Responders to Ground Zero reflect on 20 years

Those who responded to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 still remember the devastation, smells, chaos, and heartbreak that filled Manhattan. 

Killing 2,977 people, including Swampscott resident Robert Jalbert, the attacks hit close to home for many. 

Several Swampscott residents traveled to New York City to assist shortly after the attacks, saying what they saw seemed like a war zone. 

Swampscott police officers Jay Locke and Rick McCarriston drove down to New York after a call for nationwide assistance was sent out. While there, they stayed in New Jersey but went into Manhattan to escort grief counselors and clergy around, as well as uncovered body parts to their determined location. 

Locke witnessed the physical and emotional damage the attacks had on the city and its people. He remembers seeing massive fires raging out of the ground and popping up when materials at the site were moved.
He recalls the facades of surrounding buildings being stripped and seeing office chairs falling out of them onto the streets below. 

The surreal sights and devastation that accompanied the destruction of the two towers left people praying at Ground Zero and lining the streets with American flags, Locke said as he recalled a conversation with a New York City police officer who was working when the towers fell. 

This officer told Locke that it was incredible to see people choosing to jump out of the buildings rather than burn or be buried in the rubble, as his eyes gazed up and down as if he was replaying those dreadful moments in his head. 

In addition to police officers, Locke said he remembers multiple teams and search dogs at the towers site searching for survivors. 

McCarriston said most of the search dogs ended up dying because they were breathing in all of the asbestos. Between the asbestos and the smoke and debris flying through the air, McCarriston said the volunteers at Ground zero were eventually given masks and protective eye gear to wear. 

While many saw the attack and its aftermath on television, viewers were removed from the chemical and burning smells that Locke remembers. 

“I had been around house fires before, but this was a completely different smell,” Locke said. “Everything was pulverized… Debris would be moved and a fireball would just pop up out of nowhere.” 

Locke referred to the site of the former World Trade Center as “utter destruction” and something he could have never imagined. 

McCarriston described the site of the attack in a similar way, saying even after being in the police department for 20 years, his preconceptions of what he was walking into were not even close to reality. 

On the morning of 9/11, McCarriston was at his mother’s funeral, after she had lost her battle to cancer. 

The funeral directors had turned off the radios because they didn’t want McCarriston and his family and friends to have to hear more tragedy during the services. 

When he heard about the attack, McCarriston said he wanted to go down to help out people who had lost someone much younger than he just had with his mother. 

When he arrived, McCarriston said he remembers going through the Lincoln Tunnel and being engulfed by a burning smell. When he got to the tower site, the scent shifted to that of dead bodies, which he said once you smell, it never leaves you. 

McCarriston and Locke worked 16 to 20-hour days, staying busy through it all. 

From the smells to walking on piles of debris formed from former skyscrapers, McCarriston said it was “mind boggling.”

As a law enforcement officer, McCarriston said other officers and iron workers who witnessed the attack opened up to him about what it was like to see it in person. 

He recalled a conversation with a New York police sergeant who told McCarriston that he had lost a good friend to the attack. 

The sergeant was stationed at the World Trade Center with his friend for years, but he had been promoted a week before and was transferred to another location. 

His friend remained at the World Trade Center and was working there the day the towers collapsed, killing him in the process. 

McCarriston said the sergeant was suffering from survivor’s guilt because if he hadn’t been promoted or if his friend had scored higher on the test and been promoted too, then he wouldn’t have died that day. 

To put things into perspective, McCarriston said the losses sustained by the Port Authority Police Department would be equivalent to losing the entire Swampscott Police Department.

Another Swampscott resident, Ed Seligman, made his way to New York City as a logistics team manager for the Massachusetts National Urban Search and Rescue Response System (MA-TF1 in Beverly). 

Seligman, who became a Swampscott firefighter shortly after 9/11, was managing the tools and equipment for the rescue mission and setting up tents to provide food, water and equipment to the first responders. 

Similar to McCarriston and Locke, Seligman said he tried to prepare for the scene on the drive to New York, but realism sunk in when he was driving by the Hudson River and saw armed soldiers lining the streets. 

From hearing the stories of survivors to seeing Ground Zero in person, Seligman said he was in awe and there were no words to describe the situation. 

“Pictures don’t put it in magnitude,” he said. “I was taking in what happened, just looking at all of the devastation.” 

The three Swampscott residents put their lives on hold to assist with the recovery from the 9/11 attacks, but said the transition back to reality was challenging. 

Between the exhaustion and digesting everything they had seen, the three said they will never forget what they witnessed. 

When returning home, McCarriston said it was one of those things where you just had to deal with what had happened, or else it would eat you up. 

Locke said it was an honor to go down and help and said he didn’t think twice about offering a helping hand.