Ten years after Sept. 11, 2001, Dan Eckstein can still remember the memorials — the sight of thousands of posters and notes with MISSING, COME HOME plastered all over New York City.
Eckstein, of Payson, was on one of the only commercial flights the day after the attack, joining thousands of emergency personnel in the city.
Eckstein recalls some of the more poignant moments he witnessed in the 34 days he spent just a few miles from Ground Zero helping others rebuild a country — from President George Bush’s pledge to rescuers that the U.S. would fight back against terrorism to the outpouring of support and supplies that flooded in overwhelming even the convention center.
Like most people, Eckstein was getting ready for the start of a new day — watching the news on TV from home.
At 8:46 a.m., Eckstein watched the first plane fly into the World Trade Center. Almost instantly, Eckstein knew his emergency unit would be called to help. Although 2,300 miles away from the scene, the Southwest Incident Management Team (SIMT), a group that helps on disasters of all types, was next up on the national rotation list.
Eckstein’s instincts were right.
“I saw what happened that morning and in less than a hour later I got a call.”
The Southwest team, a type 1, responds to critical and complex incidents, from fires to floods and hurricanes.
The group help with various planning, logistics, finance, clean up and rescue worker support efforts.
The team was coming off a busy fire season in 2000 and 2001, with Eckstein working with the air attack crew, monitoring wildfires from the sky and coordinating water drops.
Eckstein started with the incident management team in 2000, with 27 years of fighting forest fires under his belt.
Eckstein had worked with several outside agencies since starting with the Payson Heli Attack crew, but had never worked with an agency in New York. At the time, the New York Fire Department had its own incident management system and had not yet adopted the now widely used Incident Command System. According to some sources, the NYFD had limited experience in interagency operations and now had an onslaught of help from around the country that it badly needed. It would take months of continuous operation to get things under control.
Although the Eckstein’s air attack experience was not needed at Ground Zero, his experience managing teams and organizing supplies was.
Eckstein drove to Albuquerque where he met up with 50 other rescuers, some from California’s incident management team (IMT) and others from the Southwest team.
Van Bateman headed up Eckstein’s team while Steve Gage, oversaw the California group.
At 2 a.m. on Sept. 12, the teams flew out on a charter aircraft, the sole commercial flight in the U.S.
Security thoroughly searched the team and an armed federal marshal on board wasn’t the only thing watching over them. F-16s escorted the plane to the ground when it landed in Baltimore to drop the California team off for rescue and recovery work at the Pentagon.
Eckstein’s team flew on to New York.
“I felt shock and this sickening, unbelieving feeling that this all could be happening,” he said, “But I was glad to go help.”
Flying into a deserted LaGuardia Airport, where only a few workers remained, a sobering feeling settled over him.
The group was eventually brought to the Javits Convention Center, a large glass building on the west side of Manhattan converted to hold workers and a steady stream of incoming supplies.
“Our role was to support them (rescuers),” he said. “We had a job to do, so we did what we could to make sure search and rescue teams got what they needed.”
On one of the handful of times Eckstein went to Ground Zero to deliver supplies, he saw a large rollout Dumpster with airplane parts sticking out of it. All around was a thick layer of dust, debris, and an indescribable stench.
But beyond the overwhelming devastation, “what affected me more than even Ground Zero was all the makeshift memorials around Manhattan,” he said. “There were pictures that said, “Daddy we love you, please come home soon.”
Although there was great grief, there was also a sense of camaraderie in the city — most prominently displayed through the flag.
“I never saw so many American flags in all my life,” Eckstein said. “Everyone was flying the flag.”
Everyone extended a helping hand to help pull the city through.
When President George Bush visited workers at the Javits Center, Eckstein said everyone felt even more united.
After 34 12-hour days, Eckstein came home to Payson.
The Southwest team stayed on in New York for 60 days, with an Alaska team later relieving them.
Ten years later, Eckstein says he can still remember it all like it happened yesterday. And one of the best things to come out of it was a new partnership with New York responders.
Their IMT now responds to disasters in the Southwest, including large forest fires like the Wallow Fire.
Even though he officially retired as assistant fire manager in August 2010, Eckstein still helps out on forest fires, flying all over the Southwest this past week supporting battling the flames.
Eckstien’s story of 9/11 is just one among many. If you know someone directly involved or impacted by the event, like Sheri and Mark Cloudt of Payson, whose son, Skylar Clinton Cloudt, was standing outside the Pentagon when the plane collided, e-mail your story by Monday to editor@
payson.com for publication next week.