This article is part of Pamplin Media Group's 20th anniversary coverage of the Sept. 11, terrorist attacks.
For an increasing number of people, the 9/11 terrorist attacks are a fading memory. Others don't remember it at all because they were too young or hadn't even been born.
Not Portland Fire & Rescue Lt. Neil Martin. He remembers the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City by hijacked airliners vividly. Martin is one of four Portland firefighters who quickly snagged a flight back east — 20 years ago this week — and spent five days digging through the wreckage at Ground Zero recovering human remains.
"To a lot of people, 9/11 is like an anecdote, something you try to remember on its anniversary. To me it's like something that happened yesterday," said Martin, the only one of the four Portlanders who is still with the fire bureau.
The trip was not organized or financed by the bureau. Martin and the others — Dwight Englert, Ed Hall and Wes Loucks — just had to do it. They were inspired by the reported high number of first responder casualties and by a nationally televised on-the-ground interview with a surviving one, William "Billy" Quick, a larger-than-life New York firefighter they had met a few years earlier when he came to Portland to climb Mount Hood in the winter.
"We knew the situation was so big, so dire that we didn't want to wait for permission. We just grabbed our gear and headed to the airport," said Martin, who explained the group paid their own way while other Portland firefighters volunteered to fill their shifts so they did not lose their vacation time.
[The Portland Firefight's Association and PF&R are planning a 9/11 memorial service at 10 a.m. on Sept. 11. It will be livestream on the union's Facebook page. ]
But when the four arrived at the Portland airport, they discovered all commercial flights were grounded over fears of other hijackings. Fortunately, their presence created a stir and the crew of an airliner authorized to fly into LaGuardia Airport in Queens invited them on board. Loucks had already called Quick to tell him they were coming. He picked them up when they arrived on Sept. 15, just four days after the Twin Towers collapsed. Their trip was first reported by Portland Tribune reporter Don Hamilton from New York on Sept. 21, 2001.
By then it was apparent that a great many New York firefighters had died rushing into burning structures. The official figure now is 343 of the 2,977 victims. Quick survived because he was off that day, although he rushed to the scene when news of the attack broke and was within blocks when the towers fell. He survived by sheltering in a subway station and then under a car.
When Quick picked them up, he explained that most remaining New York firefighters had been ordered to stay at their stations in case of future attacks in other parts of the city. But that did not apply to them, and Quick — who was using vacation time — drove the impromptu crew to what Martin calls "the pile," the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center. Along the way, they passed hundreds of family members of the missing handing out fliers with their photos, pleading for help finding them. Quick slowed his vehicle so they could grab the fliers on the way there.
"The closer we got, the magnitude of what happened became clearer. It hit us like a ton of bricks — this is real. Quick pulled right up to the scene. It was so big, I felt like an ant about to cross a tree," Martin said.
Rescue crews had been crawling over the wreckage for four days, and it was apparent no one was going to be found alive. The glass in all of the windows had been vaporized by the force of the falls. The best anyone could hope for was finding body parts that could lead to identifications. Wearing PF&R outfits, the Portland firefighters grabbed gloves, hard hats and buckets and joined the searchers.
"It was such rudimentary work. You'd fill a five-gallon bucket with debris and pass it up a line. By then iron workers had shown up with cranes and were lifting up girders. You'd climb into the holes under them and keep digging," said Martin, who had rescue training and went into the holes.
Every so often, someone would find a body part and make a signal. FBI agents would come over and document the location before it was removed. But if it was a potential New York first responder — if any remnants of department equipment was found with it — silence fell, someone would bring over an American flag, and a short ceremony would be held. Then the remains would be removed and the searching would continue.
When Quick took the Portlanders to his Ladder Company 134 station in Queens, where they would sleep at the end of the first day, all of the other firefighters crowded around them, asking what it was like. Many shared their memories of the Twin Towers before the attack because they were so familiar with them. The next day, Martin pocketed a few pieces of debris during his searches. When he gave them to the New York firefighters, they treasured them like honored artifacts.
On the fifth day, the Portland firefighters knew it was time to go home. Flightcraft arranged a trip back to Portland, where they returned to their families and duties.
But the story didn't end there. Their volunteer trip to New York had become part of 9/11 history.
In early October, the group was part of the Flight for Freedom of hundreds of Oregonians who flew to New York City for a shopping spree intended to boost the morale and recovery of the still-suffering city. It was led by then-Portland Mayor Vera Katz and organized by Sho Dozono, chairperson of the Portland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and president of Azumano Travel.
Then, on Jan. 5, President George Bush visited Portland and specifically asked that he be allowed to shake their hands. Martin said they met Bush at Air Force One at Portland International Airport. They also were invited to march in the 2002 St. Patrick's Day Parade that was led by 343 probationary New York Fire Department firefighters.
Ten years later, Quick was forced to retire at age 55 because of lung disease caused by the fumes around Ground Zero. He had spent two months on the pile trying to recover as many of the remains of his former coworkers as possible. According to Martin, Quick's wife called to say that he was depressed and had all but given up living.
Martin and a couple other Portland firefighters flew back to New York to cheer him up. They spent hours talking to him and agreed to sleep at his house instead of checking into a hotel. Quick died that night, another victim of 9/11. His wake lasted two days and he was given a hero's funeral that was widely covered by the New York news media — including his trip to Portland to climb Mount Hood in the winter.
Martin said the experiences gave him a greater appreciation of the risks faced by firefighters and a better understanding of courage and sacrifice.
"More than twice as many New York firefighters died that day than the total number of Portland firefighters who work on a daily shift," Martin said. "And they died because they ran into the danger, not away from it."
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