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Buffalo Firefighter shares his memories of Ground Zero search and rescue

“[What I remember from 9/11] is putting some of my toys in a bag and giving them to my dad late at night, as he left to go to Ground Zero. I thought he was going on vacation or something.” said Junior Thomas Clarke

Tom Clarke was in Minnesota talking to his mother in New York City when the buildings collapsed. At that point the phone went dead.

“My first reaction was the buildings were indeed going to collapse, and as a native New Yorker and previous FDNY fire fighter, I would be going to help pick up the pieces. I honestly did not know if I would return.” said Clarke.

Clarke’s role was that of a rescue worker, moving in and out of spaces within the molten steel, searching and praying for the possibility of a live rescue. The hardest thing for him was recovery of human remains.

“They would be wrapped in flags sometimes only the size of a Christmas gift,” Clarke said.

He also slept in the same building that housed the morgue.

“I can think of the smell and am instantly there,” said Clarke.

When it came time to leave New York City it was hard, because Clarke felt that the job was not done. He believed that there was still a chance of survivors in the debris, but construction equipment was being used to clear them out.

“My most memorable experience was riding into Ground Zero on the fire truck,” said Clarke. “There were hundreds of people with signs that read ‘keep going’, ‘you can do it’, ‘we love you.’ They handed me cookies and water, cheering and clapping.”

Clarke, throughout his ordeal, met many memorable people. One who stood out was a nun that gave him a small cross. She later died of toxic complications and in her memory, Clarke still has the small cross.

The site where the towers fell is now a memorial to those who lost their lives and the service members who risked theirs to save as many people as they could. The site has special meaning to Clarke and all the other servicemen.

“I think it is a great place to go in peace and enjoy a moment and reflect on the tragedy of that fateful September morning,” said Clarke. “And also the beauty that existed in the wake of such a tragedy by the coming together of so many men and women for a common cause. We were far from terrorized and have rebuilt and will do it again and again if need be.”

Story by: Molly Kwakenat

Photo Credit: Ben Leipholtz

Molly Kwakenat

My name is Molly but you can call me Molly. I enjoy playing hardcore Dance Dance Revolution in my free time and my favorite food is kale chips. I can write and design but that isn't as important as my taekwondo skillz I acquired from a very talented shrimp.

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