On Sept. 11, 2001, people all over the world watched a tragedy unfold on national television as the lives of nearly 3,000 were taken in a very public display. Scenes from that day will live on through the memories and stories of survivors and surviving family members, those who bravely rushed to the scene to give aid, and those who viewed it in horror on their TV screen.
For days, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon resonated in newspapers and monopolized conversations around the world as we tried to make sense of the atrocities, and quickly attention was diverted from those who remained at the site for more than 18 months, tasked with the dangerous job of cleaning up, recovering the bodies, and investigating the crime scene that had been laid out in the terrorists' wake.
One of those called upon in this monumental endeavor was Ed Wallace, a New York Police Department detective whose 2001 work at the twin towers paralleled his participation in the investigation of the 1993 Trade Center attack.
"I didn't think I'd be back there for another attack in my career," he said. Unfortunately, a more horrific scene did unfold there and as search-and-rescue transitioned into clean-up procedures, Wallace said he and teams of investigators alternated 12-hour shifts, sifting through debris and bodies.
"When they'd come across a victim—usually body parts—we would treat it like evidence from the attack. We would move in, document the evidence and collect it, package it, and remove it from the site."
In mid October, he was pulled off his work at Ground Zero and assigned to investigate the anthrax attack. By January, he was back at work at WTC.
9/11 Crime Scenes Investigators Revealed
Along with other investigators and emergency responders who processed the scene in the days and months following the attack, Wallace participated in a British documentary that aired in the U.K. September 9, 2010: "9/11 Crime Scene Investigators Revealed."
The documentary, produced by Bristol-based film company Testimony Films, interviewed the CSIs, medical examiners, and police officers in charge of piecing together the last minutes of more than 2,000 lives. Unlike any other crime scene most had ever seen, the film provides a unique perspective of the decade-defining event from the eyes of those who dealt with the aftermath.
In the film, Wallace describes the initial scene in New York on 9/11.
Under this rubble, CSIs searched for weapons and tools used by the terrorists, any remaining airplane parts—particularly the black box—and bodies which would be taken to the refrigerated trucks that substituted for a morgue. Eventually, debris was carried out to Staten Island's Fresh Kills Landfill where it would be put on conveyer belts and sorted, Wallace said.
Along with the majority of remains, the two black boxes would never be recovered, likely decimated during the collapse.
Fallout of 9/11
Emergency workers bravely approached the scene on September 11, 2001, knowing that like any disaster, fire, or crime in progress their lives would be in danger. Many did not anticipate, however, the medical consequences they'd endure years later; Wallace included.
Wallace was rushed to the hospital in August of that year with acute chest pains. "I thought I was having a heart attack. They took X-rays and found what's called bilateral infiltrate scar tissue built up in my lungs," he said. Wallace and his doctors agreed the findings were odd since, as a Hazmat technician, he received yearly routine checkups with chest X-rays, and the previous year's records had been clear. Subsequent tests revealed Wallace had sarcoidosis, an incurable disease in which tiny clumps of inflammatory cells grow most commonly in the lungs, lymph nodes, eyes, and skin. Doctors also diagnosed him with eosinophilic esophagitis, or a build-up of white blood cells in the esophagus causing inflammation.
Initially, Wallace said he did not suspect the ailments were from his work at WTC, but after several other 9/11 workers began to get sick as well, there was no mistaking it.
"I put in the paperwork to say the illnesses were obtained in the line of duty, and it was initially accepted," he said. "But in April 2004, I was just about to retire. They reviewed the illnesses again and denied coverage. It was reestablished later, but I still have been denied disability two times. They acknowledge that I'm sick, but not sick enough to not work."
Recently, Wallace said he and several other emergency responders were awarded a settlement in a class-action lawsuit pertaining to the illnesses incurred during their efforts at the World Trade Center. Now, 10 years later, despite frequent health-related illnesses and more than a dozen daily medications, would Wallace do it all over again?
"I get that question from reporters a lot. And the answer is 'yes.' But we could have done it more safely. See, we had the correct equipment to protect us from this, but we were told that we didn't need it. The Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, was there conducting testing on the air. They told us the air was safe. I would do it again, but just differently. We were needlessly exposed."
A Different Kind of Commemoration
While the waters have calmed over the last decade and Americans have gone back to their day-to-day lives, Wallace said he hopes this year's anniversary will remind us of the dangers that still loom over our heads.
"People have become complacent and have forgotten these threats that are still out there. Sure, we've gotten lucky. We were lucky the 'Underwear' bomber's and the Time Square bomber's bombs didn't detonate. There have been other cases where we've identified and stopped attacks. But we are in a dangerous mindset. Take the Fort Hood shooting for example. This political correctness has gone too far and it's killing us. We're overlooking the blatant signals because we don't want to offend someone."
And as the anniversary of one of our nation's most tragic days arrives and Americans mourn the death of loved ones and our country's innocence, Wallace and his family, however, will be commemorating their own family tragedy—the loss of his brother to brain cancer in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001.
"That day is a very traumatic day for my family. We will be doing things in honor of his death, to remember him. We might watch some of the memorial on TV, but that day will be for my brother."
Humphries, S. (Producer, Director). (September 9, 2010). 9/11 Crime Scene Investigators Revealed [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom.