'I haven't slept well since': Kane County safety expert toiled at ground zero for more than 100 days
On page after page, filling spiral-bound notebooks, Mike Fagel wrote about the hazards thousands of workers faced at ground zero.
The back of the first cover held contact information for New York fire chiefs, FBI officials, and the head of the U.S. Fire Administration. In those days, they used pagers and PalmPilots.
"My golly, I haven't seen these names in 20 years," Fagel said, opening one of his "operational notebooks" to the worn pages.
In chronological order, Fagel's notes are an endless list of tasks and obstacles, jotted down in bursts, from his more than 100 days toiling in the ruins of the World Trade Center as a Federal Emergency Management Agency responder.
A single word often jumps off the page: dust.
The collapse of the twin towers left Lower Manhattan under a cloak of gray ash. Fires burned at ground zero for weeks after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Fagel, who started his public safety career in Kane County, arrived that Friday and stayed through Christmas, except when he came home for a three-day reprieve in October.
"I lost lung capacity," Fagel, 69, said of his Sept. 11-related health issues. "Right now, I have a paralyzed lung."
Fagel now struggles to take deep breaths. He lost a kidney to cancer after he fell ill in December of 2009.
"I have a ton of other medical maladies, but you know what, so what? I'm alive," said Fagel, father of five, grandfather of eight kids. "And my job while I'm still alive, knock on wood, is to help as many people as I can while I'm still here."
To this day -- retirement isn't in his vocabulary -- Fagel teaches first responders at the Homeland Security Training Institute at College of DuPage, Northern Illinois University and Illinois Institute of Technology.
This week, he'll lead a class for Pennsylvania emergency management personnel. He's taught courses on bioterrorism, crisis management, and hazard identification.
"I train a lot of folks," said Fagel, who has a seven-page résumé. "And I think I've saved a few lives."
His training schedule is his way of coping, living with what he saw in the rubble.
"I haven't slept well since Sept. 11," Fagel said.
He was assigned to Charlie Blaich, logistics chief of the New York City Fire Department -- its ranks devastated by the loss of 343 of its members.
"Our mission was very simple: do whatever they need, anything at all," Fagel said.
Soon he became the incident command safety officer, lending his eyes and ears to protect workers across a 16-acre hellscape.
Fagel helped prepare daily incident action plans outlining concerns over falling debris, airborne contamination, collapse, cutting, welding and the concentric movements of cranes chewing into the pile.
"There was so much going on. It was just a second-by-second operation," Fagel said.
His basement and offices hold remnants of that operation: hard hats, ID tags, safety vests, binders of documents and maps. A letter from Blaich is one of his most treasured items from those three months.
Blaich commended Fagel for his steady hand and compassion.
"I and my assistants were completely overwhelmed," Blaich wrote. "You arrived without fanfare, rolled up your sleeves and asked how you might help."
Fagel represented FDNY on nightly briefings with city, state and federal health and safety experts who met at a command center at Pier 92 on the west side of Manhattan.
At his last meeting, he received a standing ovation.