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9/11, Ground Zero Rescue Mission Remembered by New West County Fire Chief

On the eleventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, West County's newly named Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes shares his experience of a rescue mission at Ground Zero so Americans never forget the loss suffered that day.

Ernie Rhodes was name the new fire chief of  last week. He brings extensive experience with him to the new position, including 32 years in the fire service.

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Rhodes also brings memories of the horrific Sept. 11, 2011 terrorist attacks. He was deployed to Ground Zero to assist after the World Trade Center attacks, where he worked for ten days assisting with search and rescue efforts.

"I was deployed the day of the attack about an hour and half after the attack," Rhodes explains. 

Rhodes was a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Specialist assigned to a reconnaissance squad that searched for signs of trapped survivors.

Although Tuesday marks the eleventh anniversary of the attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 lives, Rhodes said he remembers the day, his mission and the devastation like it was yesterday.

"To me it seems like it really was yesterday. It's so imprinted in my mind. It still bothers me," Rhodes tells Town and Country - Manchester Patch as he chokes up. "It was the human suffering. It was the seeing the people looking for their families. It was really hard."

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He said that even now, it's hard to talk about, but he does talk about it this time each year so people remember what our country went through.

"I don't want people to forget how many people died there," Rhodes tells Patch. "I still need to speak about it because if you don't speak about it, people forget," 

When Rhodes arrived in New York, his squad could not even access Ground Zero by any type of vehicle. He said the crowds, the traffic and confusion simply made it impossible.

"We couldn't get down to Ground Zero by vehicle because New York, the city, was just out of control. Not as in lawless, but the traffic jams were phenomenal. People were walking everywhere," Rhodes explained.

He and others were brought into the city by river boats.

"When we got off the boat...It looked like Armageddon. It looked like volcanic ash all over everything. There were two or three inches of paper and dust and debris over everything. It looked like the end of the world. I'll never forget that."

Another memory he'll never forget was the feeling of instability in the area.

"The crowd was just all over the place. The volatility of the crowd was an immediate concern. The crowd stampeded and we were like, 'Oh my God, we're going to get trampled to death.' It could give, panic and movement at any given moment. It's something you're never prepared for."

However, as we've seen in news clips and heard time and time again, Rhodes and other rescue workers disregarded their own safety in an effort to try and save the lives of others. Rhodes' mission was to search for "patients." He worked with K9s on a search and rescue mission for survivors.

"We worked hard and we didn't find anybody alive," an emotional Rhodes tells Patch. "The damage was just tremendous." 

So was the emotional toll the task of searching for bodies took on many of those who helped during the search and recovery efforts.

"I remember seeing the brother firefighters who were retrieving their friends and their brothers. It was very emotional, very sad. I mean, I could almost cry now," Rhodes said. "To see it on television, it doesn't do it justice at all. I can say it was the worst thing I can ever imagine, and if you have any doubts on how bad it was, if you think it was bad, it was 100 times worse." 

Rhodes said it was his training in the fire service that kicked in and forced him to work through the devastation, a mission that impacted the rest of his life.

"I'm a seasoned firefighter and paramedic. I've seen a lot of really sick people. I've pulled people out of cars that were trapped. I've seen a lot, but to see the carnage, I remember thinking , 'OK, this is the big game,'" Rhodes explained. "You think you got it bad, you should have been there. You should have seen the people looking for their loved ones. I took from that, 'Rhodes, you don't have any problems, you got to go and you got to make it better. It was a huge turning point for my career."

He said such a great loss made him realize he wanted to make a great difference. It made him wonder what he was waiting for and made him realize it was time to act in his own life.

"You need to go make a difference and make the world a better place. A little over a year later I got the job (as fire chief) at St. Charles Fire Department," Rhodes explained.

Tuesday's anniversary evokes different emotions within different people and it may have a different significance to different people, but as Rhodes thinks back, he shares what he hopes others will remember as we move forward.

"Never forget, never forget that a lot of people died," he said. "We can't forget that we were attacked. Bad things happened that day. We can't forget that we're a good nation, a strong nation and we can't let it happen again."

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