Two stories, two years later

Two Juneau residents recall what it was like to be in New York City on Sept. 11 and afterward

Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2003

David Hawes knew something was wrong, but he didn't know what, though he was only a few miles from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Thousands of miles away in Juneau, police officer Paul Comolli watched the planes careen into the towers on television and felt helpless.

Exactly two years after terrorists toppled the towers and shook the nation, two Juneau residents remember what it was like.

Hawes was in New York City to help his daughter move into her dorm room at New York University. He was on the tarmac at LaGuardia airport just outside Manhattan waiting for his 9 a.m. flight west to depart when the Federal Aviation Administration shut down the airports. The first plane hit Tower 1 at about 8:46 a.m. Tower 2 was hit at 9:03 a.m.

"Someone pulled up with a van and started playing the radio at a high volume around 10 a.m. I started getting these sketchy radio reports that really didn't make a lot of sense. There'd been some kind of mess somewhere. You could see the towers from the plane gate at LaGuardia. They were smoking, so it looked like a fire," Hawes said.

Hawes doesn't remember exactly when he learned what had happened. He left LaGuardia and proceeded on foot over the Triboro Bridge to Manhattan, hoping to catch a train to a friend's house in the suburbs.

The scene on the bridge brought to mind a refugee exodus, with hordes of exhausted and distraught pedestrians fleeing the smoking island, and others marching resolutely towards it. By the time Hawes reached the bridge, checkpoints had been set up and he had to surrender his backpack to a search before he was cleared to cross.

He said he must have gone into shock. His recollections of the walk into the city, which took most of the day, are almost surreal. A planner with the Alaska Department of Transportation, Hawes noticed the odd absence of traffic.

"The streets were empty. It was very pleasant to be in New York without any vehicle traffic. You could actually make that go away? Even at four in the morning you don't make it go away," he said.

Later in the week, he marveled at the amount of heavy machinery assembled at Ground Zero.

"Our ability to respond was just amazing. There were 30, 40, 50 endloaders, just all lined up, available for what was needed," he said.

Back in Juneau, Comolli followed the news and wished he could do something.

"You can give money and you can send things, but you still feel helpless. You want to do something, anything, to feel you were hands on," he said.

He and several other Juneau residents got that opportunity in late October, when the Critical Incident Stress Management team they belong to was called to Ground Zero to debrief New York police officers. His team talked to thousands of police officers in the eight days they spent there, carrying Juneau Police Department patches and small, gold guardian angel pins.

"That was an opener. I'd go up to people and ask if they had a guardian angel. They'd look at the badge and go, 'Where are you from?'" he said.

Once the officers heard "Juneau, Alaska," they began asking questions.

"We convinced them that, yes, we live in igloos and drive dog sleds. We'd get them laughing, and for a few minutes they weren't thinking about what happened to them and what happened to their friends," he said.

But the rescue workers never got more than a few minutes' respite from the tragedy that was more alive and more palpable six weeks after the attacks than it had been Sept. 11, 2001.

"God didn't sort the building debris to one side and the bodies to the other. Everything you stepped on had some element of human remains on it, however big or small," Comolli said.

An emergency services unit would sort through scoops of debris that included body parts.

"They would go in with small shovels and ID by the uniform whose it was. Nobody touched anybody else's brother," he said.

If a police officer's body was found, police officers would come in with body bags and shovels. They'd wrap the remains in an American flag and a chaplain would come in on a four-wheeler to give last rites. Then the dead were carried out and work would resume. Hour after hour, day after day, the scene replayed itself.

The first day Comolli was there, workers discovered the remains of nine firefighters in a collapsed stairwell. Comolli recalls the reaction of a young firefighter on the scene.

"His face showed no emotion, but his hands were trembling. He was shaking from about the waist up. And it occurred to me, this kid's been through this probably day after day for weeks," he said.

When it was time to leave, Comolli wasn't ready to go. He wanted to stay and help, and it took months for him to readjust to his daily routine in Alaska. And now, two years later, he feels the country's anger level has dropped.

"It's dangerous for people to be angry or to harbor hate for any amount of time, but I certainly don't want them to forget," he said.

Hawes still has unanswered questions, among them why American intelligence didn't pick up on the terrorists' plans.

"There's a lot of world problems we're pretending aren't world problems. The kind of anger that would lead to something like the attack was understandable to me. But the naiveté of the intelligence establishment of not paying attention to it or not giving it the credence it deserved, shocked and disappointed me," he said.

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