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US Coast Guard Responds to Ground Zero

Author: PA2 Tom Sperduto, USCG

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-10
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Originally Published in our Nov/Dec issue.

While thousands of US Coast Guard members remain ready to protect freedom on our nation’s waterways, a handful have provided difficult and emotional support tasks in the midst of Ground Zero – what remains of the World Trade Center complex.

From National Strike Force members conducting air monitoring in structurally unsafe buildings to Coast Guard firefighters searching for survivors and Chaplains conducting worship services - the US Coast Guard has maintained an active role at Ground Zero since September 11.

Coast Guard firefighter Rich P. Hyland has worked at the Governors Island Fire Department for six years. He spent a total of seven days at Ground Zero searching for survivors. More than a dozen of those were close friends.  “We train with the New York Fire Department all the time,” Hyland said.  “We all have friends who are not with us anymore.”

Hyland remembers the chaos the Coast Guard firefighters experienced upon arriving at Battery Park September 11.  “We were taken over by a fireboat from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. When people (trying to evacuate Manhattan) saw us coming they began rushing the boat.  Nobody knew if another building was coming down,” Hyland said. “We assisted a lot of injured and hysterical people onto the boat while other guys went straight into - well - battle I guess you could call it.”

The Coast Guard firefighters were re-directed back to Governors Island to prepare for the arrival of potential casualties. The next morning, teams of 8-10 firefighters were back at Ground Zero searching for survivors. Twelve Coast Guard firefighters from Cape May (NJ) also joined the search and recovery effort.

Left: A US Coast Guard worker checks air quality readings in a damaged building just off Ground Zero.  The USCQ had a strong presence throughout Manhattan after the 11th, assisting with search and rescue, air monitoring, and chaplaincy. Photo by PA2 Tom Sperduto/USCG

Ensuring Air Quality

Along with the firefighters, Coast Guard National Strike Force personnel have

been performing vital roles at Ground Zero.  “One of our missions is conducting perimeter monitoring along with the EPA to ensure air quality at Ground Zero,” said CWO Leo J. Deon, a response officer with the Atlantic Strike Team.  More than 20 Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific Strike Team members have worked around the clock in Manhattan.  “We are ensuring that the air isn’t going to cause respiratory problems for the rescue workers or the surrounding community,” said Deon.

 Strike team personnel use air-monitoring instrumentation to check the oxygen levels as well as check for hazards in the air. Additionally, the teams offered recommendations on respiratory safeguard measures.  In order to check the air quality, Strike Team members went through buildings that were damaged from the terrorist attack.   Venturing floor to floor, Strike Team members were reminded how abrupt the attack was by the half-eaten bowls of cereal and full cups of coffee left on the dust- and debris-covered desks.

Strike Team personnel have also set up eighteen hygiene stations for use by the rescuers working at Ground Zero.  “The stations provide boot washing, hand washing, and emergency eye washing for the rescue workers,” Deon said. “When the workers come out of the zone – they have a place to wash off their gear and their bodies.  The stations also give them a place to relax a little.”


The God Squad

Another group of Coast Guard members – deemed the God Squad – has also been making an impact. Twenty-nine Coast Guard chaplains continue rotating in and out of Ground Zero providing prayer, conducting religious services, or at times just a smile or a listening ear.   “We have had chaplains walking at Ground Zero and firefighters would just run up and give them a big hug, and say ‘we are really glad you are here,’” said Activities New York Chaplain Gregory Todd.

One of the more emotionally difficult tasks the God Squad has undertaken is providing support for family members of the victims.  “The City asked us to ride on the ferries from Pier 94 to the family center at Ground Zero with the families of the victims,” said Todd. “We take three ferries over a day with the families.”

Hyland says the emotional experience of working at Ground Zero has already begun taking its toll.  “When I’m by myself it really hits me - it’s unfortunate - I’ll have these thoughts for a long time to come,” he said.

Although life will never be the same for some of us, and the sacrifice of many will be etched in many minds forever, maybe these words spoken by a Coast Guard member at Ground Zero will bring some comfort to a nation the Coast Guard will continue to protect.

“As difficult and emotional as it was, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat,” Hyland said.

PA2 Tom Sperduto is a Public Affairs Officer with the US Coast Guard in New York City.


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