Retired Ventnor firefighter Ernie Tarsitano can still smell the chemicals, ash and burnt flesh that surrounded him and other first responders as they dug through the rubble at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“I’ll never forget the smell,” Tarsitano, 61, said, sitting at his kitchen table in his Galloway Township home, flipping through a photo album full of pictures showing the smoke coming out from the World Trade Center, the mountains of rubble and the recovery efforts. “We were just trying to find whatever we could.”
Even after 17 years, the memories of the attacks are fresh in the minds of the first responders who rushed into the city from South Jersey to help. The death count from the day includes over 2,000 civilians, 60 police officers and 343 firefighters.
“We worked in groups, looking through the rubble,” Tarsitano said, explaining that responders would pass five-gallon buckets full of rubble down the line to try to clear the area days after the attacks.
Director of the Atlantic County Fire Academy Mike Corbo, 66, of Somers Point, was Pleasantville Fire Department’s Deputy Chief and member of the state’s Urban Search and Rescue Team, which is trained to respond to building collapses, but he was off-duty the day of the attacks.
“Really what I thought to myself was, it’s an accident and the New York City Fire Department is going to work,” he said. “Then when I saw the second plane hit, I knew I was going.”
Not 15 minutes later, his pager went off and he drove to Monmouth County, where the team was based, and got on a bus to the city.
“The thing most people don’t realize is that although 343 firefighters died that day, the fire department rescued 25,000,” Corbo said. “And that’s a tribute to the fire department.”
Corbo described the scene as “eerie” the first time he saw it, recalling a cemetery he passed where all the headstones were covered in two to three inches of dust.
“The closer you got, the more dust you saw,” he said.
The team worked in 12-hour shifts, sometimes during the day and other times at night, he said, searching in the darkness underground for survivors.
“We had planned to be there four days,” he said. “But we ended up spending 10 days.”
Atlantic City Fire Chief Scott Evans spent 12 hours a day for six days digging through the rubble in a basement of one of the World Trade Center buildings looking for signs of life.
Eleven firefighters from the Atlantic City Fire Department responded to help with rescue efforts, he said.
“Fire trucks were crushed and mangled. Police cars were pancaked. Ladder trucks were just crushed,” said Evans, 52.
“You didn’t sleep for days. The sheer scope and magnitude of the event, it was hard to wrap your head around what happened. It was a difficult scene to work.”
George McNally, 68, of Somers Point, can still remember the smell, too.
“I knew when I got there, there was going to be a lot of people dead,” said McNally, who was an off-duty fireman out of Staten Island’s Ladder 81 when he saw the attacks on television and was in the city to help by 12:30 p.m. “I spent 18 months in Vietnam — I can smell death. It was there.”
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to find in the rubble.
While Corbo said that all he found was “dust, paper and steel girders,” Tarsitano found a silver college ring with black writing and a red stone, which he handed over to the FBI.
Tarsitano remembers the drive back to Ventnor from the city, where some members of the Ventnor Fire Department were crying while others were silent. It was a somber time, when the responders were mentally fatigued and emotionally drained, he said.
“I was just sitting there being thankful for everything in my life,” he said.
The skyline of New York City had changed in a matter of minutes that morning, and the recovery process would take several more months, but the first responders who rushed into the city eventually returned to their departments and went back to work.