SYCAMORE - In the days that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York City, volunteers from around the world, including retired veteran Lee Newtson, 79, of Sycamore, made their way to ground zero to sift through the rubble.
Newtson, who teared up talking about this experiences after he attended Sycamore’s 9/11 ceremony Saturday, said his two-week experience providing disaster relief to the devastation left after the World Trade Centers fell is something he’ll never forget.
When asked why he wanted to go there after Sept. 11, 2011, Newston said “Just felt like I had to.”
After his Unites States Army days, Newtson, who lived in Elburn in 2001, said he worked for years as a volunteer disaster relief giver. His work took him around the country, to Washington, D.C., Shawnee, Oklahoma, and tornado sites in Fairdale and Joplin, Missouri after a 2011 EF-5 tornado devastated the rural community and killed 158 people.
Newtson, then 59, drove to New York City, arriving for a two-week volunteer cleanup stint, driving through the Lincoln Tunnel to the waiting group of first responders and military personnel who’d set up a home base near ground zero. Newtson had funeral home and paramedic experience, and was assigned duties accordingly, he said.
“I will always remember a state trooper who gave me some very good advice,” Newtson recalled in a letter he shared during an interview Saturday recounting his experience. His advice was to drive to New Jersey after his 12-hour shifts each night to sleep in a hotel instead of on cots provided around the site near the blown-out buildings.
“We got away from the smell and we each had privacy of our own room and shower,” he said. “As we left at shift end, many family members, friends and acquaintances of missing people would be outside the perimeter asking what we had found.”
Not much life, Newtson recalled. He’d lie awake at night exhausted from the day’s work, but, and he pointed to his head, “This didn’t turn off.”
“Devastation beyond belief” Newtson said of ground zero. Everywhere he walked, the ground was covered in dirt, ash and rubble, and you couldn’t see the streets. He worked with the crane operator, helping sift through rubble and try and find people or items which would identify those who’d died to their loved ones.
As the rubble was jostled by the machines, remains of those who’d died would fall out, Newtson said, sent to the morgue site. “We were not finding people alive.”
Firefighters fought flare-ups regularly, Newtson said, which would ignite after certain rubble was moved.
Rescue dogs scattered around the area, Newtson said, sometimes needing their own medical attention, with on-site veterinarians cleaning the animals’ feet, ears, eyes and noses due to the ash buildup and other toxic materials in the air and on fire. He said some dogs became upset that they weren’t finding anyone alive, so their handlers would hide themselves in the rubble for the dogs to find, a therapeutic form of triage for the animals.
Having worked in other disaster areas, Newtson said he knew to wear a mask both over his eyes and his mouth, since “it got pretty ripe,” but many responders he worked with on ground zero did not.
Falling debris from the remainder of sky-rises around ground zero remained a hazard for days after, Newtson said.
“One volunteer had some steel framed glass hit him in the back,” Newtson said. “I cut right through the construction coat and he was taken out for stitches.”
Newtson said the group was glad the press wasn’t allowed into the site in some areas, where the scene was “heart-stopping.”
“We could see a twisted stair case with the backs of three firefighter’s coats and helmets [stuck in the rubble] showing the names and numbers,” he said. “Later in the day those remains were extracted.”
Newtson said it took him two weeks after his ground zero work to “break down.”
“My emotions started to drain,” he said. His church pastor took him out for lunch one day after he’d given a talk at that morning’s services to the congregation, and got him to open up, recount what he saw, process what he was feeling.
Newtson said he recalls his service days each year on the anniversary because he considers it a form of giving back. He said he believes people “tend to become complacent.”
“The guy upstairs keeps me around for a reason,” Lee said.
It’s the same message shared by Rev. Carl Beekman, of St. Mary’s Church in Sycamore during the 9/11 ceremony held at the Good Tymes Shelter at Sycamore Park Saturday.
“One thing you always remember is how we came together, how people brought in strangers into their homes,” he said. “We can’t forget who we are as a country, and how resilient we are. I think we lose sense of that, start defining ourselves in other ways.”
In his remarks, Sycamore Mayor Steve Braser thanked first responders who have, in light of 9/11, subsequently gone into the service..
“A lot of people could have walked away and said ‘This isn’t for me,’ but instead we’ve seen a lot of people step up,” Braser said.
Sycamore Fire Chief Pete Polarek said the events of 9/11 impacted everyone, a defined national tragedy which still feels raw.
“It seems like 9/11 is that injury that our country just can’t heal from,” Polarek said. “For many, the loss is overwhelming and deeply personal. For some, we have learned to live with the changes. One thing is certain, all our lives changed that day.”
For Newtson, that change is still happening.
“The Lord’s been very good to me,” Newtson said. “He’s kept my mind open so I could learn. You’ve gotta have that attitude.”