Local responders look back on ground zero duty as ‘personal badge of courage and honor’
Originally published by the San Jose Mercury News Sept. 11, 2011.
By Sean Webby
Most have mementos of their mission in Manhattan a decade ago: sad, stirring photos of them working themselves into exhaustion on the smoking wreckage; a small medal for their service; a piece of the shattered street address of 1 World Trade Center that a firefighter found in the debris.
Many of the Northern California emergency workers also brought back chronic health problems, rashes, bloody noses, a respiratory condition so common its nickname is “World Trade Center Cough.”
All of them have memories, nightmarish ones, that make them tear up 10 years later recalling the import and bonding of a job that left them so covered with dirt and debris that emergency workers from San Mateo were indistinguishable from those from Staten Island.
“It will be a personal badge of courage and honor we will all carry with us the rest of our lives,” said Menlo Park fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman, who led a local task force that responded to Manhattan after 9/11 and still suffers from a chronic shortness of breath. “All of us were grateful for that opportunity.”
About 130 firefighters, engineers, emergency workers and others flew on military planes from the Bay Area to New York City to help within the first days and weeks of the attacks.
There is the Palo Alto rescue worker who today keeps an urn with the ashes of her beloved rescue dog that died of cancer years after his most important job. There is the San Jose State police officer who was there in the chaotic Manhattan streets, trying to help the terrified dust-covered crowds streaming away from the toppled towers.California emergency workers who went to help have mixed emotions on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Many suffering health problems will be able to tap into a new compensation fund for out-of-state responders. But New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg limited the official guests for the Sept. 11 memorial service, leaving out the thousands of out-of-town emergency workers who had gone there to help.
Some, like Schapelhouman, say it devalued the service of those who served and could use their own closure. Oakland fire Captain Kevin Nuuhiwa said he respected the decision because he felt his colleagues’ sacrifices should never be compared to those of the men and women who were killed.
“That was my honor to be there,” Nuuhiwa said. “It’s my job, and, frankly, it was about being on somewhat hallowed ground.”
“Hazmat” Harry Jackson, a San Jose firefighter, will always remember the commander who told him he could not tell rescue workers to evacuate a shifting pile of rubble even if there was poisonous gas. They had to get to a firefighter’s body.
Crawling through unstable piles of jagged steel beams for a week to find nothing but body parts, Jackson understood. The week after 9/11, there were times to do the job with the utmost devotion and there were times to understand that some devotions trumped others.
“You hear that bell and there is a fire. You get pumped up because you are going to work,” said the veteran fire captain. “This was even more. You hear the bell and this is an all-out attack on our country.”
They slept underneath tables and desks at a convention center. Their jobs began as a search for survivors under layers of steel and quickly became a task of recovering the dead. Nuuhiwa and Oakland fire Lt. Chuck Garcia helped discover the bodies of an entire command post of New York firefighters buried so deep it took two weeks to get to them.
Shirley Hammond, a Palo Alto rescue worker, searched a sector of “The Pile” with Sonny Boy, a Doberman pinscher she had trained to find survivors.
At one point, Sonny Boy started pawing near firefighters cutting a steel beam to find their team leader. It was strange because pawing was a sign for cadaver dogs, not rescue dogs. Later, a firefighter told her that Sonny Boy had keyed on the dead firefighter, whose body was soon recovered.
Sonny Boy fell ill three years after he came back from Manhattan. A tumor in his neck grew until it killed the Doberman. Hammond suspects the toxic dust led to Sonny Boy’s illness, as it did for many search dogs that worked at ground zero. He and other rescue dogs could not wear filtration masks as did most of the humans. It would have impaired their ability to smell.
With the help of the Doberman Pinscher Club of America, Hammond returned this week to New York for a service for the dogs that served at ground zero.
“He was a special boy,” she said.
San Jose State police Lt. Frank Belcastro was a captain at the time with the NYPD and commandeered the Staten Island Ferry shortly after the planes crashed into the twin towers.
The iconic boat, which usually brings commuters and tourists to and from Manhattan past the Statue of Liberty, was filled with police officers, firefighters and their equipment. But it was stopped dead in the middle of the harbor. A dust storm from the toppled south tower had enveloped the ferry dock. The ferry operator didn’t want to take the boat in.
That wasn’t an option. “I went up to the captain and persuaded him to take the boat in,” Belcastro said. “I wasn’t going to abandon the city in that time of need.”
When they landed in lower Manhattan, there was chaos, thousands of people ghost white.
Belcastro recalled trying to calm an officer who ran toward the wreckage trying to find his missing brother. Then the second tower collapsed. In the cloud of confusion, Belcastro and his team went back and rescued him.
Belcastro, who still suffers from a chronic nasal irritation, moved to California a few years ago, to retire and soak up some sun. Now he patrols the San Jose State campus, where most of the students were in elementary school when the towers fell.
As he looks at students strolling across campus, he hopes the next generation truly appreciates the heroes who ran into the towers that day.
“I didn’t do anything spectacular. I did my job,” Belcastro said. “The real heroes went into those buildings to save total strangers.”
Contact Sean Webby at 408-920-5003.