Melrose Firefighters Remember Responding to Ground Zero
Two days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, two Melrose firefighters went to Ground Zero to help out. Ten years later, they recall that day.
Editor's note: From across the country, Melrose Patch and hundreds of others Patch sites across the country captured the faces, keepsakes, memorials, ceremonies, flags, fund-raisers, deployments and the still-raw emotions that followed the attacks. Taken together they create a powerful mosaic that is large in scope but often deeply personal. Click through to see how your neighbors near and far marked the day. Below are the stories of two Melrose firefighters included in the mosaic.
Melrose Fire Capt. Jim Winslow and Firefighter Daryl MacLeod stood in a line at Ground Zero on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001, helping to remove debris, finding voids in the rubble, checking for survivors.
“Every once in a while, while we were working—and especially as it started to get dark—you’d hear whistles, shouts," Winslow said. "Everybody would stop because they’d want to listen to see if we could hear anything. And it was …”
His voice cracks. Winslow takes a deep breath, balling his right hand into a loose fist and lightly tapping the armrest of the black office chair, swiveling to look at the firehouse wall as he composes himself.
“It was at times like that when we stood back and looked around, that it was overwhelming.”
MacLeod vividly recalled a steel worker dangling from a crane during the rescue and recovery efforts.
"I’ll never forget the steelworker," MacLeod said. "They kept sending him way down in a hole off a crane. He was going way down and he’d come back up."
Like Winslow, MacLeod remembered the silence that would fall over Ground Zero whenever a dog would alert searchers or workers thought they heard a voice amongst the rubble, and the person in charge of the search would give the all-quiet sign.
"You could hear a pin drop," MacLeod said. "Until he said to start digging again, we just stood there. You know, you did whatever they wanted. I mean you have to …" He paused.
"I don’t know. I just hope we gave some of the guys in New York a little breather. That’s all we were trying to do."
An impromptu train ride to NYC
The two Melrose firefighters arrived in lower Manhattan two days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Winslow already had time off scheduled for his annual performance with a local bagpipe band in Colorado, and he and MacLeod spoke shortly after the attacks and heard about other firefighters traveling to New York to help out any way they could.
On that Thursday morning, they hopped on the Acela train out of South Station and eventually arrived at Penn Station, three miles north of Ground Zero.
"As soon as we got out of Penn Station, the smoke ..." MacLeod said. "We were carrying our gear and people were saying, 'Thanks for helping' and this and that."
Winslow said a New York Police cruiser spotted them walking and picked them up, taking them to a fire station in Tribeca, blocks away from the World Trade Center, from where they were quickly shuttled away to Ground Zero.
"Ironically, the Cambridge Fire captain that we were with, that was part of our merry little band, looked just like some New York firefighter," Winslow said with a smile. "It kind of worked in our favor. One of the crews that was getting ready to go back to work saw us, thought he was 'Paulie,' he wasn’t 'Paulie,' but said, 'C’mon with us and we’ll put you to work.'"
Firefighters, cops and steelworkers go to work
Down in the rubble, the two firefighters spent the better part of the next four hours working in a line of passing debris back from where workers were digging, removing the debris off site. Winslow said the line started with 20-30 people, and eventually turned into 100 people as word got out that the site was back open for workers.
"We were working with cops, there was a ton of steelworkers there, firefighters from New York, lots of volunteers," he said. "And then slowly as things progressed and things started to fan out, my group, we ended up at the beginning of the work line and pretty much removing debris and looking for things. We were probably there a good 18 hours—searching and removing debris, finding voids, checking them out."
Winslow and MacLeod shook their heads as they recalled the supply system in place to provide workers with whatever tools they needed while working the lines. Workers called down the line for batteries or acetylene bottles for cutting torches, and within minutes, the supplies were handed back up the line.
"Anything you’d ask for would come back up that line," Winslow said, adding with a chuckle. "If you asked for a blond with blue eyes, I have no doubt they would’ve produced one and she would’ve come up the line. That aspect of it was truly amazing."
'Cutting and pulling like he was looking for a relative'
What else amazed Winslow were the steelworkers—"You'd expect this sort of behavior out of public safety types, because that's usually how we roll," he said—and in particular, one steelworker with a Green Bay Packers sticker on his hard hat.
Winslow mentions him early in the conversation, catches himself and after a long pause, says he'll "get back to that." Later in the conversation, he recalls the steelworker's relentlessness.
"He was down at the end of that line, cutting and pulling like he was looking for a relative," he said. "These guys were tireless. In their mind, like with the public safety types, there was nowhere else he was going to be. This is exactly where he was going to be, doing this until he was exhausted. That was the most memorable."
Also memorable, especially in the moments when they stopped and took in everything around them, was the stark landscape of Ground Zero.
"One thing that amazed me was how many fires were still burning," MacLeod said. "You look up and there’s a huge fire going—they weren’t even putting water on it. They must’ve just figured, this is what they were doing. I guess the building was gone anyways, they were just letting it burn up."
Staying busy almost provided an odd respite, but pausing and taking it all in?
"I tried to keep my mind off what I was looking at," MacLeod said. "Keep it to what we were trying to find. Because once you started looking around, it was too much to comprehend.
“And the magnitude of it—it took the strength out of my legs," Winslow said. "You’d think of all the spaces that were—of all the area that was there, we’re digging in this one little patch. It was just unbelievable.
Volunteers, friends remembered
After a full day of work into the wee hours of Friday morning, Winslow recalled the grayness of the landscape—"It reminded me of pictures of the surface of the moon"—and ending up a Battery Park, where a man, "just some guy," had a shopping cart filled with sandwiches, socks and supplies, dragging it around and handing out to everyone volunteering.
"Watching him drag that cart ... a lot of heart."
One aspect that didn't hit MacLeod until he came home was the loss of Garnet 'Ace' Bailey and Mark Bavis, both of whom MacLeod knew from his days as a hockey player at Boston University and later for the Wichita Wind, the Edmonton Oilers' minor league team. MacLeod is friends with Bavis' twin brother Mike, an associate hockey coach at BU—where the alumni booth was dedicated to Mark—and knew Bailey from his time in the Edmonton organization.
"I saw Ace a lot then," he said. "I played in Wichita and Ace would come out all the time. I was with my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, and we knew him and we had watched him play hockey."
Both men were working as NHL scouts when they boarded United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston’s Logan Airport on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I didn’t know they were on the planes," he said. "I don’t know ... It’s hard to believe it happened. You try to forget about it, but it’s just—you pray it never happens again."
Before they came home, however, Winslow and MacLeod caught some sleep at the Tribeca fire station where—to their amazement—the New York firefighters offered their beds to the firefighters from around the country who had shown up to volunteer. They turned them down, and Winslow recalled with a smile one of the few moments of levity from the trip.
"We were a little leery," he said. "This place is full of pranks and we were thinking we’d get settled in and at two in the morning, the guy who owned that bed would show up and wonder what we were doing there."
Even with the recovery efforts underway at Ground Zero, it was still an operating firehouse. That day, MacLeod said some of the firefighters had to go out and fight a three-to-four alarm fire.
Winslow said he ended up on the fourth floor sleeping on a couch and, he said while laughing, "discovered about halfway through the night I wasn't the only thing inhabiting the couch." In the morning, he awoke to a full firehouse.
"I come downstairs into the main bay and it was just incredible—there were guys literally sleeping on top of ping pong tables," he said. "The net was still up. There were guys under it. People just laid out everywhere. The New York guys couldn’t stop thanking us for showing up."
"Just when we were leaving, shaking our hands and having a New York firefighter say 'thank you,' you just felt like you did something." MacLeod said. "We didn’t really ... we weren’t there that long, but it was just to give them a little breather."