Victor Gonzalez, across the Hudson River from the southern tip of Manhattan, worked in the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center and is part of the rebuilding phase.
When the World Trade Center towers collapsed five years ago, Victor Gonzalez was on his way there within 24 hours, driving his flatbed loaded with rescue equipment and volunteering to do whatever he could to help. Shaken, he felt the heat of the flames and was covered in the ash and dust of the smoldering rubble as he helped rescuers desperately search for survivors.
Gonzalez went back to the site again and again, his flatbed part of the rebuilding that five years later has seen America rise from the rubble with the construction of a new 7 World Trade Center to replace the third building that fell that day. Since May of this year it has been alive with people and commerce, and Gonzalez helped build it.
As America put the nightmare of the attacks behind her and rose again, so did Gonzalez. “The memories are still there, but helping to rebuild what we lost, that felt good,” he says. “To go back to a place that was so terrible and be part of making it new, you feel you’re part of something special.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a company driver rolling into Manhattan called back to the Kearny, N.J., yard of L.J. Kennedy Trucking to say a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. In a field around the corner from the yard, employees looked out over the Hudson River and watched in horror as a second jumbo jet crash into the other tower.
Around midnight on 9/11 emergency management officials called L.J. Kennedy asking for help. Sensitive search and rescue equipment had been flown into McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., from California, and the government needed someone to haul it to the still-flaming, dust- and debris-choked scene of destruction in southern Manhattan.
Gonzalez, 36, volunteered himself and his tractor-trailer to do the job. Escorted by New Jersey state troopers, he hauled on a flatbed equipment that would be used to listen for sounds of life amidst the rubble and to sense places the rubble might collapse.
“We went to the command center, which was some distance from Ground Zero,” he says. “They asked if there was anybody who wanted to go all the way in. I said, ‘I’ll try.’ At that time we all hoped there’d be a lot of survivors, and I thought we could save people. We kept driving slower and closer looking for ways to get all the way.”
Gonzalez had to navigate through dust, smoke, ash and flaming debris, but he got support from the crowds along the way.
“All the way down to the site as we crept along, people in the streets were clapping and cheering, coming up to the truck and asking if they could help,” he says. “There was a feeling that no matter what had just happened to us, we were all together as Americans and we were already fighting back.”
Gonzalez unloaded the equipment, but he had to stay close in case it had to be moved.
“There were engineers trying to find out how stable the rubble was so they could see where I would take the flatbed,” he says. “But there weren’t many places they considered safe. One day President Bush came, so there was no way to move the trailer that day.”
Gonzalez stayed near Ground Zero for a week, living in his sleeper, helping any way he could, and feeling his mind and body collapsing under the ordeal.