Twenty years after the attacks on New York, Washington, D.C., and in the sky above Pennsylvania, former Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Robert Purcell remembered his first thought upon seeing jet planes hit the World Trade Center in New York.
“It was hard to believe it was deliberate, initially, until the second aircraft hit the second tower. And then it was obvious it was no longer an accident,” Purcell said. “I knew that I was going to end up being a part of this. I immediately started packing and trying to organize the travel down there because I was getting deployed as soon as travel was possible.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida terrorists made four organized attacks on the United States, including the two planes that struck the twin towers in New York, another plane that hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a fourth plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after the passengers fought the hijackers and attempted to retake control of the plane. Ultimately, 2,996 people were killed in all four attacks.
Purcell remembered the first time he saw Ground Zero, or “the pit,” just three days after the twin towers collapsed. Purcell served as a disaster assistance employee for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As his plane landed, signaling the beginning of his nine-week deployment, the smoke had still not cleared from the hole left in the city by the terrorist attack.
“As I approached New York City, we flew over the site going in for our landing,” he said. “I could look down and see the pit from above with the smoke. … In a sense, it was one of the most striking views.”
Purcell worked with FEMA in New Jersey and New York as a liaison for the New Jersey congressional offices to bring the leaders to the wreckage “to get a sense of what occurred.”
“A significant number of people who died in the towers come from New Jersey,” Purcell explained. “For them, it was out of respect for all of the citizens that they lost. They needed to know.”
“This shocked the entire country, and they had lost hundreds of citizens. I think they felt the obligation to go,” he continued. “It wasn’t a sightseeing tour. It was incredibly somber. It was essentially visiting a grave.”
Eight hundred New Jersey citizens died in the attacks.
Now on the 20th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history, Purcell still remembers the scar left, not only on the ground, but also on the families of the people killed, including hundreds of firefighters, in four attacks. As a veteran firefighter himself, the loss of so many emergency responders stays with him to this day.
“Three hundred and forty-three firefighters died, which represents over 10% of the people who lost their lives in 9/11. They were a part of the fire service community,” he said. “That was probably the biggest impact on me personally.”
Purcell shared that New York completely changed from what it had been in the days after the attack. Even 20 years later, he says those weeks he spent in the city during the recovery process was “surreal.”
“What, to me, was stunning was the whole experience, in a sense, was surreal — just the impact on everyone in the city. It just quieted the city,” Purcell said. “It was in shock and mourning. You could feel it everywhere you went. You could smell what occurred at 9/11 (from) the ash.”
While serving with FEMA, Purcell saw the initial construction cleanup begin after the rescue and recovery efforts concluded. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum reported that with as much destruction that occurred that day, it took nine months to remove the 1.8 million tons of wreckage from the site.
“If you calculate it, if every pick-up truck can carry a ton, it would take two lines of pickup trucks basically bumper to bumper from New York City to California to carry away the debris,” Purcell said. “That’s how much material was in the buildings. They were incredibly large buildings.”
Purcell recalled seeing an “endless procession” of heavy equipment transporters carrying only one steel beam at a time because of the size and weight of the material.
“It was a phenomenal thing to watch, to be a part of, to see the wind taken out of the city,” Purcell said. “It was a different city there for a while, and I think it still is for many people who live there still living with it. But like all things, it’s recovered largely from that injury, but it still has scars.”
“I went back to New York City a year after for the first (anniversary)…,” he continued. “It was kind of interesting to see the city a year later. You could see the recovery beginning.”
Purcell has been back to New York for short trips, but he hasn’t seen the Ground Zero memorial. He said if he had the chance, he’d would go.
Ultimately, Purcell said the country grew in strength and unity after the 9/11 attacks, and urged others to continue focusing on the good in the world that resulted from a dark day in history.
“From my view, it’s important that we learn from these events, both as individuals and as a country, and we become stronger from these kind of events. We focus on what’s the best in people because the people who committed this atrocity are not who we should judge our world by,” Purcell said. “We shouldn’t let people like that define how we live and what our world is. We have to deal with them, but we have to hold true to our values as a nation and individuals.”