LA Firefighters Reflect on Responding to Ground Zero After 9/11 Attacks: ‘It Didn’t Look Real’

Los Angeles firefighters reflected on responding to the 9/11 attacks, during a press briefing on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Credit: Urban Hollywood 411).

What they saw was surreal. What they heard was heartbreaking.

Twenty years ago, Los Angeles firefighters Steve Hissong and Jarvis “Bubba” Willis were part of a 66-member LAFD FEMA Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Task Force that responded to “Ground Zero” after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that brought down the towers of the World Trade Center.

On Wednesday, Sept. 8, the men spoke with the media outside the LAFD’s Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center and reflected on what they saw when they arrived in New York City.

“It was surreal in the sense of it literally looked like one of our training sites, and the training sites don’t look real. It didn’t look real,” Willis recalled.

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On the night of September 11, 2001, the US&R team boarded a military transport plane and headed to New York. As the aircraft flew over Manhattan the following day, Willis and Hissong looked down at the devastation.

“As we were responding in, we were actually able to see all the smoke because of the fires that were at the Trade Center, so we were really anxious to go to work and see what we were able to accomplish,” said Hissong, who is now an assistant chief with the LAFD.

Once the Los Angeles team was in place, they used small cameras and canine units to search for signs of life in the rubble.

“We unfortunately didn’t find any survivors. We did find a lot of remains of people, which did bring closure, and we were able to actually find quite a few firefighters who were underneath the rubble area,” Hissong explained.

Willis noted many firefighters around the country wear Personal Alert Safety System devices that notify their colleagues in the event that they end up in trouble. The day the L.A. response team arrived at Ground Zero, they heard many of those devices chirping, letting them know members of the New York Fire Department were buried under the metal and debris.

“We have these things called PASS devices. They’re personal alarm devices when we go into structure fires, when you are in trouble, you hit the trigger, or if you stop moving it will activate. It’s a distinct sound, the same sound all over the country, and those were going off pretty much all over the place,” Willis recalled. “Just hearing those, as we came in and started to work, that was one of the sounds that probably just got to me the most.”

A total of 2,977 people were killed in New York City, Washington, D.C. and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania in the September 11 attacks.

When hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the North and South Towers, 2,753 people perished at Ground Zero, according to the New York Times.

Others who were exposed to the toxic dust in the aftermath of the attacks, later died from 9/11-related illnesses.

Hissong and Willis, like many other members of the L.A. US&R team, now have respiratory problems. Still, the two men said they were honored to have been called to help.

“We were fortunate enough to be in a position to go and do work that millions of other people wanted to do,” Willis said. “I have a hard time with the word honor, but definitely, I would probably put it in that category.”