Firefighter speaks to Rotary on 9/11

Published 1:22 pm Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Many Americans remember where they were on Sept. 11, 2001. Tyger Vollrath certainly remembers where he was — right in the center of Ground Zero helping to treat victims of the terrorist attacks.

Vollrath, a computer company owner from Smyrna, Ga., was the special guest speaker at the Tuesday, Sept. 11, meeting of the Bainbridge Rotary Club. Vollrath, a friend of District Attorney Joe Mulholland, was making a business trip in the New York City area, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

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“It was a beautiful crisp day,” he said. “I was listening on the car radio and they were reporting it initially that just a small Cessna had hit one of the towers. It was an election day, so they went right back into talking about the news with the polls and voting.”

Vollrath said he remembered that he was driving and coming up a hill and could see the New York City skyline, where he noticed a fire burning from the first tower.

“I still didn’t think we were under attack; they were still reporting that it was just an accident,” he said.

He noted that eventually motorists were able to see the second plane hit the World Trade Center, and at that point traffic just seemed to stop. However, Vollrath could see that emergency-response vehicles were trying to get through the city, and he got out of his vehicle to try and get motorists to move.

“One of the firefighters coming by saw that I was a firefighter too,” said Vollrath, who had been a firefighter and EMS paramedic in Fannin County, Ga., when he was younger. “I left my car in the Holland Tunnel and joined them to head to the city.”

Vollrath noted that he did not feel that he was a hero, and that he was only there to offer his help.

“The real courage is the people who survived the first tower, but then went into the second tower and lost their lives trying to help those people,” he said. “That’s what real courage is.”

Vollrath said he was on the fire engine in the Holland Tunnel, when there was a sudden dust storm started traveling through the tunnel and made it impossible to see. He, of course, later learned that the dust was caused by the collapse of one of the towers.

“Even today, so much of it was like a blur,” he said. “I had a cell phone but it was dead. This was before iPhones and iPads and all of that. All I knew was that little world in New York City and that we were just going to do whatever we could to help.”

When Vollrath got to the “ground zero” site he said he lost the initial group of firefighters that he’d arrived with, and had to just find other groups to help.

“At this point I didn’t know what to do, it was very chaotic,” he said. “There was a New York fire chief in one of the staging areas and he said just start walking the perimeter and help out whoever you can find, so that’s what I did.”

Vollrath said he spent a lot of Tuesday putting out car fires, to prevent any dangerous explosions, and also trying to battle a blaze in another building near the ground zero site. However, by 7:30 p.m. Tuesday all firefighters were ordered out of that building, and it eventually also collapsed the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 12.

Vollrath noted that the search-and-rescue was far different from any training that he had ever done, because the debris was so heavy and compacted that it was impossible to move without machinery.

“We almost felt helpless,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot that we could do.”

Even so, Vollrath and countless others went 48 hours without sleep, working at the site nonstop from Tuesday through Thursday, even in dangerous health conditions.

“We went through Tuesday and Wednesday without masks,” he said. “And then when we did get masks, they just got clogged up [with dust] so quickly that we took them off anyway.”

Vollrath eventually met a group of firefighters from the Coney Island, N.Y., area, and said that he is still friends with them to this day. He noted that the camaraderie and patriotism of that historical time is one he will never forget.

“For one moment, we were all Americans,” he said. “Sometimes I wish that I could just bottle up that spirit. I think we could use a little helping of it today.”