9/11 in Remembrance

Working at Ground Zero.
The following account documents Missouri REALTOR® Tony Mathis’ selfless journey to NYC just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

Tony Mathis (L) and Ryan Hunt pause during their labors at Ground Zero last September, where they volunteered with the Red Cross, and later as metalworkers.
      From the moment REALTOR® Tony Mathis heard the news of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, he knew he had to go and lend a helping hand. He called his wife Dana, “I’ve been talking to Ryan…”

“You’re going to New York, aren’t you?” she responded. It really came as no surprise to Dana. After all, he had traveled to Oklahoma City after the bombing of the federal building to assist the Red Cross in their relief efforts there.

Mathis prepared for his trip by gathering information and investigating Web sites, notably the Red Cross Web site. He made a list of supplies needed by workers at Ground Zero workers. Along with business partner Ryan Hunt (the two own a lawn care and landscaping service), they loaded up Mathis’ SUV with $500 worth of supplies, left their home in Joplin, Mo., and headed for New York.

Each taking intervals of four-hour shifts at the wheel, Mathis and Hunt arrived in Manhattan on Tuesday, Sept. 18. They were immediately directed to the Jacob Javitz Center, a massive exposition center that was transformed into a relief collection facility. The two were awed by the sheer amount of supplies donated. The facility resembled a huge warehouse. Shelf upon shelf was piled with boots, hardhats, gloves, filtration masks – all manner of construction and survival gear.

By the time Mathis and Hunt arrived at the staging area near Ground Zero, so many volunteers had entered the work area that officials were forced to place restrictions on the number of volunteers allowed to enter the site. Undaunted by the restrictions, the duo assisted the Red Cross with food distribution, as well as handed out supplies to weary workers returning from their daunting 12-hour shifts.

Three days after arriving and ten days after the terrorist attack, Mathis and Hunt befriended a group of iron workers. Upon sharing accounts, Hunt mentioned he had welding experience. The iron workers promptly asked the two to join the iron workers on their shift, starting at 6 o’clock that evening.

After boarding the shuttle to Ground Zero, Mathis and Hunt had to pass through four checkpoints manned by different security organizations: FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the Army Police, the New York City Police and finally the National Guard. Although the two lacked the required red “hangtag” identification tags, they were permitted entry after producing their driver’s licenses at each stop. (The hangtag ID color changed frequently for security reasons.)

The first sight that greeted Tony and Ryan was a long, sinuous procession of emergency vehicles, each prepared to comfort the next volunteer stricken with dehydration, heat exhaustion or sleep deprivation. Such were the conditions at Ground Zero. Such were the efforts of the volunteers.

Upon arrival at Ground Zero, the two immediately noticed a change in temperature. The smoldering pile of rubble from the World Trade Center collapse created odd weather conditions. It was often as much as 15 degrees warmer at Ground Zero than at the Javitz Center, a mere two miles away. Many workers, either so determined in their efforts or simply too exhausted to notice, collapsed from dehydration. It was here Mathis met one fireman who had worked 96 hours straight.

Just beyond the seemingly unending line of emergency vehicles rose a pile of rubble 30 stories high and six blocks long. Mathis and Hunt were directed to the work site of a 12-story section of Tower One that had fallen sideways. The atmosphere was tense but charged with activity. Each worker was solemnly aware: They were there at their own risk. A warning system alerted workers of danger. One horn indicated falling debris, two horns indicated a building was falling and called for immediate evacuation.

Mathis and Hunt spent the night shoveling debris into large paint buckets. A brigade worked in a steady procession, emptying buckets into waiting trucks, which in turn hauled the debris to a waste site. The work teams toiled for hours clearing dirt, metal and glass shards and small beams from around massive steel beams. When they had finally carried away as much debris from around the girders as possible, a crane was summoned to remove the beams. Iron workers drilled holes in each end of a beam, hooked the holes, and moved the beam out of the way. One beam removed -- how many more to go? It was slow, tedious work -- especially after being up since 6 a.m.

Across the street from the wreckage stood rows of booths, much like concession stands at a fair. Here, workers could gain respite, sustenance and their wind after long hours of tedious and dangerous work. They also found almost anything they needed: food, grooming supplies and clothing -- and everything was free. The Spirit Cruise ship (a New York Harbor tourist ferry) had docked and opened its facilities to provide free gourmet meals to the laborers. Families of the victims lined the street holding signs that expressed their thanks to all the volunteers. Mathis and Hunt were overwhelmed by the outpouring of generosity at every turn.

After the long arduous night’s work, the two grabbed a quick nap and headed back to Missouri. Mathis’ busy real estate practice and Hunt’s lawn care clients forced them to cut their trip short. Nonetheless, the experience, efforts – and emotions – clearly changed their lives.

Mathis didn’t go to Ground Zero for the publicity. He went out of a commitment to others. He went out of an inherent sense of duty. He went to set an example and make a lasting impression. According to Mathis, “I wanted to leave a legacy of caring for my son, and hopefully see him follow in my footsteps when he grows up."

Tony Mathis is a REALTOR® with Charles Burt, Inc., REALTORS in Joplin, Mo.

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