Retired Firefighter Recalls 9/11 Horror at Ground Zero

Dan Horton was sent to New York City just days after the 9/11 attacks as part of FEMA’s rescue team.

For many who survived the 9/11 attacks 10 years ago, the images of charred faces and plumes of relentless smoke remain etched in their minds forever. But for retired Redwood City firefighter, Dan Horton, it’s the smell that brings him to the site of the World Trade Center.

“I’ll be somewhere doing something, traveling. And occasionally I’ll smell that smell somewhere,” Horton said.  “It’s a weird odor of cement dust and burning steel.”

The mixture blanketed nearly everything in sight for days, Horton said. It was an endless sea of gray, darkening the city and leaving a nation scarred by the magnanimity of such a tragedy.

“It was like a weird science fiction movie, with major areas of the city cordoned off and military at entrance points,” he said. “It was eerie.”

While chaos ensued around them, the military officers had to remain firm, with desperate family members begging anyone, “Have you seen my husband? Have you seen my daughter?” as they clung to photos of their beloved family members.


A Call to Duty

It was a typical day for then firefighter Dan Horton. He was on duty at the and turned on the TV to catch the morning news, like so many did that day.

But when one plane hit the tower, and then the other, there was no time to process what had just occurred.

As part of FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team, Horton was immediately notified that he was going to one of the sites that fell victim to the terrorist attacks. Which one, he didn’t know.

The first California team was deployed, then Horton and FEMA’s mobile team followed just six days after the attack. His destination: the World Trade Center.

But his wife, his children and his mother didn’t know where he ultimately was placed. When Horton was called for duty by FEMA, he became a federal employee and subject to silence about his exact location.

“I was anxious. There were a lot of emotions going on at the time,” said Horton’s wife, Elaine. “But I actually wanted him to go. That’s his job. As a firefighter’s wife, we know that.”

Though we can now look back at the attacks as countable incidents, Horton and his team had no idea whether they would face more attacks and destruction.

“We didn’t know if it was the beginning or the end,” the retired firefighter said. “Rumors were rampant. You didn’t know what was going on.”

But the responders were immediately shaken from the shock of the events and put to work, undertaking a seemingly infinite task that required a Herculean effort.

“You hear it all the time, but while everyone’s running out, firefighters are running in,” Elaine said.


Responding to Tragedy

The aftermath of the attack wasn’t just piles of rubble, Horton said. It was more comparable to mountains that the responders were expected to slowly chip away at. The rescue team was hopeful that there were still people trapped underground.

“The sheer size of the area of damage is unbelievable,” Horton said. “What you see on TV looks big and bad, but it was nothing compared to being there.”

Organizers had divided the area into four grids just to make the task a manageable job.

Working on the night team, Horton and his team created giant tunnels to forge through the piles of dirt and destruction for any sign that someone may be alive. He and hundreds of others would descend down a wooden ramp from one area of a mall courtyard and re-surface into a smaller office building.

But all they ever found were bits and remains of bodies hidden in the darkness of debris and marred metal, he said. 

Horton pauses as he remembers one day where they discovered a woman’s body at the foot of the ramp. She had been there the entire duration of their search, yet could not be seen with their feeble flashlights.

“We had been walking on this woman for three days,” Horton said. “Everyone felt like crap.”

Though Horton recalls the team’s professionalism of moving on and focusing on the task at hand, there was always a service for each body discovered. A reverend accompanied the responders down the mineshaft into a black abyss of metal and cement and dust.


A Life-Altering Experience

For many of us, 9/11 is an annual event that we recognize once September rolls around. We pause to reflect on the significant toll it has taken on our country, our government, the way we view the world, the way the world perceives the United States.

But for families, they live with the consequences of those terrorists’ actions every day.

“I was only there for 10 days, and returned to California, where everything almost seems perfect now,” Horton said. “But they’re still dealing with it over there [in New York.]”

And not all the horror and memories stayed in the piles of rubble for Californians.

Many firefighters and responders inherited respiratory problems from inhaling the bits of blackened dust and other gray matter into their lungs. Others also fell ill with pneumonia.

Horton said he had sinus issues for a few weeks after returning from New York. But there were some who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with the events seared into their brains.

Elaine added, “You look at the clock and it flashes 9:11, and you get flashbacks of that day.”

But both Dan and Elaine don’t dwell on the event, or let it run their lives, they said. Like so many others, they honor the fallen and the families who must confront the tragedy head-on every day.

This Saturday, the couple will participate in the second annual at .

Dan Horton said this was a tribute not meant to dampen the spirits of everyone participating, but an upbeat event for families to come together and keep the event at the forefront of people’s minds.


A Different New York

Horton hasn’t gone back to New York City since Sept. 11, 2001, not because of trauma, but just because there hasn’t been a convenient time to go. But after 32 years in the , he said he would love to visit if the opportunity were to arise.

“You always hear of rude New Yorkers, but everyone was great,” Horton said. “I’d definitely like to go back during happier times.”

No doubt it’s a cliché, but 9/11 serves for Horton and all Americans as a reminder of how much we should all appreciate what we have in our lives.

“In the blink of an eye, over 2,000 people were killed,” Horton said. “How does that translate into how many parents, children and families were affected? Enjoy your life, enjoy your friends, your family. They can be snatched away in an instant.”


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