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Published: 9/17/2001 - Updated: 1 year ago

Area rescuers get down to ground zero

BY MITCH WEISS
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Lucas County sheriff's deputies Steve Gadoury, left, and Steve Meehan, outside the Jacob Javits Conference Center, were almost overwhelmed by the sight of the death and destruction. Lucas County sheriff's deputies Steve Gadoury, left, and Steve Meehan, outside the Jacob Javits Conference Center, were almost overwhelmed by the sight of the death and destruction.
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NEW YORK - Steve Meehan knew the World Trade Center like the back of his hand.

He was a security guard there for three years in the early 1990s before moving to Toledo, where he became a Lucas County sheriff's deputy.

When he heard about the terrorist attack that toppled twin 110-story buildings, he knew he had to do something.

“There was no way I could just sit [in Toledo],” Deputy Meehan said yesterday as he stood in front of a police checkpoint in lower Manhattan.

Deputy Meehan and five other deputies from his department were among hundreds of volunteers from across the nation who poured into New York City.

The destruction of the World Trade Center broke Deputy Meehan's heart. He was a security officer there from 1990-93, before joining the New York police department. In 1998, he moved to Toledo, where his wife is from.

After the attacks, Deputy Meehan sent a note to Sheriff James Telb requesting permission for him and some colleagues to travel to New York to help.

“A couple of us said, ‘Let's get in our car and go,'” Deputy Chris Archer said. “We said we would pay our own way. But the sheriff gave us his blessing and let us use our equipment.”

The deputies arrived Thursday night at the Jacob Javits Convention Center on Manhattan's west side, where volunteers check in and get their work assignments.

They were put to work right away, dispatched to ground zero, the site where the twin towers of glass and steel once surmounted the city's financial district.

Now, nothing is left except twisted metal, concrete, and shards of glass.

At the scene, the deputies helped New York police arrest two people for looting. The scofflaws, posing as volunteers, stole rings and money from the dead.

“To see people looting was just terrible,” Deputy Meehan said.

During their first night, they watched firefighters and rescue workers frantically dig through gigantic mounds of rubble looking for survivors. None were found.

“It was so surreal,” Deputy Thomas Hillabrand said. “You look at everything and you just shake your head in disbelief.”

Steve Gadoury, another Lucas County deputy, agreed. “It's hard not to become overwhelmed with emotion. It's tough. It's really tough.”

Especially for Deputy Meehan. “I was on every floor of those buildings,” said the deputy, who lost several former co-workers in the catastrophe. “I knew every inch. So when I saw the devastation, it really bugged me out.”

He stopped for a moment and looked at the people walking by the checkpoint. Thousands of people passed by, most carrying flags or wearing clothes bearing the Stars and Stripes.

Others carried cameras and video equipment in hope of capturing an image of the hellish site. “It just blew my mind,” Deputy Meehan said. “All these dead people. Just regular people like you and me.”

He looked at his watch and signaled to the deputies that it was time to return to the Javits Center for a new assignment. On Friday night, the Lucas County lawmen provided protection outside the Israeli consulate.

Yesterday, still dressed in their Lucas County uniforms, they were looking for work.

Standing outside the convention center, surrounded by police officers from other states, Lucas County Deputy Gary Selleck said it was important for him and his colleagues to make the trip.

“On the way into the city, we went to a few fire stations to express our condolences from the people of Toledo and Lucas County. We wanted them to know people back home really care,” Deputy Selleck said.

He said he will have a tough time dealing with what he saw - the almost biblical death and destruction. “You just can't imagine what two 110-story buildings falling to the ground will do. Nobody could survive that.”

The deputies and other volunteers said New Yorkers' support for police and firefighters was unexpected. Everywhere they went, they were cheered and hugged.

David Nadeau, a volunteer firefighter from Monroe Township in Monroe County, was surprised by the response. “When we came out of ground zero, people were cheering. This one woman hugged me and said, ‘Thank you for helping us.'”

He was among a group of 20 firefighters from southeastern Michigan that went to New York. For three days, they cleared rubble and put out fires at the site.

The first day, Mr. Nadeau helped clear rubble to find limbs and body parts. Part of his job was putting remains in body bags.

A Marine Corps veteran, Mr. Nadeau was stationed in Beirut in 1983 at the time of the barracks bombing, an attack that took 299 lives. “But this is the worst thing I've ever seen. I've never seen destruction like this.”

On his way back home, he broke into tears when he heard a song by the country group Lonestar that he sings with his two young sons at home. “It's about a father who's gone away and tells his son ‘Don't worry, I'll be home soon.'”

Just before leaving New York, Mr. Nadeau spoke to his 6-year-old son. The boy asked him “Daddy, have you pulled out any more bodies?”

Mr. Nadeau stopped short, taking a deep breath as he struggled to preserve his composure. “Listen, I have to go,” he said tearfully. “I have to go.”

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Mitch Weiss, 41 and a native New Yorker, is The Blade's state editor. He joined The Blade in 1998.

Jetta Fraser, 46, another native New Yorker, has been a Blade photographer for almost three years. She has worked for newspapers in Detroit and Jacksonville, Fla.



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