By 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, roughly one hour after the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed in that morning’s second slow-motion cascade of dust and debris, Ottawa firefighter Barry Blondin was already heading for the nearest border crossing.
Bundled in the trunk was Blondin’s bunker gear, the protective clothing firefighters wear when responding to emergencies — the same gear hundreds of New York City firefighters were wearing when they rushed into the Twin Towers after the terror attacks.
“You’re watching the news and you’re hearing all the reports [that] a lot of firemen are down, buildings are down. You know there’s people [in] there,” recalled Blondin, who is now 62. “They needed a lot of help, so I thought I could do something.”
Blondin — who retired two years ago after a 27-year career with Ottawa Fire Services — didn’t stop to ask permission. He just went.
“I didn’t want anyone to say that I couldn’t go, like a captain or chief,” he said.
At the Canada-U.S. border, Blondin showed the American guards his gear and they waved him through. By 7 p.m., he was approaching Manhattan from the north on the I-87. It was his first time in New York.
“It was bizarre,” he said. “I’m the only one on the highway, [in a] city of 10 million people.”
Blondin smelled smoke and thought something was wrong with his car. Then he spotted the thick grey plume hanging over the skyline ahead. “You could see the smoke just billowing out [for] miles and miles.”
‘It was all grey dust everywhere’
The first state trooper he encountered let him pass, but the second one ordered Blondin to pull off at a firehall in the Bronx. He arrived at Engine 81 Ladder 46 just before 8 p.m.
Dozens of firefighters from various New York suburbs were milling around outside, awaiting orders. Blondin introduced himself and was invited to stay the night. The next morning, he boarded a bus for Lower Manhattan.
“As you pull in closer to Ground Zero, it was like a first snowfall in Ottawa, like when you get an inch of snow, but it was all grey dust everywhere … and papers everywhere, pictures on the ground,” he recalled.
The smouldering World Trade Center site — first responders simply called it “the Pile” — was teeming with rescuers, including firefighters, police officers, K-9 teams and iron workers, by the time the crew from the Bronx arrived.
Blondin was first assigned to a bucket brigade, handing five-gallon pails of debris down the line for investigators to sift through. After a couple hours, he joined a search team whose job it was to dig wherever they saw an orange X that marked a spot where a dog had alerted its handler to possible human remains. They did that until about 6 a.m. the following day.
“There were Xs everywhere,” Blondin said. “Everywhere.”
‘We need to send some folks down there’
While Blondin toiled on the Pile that night, police officers Mark MacGillivray and Tom Blanchard attended a solemn 9/11 vigil at a high school in Smiths Falls, Ont. Larry Hardy, the town’s chief of police, was also there.
“By the end of the vigil, my partner, Tom, said to the chief, ‘We need to send some folks down there,'” said MacGillivray, who now occupies the chief’s job in Smiths Falls.
Hardy made a phone call, and within an hour, MacGillivray and Blanchard were packing a Smiths Falls Police Service cruiser for their trip to Manhattan. Before they hit the road, they called up a friend and former colleague, Roy Lalonde, by then a police constable in Ottawa.
“First thing I said was, ‘This is something that I want to do and I gotta do,'” said Lalonde, 51, who retired from the Ottawa Police Service in June and now trains police officers for international peacekeeping roles.
He got the go-ahead from his wife, then from his staff sergeant.
The three crossed the border around midnight. MacGillivray and Blanchard carried their sidearms, but Lalonde did not.
Like Blondin, they were waved through without incident. Unlike Blondin, the three police officers became stuck in gridlock as they neared New York City. Luckily, a column of state troopers passing by along the shoulder noticed the marked Crown Victoria from Canada.
“They pulled up alongside and asked where we were heading, and we pointed to the plume of smoke and said, ‘Right there,'” MacGillivray said. The three Canadians were invited to join the procession and sped toward Manhattan with lights and sirens.
When they arrived, they checked in at the Javits Center, a convention complex on 11th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen that had become the main gathering point for volunteers, and were immediately put to work.
With New York’s own police force stretched thin, the Canadians were assigned to the 17th precinct in midtown Manhattan, where they were given radios and maps and sent out on patrol — sometimes in an NYPD car, sometimes in their own.
“It was quite an experience to go from a town the size of Smiths Falls to all of a sudden doing patrols in Lower Manhattan,” MacGillivray said.
They guarded various “hard assets,” including an immigration centre and the NYPD’s bomb squad headquarters, and ferried grieving FDNY members around the growing number of vigils taking place at firehalls across the city.
Everywhere they went, New Yorkers expressed their gratitude.
“They thanked you, they shook your hand, they hugged you,” said MacGillivray.
“People were always asking how you were, what you needed, what can we do for you,” said Lalonde. “And I thought, in the situation that’s unfolding right now, you’re concerned about me? And I was always bewildered by that.”
‘The bodies were dust’
By Thursday evening, two days after the Twin Towers fell, John Hamilton, captain at Fire Station No. 10 in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood, could no longer sit idle.
“I said, ‘You know what, I’m gonna go down and see what I can do,'” recalled Hamilton, now 70 and retired from Ottawa Fire Services.
He loaded his bunker gear into his Chevy Astro and drove through the night, arriving at the Javits Center on Friday morning. By that time, the place was crowded with volunteers from every corner of the United States, and Hamilton was told he probably wouldn’t be needed.
He grabbed a couple hours’ sleep in his van, then returned to the Javits Center, where he spotted a group of firefighters from Rhode Island and Texas awaiting transport to Ground Zero. They adopted the volunteer from Canada, and off they went together.
When they arrived at the Pile, the firefighters joined the bucket brigades and performed other grunt work, including delivering body bags. According to Hamilton, there wasn’t much need for those.
“I guess I was expecting to see more bodies when I got there — I hate to say it. But there was total destruction. Most of the bodies were dust,” he said.
At one point, a search dog approached Hamilton and began barking. The animal’s handler told Hamilton it must have been because human remains were intermingled with the dust coating his pants.
Another time, Hamilton was digging through the debris when he struck something metallic and red.
“Then you realize, it was the top of a fire truck,” he said.
Hamilton stuck with the group from Rhode Island and Texas, bunking with them in the Times Square hotel where they’d been given two rooms. When the Americans headed home the next day, they left him the keys.
Hamilton decided to call some colleagues back in Ottawa, and by Sunday morning, Brian Foley, Gordie Thorpe and Steve Carmichael were in New York, too.
In total, 20 survivors were pulled from the wreckage at Ground Zero in the hours after the towers fell. In an incident immortalized in Oliver Stone’s 2006 film World Trade Center, two Port Authority police officers were found alive after spending nearly 24 hours buried deep in the rubble. Another survivor, a Port Authority secretary, was rescued a few hours later.
The whole time Barry Blondin spent on the Pile, he encountered the remains of only one victim.
“You could only see from his knee down. You knew he wasn’t alive,” Blondin recalled. “We tried to get that guy out for about two and a half hours.”
The realization that the rescue effort had become a recovery operation began to weigh on him.
“It was really hopeless,” he said. “After a little while I thought, we’re not going to get anyone out of here.”
During his second long night on the Pile, Blondin badly injured his finger as he helped an ironworker with a stubborn beam. When he removed his glove, it was full of blood.
He was sent down the line to a first aid station, where paramedics insisted he go to hospital to be stitched up and X-rayed. Around 6 a.m., as he sat speaking with a doctor, Blondin heard a voice on the other side of the emergency room curtain.
“We’re looking for our buddy from Canada,” the man announced in a thick Bronx accent. It was the crew from Engine 81 Ladder 46, there to take Blondin back to the firehall for a well-earned rest.
After three days, the police officers from Smiths Falls and Ottawa finally got their turn on the Pile.
“It was unbelievable, just the amount of devastation, because it wasn’t just the two towers. It was the surrounding buildings, and blocks and blocks of ruin,” said Tom Blanchard. “And you knew that in that pile there were thousands of bodies.”
Whenever searchers came across a body, the work would stop and the entire site would fall eerily silent.
“That’s one thing that I’ll always remember,” Blanchard said.
It affects you. You see some bad stuff.– Barry Blondin, retired Ottawa firefighter
For Roy Lalonde, two distinct images are seared into his memory.
The first is a group of firefighters standing vigil around a crushed fire truck near the Pile. Lalonde never found out how many of their colleagues were entombed inside.
The second is the moment an NYPD officer on the bucket brigade stooped to pick up a framed photograph of a little girl from the debris. She was four or five years old, someone’s daughter or granddaughter.
“He picked it up and started crying. Well, then the whole line started crying. We were all trying to comfort each other,” Lalonde said. “That’s what stuck with me. That picture will always, forever, be ingrained with me.”
Amid the chaos and carnage, there were also moments of levity.
The police officers seconded to the 17th Precinct nicknamed the gruff lieutenant who took them under his wing “Sipowicz,” after the NYPD Blue character he resembled in both manner and appearance. And the Americans kept trying to hand the unarmed Lalonde their guns.
For Hamilton and his crew of firefighters from Ottawa, there were usually a few cold beers after a draining day on the Pile. Even more memorable were the crowds of New Yorkers lining the streets in and out of Ground Zero, clapping and cheering for the volunteers.
“Every day when we left it was like that,” Hamilton said.
Time to head home
In the days following the terrorist attack, as control over the World Trade Center site changed hands from one authority to another, the Canadian volunteers found it increasingly difficult to gain access to it.
“It came a point where we said OK, we can only do so much,” said Lalonde, whose two young sons were waiting for him back in Ottawa. “It was just time [to go].”
Lalonde, MacGillivray and Blanchard spent eight days in New York, billeted in the same hotel as Hamilton and the other Ottawa firefighters. Hamilton said he spotted the Smiths Falls patrol car parked outside one day, but the two groups never met. Yet they all headed home around the same time.
Barry Blondin never encountered another Canadian while he was there. The morning after he injured his hand, he knew it was time for him to go, too.
“I was tired and sore, and I was kind of bummed out that I knew we weren’t pulling people out of there,” he said.
Of the firefighters and police officers interviewed for this story, only Blondin expressed regret about going to New York in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
“It’s haunted me,” he said. “If we would have saved some people, maybe that would have been different, but it definitely changed me. I wasn’t the same person [after]. For sure I wasn’t. It affects you. You see some bad stuff.”
Roy Lalonde dealt with a different sort of challenge when he returned to Ottawa. A senior officer questioned why he’d even gone to New York, telling Lalonde he would have done more good staying home.
“I just thought to myself, you weren’t there,” Lalonde said. “You didn’t see what I saw.”
None of the men interviewed has suffered lasting health effects from their time on the Pile.
“We breathed in a lot of shit,” said Blondin, who was issued an ordinary N95 mask. Due to the heat, it was off more than it was on.
“We’ve been fortunate we haven’t had any ill effects from it,” MacGillivray said.
Most of the men have returned to Manhattan in the two decades since 9/11 to attend memorial ceremonies. Lalonde recalls one quiet afternoon spent at the square pools that now mark the original footprint of the Twin Towers.
“I still think back to all the individuals that were lost,” he said. “I think of those individuals that were running in when everyone [else] is running out, and that to me is the epitome of their ultimate sacrifice.”