Detective shares inside story of Ground Zero at Naperville memorial

Working at ground zero in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks wasn't about the rubble, the debris, the mess.

It was about the people, the emotions, the healing.

That's what retired New York police detective Brian Hastings said Thursday as he shared the inside story of ground zero with a crowd of a few hundred gathered in Naperville to mark the 13th anniversary of the tragedy.

At the memorial to Cmdr. Dan Shanower, the Naperville native killed in the attacks, Hastings said the rescue and recovery efforts he helped with for 10 months were really about connections and personal stories, such as his quest to find the missing firefighter husband of one New York woman who was pregnant with her third child.

Hastings met the woman less than a week after the attacks killed 2,996 people in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001. She showed him pictures of her two sons, begging him to help find their father, no matter what it would take.

As the days passed and the pile of material from the toppled towers gradually shrank, the woman's husband was nowhere to be found. But Hastings said he kept answering her calls, comforting her if he could and letting her stop by the site as crews worked.

"A good day for us was when we had recoveries," Hastings said. "We really looked forward to those days because we were able to do our job and recover the victims."

It would take 14 weeks and a one-day break for Christmas to find the woman's husband, whose body was the first that crews discovered on Dec. 26, 2001, Hastings said.

"It was, without a doubt, one of the saddest places on Earth to be, but it was something we needed to do because we wanted to bring everyone home," Hastings said.

Hastings also shared the connection he's developed with Naperville after the worst terrorist attacks on American soil. Through a friendship he formed with retired Naperville fire captain Chuck Wehrli, who also helped with ground zero recovery, Hastings said he helped Naperville leaders get the piece of World Trade Center steel they used in the memorial to Shanower, who was killed at the Pentagon.

Attendees at the remembrance ceremony Thursday listened with solemn faces and bowed heads as Hastings spoke after remarks from Naperville Mayor George Pradel. When news of the attacks broke, Pradel said he left a meeting at the Freedom Commons development on the city's north side to return to city hall and begin coordinating ways for the city to respond together. Thirteen years later, Pradel said the city needs to "keep that fire going in our hearts" and continue to value freedom in the memory of those who died.

"It's an inspiration to all of us," Pradel said about the way recovery crew members such as Hastings responded to the tragedy. "And it's a reminder to love each other."

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  Naperville leaders and residents gather Thursday at the Cmdr. Dan Shanower memorial for a Sept. 11 remembrance ceremony. Mark Black/
  Naperville residents gather on the Riverwalk Thursday to listen to the city's Sept. 11 remembrance ceremony at the Cmdr. Dan Shanower memorial. Mark Black/
The Naperville Fire Department honor guard stands at attention Thursday during the Naperville Sept. 11 remembrance ceremony at the Cmdr. Dan Shanower memorial.
Jeffery Crowell of Naperville, a retired member of the Department of Homeland Security, attends the city's Sept. 11 remembrance ceremony on Thursday evening at the Cmdr. Dan Shanower memorial.
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