From New York City
Kenyon firefighters hear the call to serveI'm a very reflective person; I don't do most things without thinking about them first," says Kenyon junior Andrew "Drew" Kalnow, a history major from Wilmette, Illinois. "But, in firefighting mode, behavior becomes automatic and routine; you just step up and do it."
Kalnow was still in reflective mode on Tuesday, September 11, when the members of the Gambier Volunteer Fire Department gathered for their regularly scheduled meeting. Also attending the meeting were Oliver Benes, a junior biology major from Pepper Pike, Ohio, and James "Jeb" Breece IV, a sophomore political science major from Chicago, Illinois.
"I'm a more spontaneous person than Drew," says Breece. "We were talking at the meeting about going to New York, and I just really thought we should go. I confess that, at first, it sounded like a cool adventure."
But the three young men, all of whom have completed more than one hundred fifty hours of training and responded to numerous emergencies in Gambier and College Township, were motivated by their desire to help people in need.
Benes's uncle is a firefighter with Ladder 17, Engine 60, located in the South Bronx borough of New York City. His company was to be their contact.
"Driving into the city late on Wednesday night was shocking," says Benes. "The air was full of smoke, dust, and ash." After spending the remaining few hours of the night at the Bronx fire station, Benes, Breece, and Kalnow went on Thursday morning to the Shea Stadium staging area.
"We encountered a very nice man there who was quite taken with the fact that we had come all the way from Ohio," says Breece. "He explained that we could report to the Office of Emergency Management, where we would likely be turned away as unneeded, or we could just get on a bus that was leaving for Ground Zero in half an hour. We got on the bus."
With a police escort, the bus first traveled to Chelsea Peers to unload supplies that would then be transported to the disaster area by boat. Arriving at the site, the men walked up a path cut deep in the dust.
"That was when it hit us," says Breece. "The dust was so thick and there were papers everywhere. A fire truck stood buried in dust and other emergency vehicles were strewn around."
"We thought of turning back," admits Benes, but then they heard a command out of the smoke: "Grab your flashlights, we're going this way."
The men tramped through one of the adjacent buildings, which was on the verge of collapse. Windows were obscured by dust, and two inches of water covered the marble floors. Random messages were scrawled everywhere in the omnipresent dust. Down a hall and through a side door they marched. And then they were there.
"Our whole bodies just emptied of emotion," say Kalnow and Breece, talking in unison. "Until that moment, I never truly understood the meaning of the phrase 'deafening silence,'" says Breece. "A thousand people and machines were working, but it was still silent. And I could understand why. I probably did not utter ten words for the entire time we were there. I was speechless."
Climbing over the rubble were teams of handlers and search-and-rescue dogs. If a dog gave a signal, firefighters lined up at the site and began to dig. They passed the buckets of rubble along to where it was dumped on an already searched area. "You couldn't really identify anything," says Kalnow. "The rubble was ten stories high in places, and periodically smoke would billow out and a fire would flare up. The only remains we could see were shoes, handbags, pictures, files, the base of a laptop computer with two keys left on it. We just kept at it; we had no awareness of time passing. We stopped being persons and became part of a mission."
Night fell, and the exhausted crews were replaced by fresh ones. The three young men sat down and ate cheese sandwiches and drank water. "I'll bet there were three or four Red Cross volunteers for every firefighter," says Breece. "There was every imaginable kind of supply."
Back at Shea Stadium, they called their mothers. "We told our moms we had been in no danger," says Breece with a laugh.
"I feared for my life and the lives of thousands of rescue workers," admits Benes. "But in situations like that, you just do it, no matter what the risks are."
The ride back to the College was solemn. The giddy sense of adventure was gone. "We were all just thinking our own thoughts and feeling overwhelmed," says Kalnow. "When I thought about being down in some of those bizarre cracks in the rubble I wondered just why I did that, but something else just takes over."
Reentry into the ordinariness of daily life was difficult. Suddenly, friends talking about relationship problems or even classroom activities seemed somehow out of touch with a new kind of reality.
"Going to New York City in the aftermath of September 11 was a life-changing experience," says Benes. "Nothing I had done in the past could ever prepare me for what I saw, smelled, heard, and experienced there."
"We were there to serve," says Breece. "We knew that if we found even one person, or even if we didn't but we tried, that justified our going."
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