A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

October 2001/November 2001

Waiting for the Call: The September Eleventh Disaster

By Jim Belshaw

It smelled the same as war. It looked the same as war. Grant Coates, the vice president of VVA’s New York State Council, thought the memory of it might have been one of the good things he brought back from Vietnam. "Been there, done that," he thought.

He knew the physics of war's destruction, recognized its immutable laws. He'd been in combat with the Army Rangers. He'd been a tracker, working with a Labrador retriever to find the

enemy when contact broke off. He built a civilian career as a police officer and worked K-9 there, too. Now he was retired and working part-time for the Delaware County, New York, sheriff, himself a Vietnam veteran who was in-country about the same time Coates was.

Coates had been around death and violence all his adult life. The professions he chose made it unavoidable. When the call came on September 11, instinct and experience fell into place, and he knew another mission had come. He knew what to expect and how to prepare. He knew it would be nasty. He knew there would be the smell of death in the air.

He'd been there and done that, 32 years ago in another war.

But the World Trade Center had to be assessed on a heretofore unknown scale. A mountain of rubble, 1.2 million tons of it, thick steel beams twisted like pretzels, thousands of dead and missing, a range of destruction that dwarfed those who approached it.

"When you're talking about something of this magnitude, I don't think they have a think tank to consider all the logistics," he said.

The first night, as they walked toward Ground Zero, the civilians on the sidewalks watching them go by checkpoints looked like zombies. Two blocks away, he saw the pile of rubble where the two great buildings once stood.

"You could see the cranes with these gigantic claws taking the rubble out," he said. "I have a picture of three workers walking past a claw, and this claw, you could probably put around a dump truck. But from where we were, the claws looked like Tonka toys on a beach. Unless you were up close, and you could see the size of the claw and the size of the pile the claw was working on, you didn't get the perspective of how big the pile was."

He had been working a private security job for United Way on September 11 and had just checked into a motel when television news showed the black smoke billowing from the first tower.

Coates grew up in Manhattan, on the West Side. He looked at the burning building, and the first thing he thought of was the World War II bomber that crashed into the Empire State Building long ago. He wondered how something like that could happen with today's aviation equipment.

Then the second plane came.

"I knew right away we'd be going," he said. "They were going to need our help."

A message went out from New York State Emergency Services to the sheriff's office, the message Coates anticipated after he saw the second plane explode inside the World Trade Center tower. The sheriff turned over the operation's planning to Coates.

He made calls, interviewed prospective team members, and in four hours had assembled an eleven-man squad, many of them part-timers who took time from their regular jobs to go.

His wife, Kaye, was on the phone, too. In two hours, they had rounded up $4,500 in equipment. A clothing company sold T-shirts at cost with no labor for the printing that would identify them as sheriff's deputies. A drug manufacturing company gave $4,000 in supplies, masks, and other equipment. Kaye's co-workers made cookies for the deputies to share onboard the ship on which they would be bivouacked.

"One of the ladies who made apple brownies lost her son in the Beirut Marine barracks attack," Kaye wrote to The VVA Veteran editor Mokie Porter. "He was her only son. She said `God bless them for helping.’ Another lady I work with, her 10-year-old son is having a tough time. She said he built a tower from building blocks the other day and then flew a plane around it. He kept trying to figure out how it happened. When she asked him to help her make the cookies, he wanted to help the deputies find the people. Pretty special stuff."

The Delaware deputies had not been summoned to search for survivors. Recovery had replaced rescue as the mission. They looked instead for evidence, combing the great mass of rubble brought to the Staten Island landfill. They worked in a cold rain, sifting the pile for the airplanes' black boxes and other aircraft parts; looking for body parts, personal effects, firefighter's hats, police shields, IDs, credit cards--anything identifiable.

"Two areas, football fields, surrounded by generator lights," Coates said. "Each item was logged in."

Everywhere they went, the outpouring of aid from civilians amazed them. Cops had much experience with abuse and little with pats on the back. Crowds were always trouble--until September 11, when they became something different.

"A complete 180," he said. "We train for the worst; we don't train mentally for people being nice. The care that total strangers gave us, it's not something we're used to in law enforcement."

People sent soap, food, toiletries, toothpaste, clothes, boots, shower sandals, gloves, helmets, batteries, and miner's lights for the helmets. They sent so much the workers on the ground couldn't hand it out fast enough. "Everybody was standing up to help somebody else," Coates said.

Everywhere they went, it never changed--thanks for the help, God bless you--and especially so at the Jesuit retreat where they stayed and met Father Ryan, who gave them not only food and shelter but healthy doses of wit.

"It was like out of M*A*S*H," Coates said. "The first time I saw him, he was wearing a t-shirt and he had a cigar in his mouth. He'd pop up at all hours of the night just to see if we were okay. He'd say, 'Don't forget the kitchen is always open. No locks on the doors. If you see something you want, take it.’ He had a salad bar and said, `Now that will always be full of ice and it will have juices and water and beer and carafes of wine, and every now and then I'll come out with a non-denominational bottle of scotch for you.’"

Then it was back into the streets--a gray, haunted landscape filled with aching backs, skinned knuckles, and exhausted men and women on a mission.

"We were walking to a Salvation Army feeding point about 7:30 one night," he said. "We noticed everything was dead silent. Nobody was talking. The reason was because about a hundred search-and-rescue people were coming down the street with their dogs, heading into Ground Zero. They were all volunteers."

A gray, moonscape dust covered everything. The slightest breeze blew it off the ledges of tall buildings, the small airborne particles sucked into lungs and irritated eyes. The city made an all-out effort to clean it up, sending out street sweepers, watering the streets, sending out crews with brooms and shovels to do the job by hand.

"It was like sand in your eyes," Coates said. "You could feel it on your face. Everything was covered with this pumice dust from the stones and bricks and concrete that had been vaporized. It was like being on a beach on a windy day. You kept getting sandblasted. There were lots of eye abrasion problems."

At the landfill, they called the pile "The Hill," 300,000 tons of rubble by the third week of October, The New York Times reported. By October 21, The Times said, 1,766 body parts and about 1,600 personal items that might lead to identifications had been found.

Grant Coates said he never could shake the feeling that they were missing something, a small piece of evidence, a personal item that would bring some sense of closure to the family of a loved one missing.

Underscoring it all was a sense of simply not being able to do enough. "At Ground Zero, everyone was doing everything they could, but you still have this feeling of helplessness," he said. "With millions of tons of mountain, you just can't get into the middle of it. There was a lot frustration. But we're ready to go back. I have two teams ready to go. We're just waiting on the call."

Robert Cortez

By Jim Belshaw

The conference room doors blew open. The rush of wind hit the officers in the meeting room and the concussion made their ears pop. Col. Robert Cortez instantly knew what it was. He had

heard such sounds before. He was a Vietnam veteran. He knew the concussions, the rush of wind, the smoke and fire. The Pentagon had been hit. It was under attack. He was certain of it.

The New Mexico Army officer had reported for work on September 10, the first day of his two-week summer camp with the Undersecretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs at the Pentagon. On September 11, he was moved to a different office, down one of the corridors of the Pentagon’s famed labyrinth.

He had heard such sounds before. He was a Vietnam veteran. He knew the concussions, the rush of wind, the smoke and fire. The Pentagon had been hit.

The move might have saved his life. It put him a little farther away from the point of impact when the airliner slammed into the building.

He had been in a meeting for about an hour when word came of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. The meeting broke up temporarily so the officers could find out what had

happened in Manhattan.

Five minutes after they reconvened, the Pentagon’s corridors exploded into fire and smoke, "There were people hollering and screaming and crying and we said, `Don’t panic,’ ‘‘ Cortez said. "I was thinking there were 23,000 people in the Pentagon and I just hoped we could get them out safely without any panic. We needed to get people organized. I like to think of it as organized chaos."

Cortez accounted for the attendees at the meeting and then evacuated the building. As he headed toward a bus stop outside, an Army medic called out to him for help with a patient.

"An Army officer, Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, had been severely burned," Cortez said. "I ran over to the medic and helped as best I could. The medic already had him on a gurney and had begun IVs. But there were no ambulances."

Knowing the Army officer probably would die without medical attention, they went to an Arlington police officer and told him they needed to find a way to get the injured man to a hospital. They stopped a firefighter and told him. No ambulance came.

Finally, they flagged down a civilian SUV, a Ford Expedition. They loaded the burned officer into it. A motorcycle police officer offered to escort them, but didn’t want to leave the area completely because she thought she would be needed at the crash site.

A Navy sailor came by on a motorcycle and offered to escort the SUV. Later, the sailor would admit that he was new to Washington, had no idea where the hospital was, but somehow managed to get the SUV there anyway, running over sidewalks, medians and going against traffic on the way.

"When you’re trained, you just react," Cortez said. "You don’t realize how ingrained it is. It's that instinct kicking in and people doing what's needed to be done."

When he went back to the Pentagon the next day, he said he was broken-hearted at the sight, the center of defense in the United States, still burning, an ugly scar slashed through it.

"I was moved to tears," he said.

Two days later, he watched media reports from inside the Pentagon and realized how close to death he’d come.

"It really hit me," he said. "I came that close to getting killed."

Later, he was moved to another location and unit. He met Capt. Calvin Wineland. The two men spoke of the attacks. Cortez told Wineland about the injured officer and the SUV and the

sailor escort to the hospital.

"Wineland said, 'Hey, that was me! I was driving the Expedition,’ "Cortez said.

The injured officer is out of intensive care now but still in the hospital. Cortez wants to meet him but will hold off until the Army officer recovers more fully.

"I didn’t know him," he said. "We were only helping an injured comrade. I’d like to meet him."

Cortez said the Pentagon is a different place now, security being uppermost in the minds of everyone in the building. Vehicles, packages, letters, everything is scrutinized with a heightened awareness.

More than that, Cortez senses a deeper change.

"We’re focused, we’re determined," he said. "This is our home territory. They’re not going to get away with this."

Mary Miller

By Jim Belshaw

"There was a lot of disbelief," Mary Miller said. "You live in Shanksville or Johnstown, and you think you live in a rural area where it’s safe. You don’t think about terrorists in your back yard."

Yet there they were on September 11, flying above her, banking toward the Johnstown Airport, wings unsteady, the Boeing 757-200 coming in at an odd angle, then turning awkwardly, headed for Shanksville ten miles away, where the airliner would slam into an old strip mine, killing everyone aboard.

Miller, the Vice President of Associates of tnam Veterans of America, had been at a meeting at a Marine Corps hangar at the Johnstown Airport. A board member for the Vietnam Veterans Leadership/Veterans Community Initiative, she was involved in the planning of a fund-raiser banquet.

Shortly after the meeting began, the participants were told an airplane had struck the World Trade Center in New York. They turned on the television. They watched a second plane hit the World Trade Center.

"We were astounded," she said. "Then the next thing we knew a loudspeaker in the hangar announced that the Pentagon had been hit."

Orders came to clear all vehicles out of the parking lot.

"Before we could even move, we were then told to evacuate the building immediately because an unidentified jet was on its way to Johnstown Airport at less than 6,000 feet and not responding to the air control tower," she said.

She went outside to her car. United Flight 93 came into view, low, headed toward the airport.

"It was wobbling," she said. "It wasn’t flying slow and steady. The wings weren’t stable the way you’d expect. And I thought, ‘What is going on up there?’ "

Later, she learned with the rest of the nation that the passengers on United Flight 93 had chosen to fight the hijackers. Speculation on the intended target of the terrorists centered on Camp David, the White House, or the Capitol. The passengers brought the jet down in Shanksville, ten miles from where Mary Miller stood.

"There were a lot of brave people on that plane," she said. "My heart goes out to their families. There are so many thoughts that go through your head. It’s unbelievable that this could be happening in the United States. The World Trade Center, the Pentagon--heaven only knows what would have happened if the passengers hadn’t brought it down."

She thinks people are calming down now, trying to return to their lives as best they can. She is also certain that a fundamental change has come, too.

"You had the Oklahoma City bombing, the USS Cole, now the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," she said. "I think we blind ourselves sometimes, but I don’t think we’ll be complacent anymore. I heard someone the other day talking about the draft coming back and a gentleman said it’s already here. Everybody in the United States has been drafted. He’s right. We are."


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