As part of my PTSD therapy, I am going to start sharing some of the things I saw and did during my 9/11 response. It is horrific but people need to know about it. It might be too emotional for some of you so please don’t read the thread if you think it might be upsetting.
I think most people don’t realize that the 9/11 terrorist attack was an FBI case and our crime scene. We were there at the beginning and never left. I was on our Evidence Responce Team (ERT) and the moment of the attacks, called my team leader and asked when are we going
Every agent wanted to do something and we were all begging to go. There were no thoughts or concerns about danger. We all wanted to be agents because we’re all the type that hear an explosion and immediately start running toward it and not away. We call it running to the boom
My team got the call to go in December. We flew to NY the day after Christmas. There were 8 of us on my team. Myself and 7 guys. As we landed, to see the skyline missing the twin towers was surreal.
The towers were so massive and collapsed straight down so the site couldn’t be searched there. They put the debris on barges and took it to the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island where construction equipment would place it in massive piles.
There were large, open fields and the equipment would grab a claw full and spread it across the fields where we would walk side by side and carefully inspect every centimeter of the debris. We weren’t looking for evidence, we knew who did it.
Our mission was simple - to find something, anything to bring closure to the family members of the victims.
Every morning, my team met in the lobby of the hotel at 0400. We all had to wear layers of clothing because we were working outside and the temps were in the teens. As we drove toward the landfill, it was pitch black dark out and you could see it looming in the distance
It was smoky and hazy from the dust and particulate in the air. It looked so eerie that the hairs stood up all over my body and a hush came over the van as it started to sink the the enormity of what we were about to see
We drove up the hill to a parking area. As we exited the van, you were immediately overwhelmed by the smell. I’ll never forget that first day. It smelled like death. For a brief instant, I wondered if I was going to be able to do it.
None of us spoke as we walked up the hill. There were a bunch of trailers set up as a sort of makeshift city along the outer edges of the debris fields. There was a large tent set up with boxes and boxes of donated clothing for us.
We were so inadequately prepared for the cold temps so that clothing was a life saver. I remember there was a giant box of pairs of socks. Notes were attached from children that said things like God bless you and thank you for your service.
I look back now and wonder if those children realize that we got their messages and how much it touched us. I hope they know.
After we grabbed socks and other winter clothing, we went into our trailer. We were fitted for masks and issued hard hats, protective goggles, rubber gloves and industrial rubber boots.
Once we were all geared up, we were assigned a debris field and immediately went to work. There were also members of the NYPD there. They had just built what they called warming houses for the responders but they hadn’t installed insulation or heat.
We took a 10 minute break every hour or so and we all huddled inside the little houses shivering and rubbing our hands together. When we were back outside it, the shivering stopped because we were so focused on the task at hand.
After the equipment spread out debris across our field, I slowly walked my lane and turned over each piece inspecting every bit of it. It didn’t take long that first day to start finding items. The first thing I found was a gold necklace with a locket that had photos in it
As I stared at the locket in my hand, I realized this belonged to someone who was a daughter, mother, sister, friend. This might be the only thing their family members would have left of them.
We put everything we found in large plastic buckets which we took to a special area when they were full. Human remains were taking directly to a separate area.
We worked straight through until the end of our shift. Then, we went through decon. We took off our tyvek suits and threw them away. Next was the layers of rubber gloves. Last, we had our boots scrubbed and then removed. After we exited decon, we scrubbed our hands
On the walls they had what was detected in the air that day. I rarely looked at those boards because it was never nothing so I instead chose to ignore them.
We then went into the mess hall to grab a bite before heading back to the hotel. We were all exhausted and humbled by what we’d seen so no one talked much. The Red Cross had volunteers who served us. We were so grateful to them and I hope they know that.
When we got back to the hotel, there was always a plateful of homemade cookies waiting on us. Well unless Cleveland beat us to it but that’s another story. We would all work out in the gym because no one wanted to be in their room, alone with their thoughts
On New Years Eve, the hotel owner had beer for us in an empty conference room. We sat with him and the rest of the team made plans to visit Ground Zero. I declined. I didn’t want to see the memorials to the victims and associate those faces with what I was finding
One day, we were given a tour of the entire landfill. In the back were rows and rows of cars stacked on each other. They were flat, burned out, and twisted. Most were police cars and fire engines
It was very somber as we realized the first responders that had arrived at Ground Zero in the vehicles probably didn’t survive the collapse of the towers. No one spoke as we drove through the rows. Speaking would’ve seemed irreverent and disrespectful
We were done with our shift but no one wanted to leave. We eventually did and when we got back to our hotel, no one worked out or went to eat. We all needed time to ourselves to process what we’d seen
One of the bottom levels had a Warner Brothers store in it. There were piles of Power Puff Girls that were partially burned or covered in 9/11 dust. The crane operators has strapped some onto the front of their equipment. It was so surreal. I can still see them clear as day
One of our last days, one of the cranes was lifting a claw full of debris to spread across our field. We all noticed something in the middle. It was the lower half of a leg, about halfway from the knee to the ankle, with a boot still on
The sky was still dark and hazy from the dust and the leg was the same color so it didn’t seem real. No one could move. They finally, gently and respectfully, lowered it to the ground so we could take it to the makeshift morgue. We didn’t speak the rest of the day
The next day we found one of the American flags that had been flying in front of the towers. We folded it properly in a makeshift ceremony giving it the respect it deserved. We took it to the trailer where significant finds were housed
We had our picture taken with it. Please don’t take the bunny ears behind my teammate’s head as a sign of disrespect. We did whatever we could to detach ourselves from what we found. The reality was too much for anyone to take
The last day, we were going through an area that had parts from one of the planes. We found several seat belt buckles with scraps of the belt material still attached. I couldn’t wrap my head around how they survived intact when everything else was pulverized to dust
The entire time we were there I never watched the news or read a paper. I suspected I’d be back and there was no way I could’ve functioned if I knew anything about the victims. When we got back to Chicago, there was no help or support to help us work through what we’d seen
We just went straight back to work never talking about what we’d seen. I just filed it away deep into my subconscious. Talking about it would’ve made it real and that wasn’t something I was prepared to face
2 months later my ERT team leader approached me and asked if I’d go back. The operation was winding down and they needed 4 people for another 2 week tour. Everyone knew what we’d been exposed to so no one wanted to go
I figured I’d already been exposed so why not go anyway. Little did I know that for each amount of hours you’re exposed, the higher your percentage that you’ll get sick. I’d just gotten married but my sense of duty was greater than my personal life. I’d sort that out later
It was the beginning of April when I went back. There wasn’t much debris left. Much of the debris was pulverized and fine. We stood by conveyor belts watching the small amounts of debris as it went by, picking out anything that we thought was human remains or personal effects
I found the FOP card of one of the police officers who didn’t make it out. I couldn’t stop staring at it. It was starting to sink in. Over the next days I found more items that still haunt me
Pieces of the firefighters jackets and boots. Parts of their hoses. More jewelry. Each day more of the same.
Our last night, before we flew back to Chicago, there was a special on the History Channel about 9/11 that was narrated by Mayor Giuliani. I decided to watch it.
It showed the standard footage we’d all seen of the planes hitting the towers. Toward the end, there was footage of a video someone had taken as the were walking down the stairs in one of the towers. It showed firefighters who were passing them on their way up.
It froze on one of them. He was wearing the jacket and boots and carrying a hose. The thought occurred to me it could’ve been parts of what he was wearing or the hose he was carrying that I’d found.
Out of nowhere, I began to hyperventilate and sob uncontrollably. I’d managed to keep it together all of that time but I’d made the error of associating a person with what I found. Clearly I wasn’t prepared for that.
I called my husband but couldn’t stop crying long enough to speak. He started playing a sort of game of charades over the phone. Asking me questions and I’d squeak in response if he was correct.
Did you see something? Squeak. Was it on TV? Squeak. Did it show the victims? Squeak. Are you okay? Silence. Can I do anything? Silence. He said he was so sorry and it would be okay. I hung up without ever speaking.
I went back to Chicago. Back to work and tried to act like I was okay. I wasn’t. I haven’t been since. I didn’t talk about it and instead buried it deep in my subconscious with everything else that was too painful to think about.
I still had a job to do and bad guys to find and lock up. I went on never looking back and prentending I was okay. No one asked if I was okay. No help was offered. I started having nightmares.
Then the physical symptoms started. When I’d put makeup on, my hands would shake and my fingers would go numb. I’d have to take breaks to shake them and get the blood flowing until I could feel my fingers.
I never went to the doctor. I was too afraid. So I just moved forward choosing to ignore the symptoms. I was able to function for another 8 years until more symptoms started.
I was in DC then working at our HQ as a supervisor. I was running half marathons and going for long runs almost every day. I started noticing that I was having severe pain in both shoulders and knees that would wake me up at night but of course I didn’t go to the doctor.
We’d been going through infertility treatments for about 5 years then. I had a tubal pregnancy and subsequent pregnancies with each procedure. The tubal pregnancy they told me was life threatening so I was given an injection of chemo that was supposed to kill growing cells.
It works 99% of the time. It didn’t work for me. I had to go back after a week and get another. This time it worked. When it kicked in the pain was so unbearable that I had to lay on the floor in the fetal position.
I had to go back every week for blood work until my pregnancy hormone levels were back to zero. I’d sit in the waiting room of the fertility clinic while couples were told they were pregnant and they were so happy. It seemed so unfair.
Every time after that I got pregnant and every time I lost it. They figured out I’d been getting pregnant all along on my own but was losing them before I took a test. They ran extensive tests on me and I was diagnosed with my first autoimmune disease.
Anti phospholipid antibody syndrome. It causes blood clots. That is why I couldn’t keep a pregnancy. I never thought to ask why I had it and instead moved forward.
Back at work, a canvass was put out for agents who had experience as a fingerprint expert and instructor to go to Afghanistan. There was only one in the entire Bureau. Me.
On out flight there, we stopped in the Canary Islands and Romania. Our final stop was in Kuwait. As we were approaching I was looking out the window then noticed I was seeing the same thing over and over. We were circling. Why weren’t we landing
We finally landed. A crew member informed us that one of the wing flaps was broken so we had to get it repaired. He said if it hadn’t been a military pilot, we would have all died.
Fast forward. At the end of my time in Afghanistan I started waking up at night with pain in my hands. When I got back I went to a hand specialist and was told I had carpal tunnel. I thought that was odd but never thought about why I had it.
I had surgery and went back to work. I started training for the Marine Corps Marathon. I started noticing I was having pain in my right hip and hip flexor. I didn’t go to the doctor and kept running, digging my fingers into my hip to quiet the pain.
I was almost finished with my last long training run before the marathon when the pain became so severe and my right hip just stopped functioning. I struggled to get the rest of the way to my car. I finally went to the doctor.
I was told I had such a massive amount of overgrown bone in and around my hip socket that it had shredded the labrum. I had to have surgery. The doctor had to dislocate my hip and pop it out of the socket then shaved down my femur and carved out my labrum.
I was on crutches for a long time because my femur was like styrofoam and any pressure on it could cause it to snap like a twig. Then I began what turned into 8 years of physical therapy.
I was promoted back to Chicago. Shortly after I moved, I continued my physical therapy. At one of my sessions I mentioned I couldn’t move my left shoulder. She could see it was dislocated. I went to see an orthopedist. He sent me for an MRI.
The doctor told me my left shoulder had damage at the end of the bone indicating that it had been out of the socket for about 5 years. As a result, I had 2 tears in the labrum, my ligaments were stretched severely and I had a tear in my rotator cuff.
I had surgery. He had to put my shoulder back in the socket, stretched the ligaments from the front to the back of my shoulder and secured them with anchors, repaired the labrum and rotator cuff. I was in constant pain for 4 months.
Of course I worked the whole time. About a year later, my right shoulder went. I required another surgery. The bones had fused together so he removed the extra bone. At my follow up, he strongly suggested I see a rheumatologist. Of course I didn’t.
Another year or so passed. I developed bakers cysts on the back of both knees. My leftknee swelled up with fluid and looked like a giant watermelon. My firearms scores started going down and I was having trouble gripping my pistol.
I had to go to the ER and have the fluid removed from my knee. The doc numbed it but it still incredibly painful. He took out a huge syringe full of fluid. He said it was so painful because the synovium was abnormally thick. He asked if I’d seen a rheumatologist.
I still didn’t make an appointment with one. A few months later, I threw my back out and was laid up on the couch for 2 weeks. I noticed I had started to gain weight but I ignored it. I went back to work. Then the extreme fatigue started.
I was unable to function after a while. I finally saw a rheumatologist and was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. I continued physical therapy and started taking a bunch of meds. I wasn’t getting better. Most days I couldn’t function enough to go to work.
I thought I was going insane. How had such a healthy person become so sick. I started doing research. I found countless research and articles about 9/11 responders being sick. I reached out to our agents association and asked if other responding agents were sick.
He said there are a ton of you. I broke down. I had to leave the office. I sobbed the entire way home. I wasn’t crazy, this was real. I found out several of my peers were sick and about a dozen had already passed away from their 9/11 related illnesses.
I tried to qualify at the range but when I finished I only had 4 holes in my target. I’d fired 60. I decided that day I couldn’t physically do my job anymore. I started the process of medically retiring.
My husband filed for divorce. I’m not mad. I understand. Many people with chronic illnesses and pain have the same happen to them. It just became too overwhelming for him. I started losing friends too.
I’m seeing docs now who know abt the 9/11 responders/their illnesses. I finally have hope for the 1st time in years. There is no cure for what I have & there will be more diagnoses coming. My doctor said they’ve never seen this amount of joint damage in anyone under the age of 72
Now y’all know my story and why I get so mad when people ridicule me and say I made it all up and am faking it. I shared all of this to bring awareness. People need to know our stories. Thank you for allowing me to share my story and for your support.
I will be responding to all of your DMs and tweets of support. It might take a while but I want y’all to know just how much I appreciate each and every one of you ❤️
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