SAFD firefighters remember the horror of ground zero

Six SAFD firefighters went to NYC after 9/11 as part of a FEMA urban search and rescue team

SAN ANTONIO – Everyone knows where they were when the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell on Sep. 11, 2001, but for those who came to help, the days that followed produced their own haunting memories, too.

Twenty years later, those memories are still strong.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long,” said retired SAFD Capt. Dennis Meier. “I remember just about every night I was up there.”

Meier was one six SAFD firefighters who responded to ground zero in the wake of the Sep. 11 attacks as part of the Texas-based FEMA urban search and rescue team, Texas A&M Task Force 1 -- known at the time simply as Texas Task Force 1. A San Antonio IT worker and a Castle Hills firefighter were also among the task force members.

In what was its first federal deployment, TX-TF1 spent nine days, between Sep. 19 and Sept. 27, working around the clock, sorting through the debris and helping to search for human remains.

“So we were working six-foot long torches, cutting steel. We were moving buckets. Whatever needed done, we would do,” recalled SAFD Engineer Shane George, who also deployed with the task force.

The task force members had mustered at College Station on Sep. 11, but they only left Texas on Sep. 17 out of Austin Bergstrom International Airport, landing in New Jersey. They spent the night at Fort Dix and were bussed to New York City on Sep. 18.

Both Meier and George distinctly remembered the moment their team first set eyes on ground zero.

“We came over this bridge from one of the rivers near New York. And, you know, a bunch of firemen get together and they’re always talking, talking, talking, talking, talking,” Meier said. “And as soon as we crested that bridge, you saw a bunch of lights and a ton of smoke, and it just got dead silent on that bus. Never seen anything like that.”

The team was set up at the Jacob K. Javitis Convention Center and split into two groups, working in alternating, 12-hour shifts.

By the time they got there, Meier said, “all the rescues were pretty well done.”

“I remember one particular day we were up on the pile and one of the other responders said, ‘Hey, watch where you’re stepping,’ because all you had was little pieces of clothing and some part of a body was in that little piece of clothing, and they didn’t want us stepping on it, which I don’t blame them. But, you know, I’ve never made a response like that. It was totally new to me,” he said.

The destruction from the towers’ collapse was complete and unsettling.

“So 220 floors of offices, right? No keyboards, hardly any phones or office equipment. It was just that much of an impact that everything just turned to powder,” George said. “Every once while you find objects, or shoes, or things like that. Sometimes you would find some office equipment, but you’d look up at a building that was next to it that got sheared. And you look up and there’s a picture frame hanging perfectly. On a 15th floor of an apartment next to a building next to it. So it was just that it came down so quickly and so fast when it sheared through that building, it didn’t even disturb that picture frame six feet from where it’s here.”

Meier said the task force members received post-traumatic stress debriefings on their return to College Station and again through the City of San Antonio. Through both of those, he thought he didn’t have any issues.

But the “horror” of what he saw wasn’t so easily shaken.

“And that was in September,” Meier said. “So October comes around and you’ve got Halloween coming up. I’m sure you guys have seen it where somebody will put a prop arm hanging out of a trunk of a car. And I saw that once, and it just broke me up. So some of that stuff does stick with you.”

Even now, 20 years later, Meier said he’s fine if he doesn’t think about those nine days, “but if I start thinking about it, it starts to get to me.”

“I was really, really glad I responded and was able to do some work up there and do some good,” Meier said. “But I hope I never have to see anything like that again.”

The emotional toll of the time at ground zero isn’t something George can easily speak about either. What helps, though, is being around the task force members with whom he deployed.

“It’s just one of those things that you can - you can look at those guys and know - and talk about it, not talk about it, just joke about something else. But you’re being around those same guys,” he said.

And no one will ever to have urge George or Meier to remember that pivotal moment in not only the county’s history but their own.

“Tomorrow morning, I am out of town, but I’m going to be -- there’s a nearby fire station, and they have a flagpole, and I’m going to be there,” George said.

EXTENDED INTERVIEWS

You can watch extended versions of George and Meier’s recollections below:

SAFD Engineer Shane George extended interview

SAFD Capt. Dennis Meier extended interview


About the Author:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.