SAN DIEGO (CNS) - Scattered human remains, bits of aircraft, choking dust and countless scraps of office paper are among the images "emotionally seared" into the memory of Mike Finnerty as the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks approaches.
The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department battalion chief spent 10 days digging and sifting through what emergency personnel came to call the Pile -- a 16-acre smoldering ruin where New York's World Trade Center had stood until the cloudless morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
"You'd say, `We're in the valley; we're on the hill," said Finnerty, who worked the huge disaster zone as planning manager of a 73-member San Diego County urban search-and-rescue squad. "That's how large it was ... It took on geographic symbolism. It was a landscape unto its own."
To Finnerty and other team members assigned to night shifts at Ground Zero, the nightmarish scene was particularly eerie, since they experienced it almost exclusively under the glare of klieg lights, with the rest of the city invisible in the darkness. During the day, they rested and slept -- if and when they were able -- at a convention center several miles away.
"You could only see what was lit up ...So the only part that was light was the debris pile," Finnerty, 53, told City News Service Thursday.
"All you had was this surreal world in dark and shadow ... smoking and burning."
Though he had been a firefighter for a quarter-century, Finnerty had never dealt with a disaster remotely on the scale of the one that confronted him and his colleagues in Lower Manhattan a decade ago.
"It was a completely different experience than anyone had ever had," he said. "No one had ever seen anything like this. There was no frame of reference. ... Most of the time, it just seemed like a surreal experience, because everything you saw was just unbelievable.
"You'd have a five-story, 10-story high-rise where half the (structure) was crushed. You had entire chunks of these high-rises that had been gouged out. There were gouges three or four stories deep where part of the building was just ripped out."
Countless scraps and shreds of office paper and thick, choking dust was "covering everything" in sight, he said. Virtually all the other debris was mangled metal.
"The only (solid) thing that was left was steel," Finnerty said. "Everything else had been ground up (in the structural collapses). There was no concrete; there were no desks; there were no phones. There was no discernible office furniture at all.
"We were finding scattered (human) remains. We were finding scattered parts of the airplanes. ... You'd find a tangled piece of the fuselage of the plane that was obviously from a plane because it was completely different from all the other debris."
Acting as a jumbled framework for the bluffs and mounds of wreckage were 40- to 75-foot-long sections of the massive steel supports that had held up the World Trade Center's main structures until they were downed by the impact of hijacked airliners.
"And those (beams) were just scattered around like pieces of wood," he said. "Those were bent and draped over the buildings. Buildings were impaled with those."
Finnerty, then a fire captain, and fellow members of Urban Search and Rescue California Task Force 8 spent 12-hour shifts underneath ripped-open skyscrapers and towers of crushed vehicles, searching for victims, retrieving remains of the deceased and helping with the mammoth task of clearing the rubble in which 2,753 people had died.
"It was physically exhausting work, because the task force members were basically down on their hands and knees, digging with our hands, shovels ... putting stuff in 5-gallon buckets," he said.
Finnerty's team used hand tools for cutting and collecting smaller debris, allowing steel workers and crane operators to use large machines to saw apart and remove the gigantic steel supports tangled in the eight-story-tall mountain of wreckage.
"(Our) work had to be done by hand," he said.
At times, all the emergency personnel were forced to scramble off the ruins when motion sensors detected possible signs of more structural collapses.
The San Diego-area contingent, which included civilian engineers and physicians, found no survivors amid the destruction and located only about 10 largely intact bodies, Finnerty said. Recovering two of those victims, port-authority officers killed in one of the Twin Tower collapses, required a lengthy, extremely hazardous effort -- as well as an agonizing decision by their survivors.
The dead men were buried under tons of rubble, pinned by broken steel beams above an 80-foot-deep fiery pit, Finnerty said. Realizing that they would likely lose the victims' remains forever if they tried to first move the beams, the rescuers had only one other choice -- cut the bodies apart enough to be able to free them.
The team laid out the situation to the victims' former supervisor and 15-year associate, who then went to the survivors. The families ultimately decided to give permission for crews to do what was necessary for retrieval.
Three of Finnerty's firefighting colleagues completed the grim task, which was difficult in many ways.
"They more or less had to lay on top of the bodies to do it," Finnerty said.
Despite the nature of the process, the victims' loved ones were grateful.
"That was the families' wish -- to have something of their loved ones," Finnerty said. "It meant a lot to them."
During the delicate procedure, one of the rescuers nearly became a victim himself when he fell partway into the cavernous void beneath the bodies, dropping down to his armpits.
"And the void space he was (above) was eight stories deep, with the fire and mangled steel and debris below," Finnerty recounted.
The dangling firefighter's crew members were able to pull him out unharmed.
After 10 days working the scene of the catastrophe, the San Diego-area contingent was relieved by another urban-search group. While drained in body and spirit, the team members found professional and personal fulfillment through their arduous duty, according to Finnerty.
"I think those of us who responded there have a great deal of pride, to have been able to go there and represent San Diego," he said.
In other ways, that intensive time amid the fresh national scars of 9/11 had lasting effects on Finnerty, who turned 44 during his time at the New York disaster site.
"It's emotionally seared into your memory and becomes part of your world view," he said.
Fortunately, Finnerty has escaped the kinds of ailments and illnesses that befell other emergency personnel who labored at the site of the World Trade Center collapse, though he said several of his colleagues have developed chronic respiratory problems in the intervening years.
Six years after his historic call to duty, Finnerty went back to the former disaster zone in the heart of New York City. The difference was striking.
"To me, emotionally, it wasn't Ground Zero," he said. "The debris had been cleaned up; it was just a big hole in the ground."
Finnerty said he plans stay away until all 9/11 memorials there are complete.
"That would be my return to Ground Zero," he said.
Along with the trying experiences, his time at the site of the fallen towers also had positive outcomes, including job-related benefits that Finnerty recognized four years down the road.
"It served me well for when I responded to (Hurricane) Katrina," said Finnerty, who has worked various emergencies and disasters during his 29 years with San Diego's firefighting corps.
Additionally, he said, the vivid demonstration of humanity's fragility in an increasingly dangerous world gave him certainty about what he truly values -- family -- and helped convince him and the woman he was dating at the time of the terror attacks to get married and have children.
"It really brought the focus back to what is important in life," he said.
Having gained that clarity amid the horror and heartbreak of 9/11, Finnerty, a Carlsbad resident, plans to mark Sunday's somber national anniversary simply by being with his wife, Tanya, and their daughters, ages 4 and 18 months.
"My only thought is to spend it with her and the rest of my family," he said.
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