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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

At Ground Zero

Thursday, October 4, 2001

Chris Spiess was not in Manhattan when the World Trade Center was attacked, although on a normal day, he very well might have been.

The former Spencer resident didn't witness the horror as people scrambled to help the victims of the attack, only to become victims themselves when the Twin Towers collapsed.

It wasn't until two days after the biggest terrorist attack in world history that Spiess made it to Ground Zero to assist in the rescue and recovery effort. But, the scene at Ground Zero on the morning of September 11 plays through his mind on a daily basis, repeatedly, like horrific scenes in a movie.

"Every time I close my eyes, I see the Twin Towers collapsing," said Spiess, a 1992 graduate of Spencer High School. "People running, people jumping from the building...

"All the people that I recover, I see a body, but I don't see a face; just flashes of what happened."

And what happened on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, affected Spiess and his family on an intimate and personal level.

Hearing the News

Spiess, an iron worker in Manhattan, was on a bus leaving New York through the Lincoln Tunnel when the Port Authority Police closed it down. That was his first indication that something had happened.

"When I got through the tunnel, I heard the New Jersey Transit Dispatch say over the radio, 'All buses heading into Manhattan turn around. No one is allowed in the city. There was an accident,'" Spiess said.

The bus eventually dropped Spiess off at his car in New Jersey. He turned on the radio and that's when he first learned of what happened. Neither tower had collapsed at that point.

In the mean time, Spiess' wife, Dina, and their four-month-old son, Matthew, were at their home in Old Bridge, N.J. - 40 minutes from Manhattan.

Initially unaware of the situation, Dina received a hysterical phone call from a good family friend whose husband, Steve, worked on the 105th floor of World Trade Center One, the first tower that was attacked.

"He called his wife right after the first plane hit," said Spiess. "He told his wife that a bomb had hit - he didn't realize it was a plane - and said, 'All I see is black smoke. Call everyone you know and pray for me.'

"The phone went dead, and that's when the second plane hit."

Steve's wife immediately called Dina, said that her husband was in trouble and to pray for him, and hung up. In shock, Dina turned on the television to discover what had happened.

Spiess made it home in time to witness the first tower collapse.

"When I saw it on TV, my heart kind of stopped, and I felt like I was watching a movie, so to speak," he said. "It was unbelievable."

Soon after, the second tower came down. That was the tower Steve was in.

"(Steve) was probably the closest friend I've ever had," Spiess said. "He's still missing. I don't think he made it."

Gaining Clearance

In disaster situations, Spiess is a valuable man. He spent two and one-half years in the Navy where he served in the Persian Gulf and off the coast of Haiti. Since then, he has stayed active in the Navy Reserves.

Through the Navy, was also trained in fire fighting, and in 1996, he worked in the recovery efforts of the TWA Flight 800 disaster off the coast of New York.

So upon witnessing the World Trade Center disaster on television, the first place Spiess tried to call was his Navy unit. He couldn't get through to anyone.

"I couldn't call my family. I couldn't call Iowa. It just kept saying that all circuits were busy," Spiess said. "I actually got a phone call from my in-laws to find out that I was OK. And probably three hours later, I finally got through to my father at Eatons."

For the next two days, Spiess was back and forth on the phone with his Navy unit, which was put on alert.

"I was very frustrated sitting in my own living room and watching all this unfold because I knew with the training that I had and the experience I had doing recovery for TWA Flight 800, I was qualified to do the recovery," he said. "I was constantly on the phone with my unit trying to figure something out so I could help things."

It took two days, but Spiess was finally given clearance to go to Ground Zero.

Reacting to Ground Zero

"I've worked in Manhattan for how many years, and nothing looked familiar," Spiess said. "Every window in surrounding buildings were just shattered. Pieces of the World Trade Center were hanging on other buildings."

Spiess began work at Ground Zero on the rainy morning of Friday, Sept. 14. With his Navy unit, he worked for about five hours on a bucket brigade.

"That's what they call it when they fill up five-gallon buckets of debris and make an assembly line," Spies said. "If the dogs alerted for something, then there was an assembly line from wherever that was all the way down the block to start to recover the bodies."

From the time Spiess arrived on Friday, he worked for 30 hours straight. He said he didn't even realize it.

Several thousands of people work at Ground Zero at any time in the day, yet there was no talking beyond what was necessary, said Spiess.

He describes the site as enormous - "several football fields in size" - and covered with nothing by steel, mangled metal and powder.

"Friday morning, Ground Zero was still very, very hot," said Spiess. "Because of the rain, there was a lot of steam along with the smoke, and you couldn't really tell if the sun had come up that morning.

"It was so unreal. It felt like a movie set."

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