Cleaning up Ground Zero: An emotional experience

Local man spent two weeks lending his hands and his heart

Terri Saunders tsaunders@ganderbeacon.ca
Published on September 10, 2011
CLEAN-UP – Gander’s Roy Sceviour at Ground Zero in January 2002. Mr. Sceviour was in New York volunteering with the Salvation Army during the 9-11 clean-up.
Submitted Photo

When Roy Sceviour began to talk about a trip he made to New York City years ago, tears flooded his eyes and he took a moment before speaking. "I'd never been there before," he said quietly. "First time ever in my life." Mr. Sceviour's journey to one of the world's most famous cities was not to see the sights. It wasn't to see a few Broadway shows or visit shops like Macy's and Tiffany's. It wasn't to wander leisurely through Central Park or see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History.

Mr. Sceviour spent two weeks serving up meals in a makeshift cafeteria on Staten Island, feeding hundreds of volunteers and workers tasked with cleaning up what was left behind after two jumbo jets were deliberately crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, sending them crumbling to the ground.

It was just after Christmas 2001 when Mr. Sceviour, a well-known member of the Salvation Army in Gander, got the call.

"I was asked to go to New York to help," said Mr. Sceviour. "I said, 'Yes, I'll go.'"

Mr. Sceviour flew to New York in January 2002 and was put to work in a temporary cafeteria set up alongside what used to be a landfill site on Staten Island, a small borough just south of the tip of Manhattan island. A large group of volunteers, many of them from the Salvation Army throughout North America and groups from Baptist churches around the U.S. and Canada, spent every day cooking and feeding the scores of men and women who had the grim task of carting debris from what became known as Ground Zero to Staten Island.

"They would put big piles of it on barges and bring it across the river," said Mr. Sceviour. "The piles would be put out on the ground and workers and volunteers would go through each pile very carefully with rakes."

It was tedious but important work. Although his main job as a volunteer was in the cafeteria, Mr. Sceviour said there were times he lent a hand with the raking, work which was overseen by officials from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. The items they would find in the piles of scorched steel and crushed concrete were a constant reminder of what had happened just a few miles away just four months earlier.

"We were finding police officers' badges and fire fighters' badges and things like false teeth," said Mr. Sceviour, his eyes once again filling with tears. "Given what had happened, it was things like that which were needed to positively confirm a person had actually died there."

From day one

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 are etched in the collective memories of people around the world. Ask just about anyone you meet on the street if they remember where they were and what they were doing when the planes hit the towers, and it's likely they'll recall in an instant.

For the people of Gander, including Mr. Sceviour, that day quickly became unlike any other in their memories, as the terrorist actions occurring thousands of kilometres away in another country set in motion one of the largest humanitarian efforts this little corner of the world had ever known or likely will ever know.

Mr. Sceviour spent that day preparing to care for dozens of folks from all over the world at the Salvation Army citadel on Airport Boulevard. He helped prepare sleeping areas in the church and assisted with the packaging of toiletry kits for the men, women and children who later became known as the Plane People.

"Wherever there was a surface, someone was laying down on it," Mr. Sceviour said. "We had the church filled with people and we did what we could do to help them with whatever they needed."

After several days of caring for the visitors and watching them slowly leave Gander and return to their homes in countries around the world, Mr. Sceviour thought his connection to the events of that terrible day would end there.

"I didn't imagine I'd ever go to the actual site," he said. "But when I was told how much they needed volunteers down there, I knew I had to go."

Known the world over as an organization built on a foundation of humanitarianism, the Salvation Army is often called into service when disasters strike. Whether it's to find replacement furniture and clothing for a family who lost everything in house fire or to assist survivors of an earth quake, the Salvation Army and its officers are there. And not just to serve a meal or lend a hand. They also open their hearts to those in need of comfort.

"We were there to counsel people as well," said Mr. Sceviour. "Sometimes all people needed to do was talk."

"We were finding police officers' badges and fire fighters' badges and things like false teeth." — Roy Sceviour

Hard on everyone

Mr. Sceviour said it was an emotional time for the Ground Zero workers and the volunteers who cared for them. Even as they worked around the clock to clear the site they were trying to come to terms with the attacks themselves.

"It was really hard on people," he said. "Some of the people working to clean up the site were also firefighters and police officers and they were dealing with the loss of friends and people they'd worked with. It was a very emotional time."

It was also an emotional time for Mr. Sceviour himself. Having never been to New York City, he had no memories of what the twin towers had looked like before the attacks, although he had seen images of them on television and in photographs. What he saw when he got there was very different from the visions in his head.

"There was a big hole," said Mr. Sceviour. "And all the buildings which had been around the twin towers were burned. The windows were broken and burned. Everything had been burned because of the fires."

In the days following the attacks, efforts at Ground Zero were focused on the search for possible survivors.

In time, crews shifted to a recovery operation, and worked to carefully remove the remains of the men and women, many of them firefighters and police officers, who were crushed to death by the collapse of the towers or perished in the fires caused by the impact of the jetliners.

It would be several weeks before the extent of the loss was known — 2,819 people had been killed, including 403 first responders.

One company, Cantor Fitzgerald, a global marketing investment bank, lost 658 employees in the attacks. Recovery crews were able to remove 289 intact bodies from the site, but the true scale of the destruction is evident when considering workers identified 19,858 body parts among the piles of rubble.

The Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island had closed in May 2001, but officials reopened it to receive the debris from Ground Zero. Of the site's 3,000 acres, 175 were used to contain the debris as it was being sorted and sifted through by workers. The land itself has a number of high grassy hills, and atop one of them volunteers erected what they named the Hilltop Cafe. Run by The Salvation Army and other rescue organizations and church groups, the cafe regularly served meals to more than 1,500 people a day.

"It was non-stop," said Mr. Sceviour. "We were putting out more than 400 meals at a time, three times a day. We would just go and go until everyone was fed."

Grateful

During the two weeks Mr. Sceviour was at the site, he and other volunteers would sometimes drive into lower Manhattan in a Salvation Army van. They always wore red jackets emblazoned with the Salvation Army crest.

"Everywhere we went, people were grateful," said Mr. Sceviour. "We would walk into a restaurant and we would be seated right away and treated so well. If there were no seats available, other customers would get up from their tables so we could sit down. It was unbelievable how thankful they were for helping out."

In the months and years following the attacks, the recovery efforts and the clean-up, a close watch has been kept on those people who ventured near Ground Zero to lend a hand. Fears of lingering health concerns, particularly those related to stress and anxiety, prompted medical officials in New York City to keep in touch with volunteers and workers.

For years after he returned to Gander, Mr. Sceviour received regular letters from officials in the U.S. inquiring about his health. Mr. Sceviour said he's suffered no health issues related to his time in New York.

On Father's Day of this year, Mr. Sceviour's daughter presented him with a scrapbook filled with newspapers clippings, photographs and notes related to the attacks and the ensuing events. A section of the book focuses on his time on Staten Island, and the work he and countless other volunteers did to help the people of New York recover from the darkest chapter in the city's history.

"We did what we had to do; whatever they needed us to do," said Mr. Sceviour. "Whether it was give someone a meal or just sit and talk with them, we were there to help. And that's what we did."

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