Hands on training
Verizon tech digs in at Ground Zero
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Nick Gerstle walked up to the three Marines, who were shrouded in smoke and standing around a lone, wiggling hand protruding from the rubble.
The hand belonged to a Port Authority police officer buried just a few hours earlier under smoldering debris from what once were the World Trade Center's twin towers. Thanks to a sturdy I-beam above, the officer said he had survived, but his partner might not.
On any other day, Gerstle would have been climbing poles and splicing telephone wires for Verizon. But this day, September 11, he found out how useful his hands really could be. He joined his new compatriots and dug in to the hot, glowing debris.
"I was scared, but at the same time there was so much camaraderie you didn't feel the fear," Gerstle said. "You're under the rubble, you hear the [police officers] saying, 'Don't let us die, don't let us die.' I'm thinking, 'I'm down here with you. If you go, we all go.'"
Professionals equipped with the tools and expertise for the delicate job came around noon and relieved Gerstle, who stayed to help before collapsing on a gurney.
Over the next few days, he found himself hospitalized, bonding with then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, being labeled a hero and, unable to fathom being anywhere else, back at Ground Zero.
"Before, I was just another person," Gerstle said. "Now I am a good person. If something happens, I know I have the guts to go in there and help."
Gerstle and other Verizon technicians spent months repairing telephone wires packaged in bundles, like these in the basement of the Verizon building at 140 Street, across from Ground Zero.
'You just did it'
No one told Gerstle to go the Ground Zero: In fact, his foreman told him to wait, watch TV and see whether the Red Cross needed help. But the brawny Gerstle went anyway.
"As [the subway from Brooklyn] went over the bridge, we saw the smoke billowing out from the towers," he said. "It was horrifying. People were looking at it in awe, crying."
Flashing his Verizon ID and touting his CPR certification, Gerstle shuffled through police barricades to a triage center near the Brooklyn Bridge. There he got a mask, heavy-duty gloves and a firefighter jacket at a Burger King-turned-rescue headquarters.
Gerstle walked up Broadway through 3 inches of soot, huddling with hundreds of firefighters and a small group of volunteers before finally reaching Ground Zero.
"There was no set thing in the area; it wasn't organized at all," he said. "Whatever you could find, whoever you could go in with, you just did it."
A half-hour later, Gerstle came across the three Marines and the two Port Authority police officers buried 15 feet under a tenuous mass of concrete, steel and assorted debris.
After hours of painstaking work by hundreds of people, both officers were later lifted to safety.
The recovery effort officially ended months ago but cranes continue to loom over Ground Zero on the eve of the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
Hospitals and honors
Gerstle began to feel nauseated and began gasping for air. "'Hey guy, you've got to get out of here," a fire lieutenant told him.
With that, Gerstle began stumbling out of the rubble, hurdling the wreckage and stopping twice for oxygen.
He reached a high point several blocks away and looked back. "There were firemen everywhere -- it was like looking down from a plane and seeing these little ants," said Gerstle. "It was a great feeling when I saw it."
Assisted by several firemen, Gerstle got down the hill where he was rushed to the hospital to treat him for smoke inhalation, burned lungs and a burned throat.
As he was leaving, he ran into the FDNY and NYPD commissioners as well as Giuliani. After hearing his story, Gerstle said the mayor pumped his hand and said, "Wow, you're a really great person."
Discharged at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Gerstle spent the night at his sister's house in Queens where he watched the rescue efforts. Early the next evening he returned to Ground Zero and stayed there until 6 the following morning.
Gerstle spent much of the next several months near the World Trade Center, this time for work, repairing thousands of downed telephone and cable lines.
The proximity to Ground Zero kept his September 11 memories fresh, as well as the lessons he learned that day.
"What I took away from this experience is, 'do whatever you can do to help,'" he said. "Just go."
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