Smell, heat mark Rock County man's memory of 9/11 attack
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have seen thousands of images on television and in newspapers documenting the horror and chaos around the World Trade Center in the hours, days and weeks after the attacks.
Seeing the images, most of us don’t have to recall the stink of jet fuel or feel the heat from the smoldering pile of rubble.
That’s what the first responders called it: “The Pile.”
The term “Ground Zero” was a media invention, said Lou Smit, chief deputy coroner in Rock County.
Smit is one of those who remembers the smell and the heat. While most of us were staring at the television on that sunny September morning, Smit was typing a short email to the executive office at the White House.
The next night, when air travel was at a near standstill, Smit was flying from his home in Las Vegas to Newark, N.J. On the morning of Sept. 13, Smit was slowly making his way through a chain of military checkpoints toward the remains of the two towers. He and a partner would set up a temporary morgue and work to identify more than 200 bodies pulled from the rubble.
How he got there
In the late 1990s, Smit was working for the medical examiner’s office in Snohomish County in the state of Washington. He was convinced that a large-scale terror threat was very real and that all levels of American governments were not prepared to deal with such an event.
When the federal government in 1996 and 1998 changed federal death investigation standards—but did not fund the change—Smit and his staff pushed the issue. He started working with FBI officials and made a plan to get federal funding for an FBI program that would support improved communication for medical examiners and first responders at all levels of government.
The goal was to create a medical and legal branch of the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, which collects and sorts data from law enforcement agencies across the nation. The additional branch would allow coroners and medical examiners to communicate efficiently with law enforcement agencies.
They got close. But when the FBI landed money for programming, Smit’s boss backed out. Smit’s work derailed, and the federal money went elsewhere.
Around the same time, George W. Bush was elected president, and many of the people Smit had been working with retired or were reassigned. He didn’t give up.
“We felt it was going to happen—that we were going to have a big event,” Smit said. “Several intelligence reports out there as much as said that. Our concern was that the medical infrastructure was not prepared for a big event, locally and nationally.
“We were not prepared locally at every level.”
In July 2001, this time as an employee of the Kitsap County Coroner’s Office, Smit wrote a six-page letter to Vice President Dick Cheney and was surprised on July 30 to be invited to meet with the vice president and his staff. The vice president asked good questions, and Smit was hopeful things would start moving forward.
Days later, it was too late
Smit has a PowerPoint presentation he has used through the years at disaster training workshops that features photos he took while in New York. In it, you see the walking cast he was wearing while he worked 18- to 24-hour shifts—first in a temporary morgue and later directing police and firefighters as they searched for bodies in the rubble.
He went through three walking casts in the 16 days he worked in New York.
He went through a pair of gloves every day.
Some workers went through a pair of boots every day.
The Pile, as they called it, was incredibly hot and full of rough stone, twisted steel and sharp edges. The air stunk of jet fuel from the crashed planes.
“The pile was like this living thing,” Smit said. “As they removed debris, it kind of moved and shifted. At night, it kind of looked like it was breathing, because of the smoke coming out of it.”
It was surreal to be searching for the bodies of citizens after an act of war on American soil.
“That thought was not far from anybody’s minds,” Smit said.
Smit developed a respect for construction workers who—unlike police, firefighters or coroners—knew how to take apart demolished buildings.
“They really saved the day,” Smit said.
Smit and his partner from the Kitsap County Coroner’s Office worked to identify at least 200 bodies.
“Everybody had this look of exhaustion, this look of fatigue,” Smit said.
When he got home at the end of September, Smit and his wife, Alice, went straight to Disneyland with their then 4-year-old son and 4-year-old nephew.
Smit hasn’t had a full night’s sleep in 10 years, he said. Alice said he woke up sweating from dreams for two years. His lungs are “trashed,” and he has chronic infections in the leg that was in a cast in 2001, he said.
He said he would do it all again.
Smit tells his story so people keep the event in perspective.
“I think people need to remember what happened there,” Smit said. “It gets put in a political format too often. It wasn’t a reference or a footnote.
“It was a reality.”