Mid-Missouri rescue worker deals with effects of ground zero experience

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McCluer North High School/Florissant, Mo.
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COLUMBIA — Ted Kettlewell is no hero. At least that’s what he believes.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Kettlewell and other members of the Missouri Task Force 1 search and rescue team were deployed to ground zero in New York City.

Returning home after enduring 10 straight 12-hour workdays, Kettlewell was given a hero’s welcome. Hundreds of Columbia residents lined the streets to express gratitude and patriotism.

“It was a huge parade,” said Donna Boenisch, an information specialist for the task force. “There were several 18-wheeler trucks and a big convoy. It was a big welcome back.”

Although the celebration was meant to support the first responders who were active on ground zero, Kettlewell said he felt as though the celebration was premature.

“The country wanted heroes … I had the hardest time with that because the real heroes took the plane down in Pennsylvania to make sure it didn’t hit another building … we rescued nobody,” he said.

Many individuals returning to daily life after a traumatic experience suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder that causes fear and unease that can become debilitating.

Most often, PTSD is seen in soldiers returning from hazardous environments, such as the exposure to war, disasters, natural disasters and emotional and physical abuse. In Kettlewell’s circumstance, his involvement at ground zero led to him suffering from PTSD.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 6.8 percent of American adults suffer from PTSD.

PTSD can be treated through support groups whose healing process includes discussing feelings. Medicines such as antidepressants also help people with PTSD to cope.

Since its creation in 1997, Kettlewell has been an active member of the

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Missouri Task Force 1, a branch of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue teams around the country. Under the Boone County Fire Protection District, the team specializes in rescue and recovery missions in natural disasters.

Kettlewell said that while in New York City, he experienced events that kept him awake; at one point, he hadn’t slept for more than four days.

“After picking up skull fragments for a few hours, it kind of jacks you up at night,” he said.

Kettlewell said he also didn’t sleep for more obvious reasons — nightmares.

Kettlewell said he remembers dreaming of victims dying around him, and he felt a complete sense of helplessness.

Kettlewell said he spent his days at ground zero attempting to rescue those who were trapped under the rubble of the Twin Towers but had little success.

“What I wanted more than anything was to pull out a live person, but there was no chance for life … the situation didn’t allow it,” he said.

Thrown into a situation that was both physically and emotionally exhausting, Kettlewell said he didn’t realize the reality of what he and his team were a part of.

“We had no idea that we were walking into history,” he said. “We were just focused on the task.”

For 10 days, Kettlewell and other members of the task force cleared debris and searched for the missing. As the hours and days passed, the team went from rescue to recovery mode, he said.

Soon, Kettlewell said, he understood the reality of the wreckage before him and the psychological effects.

He said there was a lack of leadership cohesiveness.

When the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed first, New York police and fire crews mistakenly established their operations base in the lobby of the south tower of the World Trade Center. When a second plane crashed into the south tower, they were all killed.

There were physical dangers to the team.

The air surrounding ground zero was so thick, rescue specialists wore face masks to assist in breathing. Asbestos fibers and dust hovered, causing respiratory issues.

“There are a lot of people within the FDNY and others that took full disability afterwards because of respiratory issues,” Kettlewell said. “I don’t fault that.

“When you’re in the midst of trying to help other people, your own personal safety rarely occurs to you … you’re

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looking for life, not worrying about tomorrow,” he said.

Fires persisted from within the rubble, as well as the ever-present odor of

burning fuel, and there was always the likelihood of becoming crushed under debris.

For Kettlewell, returning home to what he formerly considered “normal” had become somewhat foreign.

He said he didn’t feel as though “hero” was an accurate impression. He was greeted with cheers, banners, awards and even services from neighbors who wanted to show appreciation.

Kettlewell said that he briefly suffers from PTSD but said he realizes that life goes on.

“The biggest problem I had when I got back was nothing felt like it was good enough,” he said. “I cared a whole lot less about petty issues … I now have a very low intolerance for people that whine and complain.”

Almost a decade since the Sept. 11 attacks, there’s a box filled with awards, newspaper articles and photos sitting in the back of Kettlewell’s closet.

He said there’s not a day that passes where he doesn’t think about the experience.

However, he believes that dwelling on it too often can become emotional. He remembers the experience as one that changed him as a man and what he values.

“For those of us that live in this country, regardless of what we do for a living, we owe something back in public service,” he said.

Going back to the day he returned to Columbia, reunited with his family, and received enough attention to last a lifetime, Kettlewell said he went home and did something he hadn’t done in a while.

He slept.