Saunders reports on NYC plane crash


The morning of November 12 started like most of my days in NYC, with a morning briefing at the DHQ command center for Operation Compassion Under Fire. Although no day is really normal at ground zero, as it turned out, this day would be far from the usual pace….

It was Veterans Day and all teams expected a light day at the “pit” since most of the relief efforts would be stopped in honor of the holiday. When I arrived at the Army’s Site 2 along with Capt. Roy Wild, we quickly found we were among only a handful of personnel there…primarily police, guarding the perimeter, and a crew running water trucks all day to keep the hot spots cooled off.

It was close to 9:15 a.m. when we heard about the crash of American Airlines Flight #587.

It took probably a minute for the news to sink in as I watched police scramble into their squad cars and race off. We could hear sirens from emergency vehicles all over the city racing to the site. The unbelievable quickly dawned on me. I was literally standing in the twisted, scorched remains of a great symbol of our country’s prosperity and power, the final resting place of thousands of innocent people, and another plane crashes!

As this news enveloped me, my mind raced with various thoughts. Was it another terrorist attack? Were more planes going to hit other sites? Were my wife and daughter safe? Was it a passenger, commercial or military plane? Were people hurt?

Roy and I quickly hopped into the canteen and drove to the Army’s main site, hopped out and began throwing all kinds of supplies into it. Hats, gloves, coffee, water, soda, crackers, soup, jackets, first aid kits, etc… Then we ran to a nearby officer still guarding the perimeter of the WTC and told him our canteen was gassed up and ready to roll. “We don’t know the way! Can you give us an escort?” “Consider it done!” he said, “Anything for you guys!” Within minutes a squad car rolled up to escort us to the crash site. The Army was on the move with two canteens; a vanload of volunteers and a mobile kitchen would be coming from another location.

We made it to the scene by about 10:45 a.m. At first we were directed to the makeshift staging area, an abandoned field, which was occupied by what seemed like a thousand people from every service imaginable. CIA, FBI, NYPD, NYFD, Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmers, EMT, NTSB–you name it they and their cars were there. We started providing hydration and various snacks right away. It wasn’t long before our mobile kitchen arrived and we set up shop in a small abandoned maintenance shed serving hot meals to all these people. After what seemed like an eternity, we were moved inside the perimeter to within about 25 yards, eyesight, of the actual burning wreckage.

By the time we left (around midnight) we had established three separate sites on three different blocks ­ and round the clock meals, and two hydration sites for items like coffee, water, Gatorade, snacks etc. The next day, the Army added another site where the NTSB and FBI reviewed wreckage and other information…an abandoned hangar about a mile away.

In all, 9,500 meals were cooked and served over the next few days by volunteers from TSA and the surrounding area.

There are dozens of stories anyone present that day could tell, but the real story is in the lives of the people we helped–and the way in which our lives changed as a result. How does one comfort those reeling in this aftermath? What was God teaching me? Away from my comfort zone and my own support systems, I was in need of God’s gracious love and support, and I prayed unlike any time before for strength and wisdom. One of my teammates said it best as we all departed, “I am certain that shared sorrow is more intimate and sacred than shared joy.”

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