Tuesday, September 11 started, unusually, for Kerry man Eamonn Carey, 31, at home in New Jersey waiting for a construction job to start. A committed member and shop steward of Local 608, the most Irish union in New York City, Carey had been working for several weeks in the vicinity of the World Trade Center, ironically on the new Irish Famine Memorial in Battery Park, where he was foreman.
When his sister Mairead, a journalist in Ireland, called him with the news of what happened. Carey grabbed his construction gear and headed straight for the city, knowing that a group of workers from his union had been sent to the World Trade Center that day.
Getting to Ground Zero was not easy. The bridges and tunnels to Manhattan were all closed, as were the major highways from New Jersey to the city.
“I got a call from a friend who was down there. Some of the guys from the Jersey unions were trying to get across on a tugboat that was ferrying people away from the disaster. I made my way down to the dock by back roads and jumped on a tugboat that was returning for more passengers.”
All over the city, construction workers like Carey were responding in kind. Like the firemen and police, they rushed in when others were fleeing away in fear for their lives.
When he arrived at Ground Zero, it was pure chaos. “We had no protection, no masks, no anything,” he recalls. “We started pulling away the lighter pieces of rubble by hand. Everyone started from the same spot, a narrow opening on the north end of the rubble. It was the only place we had access to. Nowhere else was stable.
“We needed to pull away as much rubble as possible, to allow the ironworkers to get in to burn steel. We were throwing body parts out of the way in our haste. It was a truly hideous scene,” he says.
Everywhere there was confusion. “Fires were raging beneath, making rescue work even harder.” A dense smoke hung in the air, causing choking and coughing. Visibility was just a few yards, and the rescue effort was still just being organized.
A human chain using buckets began to remove the debris, stopping every time they thought they heard a cry or banging from the rubble. All night Carey worked, barely stopping to take a breather.
“It was exhausting, backbreaking work, and we knew the chances of finding people were getting slimmer by the hour,” he remembers. Finally he was forced to take a break and made it home to New Jersey at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, September 12. “I went home, took my clothes off, threw them away, took a shower, picked up a few others guys and went straight back in,” he says.
He went back to a disaster site that had become even more dangerous in his brief absence. Massive shifts in the rubble meant that no one was safe and disaster could happen at any time. In addition to the fires, the unseasonably hot weather meant that the stench on the site had worsened considerably. Still the search for survivors continued.
Finally, at 10:30 that morning two people were pulled out alive, one on the north side of the wreckage, one on the south. “A worker heard a banging and the dogs were brought in,” he says about the victim he helped bring out. A human chain carded the woman to the waiting ambulance. “I don’t know if she made it,” says Carey. “She looked in very bad shape.”
Later that day a fire captain called for volunteers to work with firefighters on the highly dangerous task of climbing into the rabble to seek survivors. Carey volunteered and found himself crawling into pockets in the rubble in search of anyone still breathing.
“Anytime you found a hole in the rubble you dropped in with your torch,” he says. The likelihood of injury was great because the pile was constantly shifting and cars caught in the rubble were still exploding.
“The holes were 20 to 30 feet deep sometimes, and you were lowered down on a rope with a torch. It was not like going down a manhole or a pothole, it was full of jagged edges, debris, steel bars rubbing against you.
“I was very scared working down there. It was pitch black, the stench was terrible, and as you were hauling away loose debris to see what was underneath you knew the pile could shift and kill you. It was like a horror movie. You wait for the big moment, your heart is racing, wondering what you will find. You’re almost afraid to find anybody. The claustrophobia, the feeling of being hemmed in was awful. Yet you had to keep doing it again and again.”
He estimated he climbed into 20 to 30 holes on that Wednesday and Thursday. The only thing that kept the rescuers going was the hope that somehow, in one of the cavities, someone had survived.
“I ended up with a guy from Rescue Four Fire Company who had lost several colleagues. We were going through the roof of a garage that had collapsed but we couldn’t find any bodies.” Then they found six bodies in a collapsed gym where he believes the people had fled to or were working out in. It was grim work.
On Friday, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, took over the searching and what had been an all-volunteer effort suddenly became a much more organized and security-conscious operation.
Carey understood the need for tighter security. “Until FEMA all you needed to get on the site was a pair of balls and a union card,” he says. “There were people down there, not to help, but looking for wallets and rings, real ghouls.” He himself had an encounter with an English journalist who had stolen a hard hat and somehow bluffed his way onto the site.
“We were bringing out the body of a fireman from under the North Tower,” he remembers. “Suddenly a flash went off behind us. We saw this guy with a hard hat and a knapsack in which he was collecting debris. He was from one of the English tabloid newspapers. One of the firemen, he was about six feet five, tackled him and beat the shit out of him, smashed his camera, and handed him over to the cops. He was lucky he wasn’t killed.”
When FEMA came on the scene everything changed. Workers were now hired by construction companies contracted to get the work done. “Unless you were hired by one of the firms you could not get on to the site,” says Carey. “You couldn’t just volunteer any more. It changed a lot of things for everyone.”
On Friday morning Carey and his friends were turned back when they turned up to volunteer. “We went home and got drunk, got drunk for a week,” he remembers. “We didn’t get drunk because of what we saw down there, it was actually about being turned away on the Friday. It was like someone had pulled the rug from under us. We were definitely willing to continue as volunteers, but we were replaced with guys who were just looking for a paycheck. It was too early to do that. Things were still not organized. They should have let it go to Monday instead of saying `we don’t need you.'”
How is he coping with the death and destruction that he witnessed? “You have to cope with everything. For the first couple of months it was not something I was able to forget, but at the same time I’d still be the first one to jump in a car if something similar happened again.”
He says one of his proudest moments was bringing the Irish flag from his home in New Jersey and planting it at Ground Zero along with the Stars and Stripes. “I just felt there were so many Irish involved, both among the dead and the rescuers, that it felt right. We were very proud of that flag.”
He remembers too the intense camaraderie that working on the site brought about. “I’d regard myself as very lucky. Two of my best friends were with me. We grew very close. No one else could understand you after what you had seen and all, but I know I can call them up and talk about it.
“I wasn’t going to go home to Ireland for Christmas because of what happened. I could not see myself sitting in John B. Keane’s pub in Listowel and telling people at home what it was really like. It was not time for that.”
So does he consider himself a hero? “No, not at all. The firemen were the heroes, they knew it was a good day to die. They told me the priest who gave Mychal Judge, the fire brigade chaplain, the last rites turned around after it and was faced with a group of firefighters looking for absolution before going into the fire. Not one of them ever came out. Every one of them was a hero, they were men who knew what was in store. I can’t put myself in the same category as those guys.”
There is another moment he remembers fondly. After two days of non-stop work, “We were leaving the site and we were so tired we could hardly walk, we were lugging all our tools. Some emergency workers gave us a lift in their ambulance to 14th Street where the Welcome Highway began. When we got out of the ambulance we were stormed, hugged and kissed, given food and water by the people who were there to cheer on the rescue workers. I broke down and cried like a baby.” ♦