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9/11 First Responders Look Back

Thu, 09/09/2021 - 12:37
Looking east on West Street on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, at what was left of the Marriot Hotel and the south tower.
Michael Heller

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, made an indelible mark on New York City and the rest of the United States, which mourned 2,977 victims of terrorism that day. Some of East Hampton's first responders paused this week to reflect on the impact the terrorist attacks had on them personally.

Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin J. McGuire and East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo, both town officers in 2001, and East Hampton Village Police Chief Mike Tracey, then a village sergeant, were part of the town and village emergency services units sent to the city to help the New York Police Department in the days following the attacks. 

Michael Heller, a volunteer with the East Hampton Fire Department who was the state coordinator for the International Fire Photographers Association in 2001, documented the efforts of the urban search and rescue teams of the State Office of Fire Prevention and Control.


"You can't really describe that few days in one word or several words. It was a gradual increase in sadness. At first you don't believe what you're seeing. Then when you see the carnage, the enormity of the devastation, that was one process. When you saw the horror of those families, people holding the family photos, the tragedy just kept growing every day. Mix that with the absolute staggering performance and control of the fire department and police department -- they were organized beyond anything I'd ever seen -- the city was amazing, the citizens that were all over the place offering assistance to the workers and volunteers, it was absolutely incredible. When things were quieter, we came home. It hit you, the sadness. You still don't process it because you can't."

— East Hampton Village Police Chief Michael Tracey



"We were there within 24 hours after the towers fell, and we were there for quite a long time. Our first round was 36 hours. . . . The enormity of it was very difficult to take in because you really thought you were on a sci-fi movie set. We had a big van and we were bringing food to people. We escorted an ambulance with a deceased firefighter to the morgue. At some point there was another collapse, or there was about to be a collapse. You see all these firemen and cops running at you and it's not a good feeling. You know it's time to start running. It was a day that changed history, a day that changed everything."

Sag Harbor Police Chief Austin J. McGuire


"At the time, I owned a stock photography agency representing photographers around the world. . . . I got a call that morning. I was not awake yet. My phone rang and it was Getty Images. They said, 'Do you have someone down there?' I said, 'Do I have someone down where?' I was here in East Hampton. I got there around 10, 11 o'clock that night and left the following afternoon. The only way I can describe it is you have a certain view of the world, a certain reality that defines your view of the world, and I got there and it did not fit into any of that. What am I looking at? You know what you're looking at, but it was so large, so massive, that you couldn't really wrap your head around it. I don't know that it ever really set in. . . . There was more than the senses can take in and comprehend."

Michael Heller, photographer and East Hampton Fire Department volunteer

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