The Firefighter: "I knew I had to help"
Fairfield native Doug Chavenello was fishing in Black Rock Harbor when the marine radio at his side started going berserk. The off-duty firefighter didn't know what was happening 50 miles south at the World Trade Center in New York, but he could sense it was something catastrophic. He reeled in his fishing line and steered his boat to shore.
By 9:03 a.m., the 41-year-old lieutenant was at fire headquarters on Reef Road watching on television as United Flight 175 sliced through the south tower. Black ash billowed out of the twin buildings as from smokestacks.
"I knew I had to help," said Chavenello, now an assistant chief in his 33rd year with the Fairfield Fire Department. "I knew I had to go there, but I really didn't know if I'd be coming back."
At 1 p.m., about 17 Fairfield firefighters piled into seats on a fire engine, ladder truck, rescue truck and command vehicle, stacked on each other's laps and heading for ground zero.
They made it as far as Yonkers, N.Y. The New York Fire Department instructed them to turn back. The Fairfielders, eager to aid their brother and sister firefighters but cautious about stepping on toes, obeyed and returned home.
"The NYFD is the biggest fire department in the world -- they're not used to accepting help," Chavenello explained. "We should have just showed up. But we didn't. We were trying to work within the structure. But we didn't realize at that point that there wasn't any structure. It was just chaos."
The next day, the firefighters tried again. On Wednesday, Sept. 12, eight Fairfield firefighters boarded a Metro-North train and headed back to the city.
At Grand Central Terminal, a pack of city rescue workers met the Fairfielders, had them pile onto buses and escorted them down the West Side Highway. City residents hooted and cheered from the sidewalks. Some tossed bottled water and packaged foods through the windows of the bus. But the roar of military jets soon drowned out the cheers.
On arrival, ground zero looked like the scene of a nuclear holocaust. The buildings, streets, rescue workers, debris -- everything was stained gray with ash. Police cars and fire trucks smouldered. Piles of glass, steel, paper and soot towered 10 stories high.
The group watched a while as New York rescue workers picked through the debris in small groups. Chavenello spied an NYFD chief amid the rubble and asked, "Listen, I've got these guys, they're all paid professionals. Do you need any help?"
The chief ordered the Fairfielders out of the way and they stepped back to the sidelines.
But soon an issue arose: The chief needed help moving debris to make way for a fire truck. He asked the Fairfielders to clear a path. They completed the task in under 20 minutes.
Chavenello reported back to the chief: "You're all set. You can move your equipment in."
The chief was in disbelief.
"Look -- it's done," Chavenello coaxed.
The chief was impressed: "Bring all your guys in," he said. "You're next up on the pile."
Chavenello spent the next 2Â½ weeks tunneling through ash and bagging body parts to be sent to the morgue.
Food was scarce. Hope was dim. And the routine was grueling: He would spend two or three days at the site, board a train back to Fairfield for a shower, hot meal and full night of rest, and then return to the rubble in the morning to begin again.
On nights when he didn't go home, he'd work to exhaustion, curl up on the ground and try to catch a couple hours of sleep.
"Everyone kept some hope that we'd find someone trapped somewhere," Chavenello said. "But it became pretty clear to me on the 12th that this was a recovery -- not a rescue."
The Fairfield crews never found an intact body. No desks, computers, telephones or office supplies. Just soot, slabs of concrete, limbs and shattered bone.
Ten years later, Chavenello lives among constant reminders: A glass shard he took from the site. Gruesome memories of body parts recovered from the rubble. Annual health exams to monitor the effects of dust he inhaled at ground zero. And, this year, the decade anniversary.
"If someone asks me, I'll talk about it," Chavenello said. "But it's not something I bring up."