20 Years After 9/11, San Diego Firefighters Remember Recovery Efforts At Ground Zero
The images from Sept. 11, 2001 are seared into our consciousness. The attacks at the World Trade Center, a plane slamming directly into the Pentagon, another meant for the U.S. Capitol forced off course by a group of passengers and down into a field in Shanksville, Pa.
But for some San Diegans, the memories from that day are more than images. They saw the devastation firsthand once they arrived in Manhattan to help.
San Diego firefighters John Wood and Matt Nilsen each only had a few years on the job when the attacks happened. Wood became a member of the Urban Search and Rescue Team, California Task Force 8, and Nilsen was on the Urban Search and Rescue Team. Today, Wood is an assistant chief and Nilsen a battalion chief.
Wood shared his memories from in front of Fire Station 21 in Pacific Beach, where a beautiful memorial stands to those who gave everything on that day. The twin towers are replicated, along with a piece of steel from the real towers.
Many of us share a common experience when it comes to 9/11: We all remember where we were and what we were doing when news of the attack came.
Wood was getting some sleep when the phone rang.
“I was at my home in Rancho Penasquitos and having two little babies at home, I had laid down because I learned to sleep when the babies sleep,” he said. “(My wife) called me and said, 'hey, put the news on real quick.' So I know everybody does remember. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Nilsen was out for a morning jog. Back then, there was no cell phone coverage where he was running.
“I was down on the beaches west of Sunset Cliffs, and I got back and my wife had called and explained to me what was going on,” he said.
He rushed home and turned on the news. But there was very little time to watch the news. Wood said within a half hour of seeing the devastation unfold on TV, he was packing his bags.
“We were packing up and getting ready to go, getting down to our rescue warehouse and getting ready to take 80 members to there, to be ready within four hours,” he said.
Nilsen’s specialty back then, as it is today, was communications. He arrived before his fellow San Diego firefighters, because the job of setting up equipment needed so people could communicate was urgent.
“I was on a forward mission and was on top of the Western Union building the very first night that was looking directly into the pile,” he said. “And I was climbing up on scaffolding and installing antennas and establishing communications for a task force.”
Nilsen said he was as prepared as he could be for the sight that would greet him in New York. And though Ground Zero was a nightmarish place at that time, he’s thankful his career called him to be in that place at that moment.
“Everybody wanted to do something and I always consider myself lucky because I had a mission to do, or at least I should say, looking back, I consider myself lucky because it’s something that I could just focus on,” he said.
Once his job setting up radio communications was complete, Nilsen joined his fellow firefighters down on the pile. There were some truly awful moments.
“We recovered a lot of body parts while we were there and you know the biggest thing is the smell,” he said. “So a lot of times we’re in horrific low light conditions, but you could smell something and so we bring our dogs in. People lose sight on how important closure is. If you’ve ever lost somebody, you want to know what happened.”
Now, 20 years later, a good place to get a visceral feel for what happened is found downtown at the San Diego Firehouse Museum. The unspeakable loss, still difficult to comprehend after all these years, is told through replicas of the twin towers with the number 343 at the top, the number of New York firefighters lost on that day. A nearby poster shows all of their faces.
Of course, more than 3,000 people died on Sept. 11, 2001, and the message from back then is one hometown heroes like Wood and Nilsen still remind us of today: never forget.