Holly — Eighteen years have passed since Sept. 11, 2001, when the terrorist organization al-Qaeda flew two planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks.
While the initial shockwaves were felt the hardest on site, the actions of that day transcend time and distance.
Holly lacrosse coach Jay Reynolds, 44, traveled to New York City to aid in recovery work shortly before midnight on Sept. 11, just hours after the attack. At the time, Reynolds was a public safety officer with the Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Department (BHPSD) and a volunteer firefighter with the Troy Fire Department.
“It’s kind of like one of those moments, I think, like your parents remember when Kennedy was assassinated. It’s one of those moments that’s etched and burned into your mind,” he said.
Reynolds learned about the attack like most Americans — from the news on TV. He was told their tactical special response unit was needed. For four days in 12-hour shifts, his team was bused to Ground Zero.
“The very first time we arrived there, we were anxious, we were nervous but yet there was this adrenaline flow that went through you. We were ready to get to work,” he said. “As soon as we got closer and closer, I remember my feelings watching it from afar, watching the cloud that everyone got to see on TV,” he said. “When you were there, you were like, ‘that’s just burning.’ As a fireman, you want to be able to solve that problem.”
Reynolds was on a team that did search and rescue, search and recovery, and surveying for the Army Board of Engineers. They also aided the military and volunteers from a nursing staff.
He was on one of many “bucket brigades.”
“We had to sort through things bit by bit and we did not have access to the heavy equipment due to the rubble and piles that we worked on top of,” he said.
A line of firefighters would pass five-gallon buckets full of rubble to clear the area.
“When you were there, you saw nothing bigger than a shoe … everything was the size of today’s iPhone. Iron, rubble, concrete,” he said. “It was either permanently affixed to the ground and burned into the ground, and/or we removed it with a five-gallon bucket.”
He describes the experience as “surreal.”
“At age 24, being there, you are hopeful you can be able to provide whatever was necessary at the time. There’s periods where you were scared. There were periods when you were really proud. Adrenaline-filled would probably be one of the words,” he said, adding that the 12-hour shifts felt like five-minute days.
Reynolds owns an album with dozens of on-the-ground photos. Some are panoramas, showing the destruction after the attacks, and some are of Reynolds and other responders, sitting on the buses, riding into the city.
The photos themselves are a story. During a search and rescue mission beneath World Center One, responders discovered a store which contained disposable cameras. They used these Kodak instant cameras to take these shots.
“We didn’t have cell phones to take pictures back then,” he said. “The book is just a firsthand look of what firefighters saw walking through the streets everyday, where they were, walking on top of the piles.”
The experience was also somber.
“When you rode the buses in and out every day, it was a somber feeling. I don’t want to say you were at a funeral...but you had to work and you had to get through it,” he said. “You were exhausted by the end of the day, but you never wanted to stop working. The work ethic was always there.”
He carries this work ethic with him today with his coaching. Reynolds doesn’t talk about his Sept. 11 experience with his athletes unless asked.
“I got to see some of the worst things that we’ve ever seen as a nation, and I always get to see the positive things with the kids and today. To me, they’re my reason for doing what I do,” he said.
When asked how he’s seen America change these past 18 years, Reynolds said there’s more of an effort to protect our borders and protect the freedoms of independence, while still ensuring that local events and public places are protected.
“I think it’s still a fine line that needs to be worked out. From a law enforcement perspective, it seems like common sense that we could solve some of these problems. I think when politics get involved and what our politicians have to do, it’s still complicated to this day compared to what we faced at 9/11,” he said.
While on scene, first responders had to climb over rubble and pieces of concrete. In one area, there was a hole with a board laid across it for people to walk on. However, people often fell and became trapped in the hole.
At one point, Reynolds recalled hearing the chants of “U.S.A.” after a responder was rescued from the hole.
“The hairs on the back of your neck, your heart beat a lot faster, and you just wanted to keep working,” he said, likening it to hearing crowds chant for their favorite team at a game. “But there’s never been a feeling in my heart or in my mind when you've watched the fact that everyone was here in one of America's worst moments, and there’s this eeriness of that chant ‘U.S.A.’ that I will never get out of my head. It was a very proud moment.”
He remembers seeing hundreds of American flags during those four days.
“There was utter chaos around you for the most part, and you see the American flag and you see the pride of why you’re here and what you’re working for and the people that are around you,” he said.
On the way out of Ground Zero on the buses, people would line the streets, holding signs that say “thank you.”
Many first responders who helped on Sept. 11 have experienced health issues related to the site. Reynolds said Bloomfied provides yearly free testing for the firefighters who went and helped. This includes heavy metals testing for their blood. He said he has not experienced health issues related to the event.
One issue Reynolds sees is how first responders are treated today.
He said the people who helped after Sept. 11 are seen as heroes, but today they get a “worse rap” in the media, and “It’s almost like a 180-degree swing.”
He said some people call police the “bad guys,” yet the police will be the ones to help in a situation like Sept. 11.
“These are the people that will run in while everyone’s running out,” he said. “We do this at football games, we do this every year at 9/11 where we kind of recall what America wants to call ‘heroes’ even though none of these people that were there would ever consider themselves a hero. They’re the exact same people we see on the streets today, wearing the exact same uniforms.”