It smelled the same as war. It looked the same as war. Grant Coates, the vice president of VVA's New York State Council, thought the memory of it might have been one of the good things he brought back from Vietnam. "Been there, done that," he thought. He knew the physics of war's destruction, recognized its immutable laws.
He'd been in combat with the Army Rangers. He'd been a tracker, working with a Labrador retriever to find the enemy when contact broke off. He built a civilian career as a police officer and worked K-9 there, too. Now he was retired and working part-time for the Delaware County, New York, sheriff, himself a Vietnam veteran who was in-country about the same time Coates was. Coates had been around death and violence all his adult life. The professions he chose made it unavoidable.
When the call came on September 11, instinct and experience fell into place, and he knew another mission had come. He knew what to expect and how to prepare. He knew it would be nasty. He knew there would be the smell of death in the air. He'd been there and done that, 32 years ago in another war.
But the World Trade Center had to be assessed on a heretofore unknown scale. A mountain of rubble, 1.2 million tons of it, thick steel beams twisted like pretzels, thousands of dead and missing, a range of destruction that dwarfed those who approached it. "When you're talking about something of this magnitude, I don't think they have a think tank to consider all the logistics," he said. The first night, as they walked toward Ground Zero, the civilians on the sidewalks watching them go by checkpoints looked like zombies.
Two blocks away, he saw the pile of rubble where the two great buildings once stood. "You could see the cranes with these gigantic claws taking the rubble out," he said. "I have a picture of three workers walking past a claw, and this claw, you could probably put around a dump truck.
But from where we were, the claws looked like Tonka toys on a beach. Unless you were up close, and you could see the size of the claw and the size of the pile the claw was working on, you didn't get the perspective of how big the pile was." He had been working a private security job for United Way on September 11 and had just checked into a motel when television news showed the black smoke billowing from the first tower. Coates grew up in Manhattan, on the West Side. He looked at the burning building, and the first thing he thought of was the World War II bomber that crashed into the Empire State Building long ago. He wondered how something like that could happen with today's aviation equipment.
Then the second plane came. "I knew right away we'd be going," he said. "They were going to need our help." A message went out from New York State Emergency Services to the sheriff's office, the message Coates anticipated after he saw the second plane explode inside the World Trade Center tower. The sheriff turned over the operation's planning to Coates. He made calls, interviewed prospective team members, and in four hours had assembled an eleven-man squad, many of them part-timers who took time from their regular jobs to go.
His wife, Kaye, was on the phone, too. In two hours, they had rounded up $4,500 in equipment. A clothing company sold T-shirts at cost with no labor for the printing that would identify them as sheriff's deputies.
A drug manufacturing company gave $4,000 in supplies, masks, and other equipment. Kaye's co-workers made cookies for the deputies to share onboard the ship on which they would be bivouacked. "One of the ladies who made apple brownies lost her son in the Beirut Marine barracks attack," Kaye wrote to The VVA Veteran editor Mokie Porter. "He was her only son.
She said `God bless them for helping.' Another lady I work with, her 10-year-old son is having a tough time. She said he built a tower from building blocks the other day and then flew a plane around it. He kept trying to figure out how it happened. When she asked him to help her make the cookies, he wanted to help the deputies find the people. Pretty special stuff.
" The Delaware deputies had not been summoned to search for survivors. Recovery had replaced rescue as the mission. They looked instead for evidence, combing the great mass of rubble brought to the Staten Island landfill. They worked in a cold rain, sifting the pile for the airplanes' black boxes and other aircraft parts; looking for body parts, personal effects, firefighter's hats, police shields, IDs, credit cards--anything identifiable. "Two areas, football fields, surrounded by generator lights," Coates said. "Each item was logged in.
" Everywhere they went, the outpouring of aid from civilians amazed them. Cops had much experience with abuse and little with pats on the back. Crowds were always trouble--until September 11, when they became something different. "A complete 180," he said. "We train for the worst; we don't train mentally for people being nice. The care that total strangers gave us, it's not something we're used to in law enforcement.
" People sent soap, food, toiletries, toothpaste, clothes, boots, shower sandals, gloves, helmets, batteries, and miner's lights for the helmets. They sent so much the workers on the ground couldn't hand it out fast enough. "Everybody was standing up to help somebody else," Coates said.
Everywhere they went, it never changed--thanks for the help, God bless you--and especially so at the Jesuit retreat where they stayed and met Father Ryan, who gave them not only food and shelter but healthy doses of wit. "It was like out of M*A*S*H," Coates said. "The first time I saw him, he was wearing a t-shirt and he had a cigar in his mouth. He'd pop up at all hours of the night just to see if we were okay.
He'd say, 'Don't forget the kitchen is always open. No locks on the doors. If you see something you want, take it.' He had a salad bar and said, `Now that will always be full of ice and it will have juices and water and beer and carafes of wine, and every now and then I'll come out with a non-denominational bottle of scotch for you.'" Then it was back into the streets--a gray, haunted landscape filled with aching backs, skinned knuckles, and exhausted men and women on a mission.
"We were walking to a Salvation Army feeding point about 7:30 one night," he said. "We noticed everything was dead silent. Nobody was talking. The reason was because about a hundred search-and-rescue people were coming down the street with their dogs, heading into Ground Zero. They were all volunteers.".
Tom Berger is a writer for The VVA Veteran, the official voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ® An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. Learn more at www.vva.org