‘Like walking on a massive grave’: Firefighter from Hinckley recalls rescue mission at Ground Zero

HINCKLEY – The early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001, were like any other start of a workday for Gary Pozzi.

Pozzi, 44, lived in Hinckley and was the Captain of Training and head of the Technical Rescue Team for the Aurora Fire Department.

He was working that morning, and he and the other firefighters turned on the news after they heard of a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers.

“We were sitting there, watching the news in the TV room, and we couldn’t believe it,” Pozzi said. “The second plane hit the second tower right in front of our eyes.”

Aurora Assistant Fire Chief Tom Brady was in contact with the head of training in Chicago, and they instructed Pozzi to “go home and pack a bag.”

“There was a possibility of me and a few other guys would be going to New York, because Chicago needed six more firefighters with specialized training to help with equipment and set-up for search and rescue,” Pozzi said.

Pozzi had been trained by a FEMA team from Virginia in special rescues, including rescues in high rises with ropes, structural collapses and trenches.

“Naperville’s fire department brought out the team from Virginia and they invited a few Aurora firefighters, myself included,” he said. “It was rigorous training, very difficult. We had this specialized training, but didn’t even have the equipment yet. The City of Chicago, their fire department had the equipment, but they didn’t have enough guys who had the training to use the equipment, which is why they reached out to us.”

When Pozzi returned home at the end of his shift on Sept. 11, he packed a bag. He left the bag at home the next morning because he hadn’t heard any further information from his superiors.

“When I got to work the next morning, they asked me if I had my bag with me, and I said ‘no,’” Pozzi said. “They told me, ‘Get your stuff in order, tell your family goodbye, you’re going to New York.’ So I went back to Hinckley to grab my bag, kissed my wife goodbye, and headed out.”

Around 10 a.m. Sept. 12, Pozzi and six other firefighters left Aurora for New York. On route in Pennsylvania, they met and caravanned with firefighters from Chicago. Around 1 or 2 a.m. Sept. 13, the group made it to what used to be the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, which had been given a new name: Ground Zero.

Arriving at Ground Zero

When Pozzi and his team arrived at Ground Zero, everyone was speechless at what they saw.

“It was all lit up with emergency lights everywhere, even though it was pitch black at night,” Pozzi said. “It was like something I’ve never seen before. It was like a movie, a bad movie. When you stepped onto the ground, it was so quiet, because there was so much dust. There was 2 to 3 inches of dust everywhere. When you stepped on it, it was like stepping on snow, no noise. We were in awe. We were shocked. When you see it in real life versus on TV, it touches all of your senses: your sight, your smell. It was the worst thing you’ve ever seen in your life. I was a paramedic, and I worked in the emergency room, and this was completely different. It was unlike anything else, totally remarkable. … It was like walking on a massive grave. That’s what it reminded me of.”

Pozzi and the Aurora and Chicago firefighters were given search and rescue jobs and orders.

“The first day, my responsibility was to walk around the whole Ground Zero,” Pozzi said. “It was 6 a.m., daybreak, and I was with another firefighter from Aurora and with a steel worker, who was giving us the lowdown of the whole area. We were supposed to walk around and report back to our command from Chicago.”

Fire and smoke were still coming from the collapse.

“We did go down into the subway that was down below Ground Zero, and it was the first time I had ever seen what was referred to as ‘the pancake collapse’ of what happened to the towers,” he said. “There was floor on top of floor on top of floor. You could see each floor was six inches in width. I don’t know how many floors I was looking at from where I was in the subway. I just knew, oh my God, this was terrible.’

During Pozzi’s rescue and cleanup efforts, Building 7, one of the office buildings, and the Marriott hotel collapsed.

“I remember one night we went down there to try to search the collapse, and I remember it was slightly raining out, and I was walking up an eye beam, my boots were slipping on the eye beam and I was falling backwards,” Pozzi said. “A guy came up to me out of nowhere with a 5-gallon bucket. He attached this rubber sole to the bottom of my boot with metal spikes. He said, ‘This will help you with staying on the steel, and you won’t slide anymore. Try it out.’ And when I walked, it worked. I turned around to thank him, and he was gone. He was just somebody that appeared, did that for me and he was gone. I remember that so vividly, how he helped me.”

Pozzi and other first responders’ home base was a high school three or four blocks away from Ground Zero, where the Red Cross had set up camp. There was no electricity or running water and limited cellphone use. Pozzi was only able to call his wife every night to check in.

Pozzi said he was amazed at how everyone in New York banded together to help.

“Everyone appreciated that we were there to help,” Pozzi said. “There were a lot of religious [people] around, not only priests, but rabbis and tons of people there to console others. There were chiropractors on the corner to adjust you or give you a massage. People were handing out food and water. Fancy restaurants in south Manhattan were giving out free meals to fire and police personnel, some meals were so fancy you couldn’t even eat it.”

Pozzi said he vividly remembers New Yorkers’ appreciation and gratefulness.

“Everyone was so grateful we were there,” he said. “But it was very emotional to look into the eyes of the New York Fire Department guys. We called it ‘The Look,’ a distant stare of what transpired the last couple of days. It was in all of their eyes, all of them. It was haunting, chilling.”

The aftermath

Even though Pozzi and his group were at Ground Zero for five days, working three or four 8-hour shifts, they knew much more work needed to be done.

“We kind of felt like there was nothing we could do, nobody to rescue, although we tried,” Pozzi said. “I don’t think there was anybody pulled out the whole time we were there. We thought there would be when there’s something of that magnitude, maybe bodies on top of each other, but there wasn’t.”

Pozzi said that after two or three days of searching, his team came to the conclusion that they probably wouldn’t find any bodies.

“The only thing I ever found was a hip bone, one high-heeled shoe and a wallet,” Pozzi said. “Everyone was probably entrenched into the collapse or pulverized. We didn’t find anybody. … We were very optimistic driving out there, and very shell-shocked five days later when we came back. It was not what we anticipated at all when we were driving out there. We thought we were going to rescue people, find people. But when we started digging, we didn’t find much.”

But he said that “it wasn’t all bad, it showed perseverance.”

“I have the utmost respect for the Red Cross and their help during the disaster,” Pozzi said. “They gave you anything you needed: socks, underwear, shoes, whatever. Restaurants were helping feed everyone. It reminded me how important it was to stick together, to care for one another.”

When Pozzi returned home, he donated his gear to the Aurora Regional Fire Museum. Shortly after returning home, he had to respond to reports of anthrax being sent to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert’s home in Yorkville.

“It made you question ‘What’s next?’” Pozzi said. “It made you realize that anything is possible. You have to be aware of your surroundings wherever you are, whether it’s domestic or international terrorism or a situation here at home. You have to be aware.”

Pozzi also worries about people lacking awareness and forgetting what happened on 20 years ago.

“Now more than ever, we need to not forget,” he said. “They said ‘never forget,’ but I think a lot of people have. We have to remember that it happened. It can happen, and I hope to God it will never, ever happen again.”

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.