Steelman and Angeli: Search and rescue at ground zero
Lou Angeli is vice president and senior director/cameraman of Flirting with Disaster. He has received two Emmy awards for documentary videography. Angeli is also currently a Battalion Fire Chief with the Kennett Fire Department in suburban Philadelphia. Amy Steelman is a firefighter, filmmaker and writer who has devoted her career to being a firefighter advocate. She began her career in suburban Indianapolis as a firefighter and emergency medical technician. Steelman has developed feature segments for The Discovery Channel, Dateline NBC and Japanese Television. Angeli and Steelman are married.
Welcome to CNN.com Newsroom, Amy Steelman and Lou Angeli.
AMY STEELMAN: Thank you and hello to everybody that's joined us today.
CNN: Amy, please tell us where you are and what you are doing.
STEELMAN: We just finished up at ground zero. We were shooting some video. It's just a mess out there today. There's no organization. The firefighters are emotionally starting to "lose it." And that would be due to exhaustion, probably the inhalation of a lot of these chemicals in the air and frustration. And also today they posted a list of the firefighters, the rescue workers and EMS personnel and police that they have established were killed. A lot of the firefighters on ground zero today knew a lot of the names on the list. We've seen a lot of tears from hopelessness on their faces. In other words, their hope was to get in there and get some of these people out and unfortunately time and building construction and the entire incident worked against us.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How often are the rescuers and workers relieved?
STEELMAN: Really, there is no rhyme or reason on ground zero. It's whoever can make their way in. They stay as long as they can physically endure. No one appears to really have control of ground zero. That's perfectly all right, everyone's working together.
I would just like to see the firefighters and rescue workers work in shifts. There are plenty of us out here, not necessarily here at ground zero, but in the city. They are waiting! There are thousands of volunteers waiting to get close enough to help! They could be a relief system for those people in their working for as much as 12 or 48 hours. Organization doesn't seem to be an issue. The New York fire department is basically in control and then the volunteers work the circumference of ground zero. There's no arguing. There's no pulling of rank. There's an absolute beauty to they way they've adapted in working together.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are they still hearing tapping from under the debris?
STEELMAN: I have not heard a report of that today. That's not something I can answer at this time.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How long will the rescue effort be and when will recovery begin?
STEELMAN: That's a good question. If you're not here you just can't imagine the scope and the pile of debris that were once two 107-story buildings. They have so much painstaking work to do in removing the rubble. They have to be VERY careful. It's like a house of cards. The guys that do just the heavy machine operation are incredible. Their skill is just beyond words. It's an art form. As I said, this is a house of cards, and all of that rubble and some of these are tremendously large pieces of steel. They pluck them very carefully out and they set them down on safe ground, and they actually have to torch them into smaller pieces to get them off the scene. It's just going to remain that way for quite some time.
Hopefully, they'll open up an area where rescue workers can get in and search. But between the weather conditions, everything is trying to work against them at this point. The weather conditions make it more dangerous. The amount of time that has passed since this horrific incident took place. They're doing everything they can, and it's just so frustrating.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What about the asbestos that is reported to have been used in constructing the World Trade Center?
STEELMAN: I can tell you this much -- when we came back, we didn't even make it all the way back to the site yesterday before I ended up in the emergency room. I was not alone. There were several other firefighters in there with me who were having severe respiratory distress. They brought in one Federal Emergency Management Agency worker who was diagnosed as having pulmonary edema, which is fluid in the lungs. That's not uncommon after severe irritation.
You have to understand, after spending 12-15 hours at ground zero, the air in this area is very heavy, it's almost suffocating. After that amount of time, when you leave --- whether it's to go get something to eat or whether its just to get where there's clean air -- it feels almost as though... well there are just sharp shooting pains. It's almost like people think they are having a heart attack, and it's from all this stuff they are breathing in. It's definitely an issue that needs attention. These people working at the scene need to have better breathing protection. Let me get Lou and let you talk with him.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Have the building inspectors got any idea how many of the surrounding buildings might need to eventually come down?
LOU ANGELI: I believe that they are doing a very concerted or concise survey of all the surrounding buildings. I personally just evacuated with about 100 other firefighters from the Solomon Brothers Building -- the front of the building -- where large panes of glass were raining down on us. There were a number of survey teams surrounding the World Trade Center building and their purpose was to determine exactly that -- how stable the surrounding buildings were.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Have they used any type of heat-seeking devices to locate those who are still living?
ANGELI: They have not been able to use the high tech devices like listening devices, fiber optic cameras, nor the heat-seeking device. They are relying on literally thousands of firefighters who use five-gallon buckets and shovels to remove the debris. Here's an interesting add-on: The debris is taken to Staten Island where it is sifted through again. I did see a number of search and rescue dogs being used today for the first time.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there any real hope of finding the black boxes in the wreckage of the towers?
ANGELI: I think that's probably one of the goals of sifting through the debris rather than moving it in huge chunks. If you can imagine a stack of 110 pancakes, that's basically what the building is like now.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How many firefighters from other parts of the country are helping?
ANGELI: I estimated this morning about 3500 firefighters, and of those my guess is that 2500 were from other parts of the country. I met with firefighters from Riverside County, California. In addition I met with the United States Army Reserve team from Sacramento. There was a team of firefighters from Italy whose expertise was in earthquake work. Additionally thousands of volunteer firefighters from the east coast that have sent personnel.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are the rescuers pleased the president is coming, and will Bush be meeting some of the rescue workers?
ANGELI: I think that the rescue personnel are extremely focused on their mission. I don't think that they could care less that the president is here, to be quite honest. For them, this incident does not involve politics. It is much more emotional in that there are 5000 souls remaining in the building. It goes against the grain of firefighters to not have the capacity to do what they are trained to do. That is rescue. Searching and rescuing. The incident at WTC is now for the most part a mission of body recovery. It has become a much more somber place. I'm going to put Amy on so she can say her goodbyes.
CNN: Amy, do you have any final thoughts for us?
STEELMAN: Just for people to keep these thousands of volunteers in their hearts and their prayers and to not give up hope yet. One more thing. A tremendous thank you for the people of New York. They have been amazing in their generosity and their spirit.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today Amy Steelman and Lou Angeli.
STEELMAN: You're welcome. Thank you. Take care and God bless.
Amy Steelman and Lou Angeli joined CNN.com Newsroom via telephone from the disaster site in New York. CNN provided a typist for them. This is an edited transcript of the chat which took place on Friday, September 14, 2001.
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