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Local members of Ohio Task Force One, Sen. Rob Portman recall 9/11 and the days that followed

WCPO photographer Michael Benedic spent two weeks at ground zero rescuing survivors
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Posted at 12:18 PM, Sep 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-10 09:21:41-04

CINCINNATI — While most people watched what unfolded on 9/11 from their homes or places of work, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, was sitting in the White House.

"I will never forget what happened that day," Portman said.

Portman, then a U.S. Representative, said he has two distinct memories.

The first was a meeting in the White House.

"We looked up the TV screen. The second plane hit," Portman said. "At that point, we knew this was war. I went to get my car to get back to the Capitol and saw the black smoke coming up in the Pentagon. And Jane was with me. My wife was with me."

The couple decided Portman would stay in Washington, D.C., but his wife needed to get back to Cincinnati as fast as possible to be with their young children. That brought him to his second memory.

"She got the last rental car out of Washington, Enterprise rental car," he said. "We drove out to the suburbs to get it. She took off for home to be with the kids. And while she was driving to Pennsylvania, Ohio Task Force One, which is an urban search-and-rescue team right here in Southwestern Ohio — Dayton, Cincinnati — were streaming down the highway, rushing to the danger. I was so proud. She told me that these Ohio guys, many who I know, were heading to New York."

Twenty years later, that memory is still an emotional one for the senator.

Ohio Task Force One Remembers . . .

The day of the attack, and those that followed, are also emotional times for seven local members of the 12-member Ohio Task Force One crew.

"We got deployed at like noon on that day," Ed Thomas said. "We were in an information blackout."

Thomas, along with Grant Light, Mike Lotz, David Pickering, Mike Cayse, WCPO photographer Michael Benedic and Greg Morris spent more than two weeks at Ground Zero in Manhattan to try to rescue survivors.

The seven had never sat down together and talked about their time in New York before now.

"The American public knew more about what was going on than we did," Mike Cayse said of going into New York immediately after the attack on the Twin Towers.

Grant Light added, "We were on the pile less than 24 hours after the first plane hit the tower."

Mike Lotz recalled his feelings as he went to work going through the towers' rubble, hoping to save lives.

"I don't think it was fear as much as apprehension on, 'I hope we do this right,' you know?" Lotz said.

David Pickering said he and his crew had no idea what the devastation they were entering looked like before arrival.

"All the pictures and images that you saw on the TV, we didn't get to see; we were traveling," Pickering said. "So we really had no insight as to how big...the scope of the operation that we were about to undertake."

Benedic said, looking back, what others did see on TV could not fully convey the scope of the destruction onsite.

"I don't think television ever did it justice, that that pile was so huge," the news photographer said.

Morris added, "We had a job. But I think, to some extent, we still felt helpless, too. I mean, you've got this literal mountain of rubble, and there is only so much you can do so quickly."

"It was just overwhelming," Cayse said. "You had to take a moment just to let it catch you. Everything was turned to powder."

Lotz recalled no chairs or desks or recognizable items in the debris when he arrived at Ground Zero.

And as the Ohio Task Force One crew began to dig into that rubble . . .

"(It) was very disheartening to know that we were not having good luck, and nobody was having good luck on the pile finding survivors," Cayse said.

But, he continued, "there was always that chance, right? That's why you were there...for that chance, and maybe, you know, you'll pull off that miracle where you'll, you know, move this piece or cut into this wall, and there'll be somebody on the other side," Lotz added.

Thomas recalled the one thing that kept him going, as the days of combing through rubble went on, was hope.

"It wears on you, but you keep doing your job with the hope that, you know, today may be the day — when you knew, as time went on, the chances of that was diminished," he said.

Pickering said memories stay with him to this day of the people most directly affected by the attack while he was there.

"We would go down to the pile every day, and the streets would be lined with people holding signs and giving us water, or family members looking for somebody that was missing. I mean, I don't know how many flyers I was given," Pickering said.

Benedic said he remembers the crowds of people looking for loved ones, too.

"Thank God I never had anybody give me a flyer because I probably would have lost it at that point," Benedic said. "Because it was so emotional seeing these people. And they're and they were cheering us on."

Thomas said the experience of being a rescuer after the attacks changed him forever.

"We dropped everything we were doing, left our families, you know, our wives, our kids to go to a job that we had trained for, and with no hesitation," he said. "And that's one of the things, you know, I love these guys 'til I die. I look at it as our generation's Pearl Harbor. And I'm proud to have been part of that and we share a bond that you won't be able to ever break."

Thomas said he does not view himself as a hero, though...

"We were glad we were there," he said. "We were proud to be there. We did what we were asked to do, we did as best as we could. But I don't think that's a 'heroes' thing, right? The guys who went up in those towers — the firemen and policemen and whoever went up in those towers — those guys were the heroes."

Benedic agreed.

"We were able to do something," he said. "We perform a function. But I don't...see that as being, you know," he paused. "I felt a little guilty having that."

Looking back, Morris said he believes there are bigger lessons to draw from the days following the 9/11 attacks that took his team to New York.

"I look back to that period of time. There was a definite unification of the country at that period of time," he said. "We're not there right now. And I think, if anything, we should look back and remember those who were the heroes, but we should also look back and say what brought us together as a country? And how can we, you know, how can we remember that?"