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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

At Ground Zero

Monday, October 8, 2001

According to area native Chris Spiess, the bodies of firemen can be identified the easiest at Ground Zero in New York City.

Spiess said that unlike the other victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the firemen all wore serial numbers on their gear which could quickly be identified. Others are going to be more difficult.

"The civilians are totally, totally unrecognizable," said a somber Spiess. "It's to the point where you don't know whether they're male or female."

And each time they find another body, Spiess said, the hope of a live rescue, which still drives the thousands at Ground Zero every day, takes another hit.

Spiess, a 1992 graduate of Spencer High School, is a Manhattan iron worker who has been working with the clean-up and recovery efforts at Ground Zero since the Friday following the disaster.

He originally gained clearance to the area through his Navy Reserve unit, but has since been working 16- to 17-hour days as an ironworker with his local union.

"After two days with my (Navy) unit, my local union, the Ironworkers, were looking for experienced men to go down and work the cranes and start working with the iron because at that point most of the rescue operation was at a standstill because they couldn't get the iron off," Spiess said.

It is speculated that there was approximately 300,000 tons of steel in each of the Twin Towers. Two weeks after Sept. 11, the top of the pile of steel was still 150 degrees, and even hotter further down in the wreckage.

"The other side of the tower was still well above 1,500 degrees and the steel was actually melting," Spiess said. "It was like a volcano erupted."

Spiess said that for about four days straight, bodies would be discovered under each column he and his crew removed from the pile.

"I started to become numb to what I was seeing," he said. "I had to. I don't know how you could work there unless you detached yourself from the situation."

But sometimes, Spiess discovered, detachment isn't always possible.

Hitting Close to Home

During his two and one-half years as a full-time Navy enlisted man, Spiess trained in fire fighting.

"It was an adrenaline rush for me," he said. "It was a lot of fun for me, and fighting fires, I enjoy doing."

So for the past eight years, Spiess has wanted to become a New York firefighter. He loves iron working, and the money's good in that field of work, but his desire to fight fires is too great to ignore.

Recovering the bodies of firefighters at Ground Zero hasn't changed Spiess' desire to become one himself, he said. One recovery, however, hit him close to home.

Five days into his work at Ground Zero, Spiess came across the body of a firefighter under some wreckage.

"He was face-down like he was running away from the building as it collapsed," Spiess said. "And when we uncovered him and turned him over, he was holding a child underneath him.

"My wife and my child were the first things that flashed in my head as I unburied him."

Spiess and his wife of over three years, Dina Marie, have a four-month-old son named Matthew.

"Of all the things I've seen and dealt with, that was probably the toughest thing I have ever had to deal with in my entire life," said Spiess. "I took the following day off because I was shook up."

From Rescue to Recovery

Spiess admits the diminishing hope of rescue is slowly taking its toll on the thousands who are lending a hand at Ground Zero.

Even taking a break to eat something is sometimes difficult.

"As you sit to eat, you would maybe get six bites of food and maybe some water, and you would start to feel guilty because you're eating and the rest of the thousands are out there working," Spiess said.

And within the thousands working, anxiety is slowly setting in.

"I have to be honest. There is some tension building," Spiess said. "There's an edge that everybody's riding right now, and I think a lot of people have put pressure on themselves because they know that time is running out.

"Everybody's goal is to rescue all 6,300 people, if possible."

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