Palm Springs, CA

Firefighter recalls mindset that prepared him for what he saw at Ground Zero

The Palm Springs Post

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Palm Springs Fire Department engineer Roland Cook and K9 search specialist Bautz on the scene at Ground Zero in 2001.Roland Cook

There were no smartphones. Mark Zuckerberg was a year away from entering Harvard. It would be five years before anyone knew what a tweet was. For Roland Cook, the first sign of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, came via something that seems primitive now but was vital to emergency personnel then.

“All of the pagers I carried all started buzzing,” Cook recalled of that morning 20 years ago while speaking Saturday to an audience outside Palm Springs Fire Department headquarters on North El Cielo Road.

For Cook, a retired engineer with the department who also trained Bautz, the department’s K9 search specialist, those pagers were just part of the gear that kept him prepared for anything. Still, as he explained during ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of September 11 terrorist attacks, no gear prepared him for what he and Bautz were about to experience as they found themselves headed to New York City to aid in the search for survivors of the World Trade Center collapse.

“We went to March Air Force Base to fly to New York,” Cook recalled Saturday of the journey he, Bautz, and other Southern California emergency personnel made soon after the attacks. “On the way there, we were contemplating what our job was going to be. We didn’t have cell phones, there were no TVs, and the airplane didn’t even have windows.

“The reality was that no amount of training, no gear we would get, would prepare us for what we were about to see.”

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Palm Springs firefighters stand for the national anthem Saturday prior to ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of September 11.The Palm Springs Post

What Cook said he was expecting to see as he and Bautz first reported to work at the site of the attack in New York was a pair of 110-story office towers. Instead, they found “The Pile,” a twisted, smoldering mass of metal and debris where the Twin Towers once stood and under which he and Bautz hoped to find people still alive. Today the site of that pile is known as Ground Zero.

“In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Where did those 220 stories go?’” he recalled. Still, there was little time to contemplate the shocking scene.

“We started work right away,” Cook said. “We were frantically looking for anyone we could save.”

Cook and Bautz worked below the surface, far below the scene most people saw on television. As Bautz would key in on the scent of a human, Cook would mark the area so that crews could begin digging through and removing debris in hopes of finding survivors.

“There were several hundred firefighters lined up,” Cook told the audience. “They had five-gallon buckets and formed a makeshift fire bucket brigade.”

As rescues turned to recovery, what Cook and Bautz were finding, and what the firefighters were delivering to the surface, were remains. When the remains were those of a firefighter, he said, the moment was especially solemn.

“When firefighters’ remains were found, an alarm would sound and everybody stopped,” Cook said. “His brothers would then carry him to the top and a flag would be draped over him.”

For Cook, the experience could have left him shattered. Instead, he chooses today to take away a pair of valuable lessons.

“In the months and years that preceded 9/11, the city of Palm Springs made sure I was well prepared as a firefighter and that I had everything I needed,” he said. “But without the right mindset, your mission is going to be doomed.

“… When I look back at the past 20 years, I’ve learned that we don’t need a red Republican side. We don’t need a blue Democrat side. We are all red, white and blue, the American colors.”

To help: Sales from T-shirts and food available during Saturday’s ceremonies are being donated to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in Maryland. The public is encouraged to make donations directly to the foundation on behalf of all emergency personnel who have served Palm Springs and other communities.

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