At Ground Zero: Westfield Fire Dept. deputy chief recalls experience on 9/11

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When a plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Russ Shoaf was en route to Lafayette from Pike Township Fire Dept. to teach a confined space class. During the trip, Shoaf was listening to a CD, not the radio, and knew nothing of the terrorist attack.

Upon arrival, a firefighter with the Lafayette Fire Dept. told the Pike Township crew what had happened.

“I didn’t believe them,” Shoaf said. “Then we went inside and started watching the news. We were more fixated on the events happening in New York than what I could teach but pushed on with the class until the first tower fell. I was an active member of the Indiana Rescue Task Force, and when the second building fell, I received a phone call saying, ‘Hey, I think we are getting deployed.’”

Shoaf raced home, grabbed his pre-packed bag, kissed his wife and told her he would see her later, and left. He went to the Indiana Task Force 1 headquarters in Indianapolis. INTF-1 deployed 62 members and four K-9s by 5 p.m. Sept. 11. The group reached New York at 9:25 a.m. the following morning. From then on, Urban Search and Rescue teams worked 12-hour shifts until they departed from New York Sept. 19.

“(Shoaf’s) role during 9/11, he was a rescue specialist, and his role as a rescue specialist would’ve been working through the rubble at Ground Zero and searching for those that perished during the collapse of the World Trade Center,” INTF-1 coordinator Tom Neal said.

Shoaf said during their searches, INTF-1 teams were accompanied by an FDNY firefighter or an NYPD officer. This was done so when the teams located a victim in the rubble, FDNY or NYPD would take care of their own by moving the body.

Shoaf said one of the searches that stands out in his memory is when he and his team entered a building which faced the World Trade Center. The face of the building had been torn off when the Twin Towers collapsed.

“We were about two-thirds of the way up the building, searching and looking for any small fires and making sure everything was in a safe condition, and we came across a rope made out of manila hemp, which is what fire rope used to be made of back in day,” Shoaf said. “It was tied around a pillar and tied in a perfect bowline knot, which is what they teach firefighters to tie. We followed that and it went off the side of the building where it was sheared off.”

Shoaf speculates a firefighter was trying to escape, possibly while rescuing someone, by rappelling off the building. They never discovered what happened to the firefighter who may have tied the knot.

At Ground Zero, Shoaf said everything was pulverized into debris, none of which was identifiable. Some of the searchers’ assignments consisted of collecting body parts.

During the time INTF-1 was in New York City, Shoaf said team members were escorted to Ground Zero on Humvees with military personnel manning .50-caliber machine guns. No planes other than military fighters were allowed in the sky.

Shoaf was 44 when he was deployed to Ground Zero. Now 61, he still is a member of the task force. Of the 62 members from INTF-1 deployed to Ground Zero, three have died from cancer.

“Most of the 62 deployed, we still stay in somewhat contact with each other,” Shoaf said. “Usually, it’s to talk about who’s got what illness.”

Of the 62 INTF-1 members deployed, 48 percent have experienced an illness or cancer from being at Ground Zero. Shoaf is no exception.

“I have sleep disorders, asthma, multiple medical issues that are primarily respiratory,” Shoaf said. “What we found out through OSHA was that cloud of dust (at Ground Zero) was made of pulverized concrete, mercury glass and a number of other chemicals and products of the World Trade Center.”

Now, Shoaf is the deputy chief of operations at Westfield Fire Dept. He joined WFD five years ago. Through his involvement with INTF-1, he also has been deployed following events such as Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, among other national emergencies. He said he’s been on more than six deployments.

When asked if he would respond to an event such as 9/11 again, Shoaf said, “in a heartbeat.”

“I am privileged to be called upon to provide those services,” he said. “We train to go to house fires and train to help people, but to this magnitude, to a national event, I always equated it to Pearl Harbor.”

INTF-1 By the numbers

  • 230 members
  • 29 participating agencies
  • 62 members deployed after 9/11
  • 4 K-9s deployed after 9/11

Family reactions

Westfield Fire Dept. Deputy Chief of Operations Russ Shoaf said when he was deployed with Indiana Task Force 1 to serve at Ground Zero immediately following 9/11, his wife was the glue holding his family together.

“It was probably more stressful for her (than me),” he said. “We had two sons in the military — one in the Navy in the Persian Gulf and the other was at Cherry Point (North Carolina) in the Marine Corps., and not knowing what their status was going to be, my wife wore the brunt of the stress the whole time. She wore the brunt of the stress in keeping the family in touch. She was our central control point.”

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