Remembering 9/11 Through the Eyes of a First Responder

in news/town square

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Gregg Donato worked for the New York City Transit Authority.

“I was a civil servant,” he says. “I had a small house and two small children. My life was work, dealing with the public, and elevators and escalators, all at the same time.”

Gregg Donato is a Safety Harbor resident now,. He met his wife Jennifer through local business owners Mike and Joan Kelly, connections from New York. He grew up on Long Island and had joined the Transit Authority in June, 1999. 

Gregg and Jennifer Donato / credit Gregg Donato

“Our quarters were at 34th and 6th St. in Manhattan. We had this thing called a six-wire. It’s a wire for police, fire department, transit, FBI, for any serious local catastrophe. That morning, we heard that something hit the World Trade Center.”

Donato and his workmates turned on the TV. “We thought it was an accident. Then the other plane flew into the second building so we knew it wasn’t an accident but we weren’t getting any calls over the six-wire. You just hear, you can’t talk into it. We were waiting for supervisors to tell us what was going on. My friend Keith ran into the quarters covered head to toe in white dust. He was like ‘guys, we’ve got to go. It’s a horror show down there.’ Without waiting for permission, we all left the transit property. We jumped on a train and took it down as far as we could go. The train was cut off to the World Trade Center for obvious reasons. The cops were there so we showed them our ID and they let us in.”

The scene was surreal.

“It looked like we were on a movie set—it looked like hell on a movie set. People were screaming, crying. Thick smoke was everywhere. We had to walk a couple blocks to the building. We hitched a ride in a police paddy wagon and went to the site and started suiting up to go in there.

9/11/2001 Credit: Gregg Donato

“All the news was trying to hit us up,” Donato remembers. “John Stossil from Channel 7 was trying to talk to us to get a story but no one was stopping to talk. There was a line of people struggling to get in to help. In the beginning there were a lot of civilians trying to help the police and fire departments. Any related agencies all came together. Man, when we got in there, our shoes started melting off our feet from standing on the pile. Nobody knew where to start.”  

Finally, a fireman directed Donato and his workmates to a spot in front of the South Tower. “We were right in front of the second building. [The fireman] said, ‘my friend’s truck is over here.’ We found the spot. The truck was gone, only the engine was there, running, and it ran the whole time we were there.”

credit: Gregg Donato

Donato and his team started digging. They were hoping to find the fireman’s friend. “We found his friend’s boots but there was nothing in them. That guy, he broke down.”

 There would be thousands killed or injured that day.

“We were just elevator mechanics. When you take that civil service job, they don’t consider you just that title. You’re there for the public. As time went on a lot more of our department showed up. Everybody from the transit was there. It was like the first time I ever saw the whole world pulled together in one little tiny spot.” Fire departments arrived from across the country. Dogs were brought in from Switzerland, fire departments from Germany. “Some of us couldn’t [communicate] but we knew what we were doing.”

credit: Gregg Donato
‘”Brian” credit: Gregg Donato

Donato became part of a sort of bucket brigade, passing five-gallon pails. “The digging was the hardest part. We were shoveling up remains of people.”

The North Tower was already on fire.

His friend Brian was with an Emergency Service Unit and was called to the scene. “We never found a piece of him,” Donato says. “I have a picture of him outside the building right before he was to go in. But there were a lot of people who couldn’t get out. Brian went in with a bunch of people to try to help. The rest of the building came down on top of him. It disintegrated into nothing. They didn’t find an article of clothing, his helmet, or his badge.”

The whole city opened up for them.

They were given food, water, clothing and work boots. “We were going through shoes – like every three hours you had to change your shoes.” They were given hotel rooms to sleep in and for part of the time, he stayed on an aircraft carrier. “There was a cruise ship there too,” he says. “There was about ten guys I stayed with that some lived upstate, some from Pennsylvania. We could get a few hours of sleep. My ex-wife was like ‘are you ever coming home?’ and I didn’t know.

“OSHA came down and started fitting us for respirators. We were respirator trained. We were telling the guy the cartridges were not rated for that kind of debris. In turn, people got a lot sicker than I did. A lot of my friends did pass away. I still have my mask in my mother’s garage. With the same cartridges, too.”

credit: Gregg Donato

Some memories still haunt him more than others.

“We had people handing us pictures through the fence, asking us for any hope in finding their family members. We would find pictures in the debris. At a certain point we knew we weren’t going to find more people. We were just looking for things that would ease the families.

“There was also a tremendous amount of stealing. Money, watches off of dead people. Anything they could find. But there was no way we were going to be part of that. There was a Rolex store and it was still intact. These people were like ‘they’re just going to write it off anyway.’ They smashed the booth and cleared the whole thing out. It wasn’t all as honorable as you’d think.”

“We found a child smashed into a beam. The police commissioner went on the loudspeaker and announced a moment of silence. We took our hardhats off and kneeled while they carried this little kid out. The kid was nine years old. We just kept finding bits and pieces of people hoping we’d find someone alive. You were lucky to find body parts.”

Donato remembers finding a wallet. “His last name was White. His whole wallet was like a Shrinky Dink. It was inside an airplane chair. All that was left of the chair were wire pieces. His American Airlines credit card was still in the wallet.

“After a while you just couldn’t help anymore.”

Eighteen years later . . .

Today, Donato has many of the physical and emotional symptoms caused by the attacks.

“They try to give you psychiatric help but most of us didn’t get anything out of it. We all talk to each other. I think about it every day. It never leaves me.”

Those of us old enough to remember that morning remember the images on TV, the stories, the fear. Even though Donato has vivid memories of horror, he says there is one positive thing he came away with. “There really is a world that does want to be one – setting aside political views and what not. It gave me total confidence that people all over the world are on the same page. They showed it right away. Nobody invited them, they just came. That’s about the only good thing I got out of it.”

Recent photo of the Donatos in front of One World Trade Center
Credit: Gregg Donato

Laura moved to this city in 2008 and immediately realized she had found Paradise! In an effort to meet creative people who also enjoyed writing, she founded Safety Harbor Writers & Poets in 2010. She has since facilitated open mic nights, classes, conferences and more. She is co-author of A Brief History of Safety Harbor, Florida, and editor-in-chief of ODET, a Florida-based literary journal named for Odet Philippe, who she believes, was the first known storyteller to call this town home. Currently serving as the secretary for the Whispering Souls African American Cemetery, and as a museum board member, she plans to share local history, biographies, and more through her Safety Harbor Sun contributions. She can be reached by email at safetyharborhistory@gmail.com.