Special Reports

Devastation awed local rescuers

The emptiness of the World Trade Center site shocked Cynthia Fajardo when she returned to New York. Fajardo, chief of Steilacoom's combined police and fire department, grew up in Brooklyn and watched the twin towers being built.

Last September, as a member of the Puget Sound Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, she spent nearly a week searching for victims amid the WTC's mangled, pulverized ruins.

In June, Fajardo revisited the site after recovery efforts were complete. What once was 16 acres of twisted steel and rubble now is a barren landscape surrounding a deep hole pockmarked by subway tunnels.

"The whole pile was gone," Fajardo said. "All there was was dirt and railroad tracks. It was eerie. It was just empty, just emptiness.

"But the smell was still the same."

Fajardo is one of a handful of the 62 rescue workers from the Puget Sound area who have revisited New York since their weeklong assignments last September. All returned from New York to rejoin local police forces, fire departments and other emergency agencies.

Some came home from New York with respiratory infections, the result of breathing dust and other airborne particles at the site. But most had little difficulty resuming normal routines, officials say.

Most look back with pride on their time working beside New York's firefighters in the site's rubble. And most say they are glad they went to help.

"It would have been very, very difficult had I not been on the rotation to go," Fajardo said. "I think I would have been paying off someone to get a spot."

But all were amazed by what they saw last September.

"What I didn't expect to see was nothing," said A.D. Vickery, deputy chief of special operations for the Seattle Fire Department and the leader of the Puget Sound task force in New York.

In 35 years of firefighting, Vickery said, he had never been to an incident where the site had been reduced to mangled steel and powdery residue. The destructive power of the twin towers' collapse left him awestruck.

"That still is difficult for me to imagine," he said.

Others talk about how words and pictures don't convey the scope of the devastation. Tukwila firefighter Richard Rees said he needed half an hour to walk from the edge of the rubble to his work site in the center of the pile.

"The whole thing was pretty amazing to see," Rees said.

Some task force members were star-struck by their brushes with the many New York celebrities who toured their base or served food to rescue workers at the site. Sightings included Lance Armstrong, Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon, Brooke Shields, Debra Winger, Matthew Modeen and Sigourney Weaver.

"Those guys all showed up. It was amazing," said Jon Olson, a Seattle fire lieutenant. "I didn't expect to see the star of 'Alien' serving pasta."

Many rescuers initially talked about returning to New York to attend a memorial service for firefighters who died in the towers' collapse. But as the anniversary approached, most chose to stay in the Northwest.

Tukwila's Rees said he might revisit New York another time, when the crowds have thinned.

"I don't have any reason to go back and stand in a crowd of 2 million people and try to remember what I remember," he said.

Deputy chief Vickery, however, plans to visit New York on Sept. 12 with his wife.

"We want to spend a few days as outsiders who enjoy a wonderful, vibrant city," he said, "and be part of that revitalization, just by being a tourist."