Taylor Fire Capt. Todd Yankauskas passes by the wreckage at Ground Zero three weeks after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
TAYLOR – The stories came first, then the images.
When Taylor Fire Capt. Todd Yankauskas first learned of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, the reports seemed to chronicle the end of the world.
The country was being invaded, he was told; more than 50,000 people in New York were killed, as was the president of the United States.
Maybe it was a language barrier.
On the day that defines a generation, Yankauskas and his wife, Mary, were overseas, searching for family history in Lithuania. It was a successful trip up to that point, having uncovered death certificates of some of his ancestors. They visited the landmark Hill of Crosses, which legend claims holds more than 100,000 crucifixes and icons.
“It started as a beautiful morning,” said Yankauskas, inspired by the sight of burial markings dating back thousands of years.
The day turned cloudy, and by early afternoon (in northern Europe) the rains began. Now drenched, Yankauskas and his wife hurried back to town. He parked near a war memorial of the Red Army, left his wife in the dry automobile while he ran down an alley to a small hotel.
Inside, five people sat watching a small, black-and-white television perched atop milk crates. From the initial images he saw, Yankauskas assumed it was a natural disaster unfolding.
“I thought it was a dust storm in India,” he remembered after seeing clouds of smoke pouring through city streets.
The next scenes clarified what he was witnessing.
“When I looked back again, they had the replay of one of the Towers falling,” he said. A week earlier, Yankauskas and his wife waited out a layover in Newark, N.J., taking in the view across the tarmac of lower Manhattan, a scene indelibly dominated by the Twin Towers. He’d been in New York before that, and on one trip took a long elevator ride to the top of the Trade Center for a senses-staggering view from 1,000 feet above ground.
In a European hotel lobby, Yankauskas was identified as American, and was told what — at least from their understanding — was being reported.
“They asked if I knew what happened, and said that my country was being invaded,” Yankauskas said. “They said that 50,000 people were killed in New York, and that the president had been killed.”
Yankauskas ran back to his wife and told her what little he knew. They found a phone, and eventually contacted the American Embassy.
“They told us to head toward Germany as soon as possible. Overnight, it seemed the world was at war,” he said of the trip from Lithuania. Military patrols were active, borders were barricaded and armed to the max. “We didn’t know what to think.”
They made it to Berlin in time for a ceremony honoring firefighters and responders, one of an unknown number of similar ceremonies held worldwide.
“They had a huge parade, must have been 100 fire trucks from the country going through the Brandenburg gate,” Yankauskas said. They could barely see the U.S. Embassy for the crowds and flags and banners; an entire neighborhood of Berliners singing “God Bless America.”
Sights and sounds
When commercial flights resumed, the Yankauskases headed home, a trip that again included a layover in New Jersey; the view a sobering reality with smoke still lingering atop Ground Zero.
Three weeks later, Yankauskas took a closer look at the wreckage. Along with two other volunteers from the Taylor Fire Department — James Ursitti and Antonio Dalleasandro — he joined an international pilgrimage of firefighters and countless others heading to New York to offer assistance. Many were quartered on Staten Island or in New Jersey, as the narrow confines of lower Manhattan could only accommodate so many volunteers.
Through a friend of Yankauskas’ father, the Taylor firefighters made contact with Engine Co. 33, stationed in the Bowery district in downtown Manhattan, less than two miles from Ground Zero. They joined the department for a week’s worth of recovery operations.
Yankauskas doesn’t recall — or share — details of whatever work they did.
“We were only there a short period of time,” he said. “All those other workers trying to find their brothers and loved ones; we can’t hold a stick to them.”
What stayed with him, however, were the images seen, sounds heard and sensations burned in memory. The heat, for one, was devastating: “You’d kneel on the ground and every few seconds have to reposition your knees,” he said. Salvage crews in earth-moving machines pulled enormous lengths of steel from the wreckage, the metal still smoldering. “The beams were white-hot, they would bend” when being removed from the pile.
Dust everywhere, in the air and blanketing Manhattan.
The safety of the firehouse offered little comfort. Paper littered bulletin boards with funeral announcements, posters throughout Manhattan begged for information of lost loved ones.
“They still had the daily roster for 9/11 on the board,” said Yankauskas, a mental picture matching images of lockers bearing names, helmets, personal items and photos.
There were sights, of people wandering Manhattan wearing masks against the perpetual cloud; there were sounds that sometimes fell silent, casting an eerie calm through the canyons of New York. There was the smell of disaster, of burning ash and more. The landscape was altered, with a hole in the sky and pieces of airplanes randomly seen littering the streets. At the pile there were attempts made to bring order, restore pride and dignity through the hanging of flags or welding of beams into a cross.
“We saw that soon after they discovered it,” Yankauskas said. “At the time I didn’t think much of it, now it’s become this famous piece of history.”
They worked, doing what they could, and in time headed home, leaving behind friends and firefighters whose grief was just beginning.
Memories and closure
Yankauskas was 31 when he volunteered to join fellow firefighters in New York, already a 12-year veteran of the Taylor Fire Department. The fire service was what he wanted out of life since he was 4 or 5 years old, and his experiences in the wake of 9/11 neither confirmed nor altered his calling. It was what he did, then and now, no matter the tragedies encountered.
“With those firemen in New York, my hat’s off to them,” Yankauskas said. “They went through hell that year, and some still are.” It’s a part of the job, albeit one seen in unprecedented levels on that Tuesday morning in 2001. People die in the arms of firefighters, children lose lives yet begun, and firefighters live with the memories.
“People don’t realize the stuff you go home with,” Yankauskas said. “When you see a little kid killed in the most tragic way, an accident or random car crash or fire. Guys bring that stuff home like soldiers do. It’s one of the unfortunate things we have to deal with.”
Much like 9/11 itself – a tragedy that a nation and world have to deal with and move on.
Yankauskas returned to New York several times, including a visit in October 2010 and the sight of the new Freedom Tower reaching slowly, defiantly skyward.
It’s a cliche, Yankauskas knows, but it remains crucial that 9/11 not become a lost memory.
“If we don’t learn, we’re bound to repeat it again,” he said. “It put a lot of things in perspective, and I understand why certain things happened. Unfortunately, a lot of good people got labeled. You don’t think rationally, and lump them all in one group.”
From Yankauskas’ perspective, the best closure to 9/11 would be if humanity learned a little more about the world around them.
“We need to educate people, educate ourselves and do it correctly,” he said. “If you don’t know what happened, you’ll just come to the wrong assumptions. Not all people are terrorists.”
(James Mitchell can be reached at [email protected].)