Suburban firefighters recall time volunteering at ground zero
Nothing could prepare them for the unthinkable.
Not the images on television nor the counseling of a fire department chaplain.
But they felt the adrenaline kick in as they stood by the rubble and a New York City fire chief introduced them to 16 acres of destruction that once was the World Trade Center:
"Welcome to hell."
The group of 87 firefighters from Chicago and the suburbs volunteered in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They took 10- to 12-hour shifts at ground zero and tried to sleep on the sidewalk a few blocks away. And yet, despite the emotional toll, they call it an honor, a privilege to help their friends in New York.
"What you saw in the pictures was nothing. To be there and see it was ... just devastation," said Bob Hoff, now Carol Stream's fire chief and then a district chief in Chicago.
Hoff is traveling this weekend to the Sept. 11 memorial for the first time since he responded to the World Trade Center site 15 years ago. Others will pray for the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11 in ceremonies closer to home. And like every year, they will touch base with each other and make sure "everyone's good."
"I think many of us went through a situation where you kind of shut down emotionally," said Jack Schneidwind, a Schaumburg firefighter who went on the trip with then co-workers Rick Kolomay and Butch Adams. "I know I did."
'That's what we do'
Hoff, who oversaw training and later became commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department, helped put out the word for volunteers. They made trades with firefighters who covered their shifts so they could go to New York City.
Outside the city's fire academy, they packed trucks and vans with gear, saws, bottles of water. By a stroke of luck, Chicago firefighters had switched into new breathing apparatus. Hoff and his crew brought the older style, the same kind used by a New York department devastated by the loss of lives and equipment in the collapse of the twin towers.
The group, including Hoff's son, Andy, now a Downers Grove firefighter, and others from Evergreen Park and Aurora, said goodbye to their families and received a blessing by the chaplain before driving to Manhattan about a day after the attacks.
The New York chief laid out a few ground rules when the group arrived at ground zero. Only FDNY crews could move the body of one of their own.
"Your company goes and gets you and brings you out," Hoff said of a point of pride in the fire service. "And that's what New York did. They carried their own people out."
The job was precarious, scaling the steel. Schneidwind, attached to a rope, searched some 50 feet below the pile's surface at one point. But their initial hopes of finding survivors trapped in pockets never panned out. Schneidwind didn't even come across any office furniture.
Still buried, though, were fires that burned long after the buildings fell. Crews could use only hoses to push the smoke out of the faces of emergency workers.
"We'd come back from the site and go to where we were stationed, and there would be nurses there just to clear your eyes out, all the dust in your eyes," Hoff said.
Roy Hervas, a former volunteer photographer for Schaumburg arson investigations, documented the work until authorities ordered him to stop shooting pictures at ground zero. He would join the "bucket brigade," sifting through debris and human remains.
The Chicago and suburban firefighters set up camp outside a public school at Greenwich and Chambers streets. They used coats as blankets, rested on the sidewalk or fold-up cots, and cleaned off with baby wipes and hoses. McDonald's would provide every meal.
"Time meant nothing there," Hervas said. "You just knew it was dark or light."
Fifteen years later
What kept them going? Adrenaline, yes.
Hoff also speaks of trying to find the good after a tragedy. When he was 5, his father, a Chicago battalion chief, was killed battling a fire in an apartment building on Valentine's Day 1962.
"You can have grief, but your life goes on. You've got to make something positive out of things," Hoff said. "I know every one of those guys who were killed were probably thinking that for their families, their wives.
"It's a reality. You move on. You make things better."
Hoff sees that positive in the teamwork among firefighters, police, iron workers, tradesman, nurses -- the people who looked like "ants on an anthill" against what remained of the towers.
After five days, they headed home to Chicago. Hoff wished they "could have done more." Schneidwind was "heartbroken" to leave. Both knew the job was far from over.
Fifteen years later, several in the group are making their first visits to the memorial and museum in New York. Schneidwind, now a Schaumburg lieutenant, went last month.
"It was then about the people, and it's still now," said Schneidwind, who will share his memories at the Hoffman Estates village hall at 11 a.m. Sunday.
Hoff and his son will attend Mass Sunday at Rescue 2 in Brooklyn and services in the city to support the firefighters he's kept in touch with and their families.
Hoff pauses, gathering himself before imagining what it will be like to see the memorial and rebuilt site with his son.
"You don't forget about it," he said. "Every day, you think about it."