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The Day That Lasted A Lifetime

by CDR Edward Seebald, USCG, DIRAUX (1SR) New York City -- September 11, 2001, Navigator, Fall 2001

It started out as a beautiful day in New York. The harbor was serene; it was zero humidity; and the sun shone brightly.

I got up at 7 A.M., showered, and meditated. I was back at my office, working on my computer in gym shorts, making some calls, when about 9 A.M., I heard a bang and someone screaming. I was so accustomed to the Staten Island Ferry banging into the slip next door, that I stuck my head out of the window and saw the ferry and figured that something had fallen between the ship and the pier. 

I sat back in my chair and started to type again when I heard another scream. Now I went into my office. One of my petty officers was there. “They’re all dead, they’re coming after us,” she said.We calmed her in my office. I looked out and saw the towers of the World Trade Center on fire and smoking. Needless to say I put on my uniform, got a hold of all of the chiefs in the building and locked it down. Five minutes later there was another howl: “They’re falling down!,” meaning the Trade Center towers were collapsing. I gathered everyone into the conference room and assigned buddies as people were becoming emotional.

With the help of great chiefs and Auxiliarists, we sealed the Marine Inspection Office Building. A crowd of more than 2,000 people now was packed near the Battery and Staten Island ferry terminal next door. After the second tower collapsed, the ash cloud was so large and thick that people were unable to breathe. The crowd panicked and people started kicking in the front door of the building and climbed the driveway gate (with razor wire at its top). People jumped in the harbor water and grabbed along the sea wall to try to escape the ash cloud.

I moved the building personnel to the third floor and locked down floors one and two - only Coastguardsmen were allowed on the first two floors. I got all my clean tee shirts and underwear from the office, we cut them up and passed them through the gate for people to put over their faces. We put a hose out the gate for water. Then the Statue of Liberty (#4) island boat off loaded people on the pier. National Park Service personnel were told to go to the conference room - one guard was having a stress attack, which was dealt with. 

Meanwhile Coast Guard staff held a prayer meeting on the third floor. I then made my way to the main gate. A man came through who looked like a snowman.

“Sir, can I see an ID,” I asked.

He pulled off his breathing mask.

“Ed,” he said.

“Who are you and do you have any ID?”

After he dusted off his face, I saw it was Adm. Richard Larrabee, USCG (ret.), my old boss whose office had been in Trade Tower One. His eyes looked dilated, so I escorted him to my office, got him a change of clothes and sent him to the shower. 

The Admiral told me he had been in Tower One on the 62nd floor when the first plane hit. He evacuated down the stairs and moved to Tower Two. When Two collapsed, all he could see was a light and heard a firefighter saying, “follow me.” When outside they still could not see anything because of the dust. Then Larrabee made his way down to the battery where I check his ID.

While Larrabee was getting cleaned up, three FBI and Secret Service agents now were in my conference room. Hundreds of forensic experts were on the way into the City. Lacking any communications I told them they could use the Battery pier for their loading point. Back at the front gate, the chiefs, rightly let in a couple with an infant and a little boy. I stopped them in the entry. The husband barely spoke English. I asked for ID. (I didn’t think the baby had anything in the diapers so I didn’t check.) When my chief started to look into the man’s backpack, he got agitated. His wife said something in German, most likely, they think you are a terrorist, and he became very helpful. We sent them to the second floor. 

Outside the wind had shifted. The Staten Island ferry evacuated thousands of people. There was only one injured bleeding civilian to take care of. I convinced many of the Park Service people still in the conference room to take the Staten Island Ferry home instead of waiting for instructions in Manhattan.

Now it was approximately noon. LCDR Paul Gerecke from Activities New York arrived and assisted getting Admiral Larrabee to his crisis action center in New Jersey. The two FBI agents and five Secret Service agents were still in my lounge where we had fed them. A boat took them to their staging area on Ellis Island. The Coordinator of Forensic Evidence for the FBI asked to borrow a car to bring the deputy superintendent of the New Jersey state police, the Secretary of State of New Jersey, and the Colonel of the NJ National Guard up to one police plaza. So off they went. 

Now things are settling down, so I went back to the German family with the children. They were in New York for a one-week vacation. He was Italian she was German. They worked for a company on the 43rd floor of Tower Two and were staying near by. He had no ID and no credit cards but did have quite a bit of cash. My staff made calls to friends at the navy lodge where they secured a room under my name and put them on a ferry to Staten Island. On the other side Petty Officer Gwendolyn Floyd picked them up and took them to the lodge before other government employees would take rooms. 

By this time my feet hurt. Every time I took off my shirt trying to relax, someone came in making me get dressed in uniform to be official. I commandeered all of the navy vehicles so I had two vans and one sedan. A boat pulled up to the pier and the crew informed us they had donated supplies but no one would take them. I said leave them here. My trusty Auxiliarists and Warrant Officer loaded up the vans and drove to ground zero where we started distributing food and ice to firefighters and police. A whole group of cops were now fed and happy, making them my new best friends. 

Two giant Perrier Water trucks arrived; they could not get up town - the trucks were too large. Within minutes the Coast Guard vans were shuttling water up to the front and we really felt like we were helping in a small way. The Perrier driers asked if they could help us. I said sure, and they hopped in the vans. Soon they returned and left in their trucks saying, “Ed if you need anything, call, we will be there.” 

Now I took a drive through the destruction zone having loaded up a van with face masks and more water. It’s nighttime - pitch black in Manhattan - no lights. It is a ghost town.

We pulled in front of Trinity Church. We handed out six packs of Perrier to firefighters going to the rear. I look to my left and on the tombstones in the Trinity graveyard; the dust is three to six inches deep - like snow. We walked down past Alexander Hamilton’s grave and I just looked at it and nodded.

We were doing the right thing. Our new Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Bradbury was driving. He has been in New York for less than two weeks. As we approached ground zero, firefights and the triage personnel were extremely grateful for the water. At the Hudson River we drove up the boardwalk to where fireboats were pumping out the Hudson River. There were so many hoses in the street feeding the firefighters that we had to stop. A group of firefighters from Brooklyn were resting - exhausted. We emptied the van.

One fireman approached.

“Where are you heading?,” he asked.

“Down to the Battery.”

“Could you go to the Brooklyn Bridge?,” he asked.

We waited. Jeff read a couple of pieces of blown paper.

“This is someone’s law suit,” he said.

There were millions of pieces of paper all over lower Manhattan. More than 50,000 people worked and visited the Trade Towers each day. The firefighters returned; they received permission to return home. We packed eight firefighters and their equipment into the van and off we went. After having run over curbs, hills, and bumps through the combat zone, Jeff got us to the Manhattan Bridge. We dropped off the firefighters on the Brooklyn side and it looked like a scene from that Bruce Willis movie about the army taking over New York - hundred of cops. Going back we got lost in Chinatown and finally returned to the Battery. LCDR Paul Gerecke had secured the building. John Finnegan and his staff from Coast Guard Intelligence were at the office and we settled in for the night. 

The CGI agents and everyone in this building pulled together to help where we could. It was painful to sit in an office when you knew others were risking their lives five blocks away. Please say a prayer for those still alive in the rubble and that we get to them before it’s too late. 

It’s 2:30 in the morning but I felt that I had to give a picture of my world on this day that will be seared into our hearts, lives, and history. I am exhausted, but I know that my friends are safe, yet hurting and at least I will live to fight another day.