Michael Clarke of Bath stands amid the debris of the September 11, 2001 attacks in lower Manhattan. Clarke was deployed to help in the recover effort as a member of FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Response team. Photo courtesy of FEMA MATF 01

After 20 years, Michael Clarke of Bath recalls Sept. 11, 2001, sounding like the piercing chirp of hundreds of Personal Alert Safety System (PASS) alarms ringing out from colleagues buried under tons of crumpled rubble.

“The PASS alarms that are on the breathing apparatus we wear in fires were beeping a lot the first day,” said Clarke. “If a firefighter goes down and they lay there for a period of time, the alarm starts to beep. There were hundreds of those going off. You couldn’t find some of them, but you heard it. That sound still bites.”

Clarke was one of 68 people on the Federal Emergency Management Agency Urban Search and Rescue Response team deployed to Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, to help in the recovery effort. For eight days, Clarke and his fellow first responders dug, cut and crawled through debris in the hope of finding survivors.

Nearly 3,000 people died when 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes in a coordinated attack. Two of the planes were flown into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York, another crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC, and the fourth crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was the deadliest attack on U.S. soil  and shattered the country’s sense of security.

For Clarke, a 38-year-old Bath firefighter at the time, the day began as a pleasantly mundane early autumn morning in Bath. He dropped his 8-year-old son off at the school bus stop, then met a friend to get his laptop fixed.

“While we were working on the laptop, she had the news on and had said there was an accident at the World Trade Center,” said Clarke. “I immediately went to some of the live filming that was going on, and saw the second plane hit. Soon after that, the (FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Response) squad leader started paging us to find out what our availability was. We knew there was something going on in New York but nobody really knew what it was. By the second or third page he said ‘Alright, get down here.’”

After driving his Dodge Caravan down the empty highway to Beverly, Mass. where his FEMA team was based, the group traveled to New York in a borrowed school bus.

Michael Clarke of Bath stands next to a beam that fell from one of the World Trade Center towers in the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. Photo courtesy of FEMA MATF 01

Although they were trained, Clarke said he and his team weren’t ready for what they saw as they entered Manhattan.

“I grew up on Long Island and my father was a New York City fireman so I had a pretty good handle on what the towers looked like prior to something like this,” said Clarke. “What really threw us off was they were gone. It was complete annihilation. It’s hard to go home and see New York City on its knees.”

Armed with an electric saw tied around his shoulder with a rope and an L.L. Bean fanny pack stuffed with batteries, Clarke and his team searched through the debris, choking on dust as they worked. Clarke said he had to tie knee pads around his legs after he sliced them while crawling over and through the debris. Still, he worked.

“It was complete devastation,” said Clarke. “There were no computer terminals or keyboards. It was powder. I don’t recall ever finding a full body.”

At first, Clarke said the mission began as a rescue operation, but within two or three days, it became clear the job was now a recovery effort.

“We were devastated that we didn’t find anybody,” said Clarke. “That surprised a lot of people because there were a lot of void spaces, but when you looked at the devastation and the amount of concrete, it really made sense. The trauma the human body would take of a 110-story building falling — there’s just no way. I don’t think anybody was able to comprehend that.”

When they checked nearby partially collapsed buildings for survivors, they saw half-eaten bagels and mugs of coffee sitting on desks. They also found the bottom right-hand drawer was open in most desks, and a pair of high heels and dress shoes usually sat inside, abandoned by their owners to flee the building as fast as they could.

Michael Clarke of Bath looks out over a sea of rubble that coated lower Manhattan following the 9/11 attacks. Clarke was a member of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Response team deployed to Manhattan. Photo courtesy of FEMA MATF 01

As the recovery effort wore on, Clarke said he and his colleagues worked for 12 hours straight to find anything they could that might give a family closure — a wallet, a piece of clothing, pairs of glasses.

Each day when the rescue team was bussed through the city, thousands of people lined the streets holding signs and pamphlets with pictures and descriptions of their loved ones who were still missing.

“We always kept the windows open so people could come up to the bus when we stopped at traffic lights,” said Clarke. “The only hope these people had was giving us a picture of their wife, brother, boyfriend, whoever, and we took all of them.”

Clarke himself was among those that lost loved ones in the attacks. At the time, Clarke said he believed he lost about 22 friends and colleagues on 9/11, but that number has only ticked up over two decades as illnesses caused by the dust they all inhaled took hold over the bodies of his fellow first responders.

“You tried to wear your mask, wash your hands and keep this stuff off you, but you were permeated,” said Clarke. “It was in your clothes, it was in your mouth, it was in your eyes.”

He said he now gets three physicals a year to check his body for signs of the same cancers that have taken his friends. That fear of a possible looming diagnosis is what frightens him most today, he said.

“The guys we’ve lost from the task force worry me because we all worked on the pile,” said Clarke. “My friend Tommy Kenney retired in November and around Christmas didn’t feel well. He went to the doctor in January and was dead by June.”

Those who were at Ground Zero on 9/11 and the days that followed couldn’t escape the toxic dust that was released when the Twin Towers fell. That dust held carcinogens like cement, asbestos, benzene, and heavy metals, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

Emergency first responders dig through the aftermath of 9/11. Courtesy of MATF 01.

According to the World Trade Center Health Program, 22,200 of its 112,042 members held at least one cancer certification and 1,510 members have died from cancer as of June 30, 2021. More than 81,000 first responders have received medical treatment through the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides medical monitoring and treatment for 9/11 emergency responders, recovery and cleanup workers and volunteers.

The one positive thing, Clarke said, to come from the attacks was that it forced the country to improve its emergency protocols, especially urban search and rescue tactics, in the event of another unspeakable tragedy. For Clarke, this meant improving BIW’s building collapse protocols in his role as the shipyard’s fire chief.

“I’ve slowly built a cache of equipment to get us into better shape year after year,” said Clarke. “We have to work to be better than the week before, the month before, and the year before. This experience helps. I’m willing to step out of my comfort zone on a daily basis. I don’t know what a comfort zone is anymore. This event changed me.”

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