Called to Ground Zero

Originally published in Notre Dame Magazine by Patrick Burns ’86
Captain Burns heads the Navy’s Office of Commemorations office across from the Naval Historical Foundation

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in the Norfolk, Virginia, office of Commodore Scott Jones when someone came in and said, “Hey, you’re from New York.

A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” We ran to the TV. The commodore and I had recently worked the joint forces fly-overs as part of the president’s International Naval Review held on the Hudson River on July 4, 2000. We knew the traffic patterns to Newark, LaGuardia and JFK and how careful and strict the FAA is. This didn’t seem right. The television images showed us just how terribly wrong things were.

The Twin Towers following the impact of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175

The Twin Towers following the impact of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175

A few days before the attacks I had been at my office in the Coast Guard building in Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan. You could see both towers of the World Trade Center a few hundred yards away from my third-floor windows. I had been working for six years in the city as the director of fleet support for the Navy, a civilian position that works closely with the mayor’s office, New York police and fire departments, the FBI, FEMA, the Customs Service and the Coast Guard, as well as more than 60 federal, state and local law enforcement, regulatory and nonprofit agencies and 120 vendors throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. My office coordinated the Navy’s major public events.

I had reported to the Norfolk naval base on September 10 to meet my two-week Naval Reserve obligation. Since Jones and I had worked together in New York City on the president’s Naval Review, he wanted me to support his command in Norfolk during my annual active duty.

Now, a moment after getting to the TV, my cell phone rang. It was Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington of New York City. “Pat, where are you?” he asked. When I said Norfolk, he said, “I need you here. I need that hospital ship.” He was referring to the USNS Comfort, which he had toured a few months earlier during its port visit to NYC. After I hung up, Jones told me that if the Comfort was going to New York, I needed to be there, too.

Then the second plane hit. My cell phone rang again. It was Lieutenant Commander Steve Estrada, yelling into the phone, “A f—ing plane just flew over me and hit the South Tower!” And I blurted, “Because we are being f—ing attacked!” It was the first time anyone in the room had verbalized what we all knew.

Master Chief Don Westlye and Master Chief Bill Murnane were with me in Norfolk. Murnane’s wife worked in the U.S. Customs House, Six World Trade Center. I’ll never forget the look on his face. Westlye told me to go; they would catch up later. Then I remembered — my brother was to be in New York for a meeting with Cantor Fitzgerald at the top of the World Trade Center.

My phone rang again, and it was Lieutenant Keith Davids, the flag lieutenant to Admiral Robert J. Natter, the commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet. Davids told me that Washington, the deputy mayor, had called Natter and asked for help. The USS George Washington and her battle group were already at sea conducting exercises, so Natter sent them north. The USNS Comfort was being prepared; the USS Bataan and the USS Shreveport were available if needed. Air cover was already up with Navy jets out of Naval Air Station Oceana.

I left Commodore Jones and jumped in my car, still receiving a steady stream of phone calls. The deputy mayor called again. I had just left the base and pulled over on a side street so I could hear better. It was a beautiful day — sunny, crystal clear, a calm breeze. I was staring at a man in his front yard, on his hands and knees, tending to his picture-perfect flower beds while the deputy mayor was yelling to me over the sirens coming through my cell phone and into my right ear. “Pat,” he was saying, “There were people jumping out of the towers!”

Then he’d ask about the status of the USNS Comfort, the battle group, the Navy jets. Soon he would come back to the horror of it. “It was raining bodies. We had to pull back. They just kept jumping.” I told him I was on my way.

I hung up and looked at the man enjoying his garden. He had no idea the world was changing.

NYC closed down

I drove north. There were no cars on the road, no people in the streets, nothing. I drove more than 100 miles per hour most of the way. It truly seemed as if the world had ended. Then the phone would ring, and I would have another horrific conversation, then nothing. One call came from Omar Alvers, the deputy mayor’s assistant. “Pat, the Dep wants to know if the military has 20,000 body bags. The city only has 6,000.”

Sergeant Jerry Kane, assistant to Police Commissioner Bernard Kerick, called, wanting an update on what the Navy was doing. I got him up to date and told him Steve Estrada was running the Navy Office in Battery Park until I got there from Norfolk.

“Well, hurry up, you f—in’ hump,” he said and hung up the phone.

The calls kept coming. One was Master Chief Westlye, who told me Murnane had found his wife. I had not heard from my brother.

Approaching New York on the New Jersey Turnpike, I learned NYC was literally closed. I was in uniform, and the police let me through. I drove by the long line of waiting cars and saw the blank, scared stares on the people’s faces. As I drove over the bridge between New Jersey and Staten Island, I saw the skyline for the first time. It looked raped, and I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I drove across Staten Island. No traffic. No cars. No people out and about. I pulled into the Coast Guard Activities New York headquarters, where I found Admiral Richard Bennis, the Coast Guard captain of the Port of New York and the incident commander for a tragedy such as this.

A friend and mentor, Admiral Bennis and his wife, Gloria, had helped me through my father’s battle with cancer, and now he was fighting cancer himself — a battle he lost 23 months after 9/11. He greeted me with a handshake, a hug and a heavy dose of sarcasm, “Glad you could make it.” I said, “You look like hell.” We both laughed the way you do when you’re trying to keep it together. He told me he had left Washington with the Pentagon on fire and drove home to Staten Island to see this.

That was the first of many times I would experience “the look” — the look that said, “Thank God you’re alive; that’s another one I can take off my list.” But no one ever actually said that, and no one ever asked if they knew if someone was dead or alive. These were like unwritten rules. Even in the command center at Manhattan’s Pier 92, agencies would post lists of the dead and missing at their stations, and people would walk up, silently read the lists and walk away.

We went into the Coast Guard’s conference room for an update. Bennis had closed the port. The Coast Guard had just evacuated more than 500,000 people from Manhattan Island, having no idea if the attacks were over. This exodus was one of the amazing feats of 9/11. The deputy mayor had ordered the bridges and tunnels closed, fearing they would be blown up when full of thousands of fleeing people. A few years later I was at the Imperial War Museum in London, and the curator stated that the largest wartime evacuation in history was the British evacuating some 300,000 out of Dunkirk in WWII. I told him this was no longer the case.

After the brief, Bennis arranged for a Coast Guard boat to take me to my office area just south of the World Trade Center. The power grid for the lower portion of Manhattan was down, but the Coast Guard building was on a different grid. We had lights, computers, phones and water. As I sat in the small boat headed to Manhattan, all I could do was stare at the plume of smoke rising in the air above what used to be the World Trade Center.

We disembarked at the finger piers, and I walked to my office, where I found Estrada and Warrant Officer Frank Indovino. I called the deputy mayor, who said he would arrive out front in a few minutes. From my office all you could see was a silent city covered in inches of gray pulverized concrete and debris. The news stands, the hot dog stands, the cars, the benches, everything was abandoned as people fled. I thought of Pompeii after the volcanic ash settled.

On to Ground Zero

Estrada, Indovino and I went out to meet the deputy mayor, his assistant, Alvers, and Clarice Joynes, the deputy commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs. The building had blood on the front and cracks in the safety glass from people who had tried to kick their way into it as they fled the debris. We walked across a silent Battery Park and up West Street. The debris field kept growing in size and magnitude. I counted 17 smashed ambulances as we walked into Ground Zero. We passed an airplane tire and part of its landing gear. Alvers mentioned that a decapitated body had been next to the tire earlier but someone must have moved it. I didn’t respond.

We continued into Ground Zero and up onto “The Pile.” Workers were pulling a hotel laundry basket up and over the maze of steel and concrete and vehicles. The deputy mayor said, “Don’t look in there,” so, of course, I did. They were transporting remains to the morgue. With the smoke and steam and gases, you could hear but not see the Navy jets thundering overhead. I finished a bottle of water that someone had given me and was looking around for a garbage can. I was standing on top of millions of tons of debris and looking for a garbage can. I realized then that my mind was not taking all this in, and I needed to focus on my job.

After I left Notre Dame in 1986, I ended up in the Iran-Iraq war as part of Operation Praying Mantis. I learned then to focus on my job and trust my training. I had the same reaction to the attacks on New York, but there was a big difference. I always believed I would do these things for my country but in far-off places. I didn’t think I would be responding to attacks on my home — the place I went for free concerts in the summer and Christmas shopping in December. The place I met friends for lunch during work or drinks after work. The place I went jogging. The WTC complex and the surrounding area was the lifeblood of Lower Manhattan. It was as much a part of my life as my apartment.

I was standing up on a debris mound near what was Liberty Street and the West Side Highway with the deputy mayor. We were looking at the long lines of people forming bucket brigades. They seemed to stretch on forever and then disappear into the debris and smoke. Someone asked, “Where is God in this hell?” No one responded, but I looked at the long lines of people in those bucket brigades and thought, “God’s right there. Can’t you see?”

A horn would sound, and hope would shoot through you. A horn meant someone thought he had heard a trapped victim. Everyone would stand silent and listen for anything — a noise, a voice, a cell phone ringing. Nothing ever seemed to happen. As time went by I learned to hate that sound. It came to mean more hopes had been dashed or more remains had been found.

We made our way over to the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Forward Command Center, where Tim Brown and Calvin Drayton were coordinating the response efforts. They eventually had to be carried out a few days later, suffering from exhaustion and sleep deprivation. All involved were doing everything possible under impossible conditions.

The deputy mayor finished his work at the OEM Forward Command Center. I talked to Brown and Drayton about logistics and the need for support by the USNS Comfort and Navy ships. They needed food, clothes, shelter and medical care for workers. As far as the number of injured, it was already becoming clear that you were either in the “kill zone” or not in the “kill zone.” Those in the “kill zone” were gone. I asked, “Gone?” The deputy mayor said, “They’re just gone.” I turned to Joynes, a former Marine, an unflappable woman from Queens who is one of my best friends. She looked at me and said, “Gone. You saw what they’ve been finding.”

Carrying the flag

We made our way back to City Hall, where we ran into the mayor’s chief of staff, who said the mayor wanted to hang an American flag to help raise morale. Someone had produced a huge American flag. The deputy mayor, Estrada, Indovino, Alvers, Joynes and I headed back to Ground Zero and decided the best place to hang the flag would be off the 10th story of the American Express Building. It took four of us to carry the flag up 10 flights of stairs using flashlights and choking on the dust.

We made our way through the maze of office cubicles all covered in the same pulverized gray debris that blanketed lower Manhattan. We climbed through one of the shattered windows out onto the ledge. The five of us tied up the flag. As the winds blew, chunks of glass would rain down on us from the smashed windows in the 40 to 50 stories above us. I kept looking up, wondering if this was such a good idea. Then I turned and looked down.

From 10 stories up, the sight of Ground Zero smoldering just stopped me for a moment. But just then a badly damaged walkway pulled away from the American Express Building and crashed onto the West Side Highway. Firefighters on bullhorns were yelling to evacuate the building because it was coming down. We ran down the 10 flights of stairs and regrouped outside.

The building didn’t come down. But when we looked up we realized no one had unfurled the flag before we fled. We made our way back to City Hall. FDNY unfurled the flag later.

The deputy mayor went to the temporary City Hall Offices at the Police Academy on 26th Street. Joynes and I walked in the dead silence to my office in Battery Park.

When we arrived, the deputy mayor called and asked me to come to the Police Academy. The fighting had already started. The arguments centered on whether the City could request specific assets such as the USNS Comfort, or whether the City could only request “capabilities” and FEMA would decide what assets would be sent. At the end of the day the USNS Comfort was ordered to NYC.

While at the Police Academy I ran into Richie Rotanz, one of the deputies at the OEM. Richie had 12 children. He told me he had been in the OEM forward command center in the Towers, and the workers had to evacuate by running across the WTC plaza as they dodged falling bodies. They ran to the OEM’s main command center in Tower Seven. Then it too was evacuated, and it came down almost an hour after Towers One and Two. Rotanz said he was trying to drag two ladies with him as he left. One made it; one didn’t. He was blinded by all the debris and knocked down. He said he crawled along the sidewalk to get as far away as possible. Two guys found him and took him to triage. Those guys were his two oldest sons.

I left the Police Academy exhausted and a little less idealistic. I started driving down the West Side Highway. People on either side of the highway were cheering and holding signs that read “Heroes” and “God Bless You.” I felt a bit ashamed; like I was stealing someone else’s parade. I hadn’t run into a burning skyscraper. I hadn’t evacuated Manhattan. I was alive and well. I slept Wednesday night.

Thursday the 13th, things took a turn for the better. My brother Tim called. He had stayed in Colorado for Monday Night Football and had moved his meeting on the 102nd floor of the WTC back to the afternoon of the 11th. He was stuck in Colorado. I couldn’t believe it.

Westlye, Murnane and I met Commander Ralph Jones, who headed up the USNS Comfort‘s advanced team. By now it was pouring rain. We walked into Ground Zero to assess the situation. Thousands of cops, firemen and volunteers were working, eating and sleeping in the rain-soaked mix of pulverized concrete, mud, garbage, debris and whatever else was stirred into the slop we were walking through.

On Friday we established a boat service between Pier 92 and Ground Zero and began to ferry rescue workers, National Guardsmen, firefighters and police officers to the Comfort for food, clothes, shelter, medical attention, or a psychologist, a priest, a rabbi, a place to sleep. The USNS Comfort did much more than they will ever get credit for.

More of the story

The Comfort’s after-action report stated, “This is the first time the hospital ship has been involved, and taken an active role, in the Federal Response Plan…. As the state of the world changes, it would be beneficial for our military to emphasize and understand our role in the Federal Emergency Response Plan. The professionalism and can-do attitude of the crew ensured that the mission was a resounding success. Many thanks to those who supported Comfort and New York City during this devastating experience.”

The president came to visit Ground Zero. It was a great moment, but I had never seen Secret Service sweat until that day. They had been informed that the underground fires were still burning and spreading, and the city engineers believed they had picked a safe location for the president to stand. The underground fires spread until September 28th and then started to recess.

I’d like to tell you about the amazing job Mayor Rudy Giuliani did. He held four, five, sometimes six meetings a day with more than 100 agencies and addressed all there concerns. He was decisive and on top of the situation. He escorted every family member who wanted to visit Ground Zero to Ground Zero. I used to grade mass-conflagrations drills for the Navy and the mayor gets an “A.”

I wish I could convey to you the strength I saw on a daily basis, the genuine care and concern, the openness and giving. The USNS Comfort‘s shuttle was the fastest, safest, least intrusive way to bring people down to Ground Zero. It became the VIP and family member shuttle, in addition to its regular duties. The strength of the family members as they faced Ground Zero and the generosity of the athletes, singer, movies stars and elected official gave me a renewed faith in our country and people in general.

The deputy mayor was exhausted one day, and he asked if I would take Reggie Jackson to Ground Zero for him. I was happy to help. I didn’t know what to expect, but Reggie Jackson was amazing. He came alone, no press, no photographer. He spent hours signing autographs, talking to firemen, policemen, ironworkers, shaking hands, and raising morale. I took him through the command center at Pier 92 and made sure he met Calvin Drayton, who was back at work after collapsing at the forward command center. I took Reggie to the children’s area at Pier 94 but didn’t go in with him. I had reached my limit, but he kept going.

We brought 42 senators to Ground Zero. I escorted Senators Clinton, Snow and Landrau. They were amazing. I wish all American could have seen their senators on that day — kind, caring, articulate people everyone could be proud of.

I saw courage I will never fathom in men like Chief Brown. Chief Brown survived the Pentagon attacks because he was lucky enough not to be at his desk. He called home to tell his wife he had survived, and his wife told him their son was on the plane that crashed into his office. I picked up the chief at Pennsylvania Station in NYC. He had come to New York to eulogize a young man who worked for him in the Pentagon, Petty Officer Michael Noeth, who had been killed in the attacks. After losing his own son, he stood in front of Petty Officer Noeth’s mother and grandmother and talked of their loss. We went to Ground Zero and back to Penn Station. We sat in Penn Station, having a beer while waiting for the train back to D.C. I asked him how he was managing. He told me he just thinks about what he has to be thankful for every day.

The Prayer Service

It was an honor to help the deputy mayor with the Prayer Service for the Families in Yankee Stadium. About how great former President Clinton was in his support of the prayer service. About what a great speech Admiral Natter delivered in Yankee Stadium to open the prayer service. About the flag the governor and mayor gave Admiral Natter that day, which was sent to the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier (named after a New Yorker) to be flown as her planes attacked Afghanistan. About watching Bette Midler pull herself together, walk out and sing an amazing “Wind Beneath Your Wings,” honoring all who had fallen, and then, once out of public view, break down into tears. I’ve never seen such strength.

I escorted Admiral Balisle to Ground Zero. His office was destroyed on 9/11 in the Pentagon. He looked right at the firemen and said, “The Pentagon was a tragedy, but I’ve never seen anything like this.” Or taking Admiral Morgan, the USS Enterprise Battle Group Command and the first to strike back at Afghanistan, to Ground Zero and having him surrounded by cops and firemen who wanted to meet the guy that shot back and then having him speak to standing room only at One Police Plaza on December 7, 2001.

I wish I had time to go into what a huge help Commander Chris Petershcmidt, the executive officer of the USS Cole when they were attacked, was to all of us in New York with his advice and counsel and how he was able to relate to the police and firemen.

Or how great it felt to be in Yankee Stadium and watch the president throughout the first pitch as Navy jets did a fly-over. I went home and read Walt Whitman, “Baseball will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”

Or the time Christie Todd Whitman declared the air quality in Lower Manhattan safe, and we were at Ground Zero when we heard the news and we all started laughing.

We kept working and kept moving on. We commissioned the USS Bulkely in NYC on December 6, 2001, as scheduled with more than 6,000 people in attendance. We held Fleet Week NYC in May 2002 to record crowds. During Fleet Week Clarice Joynes and I worked with HBO to premier the HBO documentary “In
Memoriam” at the Grand Hyatt in front of 600 first responders and 600 sailors, Marines, and Coastguardsmen just back from the war in Afghanistan or involved in 9/11. Ironically the year before we filled a theater in NYC for a showing of Pearl Harbor.

The night before the public closing of Ground Zero; hundreds of sailors, Marines, and Coastguardsmen lined the route from the base of Ground Zero to street level and handed each firemen, policemen, and ironworker an American flag as they left Ground Zero for the last time. It was one of those things that just happened at the last minute and was one of the greatest signs of respect and admiration I have ever witnessed. I was standing with FDNY Chief Sal Cassano, a Vietnam veteran, and we watched a Marine who looked like he was 16 hand a flag to an old fireman. I said, “Sal, were we ever that young?” He said, “No.”

Clarice Joynes called me and asked me to put her in touch with the Secretary of the Navy. The City wanted to put World Trade Center steel into the new USS New York. I put her in touch with the secretary’s public affairs officer. Today there are 24,000 tons of World Trade Center steel in the hull on the USS New York.

I took my brother Tim to Ground Zero. It was a cold miserable day. He stood reading the board with all those names. He would occasionally say something like, “He worked for me.” Or, “That was a young guy who interned for us.” This was his time, and I just stayed silent. We walked past the name board into “The Pit” area. We stood looking and knowing how fortunate we both were to be there.

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