COLUMBIA — On the afternoon of Sept. 12, 2001, two buses carrying Missouri Task Force 1 members and three trucks packed with 100,000 pounds of supplies crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into lower Manhattan.
For many of the 62 task force members, it was their first time visiting New York City. As the caravan neared the city, the rescue workers saw a column of gray smoke and the still-burning fires at ground zero.
Click on each thumbnail to hear the experiences of the task force members in their own words.
"I remember the people lined up on the streets when we first arrived," said Chuck Leake, Boone County Fire Protection District Battalion Chief and a leader of the task force. "They were waving flags and thanking us, and we hadn't even done anything yet."
The task force — a division of the fire protection district — is one of 28 urban search-and-rescue groups in the country serving under the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. The local group has 80 volunteers, including firefighters, structural engineers, rescue specialists, doctors and paramedics.
Sept. 11, 2001, was the first time FEMA deployed the task force. Leake said he was working in the rubble before he'd even seen video of the Twin Towers falling.
"The concrete dust was like snow," he said. "There were ground-up papers everywhere. I realized the magnitude: Skyscrapers that were now standing at 200 feet, concrete jagged up and huge holes ripped four stories into the ground."
Ground zero was like a science fiction world, search team manager Steve Winters said. In some areas of the rubble, offices from the decimated World Trade Center remained intact; the task force searched rooms where cups of coffee and doughnuts still sat on conference room tables. Womens' high heels remained tucked under desks where they'd been stored away at the start of a work day that ended hours too soon.
"It just became normal to wade through seas of people, to have cranes running and heavy equipment and the smell of wet concrete and death," said Doug Westhoff, assistant fire chief and another task force leader. "But we didn't focus on that, we focused on the task at hand, and I think that's the only way you can survive that kind of stuff."
As the 11-day deployment progressed, Leake said he realized his team was no longer doing rescue but recovery.
“I’ve seen death — just not quite that much in one spot before,” Leake said. “But we have a job to do and even if it is just to bring home someone’s loved one, it is an important job.”
Winters said working at ground zero taught him to appreciate what he has and not to worry when things go wrong.
“I have a 5 1/2-year-old girl, and I think I’m a better father now than I would have been,” Winters said. “She’s growing up, and I don’t want to miss this time. I don’t know if it would have been the same way if I hadn’t deployed.”