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Los Angeles Firefighters Remember Role in Sept. 11 Rescue - 2003-09-12

The anniversary of the terrorist attacks two years ago revives painful memories for some Los Angeles firefighters who went to New York to help with rescue efforts. The firefighters learned some valuable lessons.

When Los Angeles officials saw the enormity of the disaster, they immediately offered to send a 70-member team of urban search-and-rescue workers to New York.

Battalion Chief Tom Burau says the group assembled the afternoon of September 11. "We were basically in the air at 8 o'clock that evening L.A. time and landed in New Jersey at midnight L.A. time. In fact, when we landed the pilot told us we made history. We were the only airplane in the sky," he said.

The group traveled by military transport, while all civilian aircraft were grounded across the United States.

As the group arrived in Manhattan, it confronted a scene of devastation, recalls a fire department trainer Tom Haus.

"As we were approaching, coming from our base of operations toward the World Trade Center, everything was covered in gray dust and everything had a gray tinge to it," he said. "And there was paper everywhere. Paper was on top of buildings, on top of buildings, on top of cars. It was a very surrealistic scene."

Paramedic Derissa Teller was there with her search dog, Bella. The scene that she confronted brought back other memories. She had been part of a 1995 search-and-rescue effort in Oklahoma City after a pair of domestic terrorists destroyed the city's federal building, killing 168 people.

She says this anniversary revives memories of Ground Zero. "Last night, some of my friends emailed me something about [September 11] pictures again and it just pulls at the heartstrings all over again," she said. "Of course, not as much as when we were there. When we were there, I didn't even look at the paper or watch the news, and I really didn't go to the place where they had all the people's pictures up who were missing."

She says that was just too hard as she focused on doing her job.

The Los Angeles firefighters were joined by rescue workers from many other cities as they sifted through the rubble, first hoping to find survivors and later, more grimly, human remains. Ms. Teller and her search dog found the bodies of 25 victims.

Chief Burau says the L.A. team learned something through its work at Ground Zero. "The realization slapped us all in the face that we're all vulnerable, that it can happen anywhere, any place, any time. We kind of thought we were impervious to that," he said. "It happens someplace else; it doesn't happen here. But they proved us wrong."

There were 343 New York firefighters who died at Ground Zero, and Los Angeles fire captain Tom Haus says they all did their job. Their example also taught him a lesson.

"There was a huge potential for rescuing lives, and those firefighters went in harm's way to do that," he said. "And I think we would do the same thing here. That's part of what we do. One of the things that it did for me is bring a greater appreciation of those things I hold dear: my family, my friends, the things that normally people take for granted."

Los Angeles firefighters held commemorative ceremonies at several sites around the city. In the largest, they unveiled a 23-ton steel column taken from the base of the World Trade Center. It will remain here as a monument to those who gave their lives helping others on September 11, 2001.