildings collapse, I knew what I was doing. My main concern in demolition work was always safety – preventing the carcass of each building from killing my crew in any number of unpleasant ways. And to get that right, I had to learn to understand in detail exactly how a building collapses, and what exactly it collapses into.
There is structure in a collapsed building, any collapsed building, from a farmhouse to the World Trade Centre. As the walls come down vertically, the floors collapse from the middle, and pull parts of the wall in, push others outwards. With experience, you can tell where the rubble will be thickest, where it will have spurted inwards or outwards, where cladding slabs will be lying like concrete seesaws over mounds of shattered brick, where wooden joists will have cantilevered out from the remains of an internal wall to make a cavity that is ripe for further collapse, where doors and windows might have slumped sideways to make little wooden or aluminium tents… and where not. You have to know these things. You have to be able to survey a pile of rubble and map out in your head exactly where those voids are, where are the points of potential further collapse, where the large structural elements might be buried – because if you try to lift out one end of a girder, the other end could change the structure fifty feet away. You look, you think, you plan – and then you act.
What you do not do – not ever – is just plough straight in with bulldozers. You would never do it on a demolition site – and to do it in the aftermath of an earthquake when there is a genuine chance that there might be people alive under the rubble. In my eyes, that is tantamount to murder. There is no uncertainty about this: if there are people in there, the voids will collapse, people will be killed.
When I woke up the morning after the Mexico City quake and saw it on the news, what I saw was bulldozers. Bulldozers and cranes, ripping at the rubble, tearing out great gouts of concrete, levering girders up and out with no regard to what the effect might be. The news talked of rescue efforts; but what I saw was the unthinking slaughter of anyone who might have survived.
I watched for less than two minutes before I reached for the phone and rang the Mexican embassy. The line was engaged – and engaged again, and again. I could imagine distraught relatives frantically trying to get through. Clearly, the phone was not going to get this done. So I checked the embassy’s address in the phone book, grabbed some stuff, and headed out.
Five minutes after I walked into the embassy I was face to face with Mexico’s ambassador to the UN. Five hours after that, I was on a plane to Mexico City – and my new life had begun.
The ride through the city was surreal. The city was half in ruins, and half completely normal. We drove to the hotel; that means the roads were open. Weirder still, there was no rioting or looting at all. The traffic lights were not working, there were no police officers in white gloves with whistles, but what the hell, you could drive. Yet if you looked down the side-roads you saw nothing but rubble. Some skyscrapers were untouched, but most of them were collapsed; right next door to intact buildings, there were mounds of meaningless bricks and dust. The parts of the city that had survived seemed to add to the general chaos. They made no sense to the eye. As an engineer, though, to me it made perfect sense. Buildings have different resonances: hit the right frequency and a breath of wind can shatter concrete. Different materials, different shapes – different results. This is how to build quake-proof buildings. And in some parts of the world, there are even institutions that are wealthy enough to do it.
Most of Mexico City is not wealthy. Most of its buildings were damaged or in ruins.
Outside the hotel, there was a school bus full of firefighters. They had to be doing Rescue, so I went over and said hi. They were French, they spoke almost no English, so the conversation was pretty stilted, and probably incomprehensible unless you were there. One guy – the team leader but not big brass – did all the talking. I told him I had just arrived and was looking for wherever I could help. He told me they were going to work on a school.
“Moi, je viens?” I asked. “Je veux vous aider, je suis ici pour sauver les vies,” This is about as good as my French gets – pathetic for a Canadian, I confess. “Attendez, je vais trouver mon sac…” – my shoulder bag, the one I had taken to the Mexican Embassy and now the only luggage I had.
The French guy shook his head briskly. “Nous partons sans delai.” Then, helpfully, in translation: “Zere ees no time.”
It was obviously a lie because the guy stayed there and argued with me about it for another five minutes. The other members of the team were getting restless. eventually one of them muttered something about les americains, and set the others sniggering. Which was when I realised that they thought I was American.
“Non, je suis Canadien,” I grinned, and slapped my chest. “Pas americain. Les americains – pah!” The atmosphere softened immediately. We talked for a couple of minutes about Canada, about where I was from, how my best friend was French Canadian and had been living with a French girl for two years, about why I spoke so little French…Then I risked asking again.
“Alors, je viens? Je suis ici pour sauver, pour faire le Rescue.” I hoped that saying the word in a French accent would be enough to get the idea across. It seemed to work.
The team leader pursed his lips – but only for effect. “Mais oui. On attend.” We’ll wait. He even told me to take my time.
I hurried anyway, just to be safe.
As we drove, I tried to find out more about the school. The lieutenant didn’t know much, not even how many people had been in it.
“Mais combien pour sauver?” I pressed. “Combien de victimes?”
That was when he laughed. Oh, they’re dead, he told me. All dead. We’re just searching for bodies. By the time our bus full of firefighters pulled up outside this school full of corpses the sun had set, and I had begun to learn a few things about Rescue.
We climbed out into perfect darkness – no electricity here, no artificial light to disturb the moon. The rubble glowed silver. The shadows were pitch. The silence weighed a ton.
Time to go to school.
There’s a lot more I would like to tell you about Mexico City. Like I said before, at major disasters there is always hope as well as horror. There is laughter too, and miracles. My time there was unreal, intense, terrifying and uplifting. There is so much in this book that I do not have space for. Or, since I am probably dying, time.
I wanted to tell you how the American Embassy loaned me a limo for the duration of my time there. I was chauffeured around by a guy in a suit for ten days: this perfect, polished stretched-out car would purr up to a mound of rubble, and out would get this wild-eyed Canadian called Doug Copp, exhausted, manic, and stinking of the death and rot that was smeared over his clothes. He would brandish papers from the Mexican ambassador to the UN, yell loudly in English because he spoke no Spanish – and suddenly find himself directing crews of fifty or more. Then, half an hour later, he would clamber back into his swanky limo, still stinking of decay, and purr off to the site of another disaster. I wanted to tell you how my chauffeur, Jorge, gave me my only hour off during the whole time I was there: he felt himself cracking with the horror of it all, and dragged me off to spend time with his friends – at a meeting for Alcoholics Anonymous.
And the hope. The baby I rescued from the remains of a maternity ward – a three week old baby – and how I had to crawl over the smashed remains of all the other babies that had been in the ward to reach her – and then back, ploughing over the same tiny, decaying corpses, now with this child in my arms.
There was the woman who sat for three days beside the ruins of her son’s apartment block, knowing he was dead but daring to hope, who was suddenly seized by something completely Other, and took my hand, and told me with extraordinary clarity and force that I walked with God – and how, in a way perhaps that was true; because how else can I explain the fact that we talked for ten minutes in Spanish, clearly and precisely, yet it was a language which at the time I had no idea how to speak?
Laughter – and horror. Hope – and horror. Mystery, and horror… In Mexico City, horror became my life, and these other things did too.
When the Rescue work was over, after perhaps three weeks spent retrieving bodies, and saving my first X lives, the Mexican government thanked me, and flew me to an exclusive resort at Cancun for a week’s recuperation at their expense.
I was in shock, utter shock. I could never have imagined anything like what I had just experienced. I remember, when I was fourteen, a neighbour had a heart attack while shovelling snow in his front yard. I did not see him die – but the body was there outside our window – and I was too scared to even look. I was no more able to confront this massive avalanche of death and horror than anyone else. I had survived my time in Mexico City by not confronting it. I had done what had to be done, and suspended all the questions and the terror and the voices inside me: those voices had had to wait; there was work to be done.
But what now? What could possibly keep the horror away from me now I was faced with nothing more challenging than a luxurious room with excellent food and drink and a view of a crystal beach? How was I supposed to cope?
Your mind continues to race. Pointless thoughts whir through your head at breakneck speed, flashes of grotesque imagery, mangled babies, rats feasting on corpses, smells surge up in your memory, shit, and rotting human bodies, and despair. Your head fills with sounds, ideas, moments. None of them make any sense to you. They do not mean a thing, they are just what happened, but they somehow demand that you respond to them, grapple with them, make them into some sort of order. And that, of course, is impossible. Disasters do not make sense. Disaster is the word we use tyo describe the times when the ordered world collapses. And now you have a disaster in your head. And what are you going to do about it, what can you do about it?
So I did what everyone had told me I would eventually do, what they all do. I pressed on with this newly unreal life of mine – and then, very suddenly, I began to cry. I did not even know I was doing it until I saw myself in a mirror – and there was this tear-streaked face; but the moment I realised, then suddenly all that horror and despair washed over me, and indescribable internal howl. It was overwhelming, paralysing. I spent a day sitting cross-legged in the ocean on perfect white sands, facing a perfect azure sea, with tears rolling down my face, swamped in grief and horror, veering between an intensity of emotion that I simply cannot describe, and a feeling that I might as well already have been dead. I tried top pray. I failed. And then a miracle happened.
A cloud of tiny fish drifted towards me – the first I had seen in Cancun. They were each about two inches long, and almost transparent except for flashes of colour along their sides. They swam straight towards me, and then began swimming round me. But they swam in such a strange way… They were so close that they were all actually touching me, I could feel them as a constant caress as they moved. And they swam in a perfect figure of eight – around my back, in under one leg, round the outside of the other, then back in under it, round the outside of the first leg, and then around my back again in the other direction. They did this continuously for about half an hour. It felt as though the fish somehow wanted to reassure me. It felt like a sign: as though the God I had earlier tried to pray had sen these creature to comfort me, caress me like the father I never had, remind me of His presence, and that if He was here, then everything was, in the end, all right.
And I rose from the water with new purpose. All that energy, that grief and horror that had so nearly overwhelmed me: I would harness that energy and I would use it to do good. I would turn it into the power to save lives. At this moment, my entire future became clear to me. While I could, wherever I could, I would take the extraordinary inward horror that mentally cripples so many Rescue workers – and I would cope with it by using it, turning it into action. Nothing – nothing – would stand in the way of this one great purpose. I would save lives
I did not return to my girlfriend in New York. I did not split with her, not she with me – but I needed time to sort myself out, and I really could not face the pressures of managing a relationship.
How can you come back from an experience as intense as Rescue, and just pick up your life where you left it a few weeks before?
Think about it. Every day, in all our lives, there are decisions to be made, discussions to be had: what shall we eat, what we shall we do this weekend, how’s it hanging Doug, is four o’clock good for you, seeing anyone for lunch, do you think we should call I don’t think we should call you know how sensitive she gets and anyway guess what she said when I asked about… Well, what the fuck does any of it matter? It is garbage. It is background noise, a meaningless jumble of words and ideas, little nonsensical fragments of a life. I mean, who fucking cares? I had just come back from crawling through rats and pieces of dead baby, I was planting my elbows in bits of baby because there was nowhere else my elbows could go, and if I didn’t slither over those scraps of dead flesh then a living baby, a baby I could hear screaming somewhere inside this tangle of concrete and death, if I didn’t then she would die as well and if that happened –
This is what fills your head. There is no space left for normality. Why answer the phone? Why chat to people, and what about? Why bother with reassurances or hugs or intimacy? None of it matters at all. Rescue is realler than the reality you return to.
How are you supposed to cope with that? How is each day supposed to go? And how are those you love or love you supposed to cope?
At the time, I was with a woman called Carol. I had met her in San Francisco, having left Canada to escape the misery of a spiteful divorce that saw my ex walk off with all those houses, the cash from all those business ventures – and with my two year old daughter Natasha. I had got my job with the California Wrecking Company, and had been rapidly promoted to Vice President. I decided I would build a boat and live on it, and in the meantime I had rented a room from a girl I had met at a friend’s party. This girl was Carol – and soon enough I moved out of the spare room and into her room. Then Carol got a Job in New York; and by now things were serious enough that we agreed I should follow her there. Carol had already moved. So I packed my bags and got on a plane.
The day I saw the news about Mexico City was the morning after I arrived there. Carol had just gone to work. We were together less than twelve hours before I set off for the Mexican Embassy.
I cared – but I just could not face going back to that just now. So I rang and explained – and then I went back to San Francisco, and I worked on my boat.
I worked like crazy. All that pent-up horror was still in there, and I worked it out of me by labouring on the boat at a furious pace. The work I had planned to do over the next eight months was all done within two weeks. I drove in 9,000 screws. I did X. I did Y. And only then did I begin my real work, of working out how best to save lives.
I started by ringing the emergency departments for every county in California. My list of questions was always the same. I had discovered exactly what you need for Rescue the hard way – and I wanted to know if California was truly prepared for a large disaster, or if they just had departments and half-baked plans. Did they keep their emergency vehicles outside – because getting your emergency vehicles out of a bulding that has collapsed on top of them is kind of hard to do? Did they have pre-agreed teams with pre-assigned roles? Did they have a system in place for issuing Ids to Rescue workers for access to cordoned areas? What was the plan if their communications centre was one of the places that got hit?
If I am honest with myself, I think I hoped that they would be able to reassure me, explain exactly how it was all going to work – and I would be able to rest easy, perhaps even get a plane back to New York. Instead, what I heard appalled me – and defined for me the struggle I have been involved in ever since. I began to realise that I might have bitten off more than I could chew.
It was Edie Callahan, a producer from Fox News in New York. The time was just gone 7.30. By then both buildings had been hit – but they were still standing. Edie wanted to know when I was going to get there. I hit the TV on, got as many details from Edie as I could, then rang off and started making calls. I rang my main ARTI members in the Albuquerque area, and set things moving.
The first thing to do was to get together our equipment – and get to New York. I was pretty sure I could get us a plane – the owner of the Albuquerque Journal had a Lear Jet, and I knew I could persuade him to loan it (he came with us, and he is a seriously weird guy – some day I’ll tell you about him); but the big issue was going to be getting permission to fly the thing. All non-military flights had already been grounded, all airports had been closed. So while I fixed to borrow the jet, another team member got in touch with New Mexico’s Congresswoman Heather Wilson – and she contacted the director of the Federal Aviation Authority in Washington. Apparently, the director knew about ARTI. He told Heather Wilson that we were the best Rescue team in the world, and they needed to find a way of getting us there. He agreed to arrange special clearance for us to fly to New York (actually, in the event, we landed in Newark, New Jersey and then drove in). We all got to the airport as quickly as we could – there were nine of us, every ARTI member who could get to the plane in time had dropped everything and come. We flew on September 12th.
En route, the US Air Force radioed our plane, and notified us that they were changing our flight to military designation. We flew the rest of the way with a fighter escort. I have been told that ours was the only civilian plane in America that was allowed to fly that day.
Team members from New York met us at Newark Airport. They had arranged for us all to use the Marriott Marquis as our command headquarters, and to store our equipment. More ARTI members kept arriving over the next week. By the end, we had a team of 48, from 8 countries: our coordinator was from Turkey; our tunnelers were a former Israeli fighter pilot and a French archaeologist , our driver was from Haiti, a contingent turned up from Peru…
We dropped our gear at the Marriott, and went immediately to work. The command center for the City of New York was at the Jacob Javitz Center. The police escorted us from there with flashing lights and sirens right through all the road blocks and into the innermost restricted area.
We met with the NYPD team, who were in urban search and rescue gear, and we worked with them, using my Casu-Locator to locate victims. Within 20 minutes we were finding body parts – but small parts… There were pieces of brain from bodies that had exploded on impact after they fell, there were fragments of hands, meaningless scraps of flesh. We also used the equipment with the Fire Department. Since the Casu-Locator was clearly doing some good, we left it with them, in the charge of an ARTI guy from Wisconsin – a young man in his twenties, I forget his name, Rob someone. The Fire Department were lifting him up in a sling to hold him close to wherever there were openings into this enormous pile of smoking rubble; he was finding endless signs of death.
We had amazing cooperation with NYPD throughout, from top to bottom and all the time. I am full of admiration for those guys. They were incredibly brave – and completely unafraid to do the right thing. The US Army was in charge of issuing IDs. The NYPD took me to their base, and arranged for all ARTI members to have Army ID and maximum clearance City of New York emergency passes. The Police Commissioner, Commissioner Carrick, even made a point of coming over and talking with me, with a TV crew in tow. He grabbed my hand with both of his, and thanked me profoundly for being there.
We continued to search. The French archaeologist, a guy called Steve Lentz, and I found a little hole under a carrying beam and we crawled about 300 feet inside, with two Police officers. We were able to crawl down the ramps into a collapsed parking garage under the World Trade Center. We searched the whole area, again using the Casu-Locator. That day found the remains of nine police officers, and many others. But what I really wanted was to find an entry into the collapsed subways. Right from the beginning I had told Edie Callahan that the perimeters of the subterranean areas would have huge voids. Anyone trapped there could certainly have survived – but was there a way in?
The only way to find out if there was a way into the subways was to go in through the Atrium to one of the towers. The trouble was, to get into the Atrium area you needed mountain climbing equipment to rappel down. This was not equipment we had brought with us. So I contacted the Police officer, Kevin Masi, who had originally arranged the escort to drive us in to Ground Zero. He was working at the Javitz Center, which is where all equipment donated to the City was coming to. (Some equipment was not donated to the City, it was donated direct to the American Red Cross, and that equipment never saw action… but I’ll come to that later.) Kevin personally found a supplier and arranged for the equipment to be donated. It came into the Javitz Center, just like everything else. But there was a problem… The agency in charge of actually issuing the equipment was… FEMA…
When the Kevin went to collect the rappelling gear, the FEMA person told him that they were not going to let ARTI have any equipment whatsoever. The officer came back with the gear, though – and with a story. Now, this was a big guy; and apparently what he said is this – See how big I am? I am coming back with 6 of my police friends who are all bigger than me – and they are all going to come with 6 friends who are bigger than them… Now are you going to let ARTI have the equipment they need, in order to find our fellow officers – or do I have to come back and beat the shit out of you? The FEMA guy decided that maybe the equipment could be issued after all. See what I mean about the NYPD? The man did what was needed to get the job done.
There was one other piece of equipment that we desperately needed. We needed respirators, badly. Here is why. If you crawled into the wreckage at Ground Zero, everything was caked in black soot. It was slippery and fine like talcum powder – and it was smoldering. Within a minute, your face was caked in this stuff; and it was not just on everything, it was in the air. Everything that building had been made of had been sprayed with burning aviation fuel and turned to soot. And there was a constant rain of liquid too: all the fluids that pump through any large building – coolants, sewage, disinfectants and air treatment sprays – all of it was raining down endlessly, in a thick mist. This was what we were breathing, every moment we were below Ground Zero. We had dust masks – but they wore out within two hours. After that, we just had to breathe this shit – or stay above ground, which of course is what most people did. Anyway, for those of us foolhardy enough to want to go in and try to find survivors, respirators were a very real, very desperate need.
But, like I said, not all the equipment people donated was donated direct to the City, and not all of it was coming in through the Javitz Center. You see, someone did donate respirators – nearly a million dollars’ worth of them – but they donated them direct to the American Red Cross. One time I was at the Marriott to fetch some ARTI gear, I saw a group of the Red Cross there. They were discussing which areas around 5th Avenue they would be going to that afternoon to do fund-raising. And around each of their necks was a nice, brand new respirator… I asked a police guy about these people. He told me they were collecting cash donations for the Red Cross, under a huge banner saying ‘Help Us Save A Life’ – and those respirators were loose round their necks, acting as stage props, hinting that they were somehow in the thick of the action. We saw them every time we went back to the hotel – but we never saw them within a mile of Ground Zero. The respirators helped them raise cash while I was underground breathing in all the shit that is now killing me. And here is an interesting fact: no one involved with Rescue at the World Trade Center has ever seen a cent from the Red Cross.
Back at the Marriott, around this time, twelve firefighters from the Chicago Fire Department approached Rob, the young ARTI member from Wisconsin who had been working with Casu-Locator. These guys had driven all the way down to see if they could help – but they could not get the accreditation they needed to get in: the New York Emergency Services Department – none of whom had any experience whatsoever of collapsed buildings – had refused to give them IDs. By now, the way I see it, the bureaucracy had recovered enough to want to assert its power rather than focusing on Rescue. The firefighters asked Rob if ARTI could help. So we smuggled them in, in back of our two vans. A little later, and unbeknownst to me at the time, Rob photocopied his own ID twelve times – and gave one to each firefighter. I admit that the methods were questionable – but it turned out fine: these were real Rescue people, and they did a real and useful job.
We all went to work again – and I finally found a way into the subway system. We found a tiny opening in a corner of a 60 foot pit, and me, Steve Lentz, the archaeologist and Ron Hadani, the Israeli fighter pilot went down inside. We went three levels down and found a huge sign saying ‘Do Not Enter, Unstable’. It had been put there by FEMA, who had decided the day before that this was the limit for safe investigation. For me it was structurally very easy, so I pushed on. Steve and Ron followed. The sign had been stuck to a beam resting about a foot and a half off the floor. We went under it, and beyond there was a huge pit. Above it, chunks of ceiling hung down, huge pieces of concrete suspended in the air. We crept along an eight-inch ledge towards the subway area.
Everything was black and covered with a half inch of black soot. It permeated everything. It was in, on, and under everything. It was hot, even though this was now days after the attack. It was smoldering in the air, although there was no visible fire. We passed the Hudson News Stand, destroyed, and crawled about another hundred feet to where there were some stairs. We crawled down these – the ceiling was only inches above our heads – and went down to the level below. We searched there: nothing. So we went down another couple of levels, until we hit the lowest level – where the subway station was. The subway tracks were flooded, there was water everywhere, and that heavy rain of liquid from toilets and water pipes and cooling systems… We splashed through, over towards the center of the building, where everything had been completely destroyed. (The way this works is that, as the building collapses, it drives each floor out from the center and then down – and then another floor, then another – and then when the building hits the ground, all that energy rebounds and the whole mass of rubble is driven inwards… The center of the building was absolutely pulverized.)
One end of the station was almost completely intact. The subway cars at the river end were untouched – but as we moved towards the front end of the station, the space reduced to literally nothing – whole subway cars were so flattened that there was zero height, not even an inch or two of crushed metal, they were completely smashed. We searched the subway cars as far along as we could, searched the platforms, searched the whole area. There was absolutely nobody – dead or alive.
Later, Steve and I went back in to see if there might be areas we had missed. Two of the Chicago Fire Department people (now ARTI members) came down with us. We split up underground. They headed for the shopping center area, which was pretty open space, safe and quite easy to search; Steve and I went back down into the subway system. We both came out at roughly the same time – and the Chicago guys were visibly stressed and excited. We all gathered – about 18 of us – and they told us what had happened to them.
While they were searching the shopping arcade, they had heard breaking glass. They immediately thought it might be a trapped victim, so they rushed towards the noise. They found an open area, with a layer of dust all over the floor. In the dust, there were two sets of footprints, leading to a jewellery store – and inside, there were two men. The men were stuffing gold Rolex watches from the display cases into their pockets. When these men saw the Chicago guys, they yelled at them that they were FBI, and to identify themselves, pulled out guns and forced them up against the wall. At gunpoint, the Chicago guys explained who they were and that they were down here searching for survivors. There was no way the FBI agents could have really suspected the firefighters: they were easily identifiable – they were in their fire uniforms. One of the firefighters, a guy named Mike, told them he was not intimidated by their guns, he had done two tours in Vietnam. He asked them straight out if they were having fun looting the jewellery cabinets. The FBI agents holstered their guns and told the guys to get out, right now. The firefighters took off, running.
We were all pretty disgusted to find FBI agents looting. We went over to the nearest security point, which was guarded by the NYPD. I took aside the officer in charge, a lieutenant, and told him the whole story. I explained that I used to be a cop, and that I didn’t care if was the FBI or who, I just didn’t like the fact they were in there, with so many thousands dead, looting; I did not want them to be allowed to get away with it. I explained to the lieutenant that I wanted him to make a formal report, and I wanted to be sure of a result. The lieutenant was as angry as me. He said he would absolutely push it through, and he guaranteed the report would go downtown, and would not be washed over. So we went back to work: when you are doing Rescue, you do not hang around. But when I next got back to the hotel, I immediately called Fox News, Inside Edition, every contact I had at a TV network, and every newspaper contact I knew as well. Other team members did the same with all the media people they knew. The story never even got reported – there was nothing at all.
Shortly after we made a fuss about the FBI looting, the two Chicago Firefighters disappeared. The Wisconsin guy, Rob, vanished too. Later, I made some calls and pieced it together. When news of what they had seen got out, the FBI came to ‘talk’ to them. Mike, the guy who had done tours in Vietnam, has a wife and child. It seems a few things were explained to him about what would be his best course of action from that point on… He ran. From my perspective, Vietnam or no, when the going got really tough, he chickened out. But then, for me, this kind of intimidation is old news. Rob split at the same time, because he was the one who had copied his ID to get the Chicago people in…
The rest of us continued searching.
We found more body parts. Steve found the arm of a very elegant lady – you could tell, because of the bracelet, the jewels, the manicure. The arm was extending up out of the rubble. When he went to remove the rubble, to get at the body, the arm just toppled over, it was all there was left of her. Steve flipped. He continued to work, pushing himself to the limit – but you could tell that moment had left an instant, and enduring scar inside him.
It wasn’t until a year later, on the anniversary of 9/11 that Steve almost in
tears at the site of my desperate condition confessed the real horror that
drove him over the limit. He, Robb and some NYPD had used my casualty
locator to find a cache of 9 NYPD Officers. It was gruesome. They were all
mutilated and dead but the one officer was bent over, leaning forward. His
eyeballs were danging by the optic nerves. The impact had made his eyes
pop out of their sockets. Steve is still messed up over it. I am sorry for his
grief but glad that my Casualty locator recovered another 9 bodies for
I later discovered that the ‘story’ of the woman’s arm and the firefighter with his eyes dangling were complete and total lies made up by Lentz because of some perverse part of his character that I truly can’t comprehend; however, it does enable me to understand why he would become part of Thompson Lang ‘s gang.