Sugar Grove emergency worker played key role at ground zero

  • Mike Fagel of Sugar Grove served with the rescue and recovery operations at the World Trade Center site.

    Mike Fagel of Sugar Grove served with the rescue and recovery operations at the World Trade Center site. Courtesy of Mike Fagel

Mike Fagel
Updated 9/11/2011 6:21 AM

FEMA reservist and Sugar Grove resident Mike Fagel was called upon to help organize the chaos of the rubble of the ruined towers. He was deployed Sept. 11, arrived Sept. 13 and stayed at ground zero through Christmas.

Ten years, what a difference.


The fateful day started as any other. We all heard of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center in New York City, and many had thought of it as an "accident." Then, in horror, we saw or heard of the second plane crashing into the other tower.

At that moment, history will show, the face of emergency services changed. There was no organization called Homeland Security in 2001 (it was created March 1, 2003).

I had been a member of the North Aurora Fire Protection District since 1975, working in emergency medical services, emergency planning and disaster preparedness. I have served as a reservist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency since 1995. My first deployment was the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995.

At 11 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, my pager went off and I was put on standby with travel orders forthcoming. I arrived at ground zero Sept. 13 and was assigned to Charles Blaich, the Fire Department of New York logistics chief. We were amid extreme and utter destruction, the likes of which I had never witnessed.

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Debris was piled as high as you could see: collapsed buildings, once 110 stories tall, reduced to piles of twisted steel, cement and billowing smoke.

The piles were tombs, final resting places of the souls that perished in this heinous attack on America and the free world.

As we know from that day's events, another attack occurred at the Pentagon and a jet that was potentially destined for the Capitol or White House was brought down near Shanksville, Pa., by the heroic efforts of the passengers and crew.

My task as I arrived Sept. 13 was to report to the FDNY command post and to meet the chief of logistical support. I first met Blaich and was told to "stick to me like glue."

We began by finding out what the various sectors' needs were for support that shift. Body bags, flags, saws, masks, staffing -- and that was just a small part.


After spending four or five 15-hour tours with Charlie and Lee, the chief's aide, we began working on strategies for equipment.

We had numerous ambulances from all over the states that just "showed up" with people wanting to start working. We had to very carefully control the units in and out of the scene.

One of the hundreds of other issues that came up was scene safety. Charlie knew that in my "previous life" I had been a safety officer for FEMA at disaster sites.

He told me after about the sixth day (they all blurred together) that I was now the Incident Command Safety officer for the site and would represent the FDNY's needs and concerns at the daily Headquarters Command briefings at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. at the Pier 92 headquarters.

These "pier" meetings were held with department heads and agency officials from each of the city departments on scene (public works, health, police, hospitals, mayor's office, etc.) plus the myriad federal agencies and departments. We had OSHA, EPA, Coast Guard, Army, Navy, Secret Service and FBI -- to name just a few -- of the more than 85 agencies from outside New York City involved on a minute-by-minute basis.

It was a constantly changing site, every moment a new challenge. The days and nights were endless, but we kept at it.

One of the saddest days was when 10 of us gathered to help develop the "transition" plan when the operation would move from rescues to recovery.

That changed the situation 10,000 percent. When the planning documents were completed and sent to the mayor's office for eventual implementation, the change on the week of Sept. 26 to phase out rescue and move to a recovery phase was very heavy indeed. I helped facilitate the discussions as we tried to maintain focus on the mission at hand.

We choked back tears (and a few fell) as we examined the actual facts that there could be no more live rescues or survivors after Day 16.

The document was not to be made public (that rescue would wind down) due to the fact that we thought that there could have been nearly 10,000 people still unaccounted for. It was, in effect, a "stark situational analysis" of where things were as the smoke and dust settled.

I went home in October and was called back to the site after four days. I stayed until Christmas.

As I close this short essay, I have much more I could say, but I will share with you a paragraph of a letter I received from Chief Blaich a year later.

In part: "A true professional, Mike Fagel arrived at FDNY WTC Incident Command Post on Duane Street, a short distance from ground zero, as chaos was still not contained. He organized, directed and cajoled until order again appeared in our health and safety efforts for the thousands of personnel struggling at rescuing the victims of 9/11. Many of the ground zero workers have their health still intact because of Mike's courage and efforts. The Fire Department was well served by Mike's courage and efforts. The Fire Department was well served by his knowledge and expertise."

Charles R. Blaich, Deputy Chief FDNY, & Logistics Chief, WTC ICP

That says it all, why I do what I did, and do what I do. Thank you, Charlie, for those kind words.

The events of 9/11 are in my mind every day, and for those lost and ill.

We all work for the common good for the people.