Having worked at Ground Zero for nearly three weeks after the attacks, Whitley County Coroner Andy Croley has a little bit different perspective than most people when it comes to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It was a very sobering feeling,” Croley said about when he first arrived in New York and saw Ground Zero. “When I saw downtown for the first time – I had never been to New York City before – it was a shocker. There is no way to express the magnitude of what you are looking at. It looked like nothing I had ever seen.”
The 9/11 attacks happened before a time when everyone had smartphones giving them up to the second updates on pretty much everything.
Croley was at the radio station doing some public services announcements when he first learned about the attacks in a way different than most of us.
“They got a teletype of all things,” Croley recalled.
Soon after everyone at the radio station was tuning into The Today Show on television to see what was happening.
Less than one week after the 9/11 attack, Croley deployed to New York City to work at Ground Zero for about three weeks as part of a federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT).
The Disaster Mortuary Operation Response Team is a federal level response team designed to provide mortuary assistance for mass fatalities or cemetery related incidents. DMORT employs experts in just about every field and discipline: doctors, X-ray technicians,
investigators, nurses, funeral directors and embalmers, etc.
It was Croley’s first deployment with the group, which he joined in 1998 after hearing about one of its missions to Guam for an air crash.
It was also his first trip to New York City.
Croley recalls getting to New York City the first day about 3 p.m., and getting an orientation briefing about what he would be doing, what shift he would be working, where he would be staying, and how to get around while he was there.
There was a strong military, police and fire department presence at Ground Zero, which was still a rescue mission at the time.
Croley said his main job was to assist the medical examiner in helping to identify the victims of the attack. It was no easy task. Many of the remains were hard to get to or largely unidentifiable. The hours were long, usually 13 hours days, and there was little time for leisure.
Although he was about 500 yards away from a good spot to view the Statue of Liberty while he was there in 2001, Croley never laid eyes on it during that trip.
After he got back from New York City, Croley worked to get a piece of steel from the World Trade Center brought to Whitley County to serve as a memorial to 9/11.
Croley recalls that right after 9/11 occurred there was quite a bit of controversy about what would be done with the steel from the twin towers.
“As you can imagine, the families were very cautious on what was going to be done with the steel. They wanted to be sure that things were going to be done in a most respectful way. I knew certain fire departments and certain institutions and schools were getting pieces of the steel,” Croley said. “When I was down there I got to talk to quite a few people that worked in the mayor’s office. I was able to talk to the right people and said this is what I want.”
Croley said he ended up dealing largely with a gentleman affiliated with the Fire Department of New York, who one day informed him a piece was being shipped to him by truck.
Croley noted that most organizations getting pieces of steel were getting four-foot long sections, but he didn’t know what kind of piece he was going to get until it arrived.
“When they pulled up in a big truck, I was expecting a small piece that we could make something out of. When they pulled up they asked if we had a forklift. I said, ‘No, but we can get a couple of people here and we can lift it down.’ He said, ‘No you won’t,’” Croley recalled.
When he looked in the truck, there were two pieces of steel. One was a smaller three-foot long piece, but the one for Williamsburg was a much bigger and heavier.
Croley called William Bryant at W.D. Bryant & Son for help. Bryant came down, took a look at the piece of steel, laughed and said they would try to use a forklift to move the steel from the truck, but there was no guarantee the forklift would be able to lift the piece of hulking steel.
Bryant then got a forklift and equipped it with an extension to lift the steel out of the truck and then lowered it to the ground.
The more than 12-foot long, 2,200-pound shaft of marred steel now stands in front of the Hutton Building on the campus of the University of the Cumberlands.
“It is a unique piece of history,” Croley said noting that there is no way of knowing where the steel beam came from inside the 110-story building. “It could have been at the very top. It could have been at the very bottom. You just don’t know. Your mind just starts racing thinking about it.”
Croley added that when he looks at the memorial, it represents to him 20 years’ worth of change because of that day, and he doesn’t look for any of the changes to stop in the foreseeable future.
Back to New York
Later went back to New York City after 9/11.
“Since then, I have taken my children to the new Trade Center, and let them go in to see the artifacts. Now what is even more surreal is it is written in their history books that is hard to believe that things like that are now in history books when so much of that we lived it,” he noted.
One thing not lost on Croley is how the world has changed since the 9/11 attacks.
His children, one who is starting college this year and the other in high school, have never known a world where you didn’t have to pass through metal detectors to enter sporting events, or take off your shoes going through security at the airport.
After the attacks, Croley noted that words like terrorism, al-Qaida, and Osama Bin Laden took on very real meaning to him compared to how he viewed them before the attacks, which were just words that you read in the newspaper. By comparison, his children have grown up in a world where they are all too familiar with words and phrases, such as terrorism and terrorist acts.
Croley said that when he looks back on the attacks 20 years ago, the thing that strikes him was the unity of the country after the attacks.
“Everywhere you looked you would see American flags in front windows. You would see a lot of that. Patriotism was so overwhelming. I remember that to this day,” Croley noted. “I also remember being scared for a lot of the first responders and soldiers knowing that they were going to be doing a whole lot of other stuff.”
All told, 2,996 people died when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners on Tues., Sept. 11, 2001. Two were flown into New York’s World Trade Center builders, another crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth into a rural Pennsylvania field after passengers tried to seize control of it from hijackers.
Of those who died, 2,606 were in the World Trade Center towers or nearby when the attack happened. Many were first responders. Three hundred and forty-one firefighters died, 23 city police officers, 37 Port Authority police officers and two paramedics.