‘LEST WE FORGET’ – Dr. Art Bohanan, Forensics Expert, Journal Recount of 911 Part 1 & 2

Dr. Art Bohanan, Forensics Expert (60 yr. Police Career)
(World Trade Center, September 11, 2001 – Report on Disaster Coverage by His Team)

Every American alive and of memory age will never forget Sept 11th 2001. Each of us have our own story of where and what we were doing that morning when America came under attack on American soil, the first time since Pearl Harbor. This was our Pearl Harbor.

My wife and I were in Bar Harbor, Maine on Sept 9th. Fear awoke me at 4 AM, by 4:30 we had checked out of the motel and driving south, a chill in our bones of something horrible about to happen, somewhere; somehow our world would never be the same, but what?

By Sept 11th, we had just finished a good breakfast at Cracker Barrel in Winchester, VA, beside I-81. The cell phone rang, my brother on the other end:the World Trade Center had been attacked. America had been hit a terrible blow which we soon learned that a second plane had hit the other tower; the Pentagon had been attacked and a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania.

Shortly thereafter, the late Fred O. Berry Jr of Knoxville called, a chill in his inquiring voice. “Bo, Bo (His name for me) where are you?” I told him, his reply, “put the pedal to the medal. We will be activated by the President.” Driving down I-80 at 80 miles an hour, few cars and even fewer semi’s were seen. We tried to find a radio station with more details. All airplanes had been grounded; all law enforcement had been pulled to guard state and federal buildings, not knowing what was next.

By late afternoon, we arrived back home in Jefferson County. Soon our children came knowing I would be going to help with the terrorist attack. Long faces as we turned on the TV with non- stop news of the attacks. My brother and his wife came. We watched TV as I got my bags packed. Fred called, “Bo, Bo, we have been ordered to leave first thing in the morning.” He was calling all the DMORT members in Tennessee. DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Disaster Response Team) is a reserve disaster force within Health and Human Services of which we were members. Fred was the deputy commander for the Southeast USA.  McGhee Tyson was closed, everything was on hold.  I don’t remember eating. Fred called back, “can you find a 19 passenger van?” “ Yes”, finally located one after calling a friend (Holt Clark)at Knox 911. There would be a 19 passenger van reserved for us at McGhee Tyson Airport. We could pick it up anytime; just let the airport security know that we were coming. Steve Tinder who was still an active KPD Lt and I talked much during this time. So many questions; just no answers.

At some point in time as everyone left, I told the kids and grandkids, I loved them.  Ann and I had few words, deep thought of what next? I completed packing two bags and grabbed my KPD retired ID and badge. How do you wrap your mind around the thoughts that we would be dealing with countless bodies and human remains? America had never seen anything like this.

Fred called back and said to be at Berry Funeral Home on Chapman Hwy at 5AM the next morning, to park my car and he would take me to pick up the van at the airport. Tossing and turning, wide awake by 4AM, I got up, told Ann ’bye’ and left home, not knowing when and if I would ever see home again. Fred was waiting at the funeral home for me. He informed me that he would drive all night, to meet us in Knoxville:  Lisa Perigrew (Dental Assistant) from Finger TN, Roger Ballentine and Bob Batson ( both in Funeral Services)  from Nashville; and Marilyn Carter (team RN) from just south of Chattanooga.  Steve, I called enroute to the airport security so they would let me in the door.  As we approached the airport, few lights were shining, there was no activity, nothing, dead still.  Even the runway lights were off.   Security let me in the lower level; I signed for the van and followed Fred back to the funeral home.  

By 6AM we arrived back to the funeral home, loaded the van and I started driving north. None of us had much sleep; and the people from Nashville drove most of the night with even less sleep. Fred, Steve and I were the only people from the Knoxville area to first respond.

Orders were to drive North on I-81; sometime during the day we would get a call as to our destination that day, which we later learned was Stewart Air Force Base off I -84 in New York State. There, all who could drive arrived from the South and mid America. That was a 13 hour drive with breaks. Fred and I took turns driving;don’t why the others did not drive. Few words were spoken, but once in a while someone in the back would say, “Gotta Pee.” We did stop at the next rest stop. I recall while driving that I would look in the rearview mirror.  Everyone had a blank look on their faces or just staring out the window at nothing. At a couple of the stops, Fred would look up and just shake his head, no planes in the air. We loaded back up and kept driving, using the AAA map that we had used just the day before coming south.

September 11 at 6:01 PM

By midafternoon, we received a phone call directing us to Stewart Air Force Base, about an hour from NYC. That would be our staging area. When we arrived at the gate, the MP asked for my ID. I showed him my federal ID plus my retired ID from KPD. He welcomed us in to a specific airplane hangar. By late evening, some 800 other federal responders had arrived. The Air Force brought in cots and potties, and we placed our bags under our cots. We six from Tennessee tried to stay together, but we knew so many from other states; at times a kind of reunion. Try to imagine 800 cots, 800 people trying to sleep, getting up to pee and stumbling over other cots. Some groups had placed a towel over a standing pole to indicate their section. It was easy to get lost in the sea of cots of human figures trying to find rest. That, plus every animal noise known coming from the human body. The person at my head had his stinking feet just a few inches from my head. Our cots were elbow to elbow. Slowly, we settled down, got a little sleep and just waited, waited till daylight and soon pot after pot of hot strong coffee was welcome. The potties had over flown during the night, on the other side of the hanger, spewing waste on the poor member’s luggage. There were no TVs but several had brought small radios and people gathered around these small radios, to listen, and to whisper to each other and wonder – and yes, ponder.

NDMS(National Disaster Medical System) finally arranged lodging in NYC and we went by convoy, 20 or so vans, speeding toward NYC. Fred told me to again drive, telling him I had never driven in NYC;again he said just follow the others. Several miles out, we saw the smoke, rising from Ground Zero, not a word, just staring. Five checkpoints later, we arrived at the Marriott across the street from LaGuardia Airport. We were assigned rooms and dumped our gear in the rooms and were soon in the lobby for team meetings. Steve and I always roomed together, just a buddy thing. Our national commander, Tom Shepherdson welcomed us. We learned that NDMS had taken over the complete hotel plus another across the street. Apparently, Commander Tom Shepherdson had gained a respect for Steve and me during previously training and liked us. After team meetings, Tom pulled Fred, Steve and I aside and told us as soon as possible that we would merge with NYPD, the ME’s office and FDNY. He requested that Steve and I be the first into Ground Zero as we could relate to NYPD officers.

We waited and waited, finally word that I would be the first to go in, to Vesey Morgue on night shift, 7P to 7A. Steve would work 7A til 7P at the Liberty Street morgue.

Each of us carried a small backpack with essential items for each person. Mine had a camera, binoculars, extra socks, gloves, meds, first aid kit, flashlight, journal and my retired badge and ID.

That evening Fred walked out with me to a waiting New Jersey State Trooper car with two troopers. Another member joined me in the back seat. I have tried to remember who was the second passenger in the back seat with me; and where she or he went. My mind is completely blank on that one. One of the troopers told us to secure our seat belts, so out we went flying, siren and lights blaring – toward Ground Zero, up on the sidewalk, around traffic the wrong way and on and on, wide open. I finally told the troopers we did not need to get there that fast, one did not even look back, just said they had their orders. The check points were passed, the smoke got worse, the odors stronger, finally they stopped to let me out on Vesey Street with directions to walk toward the lights. My ID got me past two armed roadblocks manned with officers holding shotguns and assault weapons. There was no street lights, all was dark. So I walked closer looking for a sign for the morgue. I finally saw the sign on a vacant store-front window that had been knocked out. I walked in and was approached by several NYPD officers. It was a cold reception until one asked who and what I was. I told them I had retired from Knoxville Police after 26 years, so now I was one of them and accepted. We talked a few minutes and they told me to walk toward Ground Zero; on the left was a two story Burger King, to get equipment I needed. Silently I walked, in the dark, toward the lights, with sounds and odors, finally arrived to see a huge metal basket with a man and large dog inside, slowly moving over the debris, trying to find a living soul. I tried that night and since to coin a word of what I was seeing, feeling and smelling. There is no word to describe my thoughts. I stood there a few minutes and looked left and saw the Burger King. I walked there and saw a sign, “supplies upstairs”, so I walked up the stairs to a huge room with all kinds of equipment stacked everywhere. An officer told me to take what I needed, cost was covered, so I got leather gloves, dust mask, and couple more items. Finally, a cold drink and leaned against a wall, no words, numb, as I watched the other side of the room with lots of chairs against the wall. Police, EMS and fireman, exhausted, covered with dust, were seated, constantly getting up to move to a vacant chair on the left, finally realizing they were relaxing with another chair closer to the rest room.

Source: Dr. Art Bohanan, Forensics Expert (60 yr. Police Career) (World Trade Center, September 11, 2001 – Report on Disaster Coverage by His Team)