By JANET METZNER AND ALAN OLSON
Wheeling News-Register and The Intelligencer
WHEELING, W.Va. — The surreal silence at Ground Zero was a phenomenon Wheeling firefighter Chuck Ransom said had a powerful effect on his career.
The destruction of the World Trade Center somehow had created a sound vacuum, with the layers of steel and rubble from the mall, floors of office space and more that had crashed maybe 10 stories below ground.
“Outside you would hear all the noises of the city, then when you were inside (Ground Zero), it was all quiet. You didn’t hear the regular city noises,” recalled Ransom, who worked as a volunteer firefighter in Wintersville on Sept. 11, 2001 and traveled with four other firefighters to New York to assist in the search and rescue effort.
Ransom and the other four firefighters brought infrared cameras and equipment that could be lowered into crevices to view or communicate. However, the response from around the country had been so overwhelming that there were too many firefighters on the scene for them to get very close to the action.
“We just headed home that night because there were just so many people up there,” Ransom recalled.
Ransom remembers being offered refreshments constantly while milling around the day after the attacks, with others offering their hospitality in any way they could.
“The local people were extremely hospitable, they were constantly bringing food, water, drinks around,” Ransom said. “We had one guy come to us and said, ‘If you guys need a shower, anything to eat, my house is right up there, you’re more than welcome to stay overnight.’ The hospitality of the citizens was extraordinary.”
Ransom, joined by several other firefighters, had made an overnight journey to Ground Zero on Sept. 12, 2001 to help in any way they could. Due to the chaos of the day, Ransom and his team did not see action, though they had made the drive to assist New York’s teams with search and rescue operations.
“When I was with Wintersville, we always wanted to go and do what we could. When 9/11 happened, it hit big just due to the magnitude,”Ransom said. “When I got to the firehouse that day, they were running numbers across the bottom of the TV, asking for help, and we tried calling, though we weren’t able to get through. So we just packed up some gear and headed up there that night. … (We were ready to do) anything they needed from us, but primarily search and rescue is what we were going up for.”
Now, Ground Zero is the site of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Thousands of people visit New York City each year to pay their respects on the anniversary of the attacks, and local firefighters are no exception.
In 2011, Ransom — who by then had joined the Wheeling Fire Department — made the trip to New York on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, before the memorial as it stands today was completed. He was joined by four other Wheeling firefighters, including Jason Milton.
Milton described the visit as one of the most powerful moments in his career.
“It was probably the most humbling off-duty firefighting experiences I’ve ever had,” Milton said. “It needed to be done. I’ll never forget it.”
On the 10th anniversary, Milton said the streets were crowded with first responders from all across the country who had made the same trip.
“We met guys from Miami to Chicago, a lot of bigger city departments, as well as departments smaller than we are,” Milton said. “There were a ton of departments there to represent, pay tribute and show their respects.”
Ransom said returning to the memorial a second time is something he’d like to do in the future.
“I have not made it up to the memorial itself, which wasn’t done at the time. … ,” he said. “It’s one of my things to do. I really want to go up there and see that — just haven’t made it up there yet.”
Ransom and Milton both spoke on the extraordinary generosity of the locals for their service — both during times of crisis and in times of remembrance.
“The biggest highlight, to me, was how well we were treated by not only New York City firefighters, but also by the residents,” Milton said. “Walking around in our (uniforms), people thanked us for coming up, and for what we do in our communities as well. We were welcomed with open arms. We visited a lot of firehouses. Every house that we visited, probably around 10, they all welcomed us, showed us around and treated us really well.”