Former NY firefighter recounts helping to dig for survivors in the days following 9/11

“At the beginning, there was no rhyme or reason or plan. The only thing on everyone’s mind was getting survivors out of the debris”


Laurie Larsh
The Charlotte Observer

Charlotte Fire Marshal Kevin Miller was a New York firefighter for Engine 82, Ladder 31 on Sept. 11, 2001. On duty at MetroTech in Brooklyn, his company was making its way to Ground Zero when the second tower collapsed.

“The main thing that stood out to me as we got closer is how eerily quiet it was. There was no one around, nothing really moving. It was just a lot of paper and debris and gray ash covering everything — cars, those hot dog and doughnut stands on the street. You could hear the commands of fire and police from blocks away, like they were standing next to you. That’s really the first memory I have,” Miller said.

Charlotte Fire Marshal Kevin Miller was a New York firefighter for Engine 82, Ladder 31 on Sept. 11, 2001. On duty at MetroTech in Brooklyn, his company was making its way to Ground Zero when the second tower collapsed.
Charlotte Fire Marshal Kevin Miller was a New York firefighter for Engine 82, Ladder 31 on Sept. 11, 2001. On duty at MetroTech in Brooklyn, his company was making its way to Ground Zero when the second tower collapsed. (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)

Miller teamed up with the crew from Engine 34, Truck 21 in Manhattan and jumped into what he described as organized chaos. “At the beginning, there was no rhyme or reason or plan. The only thing on everyone’s mind was getting survivors out of the debris,” Miller said. “We were just focused on getting on The Pile and digging.”

The Pile, a term used to describe the millions of tons of wreckage, was five, maybe six stories or higher, according to his recollection. Surrounding it were long lines of people, passing parts down the hill like an assembly line: Rocks, metal, jet pieces. “There were staircases that looked like mangled rollercoasters and lots of voids. I just remember having to be careful of the voids,” Miller said. Voids were air pockets found in unstable piles of rubble.

“I can’t stress enough how overwhelming the support was — the Red Cross was there on Day 1, handing out masks, respirators, eyewash, food,” Miller said.

Loss of life

More than 400 New York City first responders lost their lives on 9/11. One was Chief of Department Peter Ganci, the highest-ranking uniformed fire officer in the department. He was in the basement of the South Tower when it collapsed. Miraculously, he and several others were able to dig themselves out of the rubble. Ganci went on to set up a second command post outside of the North Tower just before it fell, taking his life.

Miller was there on Sept. 12, when Ganci’s body was located by a rescue dog and pulled from beneath 4 feet of debris.

“A lot of people have asked about my encounter on 9/11, and I want to emphasize that we are not the heroes. I am still here. I am still alive. I don’t want to be painted or categorized the same as those that made that ultimate sacrifice that day,” Miller told CharlotteFive.

In the weeks following, Miller stood alongside firefighters, police officers and volunteers from across the country, methodically searching for survivors as efforts became more organized. “I was standing next to guys from the Midwest who had gotten in cars and trucks and driven to New York to help. It was unbelievable how fast they got there,” Miller said.

Miller’s Charlotte Fire Department colleague Capt. Jackie Gilmore said many Charlotte firefighters wanted to head to New York to help in the recovery efforts, but they were ultimately told to keep resources at home. “With the banking operations that were in Charlotte, we didn’t know what could happen here. So we were told to keep resources in place and stand by,” Gilmore said.

Miller continued to serve in the NYFD for four years after 9/11, before moving to Charlotte. When asked about continuing a career in a line of service that he saw take the lives of so many of his colleagues, Miller responded, “9/11 taught me to value life each day because it can be taken away in a blink of an eye — and to really pay attention to the details.”

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