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What It Was Like to Be an On-Scene Coordinator at Ground Zero

ground zero picture

by Michael Meagher, Region 2 & Richard Stapleton, Region 2

“The dust there was so thick, I couldn’t see the hand in front of my face,” says Mike Solecki, one of the first EPA responders on the scene of the World Trade Center (WTC) disaster.

Solecki, along with Mike Ferriola and Gad Tawadros, was deployed from Region 2’s Edison, New Jersey office minutes after the first plane hit. The three On-Scene Coordinators (OSCs) were but a few blocks back when the first tower began to collapse. “Someone yelled, ‘I smell gas, I smell gas’ and everyone began running,” Solecki says.

According to the EPA job description, an OSC works “in a complex technical area, with socio-economic implications, under close public scrutiny...” What does an OSC do? Everything. What must he or she be prepared for? Anything.

On September 11, that meant having to scramble just to find where New York City had set up its temporary command center. The city’s state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center had been located in the WTC and was destroyed in the collapse, sending the mayor and other top officials scurrying for safety. All radio communications were lost, and the dust was so bad, not even EPA’s satellite phone worked.

Overcoming such obstacles, the OSCs took the first dust wipe samples within an hour of the collapse. “We didn’t really have a lot of sampling equipment,” Solecki says, “So we went to a local store and bought ziploc bags. We had to do things like that,” he says.

OSCs were on the front lines of EPA’s response to the World Trade Center disaster, monitoring air and dust, removing storage tanks and other hazardous materials, alerting rescue workers to the need for personal protective equipment, and providing worker wash stations.

Although EPA eventually monitored for hundreds of contaminants, OSC Chris Jimenez, who arrived at Ground Zero on September 12, explains how they first approached the disaster. “The way we started was, OK, we know asbestos is an issue. We know VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are going to be an issue because of the burning. We also knew there are other chemicals that you’ll find as a result of fires – acid gases as an example. We knew we were going to want to sample those immediately.”

Jimenez says that one of the first difficulties was in establishing air monitoring locations. “We couldn’t really get very close because the police and fire departments were trying to keep everyone back. It was incredibly smoky. We ended up having to run because there were alarms going off from buildings possibly coming down.”

Beyond the physical and technical challenges were the human ones. OSC Arlene Anderson spent a month and a half working at Ground Zero. “I will never forget the day when they found the first hundred victims in the North Tower,” Anderson says. “It was an image that will always stay with me.”

Neil Norrell, who like Anderson and other OSCs logged over 100 overtime hours during the first two weeks of the response, says, “There were definitely things here that I never thought I’d have to see, never thought I’d have to deal with. The hardest part is when I was stopped and they were bringing families (of victims) through. You realize that a wife who lost a husband, or a husband who lost a wife, they’re going to look at this big dusty pile of steel that has some smoke coming out, and that’s it. That’s the only closure they’re ever going to have.”

Despite the long hours and heartache attached to the mission, Norrell understood the privilege of his job at Ground Zero. “Everybody in the world wanted to do something, and I was getting the chance to do something.” In fact, Norrell added, “I would have given anything to trade places with the guys who went there that first day.”

 

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