The dust covered everything, Gary Hay remembers.
It blanketed the ground 4-5 inches and turned Lower Manhattan into a gloomy gray landscape for weeks.
“It was almost like you’d think you were walking on a movie set on the moon or something,” Hay, now 66, recalled. “It was just all the same color, from what I remember.”
For eight days in 2001, Hay would help brush that dust, clear the twisted metal of the Twin Towers and scour Ground Zero with his K-9, Freddy, for survivors.
His time at the collapse was captured in a photo and remains in IndyStar archives. Hay had never seen the photo, but it prompted memories of wrapping duct tape around his boots, strapping a helmet atop his “graying” hair and responding to his first disaster.
Each September, Hay said he thinks about his fellow Indiana Task Force 1 members who responded to New York City that day. And about the first responders at the scene, like “Jackie” — a medic who Hay said made a point to check on the team’s mental and emotional state. It’s a gesture that always doesn’t happen for first responders, especially when in the field.
This Sept. 11 marks 20 years since the U.S. went under an attack that sent Task Force 1 to the catastrophic scene. They arrived to remnants of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers that crumbled after terrorists hijacked two planes and flew them into the most notable buildings in the city’s skyline, killing some 2,750 people. Hijackers flew another airliner into the Pentagon that morning, leaving nearly 200 dead. Passengers aboard the fourth hijacked plane overthrew the terrorists and crashed the jet into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
Hay said he heard the attack unfold on the radio while on the road driving a semi truck for his business.
“I thought, ‘Gosh darn, we have to get deployed,’” he remembered thinking at the time. “We’ve got to be.”
About 50 miles from his South Bend home, he realized his pager died. Messages from anyone trying to reach him weren’t getting through.
He stopped at a post office where he could get phone reception and confirmed they were being deployed. His wife made the hour drive to meet him with Freddy. He and the yellow lab were then on their way to the Force’s biggest deployment to date.
Their first job: clear debris.
The groups cleared small areas to make way for excavation crews with heavy-duty equipment. It may not have seemed like the most Herculean task, a crew leader said, but it held importance.
“They said ‘We know this is not what you came here and expected to do, but step one is to make it safe so nobody else gets hurt,” Hay said. “And they jumped right in. There was no question about it. That’s the job. Let’s get it done.”
The group split into two teams working 12-hour shifts for four days.
After they cleared search areas, then came the body recovery.
Freddy was certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency only as a search dog to find survivors in collapsed structures, not dead people.
They still used him.
The yellow lab laid down three times — his signal when he detected a dead person — but Hay said crews led him to another area before learning whether his K-9 found a body.
“I felt like we went there and did the best we could. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anybody to save,” he said. “You knew there were all those dead people there but it wasn’t like the sight of them was all in front of you.”
Hay described the rubble as “horrible.” Rain made things worse. The mounds of metal they sometimes stood on would become slippery.
“But I think…most of us…were glad (we could help.)” he said. “So yes, you saw the American spirit come out.”
Every morning when the task force descended to what remained of the towers, hundreds of people lined the streets to cheer for them, no matter what time they went down.
“You knew you had a lot of support,” he said.
Hay is the only canine handler remaining on Indiana Task Force 1 who responded to Ground Zero. Freddy died from age-related health issues five years after they returned from New York.
Hay currently owns a black lab named Virgil and a yellow lab named Eddie. Both served as human remains detection dogs for FEMA.
In a pre-9/11 world, he remembers most of his deployments involving missing elderly or being on standby for the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta after a pipe bomb exploded, killing one woman and injuring 100 others.
Hay will never forget his first catastrophe.
“Something I remember,” he added. “Was just how everyone looked out for me — the civilian who never responded to a disaster.”
Contact Sarah Nelson at [email protected] or 317-503-7514.