Peoria Fire Chief Bobby Ruiz’s voice softens when he talks about the horrors he saw in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Employed by the Phoenix Fire Department in 2001, Ruiz headed to the Twin Towers as part of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Urban Search and Rescue Arizona Task Force 1. One day in particular stands out.
“I think the roughest day we had — and I think all the members had — was the day we found about 20 or 30 firefighters in the south tower stairwell,” he said.
“Bodies were mangled and every which way.”
When remains were recovered, an air horn sounded and everything stopped.
“If we thought that member belonged to the Port Authority, we would back out and let the Port Authority come in and retrieve their own members,” Ruiz said.
“We would allow the NYPD or NYFD to retrieve their own members, too. For civilians, we would pull them out.”
The remains were transported via a golf cart to a makeshift morgue in a nearby church.
“I just remember all day long, it was one firefighter after another and we just saluted as they went by,” he recalled. “I think that was the toughest day for all of us. We spent most of the day just standing by, watching New York’s bravest taking out their own members, putting them on a cart and taking them out. That was tough.”
To remember those who perished in the 9/11 terrorist attacks 20 years ago, Ruiz recruited the Peoria Fire-Medical Department in partnership with the Peoria Police, Glendale Fire and Sun City Fire departments to schedule a memorial for 10 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 11.
“It was his idea,” said Capt. Mark Barbee, the Peoria Fire Department’s public information officer. “He said, ‘Let’s do something for the 20-year anniversary.’”
Two ladder trucks will display a large American flag across 83rd Avenue at West Mariners Way.
“Originally, it was just going to be Peoria Fire and we were going to bring in Peoria police,” said Capt. Mark Barbee, the Peoria Fire Department’s public information officer.
“Then we decided we needed a second ladder truck to help extend the large American flag over the intersection. Glendale, Sun City and Peoria will be there in some form or another.”
Drivers are invited to pass under the flag, interact with public safety members, leave messages and take photos. The Honor Guard and Pipes & Drums will also be in attendance.
“We will have a large box on the corner so people can drop off letters and notes. They can take photos of the firefighters and police officers. There will not be speakers, tables or vendors.”
Aside from honoring the fallen, the first responders are encouraging those who drive by to spend time in P83 to keep businesses afloat that were affected by the pandemic.
“The only times I have ever driven under an American flag are fire department funerals,” Barbee said. “It is sobering to drive underneath something that large. Something comes over you.”
Working as a Phoenix Fire Department commander, Ruiz was sleeping in his office on Sept. 11, 2001, when he was awakened by an alarm at 5:45 a.m.
“The dispatch center told me a plane flew into the tower in New York,” he recalled. “They thought it was terrorism. I envisioned a Cessna. I got out of bed, brushed my teeth, washed my face and turned on CNN. It was a commercial airline, a good-sized passenger plane.”
Forty-five minutes later, as reporters were on the ground reporting on the first plane and the subsequent fire, TV showed live the second plane hitting the building.
“I thought it was a rerun,” he said. “The reporter was saying, ‘No, no, no.’ Watching the second one live, I remember thinking we may be deployed.”
Within a half hour, he received a phone call telling Ruiz and his staff to report to the fire academy because they were being deployed as a FEMA team.
“When you’re deployed, you have to be out the door within four hours,” he recalled. “The shift that wasn’t working that day was the first to be called out.”
Doctors ran physicals and ensured Ruiz and his staff’s shots were up to date. He prepared equipment that filled six 18 wheelers.
“You have to be self-sufficient for 72 hours once you’re deployed,” he added. “Once you’re activated, you are no longer property of the city of Phoenix. You’re property of the federal government, FEMA. We were going to fly out of Luke Air Force Base, but there were no planes to fly out.
“We would fly out in one of these jumbo airplanes, but all the military planes were up in the air, flying toward the border, the Pentagon and Washington, D.C., to protect the homeland. All the commercial flights were grounded.”
With no transportation, Ruiz and his staff were sequestered in a hotel on Eighth Street and Van Buren. In the morning, they returned to the academy to wait for a plane.
After a few days, a cargo plane was sent to pick them up to fly to McGuire Air Force Base in Burlington County, New Jersey, at 11 p.m. They were then bused to nearby Fort Dix to sleep.
“The next morning, we were bused across the Hudson River to New York,” he said. “They took us to the Javits Center, which was the operations center.
“We were bused over to the site to get an advanced look before we started the next morning. We met with the fire department command officers in New York and some of the FEMA officers.
“We got there, and it was very surreal. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I had never seen anything like it and never will again. It was like a scene out of the movies where they bombed a city or something. It looked like pick-up sticks.
“We stood at the edge, the east end of the complex, and you could see steel girders everywhere. I looked down into the voids and you could see four stories down.”
The following day, they were bused to ground zero. There was not a safe way to get from point A to point B.
“These big girders went every which way,” he explained. “They’re just walking girder to girder. I was at the Oklahoma City bombing before that, some hurricanes. The (K9 teams) were always pulling at the handlers ready to go. They want to go to work.
“The dogs were whimpering and going in the opposite direction. They were capturing so many smells from the site that it blew their senses. They were scared. They were afraid.”
Ruiz said that “woke me up a little bit.” Covering the area was gray powder created from pulverized concrete and glass from the towers.
“We were lucky because it had rained the first couple of days before we got there,” he said. “Even with all the precautions with self-contained breathing apparatus and special filtered masks, we breathed in some of that.”
Ruiz and his team were assigned to pick up airplane parts, place them in a big metal bin and document them. After a few days, the task wore on them and they suffered from sleep deprivation. To eat, makeshift restaurants were set up across the street.
Celebrities like Loretta Swit from “M*A*S*H,” along with Susan Sarandon, Bianca Jagger and Sylvester Stallone, stopped by to encourage the first responders, who were treated by massage therapists and chiropractors.
The first responders were honored and applauded everywhere they went, including Wall Street.
A bit of rest
A church official acquired Broadway tickets for “Les Miserables” for the first responders to ease their moods.
“We went to dinner and were just hanging around, waiting for the show,” he said.
“We went to a fire station in Midtown again. There were no survivors in Manhattan. They gave us T-shirts with their engine company. There were flowers in front of the fire station. Then this lady brought flowers and starts to cry. She said she was coming down the narrow stairwells and she remembers firefighters coming up.
“She was out of breath, so she stopped, and a firefighter gave her a bottle of water and told her to keep going, don’t stop, walk all the way down, and when you hit the doors, keep going until you hit the East River.”
Upon entering the theater, the sleep-deprived first responders took advantage of the situation.
“I had the structural engineer on one of my shoulders completely snoring and a captain on my right fully asleep and snoring,” Ruiz said. “It was embarrassing, but at the same time everybody understood. I think everybody had a good nap.”
The next morning, they arrived home. In the aftermath, the first responders from Arizona suffered from lung problems or cancer associated with the debris—fires from underneath, gas lines and toxic materials on fire. A videographer who worked with Ruiz died, while a doctor has throat cancer.
“We knock on wood, still, and count our blessings every day.”