Oxford firefighter Keith Nelsen had seen devastation, death and chaos up close and personal during one of the worst disasters in Connecticut history.
In April 1987, Nelsen, then a manager for disaster services with the Salvation Army, responded to the L’Ambiance Plaza collapse in Bridgeport, where he painstakingly helped in the recovery of 28 construction workers who died when the 16-story building collapsed during the construction phase. Before the last body was recovered on May 2, 1987, Nelsen only stopped helping on the scene to sleep briefly and attend his daughter’s birthday party.
“I thought this was the worst situation I could see, not knowing that in another 14 years I would witness first hand an event that would dwarf L’Ambiance,” said Nelsen, the training officer for the Oxford Fire Department.
Nelsen, who has three grown children with his wife, Mary Beth, and is the vice president/co-owner of Lindquist Security Technologies in Stratford, was at his desk on the clear, bright morning of Sept. 11, 2001. It was a fall day like any other, until Nelsen received word that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. When a second plane hit, Nelsen, like so many others, realized the nation was under attack.
Within 10 minutes his phone rang. Nelsen, who has served 30 years on the Salvation Army’s advisory board, was instructed to be in downtown Bridgeport within 15 minutes. He and four Salvation Army volunteers piled into a truck and left for the city, where they would later stay at Co-Op City with hundreds of New York City firefighters.
“Emotions there were very high,” Nelsen recalls. “They all wanted to go and dig, but they were held there awaiting further instructions.”
He said people were telling him it was common to hear NYFD firemen discuss their friends and brothers whom they assumed to be lost.
“When we received our instructions, some (firefighters) wanted to go with us; they wanted so much to be there,” he said. “I can remember looking out the window of our vehicle as we got closer and seeing armed soldiers with automatic weapons on street corners. People seemed in shock.”
Witnesses Shocked, Confused
While entering the site where the towers had stood just hours earlier, the Salvation Army volunteers passed through three checkpoints that served as rings of security around the World Trade Center. As they got closer, the more stringent the security became. Crowds had assembled at the outer rings, “standing silent witness to the shock and confusion,” he said.
He said supplies and personnel came in droves. Being inside the ring of security, Nelsen said he and other volunteers had access to go anywhere long before the final ID sanitization process was complete.
“My observation is that those that perished did not suffer,” he said. “It was quick and painless for most.”
Although in a state of near shock and disbelief, Nelsen has painful memories that will last a lifetime. He shared some of them with us:
“I remember walking into what I believe was an American Express building and into a dining room where dust-covered food remained on plates. Newspapers open, and orange juice glasses with thick white caps of dust sat on the table. People in this room survived but definitely did not leave slowly. Windows were blown out and there was dust, dust and more dust.
“We walked for a while with a search crew looking for bodies. Those who survived were already in hospitals and there were no sounds of the dying. The eerie silence reminded me of Bridgeport when in the wee hours of the night, it was silent with the exception of the heavy machinery picking away meticulously searching for remains. In Bridgeport, frequently the Route 8 Connector was shut down and airplanes diverted so sensitive listening equipment could be used to locate any sound of survivors. It was truly the roar of the silence. In Bridgeport, no one had survived.”
A Tale of Two Tragedies
In describing the story of Sept. 11, 2001 - which Nelsen was originally skeptical of discussing because he didn't want to bring attention to his actions on the 10 year anniversary of that tragic day - Nelsen compared a lot of what he saw at the World Trade Center with what he saw in Bridgeport 14 years prior. Sept. 11 had similar devastation but on a much larger scale.
“I remember dust (from blocks away it started at about 1/8th of an inch thick and quickly thickened to 8-to-12 inches as you got closer),” he said of the World Trade Center scene. “One firefighter opened a hose line in attempt to wash the dust down a drain. It only became the consistency of oatmeal and would not be easily dissipated.”
Around midnight on Sept. 11, various officials toured Ground Zero in New York, Nelsen said. “Mayor (Rudy) Giuliani and others looked shell shocked,” he said. “The carnage was just overwhelming.”
Nelsen spent time next to his team’s vehicle listening to fire department chiefs, line officers and rank and file members. He wasn’t there as a firefighter, but said the time he's spent as a volunteer in the Oxford Fire Department has taught him there is a close bond between firefighters.
“No matter how much you disagree with someone, that person was your brother,” he said. "The fact that so many were lost and known to their rescuers made it more intense.”
Dealing With ‘The Wounds You Can’t See’
Nelsen said L’Ambiance taught him there are two types of wounds people can suffer: those that pour blood and those you can’t see.
For the unseen emotional ones, he said, listening is the only salve available.
“I didn’t solicit people, but they came to the canteen (truck) I think knowing that the Salvation Army is a Christian-based organization and it offered some connection to a God they were all questioning,” he said.
Nelsen eloquently describes those discussions as follows:
“The macho factor was still in effect with many, but after a few sentences, most broke down weeping. One Battalion Chief listed the names of a dozen or more co-workers he knew were lost. He did not show any emotion but was definitely in shock. I just listened and asked questions.
“In the early morning hours, I looked up and saw what looked like a scene from Star Wars. Walking in step, double file in black uniforms complete with black helmets with visors, were the largest human beings I had ever seen. These were from the NYC Department of Correction coming to help. These guys looked like they didn't need machinery to lift the steel.
“Before dawn, the West Side Drive southbound was filled with trucks carrying generators the size of small buildings and scores of heavy lifting machinery ready to go to work. Trucks filled with oxygen and acetylene tanks brought cutting equipment so that steel could be cut in search for survivors - a very slow and arduous task.
“I worked briefly with some firefighters in a vain search for one of their missing. I am not sure what the outcome was. They seemed convinced there was a survivor. But without gear, I was out of my league.
Night time at Ground Zero
When it was dark, it was decided all fire trucks that could be moved would be removed from the site to make way for the rescue/recovery effort, Nelsen said.
He describes the night at Ground Zero as extremely quiet, other than the sound of generators: "people were in a physical and emotional transition period where your body is telling you that you should be in bed yet the adrenaline won’t let go," he said.
“Slowly, up the West Side Drive, came a procession of fire trucks,” he said. “It was like a funeral. Some were able to limp out on their own, some were being towed.”
As an Oxford firefighter, Nelsen said he knows the drill for a rescue: you pack up, grab a tool, go in and do your job.
A view of the NYFD trucks lent credence to the fact that firefighters gave their all to help people get out of the towers safely, he said: Nelsen saw open cabinets, some personal effects on the rig and half-filled water bottles scattered about the trucks.
Trucks were covered with thick dust and littered with papers that had been on someone’s desk some 100 stories or so up.
At night, flashing tow truck lights in concert with strobe lights from the fire trucks “lent a spooky aura to these dust-covered rigs,” he said.
“These were ghost ships coming into the harbor,” he said of the tow truck lights. “We turned and watched them go by behind us and wept.”
A ‘Witness to Carnage’ Has Time to Reflect
After talking with a few firefighters who desperately needed someone to listen, Nelsen went for a walk to let things settle down in his psyche. In his words:
“Needless to say, being witness to carnage is not the easily brushed off. Looking down at the thick dust on this lonely side street I picked up a piece of paper. I forgot the name or even the content of the paper, but it was from the desk of a person in one of the towers. It was probably a person who died, a person whose family is still wondering if this person survived. A person who early that morning was alive and vibrant. Now, many were part of the dust. So sad. So senseless. ...The world was watching. AT&T technicians were already in the manholes in the early afternoon determined to re-establish communications so that the stock exchange would open, and we could show the world what we are made of. They were successful.
He said he was talking to a fire Battalion Chief when someone who was enraged and clearly unstable began swearing and carrying on.
"Our resources were dedicated to those involved with the disaster and were not going to be used for those wishing to take advantage,” Nelsen recalls. “He was raging, and I wasn’t quite sure where this was going until, suddenly, two very large correctional officers took umbrage to the abuse and literally picked him up by the elbows and escorted him blocks away: the sense of community had literally spread to everyone there working for a common cause.”
‘So Many Good People Filled the Void’
A few days after the terrorist attacks, Nelsen and his fellow Salvation Army volunteers decided the initial response from all over the U.S. would sustain the efforts at Ground Zero for many weeks to come. Nelsen's crew vowed to come back if they received word that other volunteers began suffering from the lost paychecks, fatigue and/or time away from their families.
“That call never came, to my knowledge,” he said. “So many organizations, with so many good people, filled the void.”
His last memory of the journey was leaving the World Trade Center site and walking slowly toward West Side Drive. He couldn’t see out the windows of the truck, but he heard the thunderous sound of yelling, whistling and screaming.
“I got up and looked out the front windshield,” he said. “The road was lined on both sides with applauding citizens complete with thank you signs. …I guess it’s OK to say it felt good.”