Greensboro to Ground Zero

Greensboro to Ground Zero

Part of the Volvo team delivering much-needed dump trucks to the site of the World Trade Center attack, Randy Bolinger preserved his personal reactions to this life-changing event with the following first-person account. On the day of the attack, Leif Johansson, president of AB Volvo, had a letter hand-delivered to N.Y.C. Mayor Rudy Giuliani offering Volvo and Mack trucks and construction equipment

Part of the Volvo team delivering much-needed dump trucks to the site of the World Trade Center attack, Randy Bolinger preserved his personal reactions to this life-changing event with the following first-person account.

On the day of the attack, Leif Johansson, president of AB Volvo, had a letter hand-delivered to N.Y.C. Mayor Rudy Giuliani offering Volvo and Mack trucks and construction equipment “whenever and wherever needed to assist New York City.” Two days later, Bolinger and four other Volvo Trucks of North America employees drove four VHD show trucks with dump bodies from the company headquarters in Greensboro, NC, to N.Y.C., where they were immediately loaded with debris at the rescue site.

What follows is Bolinger’s journal of those events, a record, he says, written to help him remember the rush of events and emotions in the years to come.

9/10 Monday began the way most do, kiss my wife Susan goodbye and head for the office. My workday would be slightly different since I scheduled the newspaper to interview our new president. Prior to the interview, I started my daily routine - log on to the network, read and respond to as many e-mails messages as possible, compare my mental "to do list" with my list of projects for the day and balance of the week. Everything was as I expected, the only item not accounted for was mental note to pick-up my Tuxedo from the cleaners for the "Black Tie" dinner my wife and I planned to attend Tuesday night.

9/11 Tuesday started off slightly more painfully. I say that tongue in cheek because I had a dentist appointment. Although not the optimal start to a long day, an 8:00 appointment meant that I would not loose much time at the office.

Shortly after nine, while writing a memo, a colleague informed me that "two planes hit the twins towers". As I made our way down to the lobby to watch live CNN coverage, many thoughts began racing through my mind. Being an aviator, I was particularly curious how not one, but two aircraft could venture so dramatically off course. And, if they were off course, certainly instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) must have obscured the buildings. I knew that the Empire State building was once struck by a B-25 six decades ago under similar circumstances - it could happen again I supposed.

Ironically, I am intimately familiar with the New York Class B airspace having flown cargo into Teterboro many times - how could this happen? All flight within New York Class B airspace is governed by strict routes - the slightest deviation of heading or altitude would be immediate cause for alarm for a controller. The only uncontrolled airspace in the area is a narrow low altitude visual flight rules (VFR) corridor above the Hudson River. Still, whether VFR or IFR conditions, a New York controller certainly would not allow much deviation to go unchecked - how could this to happen? Simple instructions like "turn 30 degrees right" or "climb and maintain 3,000 feet" could have avoided any controlled flight into the obstruction. Perhaps it was a flight of two military aircraft on an instrument military training route that strayed off course, switched to the wrong UHF frequency under an intense cockpit workload and could not be contacted to avoid impact.

Before I could conjure up another possible scenario, the short walk to the lobby deposited me squarely in front of the large flat screen television mounted on the wall. The image was immediately and disturbingly clear. The sky was clear, one aircraft already impacted one tower, then 18 minutes later, a second commercial aircraft banked and made its final approach to its fatal impact on the second tower with near surgical precision. Then minutes later, while watching replays of the New York City calamity, reports began to filter in about an attack on the Pentagon. I wanted to believe that this was some hoax of H.G. Wells' design and proportion - it was not. Now fear began to settle in as others, who assembled in the lobby, surmised aloud that this might be the handiwork of Osama Bin-Laden, sworn enemy of the United States. My terror welled from the thought that if attacks continued to occur at half-hour intervals - it was going to be a long and costly day.

I attempted to regain my focus and salvage some semblance of a normal business day. However, since my job is public relations, I did not have the luxury of immersing myself in my work to divert my attention. My search for information to brief others was, at this point futile. It seemed as though everyone on the planet who did not have access to a television was on the Internet. All of the news web sites were locked up - I couldn't even get an outside phone line or complete a cellular call to our public relations agency before 10:30 a.m. I eventually managed to get some information from the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) web site and a local web site. Still, far and away CNN was the best and most credible source of the latest developments.

It pains me to realize that the blessing/curse of this age of technology is that we are unwitting voyeurs empowered to watch world events unfold live. The danger in this phenomena is that our popular culture (video games, action movies, crime dramas, history channels, etc.) has numbed our senses to a point that we can watch tragedy strike - in emotionless replay after replay - never realizing that innocent people have perished before our eyes. The remainder of the day was lost to the unproductivity of a mind distracted. All I wanted to do was to go home and be with my wife - unfortunately the pressure to remain at the office prevailed almost as long as it does on a "normal" day. Needless to say, the charity "Black Tie" affair was canceled. Thus I spent a somber evening in denial with Susan and stayed up until midnight watching coverage in disbelief and hoping that the attacks had ceased - for now.

9/12 Wednesday I donned my American flag necktie, usually reserved for Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Flag Day and drove to work. As I passed the airport, my thoughts again turned to aviation. I heard the idea tossed around at work on Tuesday that Greensboro could have been on the list of potential targets because of the large fuel farm near the airport. I had not realized that this was more than a fuel farm - it is a fuel distribution point that allows the precious fluid to feed the southeastern states. Destruction of this target would paralyze air and ground transportation indefinitely. Fact or fiction, achieving this nefarious goal would be relatively easy since the proximity of the fuel farm lies within the approach path of both runway 32 and runway 23. No flying bomb would even give the appearance of being off course until it was too late.

Upon arriving at work, I noticed the American flag draped motionless at half-staff in the early morning Piedmont calm. Although expected, it struck me as unusual because the flags of Sweden, Canada and Mexico were at their normal proud position atop their respective poles. This sight made me uncomfortable for reasons I had yet to identify. Later as I walked to another building on campus (approximately 8:30) I observed the international flags had been lowered to half-staff. At that point, I realized why I had felt the initial discomfort. I was disturbed because this tragedy is not an American tragedy; it is a tragedy of global proportion and implication.

America is more than a crucial cog in the global economy. America, like our policies or not, has positioned ourselves as the watchdog of the Earth. As the sole remaining superpower, who else rushes to the aid of weaker countries being assaulted by splinter factions? Who else has the resources and compassion to be able to intervene and assist countries that have not existed long enough to be on the latest version of a globe or atlas? Agree with American foreign policy or not - who can deny the good that we do as Americans far exceeds or shortcomings. Who routinely lends aid to others? If not us (U.S.), than whom?

Midmorning now and a copy of a letter from the Volvo chairman to New York City Mayor, Rudy Giuliani graces the screen of my monitor. Coincidentally, our chairman was in the Manhattan office Tuesday when the attacks occurred. His sincere letter to the mayor offers whatever support Volvo is capable of providing in the form of trucks and construction equipment. I feel a sense of pride in my company and read the next e-mail.

At home, I settled in for another long evening of surfing news coverage. At this point, I only wanted to hear some good news. I anxiously waited for stories of heroism, courage and sacrifice. Hopefully word of survivor recovery would also be forthcoming - it was not.

9/13 Thursday morning I am pulled into a meeting with a colleague who has the foresight to realize that no one has truly "championed" the logistics and finances necessary to make the offer to provide construction equipment and trucks a reality once the mayor of New York City accepts. By the time I am involved, there is already a logically developed and viable solution to the generous offer of our chairman. But I still felt hollow, because there is nothing tangible I can identify as a resident of Greensboro and an employee of Volvo Trucks that demonstrates compassion for our fellow Americans in their time of need. Our offer to host a blood drive was respectfully declined by the American Red Cross due to an over supply of blood - this is unfortunately not good news because the only sense that made to me meant that there may be more fatalities than injuries.

Then suddenly an idea - a light goes on. Perhaps not a bright one, but I am fortunate enough to work with brilliant people who often turn up my dimmer switch up to enhance my wattage. Why don't we send up the dump trucks that are sitting behind our technical center before the city gets organized enough to ask for them? Granted these are beautiful show-quality trucks and perhaps don't even meet New York State bridge formula requirements - but each one is a fully functional dump truck. I suggested we send them up to New York, and park them at a local dealership so they are nearby when the mayor accepts our chairman's offer. At the very least, these trucks would be a good stop gap measure for the city until we cross all the Ts and dot all the Is should Mayor Giuliani accept the offer.

The idea of sending trucks from Greensboro (North Carolina) built momentum like a roller coaster that just crested the first pinnacle. A process was set into motion that could not be stopped. The local Kernersville (North Carolina) Volvo Truck dealer who vowed to "do whatever it takes to have them ready to roll on time" prepared the trucks for the trip. Fellow employees with commercial driver's licenses (CDL) volunteered to make the 10-hour drive. People were making phone calls, making arrangements, sweating the details and turning this generous paper offer into an act of corporate compassion that everyone in the Triad could point to and be proud of. We, residents of the Piedmont Triad, can be forever proud of the fact that we helped our fellow Americans in a very real way in their hour of need. This was not about Volvo, it was not about being a good corporate citizen, it was not about public relations or selling trucks - it was about being American. And in the true American spirit, it was the faceless people who got things done behind the scenes in spite of insurmountable odds - the same people who don't want to be recognized for what they have done because in their eyes, it was not anything special, it was just what you do when someone needs help. The thanks for them was in knowing that the efforts to get these trucks to New York City in a timely fashion may save a life.

By the close of business today, the trucks were scheduled to leave Friday at 8:00 a.m. Again, a sense of pride rushed in as I thought about what these show trucks were built for versus the noble cause they would be christened for. I realized that the offer made by our chairman was a truly sincere offer - these show trucks could have been individually crafted from solid bars of gold and it would have made no difference. The sacrifice of these trucks meant little to Volvo in the grand scheme of things - it may be a matter of life and death to someone who has already been trapped in the smoldering rubble since Tuesday morning.

9/14 Here it was Friday morning 8:00 a.m., the proposed departure time - we missed it like Babe Ruth swinging for the fence. The good news was we already hit the home run, we were just a little slow running the bases. Nonetheless, a crowd of well-wishers continued to build for our departure. Last minute details and adjustments, the obligatory photographs, choke down a breakfast biscuit and we were northbound. The trucks never looked better - and remember these were show trucks. The finishing touches were magnetic flags on the doors (that were made overnight), and flags attached to the windows (that were obtained in another county due to the recent flood of patriotism). Inside one of the trucks was a poster signed by the children at Our Lady of Grace for the volunteers in New York City. Cheers filled the air as the truck rolled - diesel fuel never smelled so good.

We were approximately 30 miles south of Roanoke (Virginia) and making good time when a call from our lead vehicle informed us that the Virginia Highway Patrol would extend "professional courtesy if we didn't get carried away". They also gave us the green light to pass through the scales without stopping. The word of our mission would be passed to patrolmen north so our passage to the West Virginia border would be smooth and uneventful. Twenty-five miles south of Roanoke, we blurred past the familiar brown and yellow Crowne Victoria of the Virginia Highway Patrol. The initial sinking feeling I got in the pit of my stomach from passing the patrolman at our indicated airspeed instantly transported me back to the summer of 1992 - the year a friend and I competed in the "unofficial and unsanctioned" Cannonball. "I hope he got the word" I said aloud to myself in the chase vehicle.

For hours I monitored two short wave radios, juggled calls from work on the cellular phone and listened to talk radio for the latest developments. This circus was punctuated by the welcome sight of American flags that adorned virtually every overpass. I tried to snap as many pictures as possible for posterity while following the last truck in line. More calls over the cell phone and short wave radios. Good news - Mayor Giuliani contacted Volvo and requested 50 more dump trucks as soon as possible. Interesting developments - Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) called to inform us that we will not be depositing the trucks at the local dealership - they need them at Ground Zero as quickly as we can get them there. Bad news - rumor has it that "Ground Zero" is declared a war zone and we will have to decide as individuals if we choose to enter or not - our health insurance and life insurance may be void upon entering the area. Lots of time to ponder the late breaking developments on a 600-mile trip.

A quick stop to update log books and check the operation of the various dump bodies. We discussed the war zone issue; the decision to continue on as planned was unanimous and instantaneous. Before we departed the rest area, a fellow trucker asked to purchase one of our window flags - he had been unable to locate one and was willing to pay $20 for just one of our already tattered $3 flags.

More hours under my belt and the images that will define our generation are everywhere. A white Chevy pick-up truck passed with "God Bless America" in electrical tape on the tailgate. At mile marker 46.8 of Interstate 78, a digital highway overpass sign read "Proud to be an AMERICAN". At 7:00 p.m. some people were standing on an overpass next to an American flag holding candles - two cars pulled to the shoulder of the road with the occupants out holding candles and pointing flashlights skyward. We were only a few short miles from the New York border.

After crossing the Goethals Bridge, we regrouped and picked-up the police escort - courtesy of the New York City Police Department. Their assistance and authorized use of the makeshift emergency vehicle lane ensured expeditious passage for the final 30 mile trip to Ground Zero. The sunset in my rear view mirror was beauty that only God's hand could have created. The fire in the sky settled into the lush green trees painted on the brilliant blue pallet. This image conjured thoughts of a soothing fire that provides warmth, comfort and promise of a bright tomorrow. How different the image would be in a few short miles.

From the top of the Verrazano Bridge, I got my first glimpse of the city. The strange glow that silhouetted the city was caused by the intensely harsh portable, generator-powered lights that illuminated the smoke emanating from Ground Zero. It looked like the backlit set of some Broadway play - a pIay set in New York before the Twin Towers graced the sky. I rolled my window down and actually smelled the smoke on the Manhattan side of the bridge as our circuitous route through Manhattan began. A final call from our lead vehicle to "get our heads together." Someone of us had grown up in a time devoid of the gruesome carnage of war and there was probably a sense that nothing could prepare us for what we were about to see.

The NYPD escort deposited us at the first checkpoint. From this point forward the only people we would see were there to play some role in rescue and recovery of the more that 4,700 still missing. We passed the checkpoint, entered the tunnel and stopped at a checkpoint on the other side. It was all so surreal from this point forward. Everyone on that side of the tunnel was wearing respirators. As I rolled my window down to talk to the policeman, I heard the familiar sound of F-16s on station overhead. The smell of smoke was pervasive - dust everywhere.

We began our final approach to Ground Zero - Church and Fulton Streets. The route took us past a variety of mangled and ash covered vehicles. Even blocks away, the ash cloud from the devastation had permeated everything with a pasty gray coating reminiscent to the fall-out from the Mount Saint Helen's volcanic eruption. Much of the ash had been reduced by the day's rain - reduced but not removed. The resultant mud was the consistency of dry wall joint compound formed by blending water, ash and asbestos dust.

At Ground Zero now and the trucks were being positioned to be loaded with debris - it has been a long day - driving, processing, praying - everything except eating. I parked on the sidewalk between two police vehicles, assuming that the building I was under was stable. As I walked to the intersection, I turned and looked back at the truck. I wondered why I had been permitted to park a perfectly clean van with out-of-state license plates only 30' feet away from Ground Zero - did this not look strangely out of place to all the law enforcement people at the scene? I pondered how easily a terrorist could have done the same thing. I did not even look like everyone else - I had no hard hat, no respirator, no NYPD, NYFD, FBI, FEMA, EMS or any other of the familiar blue identifying wind breakers - just a white golf shirt - was this strangely obvious and disconcerting only to me? Not a single person checked my identification - as the last vehicle in a convoy, I simply stated "I'm with them" and was granted unmolested passage to the scene of the crime.

I stood at the corner of Church Street amongst the firemen, policemen, EMS and construction workers taking in the scope of the devastation for the first time - live and in person. Television (and my photographs) clearly could not give an adequate measurement of the depth, or should I say height of the whole scale destruction. The rubble pile was huge. The plume of smoke was massive and fires flared up when oxygen was introduced as debris was removed. All around me were emergency workers trying to catch some sleep amidst the noise. They slept with their respirators and goggles on - another collapse would surely catch them off guard. Behind me, on a pile of debris, were boxes of cookies, candy bars - food everywhere. An actress from the popular television series E.R. walked past handing out turkey sandwiches - no takers.

I looked to my right as the sea of uniforms began to part, I saw the helmets of five firemen heading in my direction. I stepped back to let them pass - four of them were carrying a green body bag - the stench of the decaying flesh was pungent. At that moment I identified the other smell mingling among the smoke and diesel fuel. I paused and remember the times I had been in the World Trade Center and said to myself "there but for the Grace of God go I".

I walked around the corner past the morgue and watched our show trucks get christened with the debris of terrorism. This imagery was in stark contrast - shiny new show trucks in the foreground of one of mankind's greatest accomplishments reduced to a smoldering scrap heap. As I snapped a photograph of the trucks on site for those back in Greensboro, more excitement unfolded. A cadaver dog was brought in for another recovery. The dogs feet appeared to be badly cut as evidenced by the blood soaked bandages. I imaged these canine rescue workers without the benefit of work boots in the hostile environment of the sharp metal, jagged glass and burning debris. I had no business here, I offered nothing to the recovery effort, so I walked back up Church Street.

As I looked at the windows that remained in tact at street level, I noticed an interesting site. First, the windows looked like the soaped windows of a strip mall that had gone out of business. Next, they were covered with hand written messages in the dust: Rescue - Recover - Rebuild, R.I.P. 9/11/01, John 3:16, Steel Workers Union 7503, Vengeance is Thine, God Bless America, Reopening Soon....... As I got closer, I saw cracks in the building foundation and support. If this building did not collapse on its own, it would need to be demolished - the side that faced the Twin Towers was completely riddled with holes and broken glass the likes of which I had only seen on the History Channel about war torn Europe in the 1940s.

Looking up, I noticed the fire escapes of adjacent buildings. Each escape was completely full of debris from the fall-out of the tower collapse - paper everywhere, on every fire escape, on every floor, in every directions for blocks. Across the street from where I parked rested the remains of a car that had not been removed for some reason. It is only useful as a place to stack a pallet of bottled water.

The trucks were all loaded and we began to egress. A few turns around Ground Zero, to get back to the tunnel - we passed a soup kitchen, the morgue, a burned out and crushed hulk of a NYFD ambulance and macabre collection of NYC taxis and NYPD patrol cars stacked on top of each other. I looked to my right and saw a vacant lot or playground that hosted another collection of cars, trucks and emergency vehicles, perhaps 100 or more, stacked and awaiting the scarp yard. The sidewalk in front of the cars was littered with pallets of bottled water, shrink-wrapped but covered with dust. I was certain the taste of dust was inconsequential to the folks working here, as most of them had probably tasted it since Tuesday anyway.

As we prepared to enter the tunnel, a gentleman ran up and requested a ride back to Staten Island. I obliged since the dumping site for the debris was a Staten Island landfill and he assured me I could drop him on the way. His name was Stuart and he was working for AT&T in the 6th floor basement of Tower One when the first plane impacted the building. He added new insight into the developments of the week and gave a New Yorkers perspective on the events. He managed to get 40 blocks away before Tower Two collapsed.

Forty-five minutes later, our convoy arrived at the landfill. Eventually we got through the scales, passed the various FBI checkpoints and found ourselves atop the landfill. The same style generator powered portable lights at Ground Zero illuminated various areas of the landfill. They revealed a small village of Army tents and vehicles that appeared to provide some level of comfort for those who pulled the unpleasant landfill duty. The loads were dumped in a tightly choreographed manner - one load at a time. Once the load hit the ground, a flock of seagulls descended upon it to scour and forage. But oddly, these were not your run-of-the-mill landfill seagulls looking for a meal - they were actually FBI agents dressed in white biohazard suits. They had the unpleasant task of pawing through the debris piece by piece to search for any shred of evidence. The tedious process took hours to complete. Anything that was deemed potential evidence was removed and taken to another site for future investigation. At the rate of one load every five hours (from loading at Ground Zero to returning to Ground Zero) it became obvious this recovery would last for months. We parked the trucks for the night, piled in the van and headed for the city.

By 1:00 a.m. we were on our way back to the hotel. We passed a candle light vigil at a park at 42nd Street and Avenue of the Americas. We checked into the Sheraton on 8th Avenue and began our search for dinner - which ended up being a $20 Ruben at the famous Carnagy Deli that was large enough to feed a small village for a week. After dinner, we agreed to meet at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast and I trekked to my room on the 23rd floor. Before retiring, I did something I have never done in twenty years of business travel - I familiarized myself on the fire escape route of the hotel using the information posted on the back of the door. I realized my world had forever changed.

9/15 Six-thiry arrived earlier than it normally did somehow. I caught the morning news while I got ready. Nothing "bad" happened over night. They were turning volunteers and sightseers away today. Later in the clean-up process they would need volunteers, however each would need to be 17 years old, weigh at least 110 pounds and could not have tattoos or pierced body parts. They did not need any more bottled water, but would accept donations of work boots (size 10 and larger), socks, leather work gloves, hard-hats, goggles, respirators, Pedigree dog food, dog booties and money.

On the elevator ride to the lobby, I found myself looking at the shoes of the other man sharing the ride down. I was looking for the white mud on his shoes - the telltale sign of someone who had been to Ground Zero. His shoes were clean, perhaps he had been spared the unpleasantness of it all. Our group reconvened in the hotel restaurant for some quick sustenance. All appeared quasi-normal as we planned our day. Some would stay to volunteer and continue operating the dump trucks until reinforcements arrived - others needed to return to Greensboro. Suddenly, without warning a deafening noise caught us off guard and unnerved us. "My God what was that"? The ear piercing sound of a motorcycle with a loud after market exhaust racing down the street below made us all think for a moment that something disastrous was about to happen. I realized my world had forever changed.

Since I do not have a CDL, my value here was limited now that the trucks were here. Unfortunately, I was ready to begin the long journey back to Greensboro in the chase vehicle. Upon checking out, I asked for a local street map. The clerk handed me a map of Manhattan dated September 2001. I looked inside to see the Twin Towers standing proudly on the southern tip of the island and mentioned to my friend that next month - the map would be different. In fact everything would be different, post cards, advertisement on buses, cheesy tourist trinkets all now increased in value from yard sale trash to family heirloom.

As we exited the city, I noticed how few trucks were going in to Ground Zero. Truly there was a shortage of trucks - so the 50 Volvo would donate would play a significant role in the rescue and recovery efforts. The trip was long and uneventful, I snapped many photographs of flags on overpasses, joked with my friend and tried to get some sleep. At one point on Interstate 95 in Virginia, we saw a huge fire, we immediately thought it was the Pentagon - it was not but I realized my world had changed forever.

Upon arriving in Greensboro, I switched vehicles and headed for home, I was already missing the first day of a two day church retreat I had anticipated for a long time. Driving north past the airport, I turned on my hand-held aviation radio. In the air I use this radio as a triple redundant communication link in the event of an avionics or electrical failure. On the ground, I monitor traffic out of envy for those in the air. I dialed in the Automated Terminal Information Service (ATIS) for Greensboro. It all seemed routine at first. Greensboro automated terminal information service...23:55 - clear...wind - 010 at 15...visibility - 10...altimeter - 30.12...notices to airmen...all VFR general aviation operations canceled until further notice. I realized my life had changed forever.

Finally arriving home, things seemed normal. I began capturing these thoughts as a means of processing the events of the week. I know that someday I will need to explain this to my children and grand children. I will have to explain that things are as they are because of what happened to the United States on September 11, 2001.

Susan walked in the door, having left the church retreat early to come home to see me - all seems right when we are together.

9/16 After yet another night of too little sleep, Susan and I drove to King (North Carolina) to be with those we care for deeply - friends in our church family on a weekend retreat. Many were aware that I missed Saturday to go to New York. The timing of the retreat was planned months in advance - the topic was developed Wednesday night in the wake of this horrific tragedy. As we worshipped outdoors in absolute peace, I lost my focus for a moment. I found myself staring at the remnants of a campfire. All that remained identifiable from its original form was a singular piece of wood with a few small embers clinging to life. As I watched the tiny ribbon of smoke it released, I thought about how different the imagery was from just a few short hours ago. The sights, the smells, the sounds could not have been any more dichotomous. Although it was finally good to be home, I realized my life had changed forever.

God Speed and God Bless America.

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