With Sunday marking the 10th anniversary on the Sept. 11, 2011 terrorist attacks, citizens are being asked to honor and recognize those who perished, the first responders who faced unspeakable horrors and those who spent the ensuing weeks on heartbreaking recovery efforts.
Bishop resident Mike Fennessy knows first-hand what those search and rescue efforts entailed, having arrived at Ground Zero early Sept. 12, and searching for the next two weeks for survivors.
Fennessy is a member of FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue California Task Force 1, an elite group that trains specifically for searches for survivors in large-scale emergency situations such as the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Fennessy was living in Los Angeles, preparing to transfer to the Owens Valley.
That morning he was on the freeway, on his way to work, when a news report of the first tower being struck came on the radio. As soon as he heard that the second tower had been hit, Fennessy called home, knowing that he would be called in for the rescue effort, and asked his wife to gather his urban search and rescue gear.
That afternoon, Fennessy and 69 other members from Task Force 1 departed from a Sherman Oaks fire house in a convoy with 70,000 pounds of gear to March Air Force Base, where an Air Force Transport flew them to Maryland.
“We were already ready when Governor Gray Davis called us up and we were there the morning of the 12th,” Fennessy said, pointing out that almost every team member had prepared their personal gear and team leaders were already preparing for departure before the governor handed down the order.
Fennessy is a heavy equipment operator for the crew, which trains mainly for major earthquakes and includes search dogs and doctors. With their training for situations where buildings collapsed, Task Force 1 was put right to work clearing rubble from the south side of the south tower. Fennessy was part of the rescue effort as the United Steel Worker’s Union handled heavy equipment operations for the rescue effort.
“We had all 70 members lined up with five-gallon buckets and basically did a bucket brigade, moving debris off ‘the pile’” that was once the south tower.
Looking back, 10 years after the devastation, when asked what his reaction was to seeing Ground Zero, Fennessy still takes a moment to reflect before speaking. “When we got there, it was eerie, it was still smoky. There was just 16 acres of devastation in every direction you looked.”
Fennessy’s crew spent the first 24 hours they were on the East Coast working without sleep. “When we got there, we just hit it hard, hoping.”
For the next two weeks, Fennessy and Task Force 1 worked day in and day out assessing the debris and removing what could be taken away without causing further collapse, looking for pockets that might hold survivors.
Despite their efforts, the team did not make any rescues.
“There was a point when some firefighters walked out, and after that, we just kinda knew it was too late, and we probably wouldn’t find anyone alive,” Fennessy said.
But that didn’t slow the crew down. “We searched a lot of the surrounding buildings. It was an honor. I think everyone wished they could be there helping. When we left to get some sleep, there were people lined up on the streets, just regular people, handing us water bottles and homemade sandwiches. I think they were just happy there were people there helping them.”
While Fennessy was willing to share his story, he said his part in the rescue effort was a small one, and he wants residents to take time this weekend to remember the fallen victims of the attacks.
“This anniversary belongs to all of those that gave their lives, whether fire or police, people at work in the World Trade Center or folks on the four planes. We will never forget them,” Fennessy said.