When Ahwatukee Foothills resident and fire Capt. Derrick Johnson saw the news on Sept. 11, 2001 and watched the twin towers fall, he knew he would be one of the firefighters asked to go search for survivors.
Just by doing the math in his head, he predicted nearly 350 firefighters had lost their lives in the time he had traveled from the gym to work that morning.
It's tough to swallow when he knew as a firefighter he would have been doing the same thing they were if he had been there.
Johnson was part of the Urban Search and Rescue Team of the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the time, as well as a captain and paramedic for the Phoenix Fire Department.
When he was asked to deploy with FEMA, he accepted voluntarily and was sent to New York days after 9/11 had occurred.
Johnson estimates his team arrived about three days after 9/11. They had to fly into New Jersey and then take a bus to New York.
Johnson describes the scene once they got into New York as quiet. No day-to-day business was going on, no people were walking around. Twenty-six blocks away from the actual site, dust 3 inches thick covered cars and buildings. And buildings closer to the site had pieces of the towers sticking out of them.
Windows of nearby buildings were blown out and cars were crushed, Johnson said.
"As you got closer and closer to the scene, there were military (personnel) and they had blocked off areas so it was controlled areas," Johnson said. "Just before you got there, there was a line of people holding pictures of loved ones. They would basically ask you, or hand you a picture, and ask you to look for a person. They were crying and upset. A lot of people just seemed dazed. They would stare at you with blank eyes. Some would shake your hand or hug you. As you got closer to the scene you began to see all the destruction."
When they arrived, each squad was assigned different tasks. Johnson's task was search and rescue but he said the team was aware there probably wouldn't be anyone alive.
They were asked to collect any items they could find or any bodies to get their remains back to a place where they could be identified.
Johnson's squad was assigned to work from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. They called the sight "the pile." Johnson says all the rubble was about six stories high and all that could really be identified was metal.
"It was mostly steel and a kind of white mud," Johnson said. "There were no windows, no furniture, no computers. Everything just got pulverized. When you were out on the pile digging through you would get to a spot where you could smell a dead body. But as you were digging, maybe you found a clump of hair and that would be it."
Sometimes a purse, identification or clothing was found. Those items were each carefully and respectfully boxed or bagged and sent away to be identified.
One item that stands out in Johnson's mind is when someone on his squad pulled out a set of baby clothes.
Occasionally, someone would come across a firefighter's jacket, piece of equipment or a body part of a first responder.
At that time, New York first responders would be called to recover the remains, box it, put it on a stretcher with a flag over it and call all searchers to a Call of Arms.
The remains would be taken away in an ambulance and searchers would go back to work.
Every day as the search-and-rescue crews left, the people standing and waiting to hear about their loved ones would applaud them.
"Here are people who have lost everything, lost family members and things that were important to them, and they are applauding us for going in and trying to find anything we could find," Johnson said. "It was pretty touching."
Johnson's squad searched the pile for six days. He says the men who were out there don't talk much about what they experienced, though he remembers it. The reason is because it's just not a happy story.
"You always appreciate life in our job because you see how easily it gets taken, but I was 40 when that happened and I'm 50 now," Johnson said. "A whole decade has gone by. You think about how much has happened in your own life over the past 10 years and you realize all those people's lives stopped there. It reinforced that feeling I already had that you don't take life for granted."
One thing Johnson does want to remember from the experience is just how much the people cared.
"There wasn't any regard to how people are different, just that they were people," Johnson said. "You saw people taking care of people. It was as simple as when we were coming up people reaching out to give you a hug or handing you a glass of water or a thank you. No one stopped to say that you were too short or too tall or didn't have the right beliefs or values. That was the best of us.
"It was amazing to me how short of a time period it took for us to forget about it. I hope that we as Americans would at least honor the people that died that day by living our lives like that."
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