Riverside County Fire Battalion Chief Steven Beach works in Lake Elsinore, separated by more than 2,700 miles from Manhattan, New York.
But as he detailed his remembrances in a heartfelt slide presentation Tuesday evening at the Wildomar City Council chambers, it was as if he was still there as one of the first search-and-rescue responders sent to the national tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was at home flipping the television channels, watching the events unfold in New York. And by 9:15 a.m., our team was fully alerted to become operational and make plans to depart,” he said.
California Task Force 6 congregated in Riverside and began to load the three semi-trailer trucks with their ready-gear, initially unsure as to their means of transportation to the East Coast.
Because all flights in the continental United States were grounded following the attacks, the only flights remaining with clearance were those belong to the military.
A March Air Reserve Base unit flight became available. And the total personnel compliment of 70 began loading a C-141 departing from the base at 9:00 p.m., but not before receiving a special greeting from the aircraft’s pilot.
“The reserve duty pilot told us he was proud to fly us as he was a full-time American Airlines pilot in civilian life, and, oh, by the way, he added, we will have a fighter escort during our entire flight,” Beach said.
Landing at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey at 5:00 a.m. Sept. 12, Beach and his team convoyed into New York, moving aside crushed and mangled autos to make their way to the Javitz Convention Center.
“It was still chaos that morning, and my first glimpse of the rubble pile will be with me always. It looked like a large psychedelic ant hill with New Yorkers in all kinds of dress and color all holding Home Depot buckets trying to help,” he said.
To affect their search and rescue operations effectively, a base of operation became essential. The team forced entry into and commandeered a local gymnasium, the Dolphin Fitness Club, in lower Manhattan.
By the second day of their imposed 24-hour operation, Beach and his team were becoming frustrated as they couldn’t penetrate the rubble and get underground.
“We kept finding nothing, kept finding nothing,” Beach explained.
Because no living survivors were found 12 to 16 hours after the towers collapsed, California Task Force 6 remained in rescue mode during their 11-day tour of operation. But as their search efforts became more efficient, their recovery was of bodies — not survivors.
To ensure special recognition, when a police officer or fireman’s body was recovered, Beach explained that extraordinary measures were taken to allow the local authorities to take control and custody of the deceased.
“When we would uncover the debris and find a fire fighter still in his turnouts and gear, that was tough, very tough,” Beach said.
If there were to be any highlights of the team’s efforts, it had to be when former President George W. Bush arrived to visit the devastation personally and to thank the first responders.
“It was a cool moment. I got to shake the hand of the President,” Beach said.
There was one moment of levity according to Beach. When the team found they needed larger quarters to work from, they again forced entry into and assumed control of a building — the American Stock Exchange.
At the conclusion of Beach’s presentation, he said: “I made it through this without crying.”
Upon returning home, Beach has suffered from intermittent respiratory problems and at times has had to carry with him a medical inhaler. He also has experienced bronchitis annually since his return 10 years ago.
One audience member asked the chief to estimate the number of cadavers that his team extricated.
“It was … such a blur,” he said, “and it was more like parts, if you know what I mean.”
After a tortuous round of interviews and television appearances, including “The Jay Leno Show,” Beach said the team took a break from the media spotlight.
“We went and tried to do our job, but there weren’t any victims to recover,” Beach said. “But it’s important that we remember to keep the memory alive of what happened.”