Most New Yorkers have vivid recollections of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But for Gregg Nolan, then a foreman with Local 15 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, the images of working down at Ground Zero are indelibly etched in his mind.
In an effort to temper those memories as well as honor the rescue workers who helped recover the site, Nolan, 56, will return to Ground Zero this September, just as he’s done for the past decade, to lead more than a thousand motorcycle riders on a 42-mile trek from Manhattan to upstate New York, as part of the NYC Ground Zero Independence Ride.
Nolan spoke to Our Town, recalling some of his difficult experiences working at Ground Zero in those first few weeks following 9/11 as well as how his upcoming NYC memorial ride is helping to support veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
How did you end up working at Ground Zero on 9/11?
Gregg Nolan: I was the foreman for local 15 of the Operating Engineers and I was at a contractors meeting when the planes hit. I went home at first to be with my family because I didn’t know what was going on. I got home and we were watching it on TV and I just decided to go back that night and help out any way I could. I’d been working in construction in NYC my whole life, so it seemed that I could probably be of use there.
What did you see when you first got to the “pile” or Ground Zero?
I got there about midnight or 1 a.m. and all I saw was fire and devastation. We were completely astonished. There was nothing left of the trade center—it was a mountain of rubble. It was just unbelievable.
What was your key responsibility at Ground Zero?
In the first day we were down there, our big job was to organize the chaos … obviously there was death everywhere, but to get this thing under control—it had to be taken under control—and that’s pretty much what we were doing.
In the first few weeks, we worked with the National Guard to set up a perimeter around the whole site because there were people at the site who were unknown. At first, we thought there could even be terrorists still at the site to try and do secondary damage—we just didn’t know until we set up security. And, bringing in a union workforce that was known was a plus.
Who else was down at Ground Zero, and how dangerous was it working there?
There were so many people down at the site that didn’t belong there and didn’t know what they were doing. Many of the volunteers down there were getting hurt because they had no idea what they were doing. It was office workers and non-construction workers and even some of our own guys got hurt—it was just such a dangerous place to be, we had to get rid of any people who didn’t know what they were doing. And, at the same time, we’re recovering bodies—looking for people who may still be alive.
For more information on the NYC Ground Zero Independence Ride or to participate, visit groundzeroindride.com
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