By David Fleet
David Castle recalls the faces of family members.
“They were lined up along the streets holding pictures of loved ones,” recalls Castle. “They really had no other way to find someone that was in those towers. It was their look of desperation that’s still etched on my mind. I just can’t forget those faces.”
It’s now been 20 years since Castle, a veteran Brandon Firefighter and paramedic, responded with thousands of others across the county following the attack on the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001.
For many Americans like Castle, the tragic events of 9-11 still impact their lives.
“Today my children ask me about 9-11,” said Castle. “I still share my story for all those that responded and the lives lost.”
In 2001, Castle was working as a paramedic for an ambulance company, when he was watching the news, seeing the second plane hit the second tower and realizing that ‘something wasn’t right. Just 15 hours later, Castle, also then a reserve Lake Angelus police officer, was on his way to New York and Ground Zero.
“I wanted to go,” he said. There was no hesitation.”
Castle joined an Oakland County emergency response team of about 20 people including other officers from Lake Angelus, as well as Royal Oak, Auburn Hills and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department. They traveled in about six vehicles, escorting a semi-truck with supplies, clothing and food, driving 13 hours to a staging area in New Jersey.
Upon arrival, there was a lengthy wait while the Oakland County contingent waited for their assignment. They were eventually assigned to assist the FBI’s Emergency Response Team and went to Ground Zero. Castle, a third generation firefighter, described the scene as a thousand times worse than what he had seen on the news.
“The media never got close enough to see the rubble and obviously you don’t get the smell,” Castle remembers. “I was really was not prepared. It was the smell of death. The rubble was unrecognizable stuff. I went expecting to find chairs and tables but it was debris. Once we were there we realized it was very unlikely we would find a survivor.”
Still, Castle and his teammates operated in rescue mode, doing a bucket brigade, taking debris bucket by bucket off the World Trade Center. It was quiet when it was a rescue mission, as people worked together and listened for survivors, but Castle says all they found were body parts.
“It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” he recalled. ‘It was physically and mentally exhausting even after a few days.”
Castle and the Oakland County team stayed for six days, during which time they did 12-hour shifts and also searched other buildings and did security. He remembers it was very hard to talk to New York City firefighters who were not on duty at the time the towers collapsed and were frustrated, wanting to work continuously in the rescue effort.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “If it was my department and my brothers that I lost, it would have been even worse personally.”
Atlas Township resident Shirley Kautman-Jones, arrived in New York City in December 2001 about three months after 9-11 for a restaurant trade show and visited Ground Zero.
“My first impression was the expansive area of damage,” said Kautman-Jones. “The area around the twin-towers was far reaching for blocks. There was no debris on the streets that had been cleaned up. However, there were fences around many buildings and the carnage was just heartbreaking.”
Many people along with law enforcement were walking around the area—they were very somber and quiet, she recalled.
“There was a high chain-linked fence around the twin towers area,” she said. “We could see the subway way down in the hole and they were still in the process of cleanup. It had been several months since the planes hit the buildings and I still remember the many, many pictures of missing people posted on the fence. You’ll never forget some of those faces.”
On Sept. 11, area resident Gina Joy Roemer dropped her daughter Janine off at the Ortonville Montessori Preschool and stopped at Bueche’s with her son Jermaine for a few grocery items.
“Sept. 11, 2001 was a different morning for all of us we’ll always remember, almost down to the first reported detail,” said Roemer. “We will always have news reports of the event but, I want us to remember from neighborhood to neighborhood our response, our resilience and our recovery.”
Roemer took photos of Mill Street and Ortonville neighborhoods on Sept. 11 and in the week following.
“That morning, I hadn’t had time to watch the morning news yet,” she recalled. “By the time I was cashing out at Bueche’s, the cashier told me that I had better go home and watch a terrible plane crash in New York City. Even as I watched initial updates I only thought a pilot had made the worst FAA error. Then the second plane hit.”
“We have a strange reaction when we suspect the least and the reality is evil,” she said. “The first reaction is disbelief which feeds on gathering information which then either spews out hatred or love. We decorated the big oak tree in our front yard with an eternity candle at its base. Ortonville showed love, patriotism, and caring.”