Brooklyn Soldiers Risk Their Lives at World Trade Disaster
By Paul Morando
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORT HAMILTON, N.Y., Sept. 19, 2001 "Run! Run! The building is coming down!" Spc. Alex Brown screamed to the civilians he'd helped to evacuate the World Trade Center as chunks of the tower slammed down around them.
Spc. Alex Brown (left) and Sgt. 1st Class Michael Bernard were on the Brooklyn Bridge on their way to work Sept. 11, 2001, when they heard a loud explosion and then saw the World Trade Center north tower on fire. The two went to the scene to help in any way they could. Brown worked with medical teams on the street while Bernard went into the lobby of the south tower to help direct evacuation efforts. The two soldiers live at Fort Hamilton, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and are assigned to the 920th Transportation Company in Jersey City, N.J. Photo by Paul Morando.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
He grabbed two people and ran as the south tower collapsed before of his eyes.
"I briefly looked up at the tower and saw a large metal square falling right toward me -- and at that moment I shouted to everyone, and I began to run for my life, just trying to get out of the area," he said. While Brown narrowly escaped through the whirlwind of metal debris, smoke and glass, his friend, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Bernard was still inside the tower.
Around 8:30 on a typical Tuesday morning in New York City, the two Fort Hamilton residents, Brown and Bernard, had been crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on their way to work when tragedy struck.
Halfway over the bridge, they heard a loud boom, looked up and saw the north tower of the World Trade Center on fire. "We didn't know what was happening. We just figured we had to help somehow," said Bernard, a motor pool sergeant with the 920th Transportation Company in Jersey City, N.J.
Initially startled and confused, they drove on and finally became aware that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center buildings. They pulled over about two blocks away and walked toward the buildings. A few policemen were already on the scene and clearing the area.
"They were really glad that we came to help," said Brown, a records specialist with the 920th. "I began to grab people and push them away to safety."
With the trade center complex an urban battlefield of smoke, shattered glass and confused people, the two soldiers moved closer and closer to the towers, dodging the litter from the initial explosion. Amid all the mayhem and crashing debris, they became separated.
"At first I was directing injured folks to Brown at the triage center, but with all the confusion we lost sight of each other," Bernard said.
Brown remained outside at the temporary triage area while Bernard went inside the south tower to help evacuate people coming down the escalator from the first floor. At this moment, the second plane rammed through the south tower, forming a giant mushroom cloud. "The sound of the explosion was immense -- the force of it just about knocked me down," Brown recalled.
Bernard, through a haze of ash and debris, found himself in the lobby of the World Trade Center with police officers, emergency medical service workers and firemen, all helping to clear the building. About hour after the second plane crash, tragedy struck again.
"All of a sudden we saw people running outside, and we heard a loud rumble and realized that the building was collapsing over us," he said. "I just took off up the escalator as fast as I could and prayed."
He and the others ran and stood between a bank door that was made of stone and waited it out.
"I was taught in an anti-terrorism class that I took in April to find a doorway structure and get under it," Bernard said. Hunched over in a modified crash position, he thought he was never going to see his family again.
"It felt like the world was coming down on me," he recalled. "I said to myself, 'I am about to die."
Miraculously, a pocket of steel and stone formed, protecting him and the others from the crushing force of the building. He regrouped along with two female police officers, two firefighters and one security officer as they began looking for a way out.
It became dark, and the air was filled with thick dust and smoke. The only light came from the helmet of a firefighter who felt a breeze coming from the doorway to the outside as smoking debris continued to fall around them.
According to Bernard, one firefighter said he didn't think it was safe to go through the doorway area, but finally they linked together to form a human chain and emerged successfully outside.
When Bernard made it out of the building he saw something that would change his life even more. "There were bodies strewn across the street and cars burning. It looked like a war zone," he recalled.
"My first thought was to find Brown, but amid all the confusion and dust, it became impossible.
"People were running around all bloodied and screaming, so I tried to find a clear area toward Broadway, and that's when the second building collapsed, and the force knocked me down," he added. Covered in ash and realizing that his search for Brown was futile, he decided to get out.
Bruised and battered, Bernard struggled to safety covered in ash from head to toe and choking on the dust, and finally made his way to a more stable area. Scared, exhausted and wanting to see his family, he headed uptown to join hundreds of others to cross the Manhattan Bridge.
"I went halfway and sat down thinking that the bridge might blow up as well, and that I should try to get home some other way," he said. But he traveled on and made it to the Army's Times Plaza Recruiting Station in Brooklyn and then was transported to the VA hospital.
When the south tower collapsed, Brown fled the scene with flying glass and ash at his heels. He finally found a semi-safe area where he continued to help those in need of medical care. "We set up another triage center, and I continued to evacuate people away from the scene," he said.
Brown, who didn't know that Bernard was in the tower when it collapsed, was also watching for his sergeant. "It was impossible to see anything. All I kept thinking was that I hoped he made it out alive," he said. He also knew he needed medical attention.
Brown made his way across the Brooklyn Bridge, where he was picked up by a civilian and driven to Fort Hamilton. A military policeman escorted him right next door to the hospital where his friend was recovering from some minor injuries he had sustained. They had found each other.
"I was so happy to see him," said Bernard. "I was in the emergency room when he came in a wheelchair. It was amazing."
On that Tuesday morning that changed the world forever, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Bernard and Spc. Alex Brown might have stayed in the car and headed back to the safety of their homes at Fort Hamilton. Instead, they risked their lives during moments of the most epic disaster and proved heroes are not only made on the battlefield.
"We just felt that it was our job to help," Brown said.
(Paul Morando is a public affairs specialist who works for the U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Hamilton, N.Y.)