Michael Appleton for The New York Times
A member of a New York City search and rescue team looked for an entry point at a collapsed building in Port-au-Prince.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A pile of rubble is a pile of rubble, whether it is Lower Manhattan or central Port-au-Prince. As a New York rescue team combed the wreckage of last week’s earthquake in search of long-shot survivors on Monday, some said one particular past disaster — the collapsed World Trade Center towers — was not far back in their minds.
Twisted metal, piles of concrete, people clutching photographs of lost loved ones — reminders were all around for members of the team, New York Task Force 1, of that terrorist attack they had responded to more than eight years ago.
“I can’t forget the smell of death from New York,” said a 21-year veteran of the New York Fire Department. “And I can smell it right now. Sniff in the air. That’s it. Once it’s in your head it doesn’t come out.”
The firefighter, part of an 80-person urban search and rescue team that included firefighters, police officers and paramedics, all from New York, shook his head as he took in the damage all around. He had spent long days and nights at Ground Zero. He had pitched in during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, and he had responded to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
Port-au-Prince in 2010 stood out to him, though.
“At least in 9/11, you had a place to go to get away from the hole,” he said, preferring, like some others on the team, to speak anonymously in discussing personal feelings on such circumstances. “This is like 9/11 on the whole island of Manhattan. There’s nothing left. How are they going to come back after this? This place needs to be leveled. None of this is saveable.”
Looking at all the hungry people gathered around, he said: “Last time I’ll be throwing any food away at home. I’ll be looking at things a lot different when I get back.”
Hardened emergency responders, the police and firefighters said the location of the disaster and what caused it did not really affect the technical aspects of their job of extracting victims.
“No matter the cause, our training kicks in,” said James Cole, a New York City police detective. “It doesn’t matter if it’s manmade or natural. That’s not what it’s about for us.”
A 26-year veteran of the Fire Department, taking a break at a collapsed school on Monday, said there were moments when the specifics of a disaster fade away in his mind and his focus is as narrow as the tunnel he is squeezing through.
“When you have your head in the hole, you forget where you are,” he said. “You could be anywhere, really. And that person you’re looking for could be anywhere. It’s real simple though. You want to get them out alive.”
On four occasions, the New York team did just that. First, they recovered three victims from a collapsed supermarket. Later, they moved to a demolished police station and pulled out a Haitian officer who was still breathing. At a leveled technical college, nobody was found alive.
“It’s rewarding to come thousands of miles and save a life,” said Lt. Tom Donnelly, a firefighter.
Rescue workers from around the world were searching Port-au-Prince on Monday for any last survivors, sometimes clashing about which team ought to be in charge of what. But the international nature of the response made Detective Cole think of all the outpouring of support for New York after 9/11.
“After Sept. 11, the way the world reached out to us, we have an obligation now,” he said. “Even if Haiti didn’t send anything monetarily in 2001, I’m sure they sent their prayers to us and it’s our turn now.”
Source: By MARC LACEY