PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Two decades ago, Lt. Neil Martin was among a group of four Portland firefighters who paid their own way to New York City just days after the September 11 attacks to help at Ground Zero.
Countless Americans were glued to the news on that fateful day and in the days that followed. Martin said he was watching the coverage on TV when a news crew pulled aside a firefighter who survived the collapse of the Twin Towers.
“They’re interviewing of all people — you know, they have over 15,000 firefighters in New York City — and the guy they’re interviewing is our friend Billy,” Martin recalled.
Seeing his friend — New York Firefighter Bill Quick — on national news seemed like a sign, Martin said. Determined to get to Ground Zero, Martin and three other Portland firefighters — Dwight Englert, Ed Hall and Wes Loucks — packed their bags and headed to PDX.
“We quickly realized the airport was shut down and there were no flights,” said Martin.
Frustrated but determined, the group considered renting a van and driving across the country.
“We were kinda doing the math on how long it would take us and just then someone from TWA heard about us firemen hanging out at the concourse at PDX and said ‘hey, we had a plane that landed here and was supposed to go to SeaTac and we gotta take it back to LaGuardia, you guys want on it?'” said Martin. “We literally jumped on that plane.”
When their plane landed in New York after midnight on September 14, Martin said Quick drove the group to the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center.
“They called it ‘the pile’ in New York,” said Martin. “It was so surreal because here I was watching it on TV and the next thing you know, I’m right here.”
But before they could start on what would become nearly a week’s worth of digging through rubble, Martin said his group came upon a crowd of hundreds of people looking for their missing loved ones. It was a moment Martin would never forget.
“At first you think they’re lookie-loos but then you realize they’re actually people with family members or friends who are missing because they’re holding flyers,” he said. “They’re just screaming at us because they see us, we’re in uniform and we’re heading to the pile.”
Martin said when the body of a firefighter or first responder was found in the rubble, everyone would observe a moment of silence.
“All these people working, everything going on, you could hear a pin drop,” he said. “The FBI would come over because it’s a crime scene, they would try and do the best they could as far as categorizing where they found it, then wrap it in a flag and send it down.”
Martin said finding a person’s remains brought a certain measure of relief because that meant a family would have closure.
“The footage I was seeing, the firemen knew — you could see it in their eyes — they were not going to survive it,” he said. “They looked at each other and they shook each other’s hands, knowing they weren’t going to survive. It’s unbelievable and they did it without any hesitation.”
Two decades ago, Americans found common ground and rallied together in the wake of the tragedy; Martin wonders what it will take to see that kind of unity in this country again.
“The petty little things that seem so important now — it wasn’t even crossing anyone’s mind,” he said. “We’re fighting with our own family members, neighbors, old friends — all of a sudden, we have these divisions. I don’t know how it happened. Twenty years later, we haven’t learned anything.”
Later, when Martin and his group had returned home to Portland, then-President George W. Bush made a stop on a trip to Seattle to shake the hands of the four men who traveled thousands of miles to get to Ground Zero.
Quick spent two months at the pile, trying to recover as many of the remains of former coworkers as he could. He passed away 10 years ago from a lung disease caused by the fumes he was exposed to at Ground Zero. Martin and the other Portland firefighters were at Quick’s house in New York the night he died.
Martin said the TWA pilot who flew them to New York in 2001 came to Portland for the 9/11 ceremony this weekend. Martin and some of the other firefighters reunited with her on Friday for the first time in 20 years.