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For Callahan, mixed emotions remain a decade later

Grundy County Coroner John Callahan wore this lanyard adorned with a trio of identification tags while working with the Disaster Mortuary Operation Response Team in New York City in the days following Sept. 11.
Grundy County Coroner John Callahan wore this lanyard adorned with a trio of identification tags while working with the Disaster Mortuary Operation Response Team in New York City in the days following Sept. 11.

It was the week after 9/11, and his phone rang. He was to go within 24 hours.

"I had all sorts of emotions," Grundy County Coroner John Callahan recalls on leaving with the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team to help in the cleanup at New York City's World Trade Center, demolished by Middle Eastern terrorists 10 years ago Sunday, on Sept. 11, 2001.

"At first, I was very excited. I wasn't nervous. I drove my car – it had a sun roof – to O'Hare Airport. I say I wasn't nervous, but when I came back to O'Hare, I found I had left the sun roof down. We had a little rain while I was gone, so I had a wet car for the drive home."

Callahan was nervous. Helping trigger it was the eerie quiet at the airport. The usual hustle and bustle that characterizes the gigantic facility was missing. Also, security at the airport  was greatly stepped up.

Never having been to New York City before, he had a lot of anticipation upon boarding the eastbound plane. For almost everyone on the flight, the topic was about what was happening, where things were heading, and whether the nation would be going to war.

"It was an eerie trip," he said.

His true awakening was when he flew into the city and saw military personnel with their AR-15 weapons spaced every 20 feet or so apart.

"It was just incredible," he said. "After we landed, I met other DMORT team members I had trained with, and recognized some their faces. We were all in the same position, though, of wondering what we were going to walk into. We'd worked disasters before, but nothing of this magnitude of devastation."

DMORT Team members worked 12-hour shifts, and were bused to their daily assignments from their hotel downtown.Their work at the site attracted onlookers by scores.

"No matter the time, the streets were lined with people. Many chanted their support. Because the bus was marked, the people knew who was aboard, and we were all in uniform," he said.

"They were chanting support for our work and efforts. Anywhere where there was any type of fencing, especially around the Medical Examiners office, people hung cards and photographs of their family members, and candles and flowers. It was just incredible."

Little shrines were placed along the way, Callahan recalled.

"On any of our breaks throughout the evening, it was interesting to step outside and see the cards that were placed on the fence and so forth," he said.

Team members were posted at five stations, including a temporary identification location at Ground Zero. Another station was at the piers, where most of the computer work was done. Then there was the VIP section where families came and gave authorities information and DNA evidence on loved ones who were missing in the disaster.

Early on, authorities mainly fed into computers all information as it was gathered. Later, DNA evidence was used to identify arms and legs and other body parts.

The Ground Zero section of the recovery zone was limited to firemen, police, and New York City personnel.

The DMORT teams searched for human remains and artifacts buried in the dirt and rubble scooped up from the site of the World Trade Center and spread out in a special area at the nearby Fresh Kill Landfill.

"They basically set up two areas the size of two football fields, and spread out the debris. We would go across the field, sometimes on our hands and knees, looking through all the debris. We were instructed to save any type of human remains and anything with a name on it, such as a desk plaque, or maybe a photograph of a child, wife, a spouse," Callahan said.

"This just goes to show you how we Americans are, versus other countries. I don't think every other country would have done that."

The debris included "absolutely everything" from the WTC. Sorting through it all was a long, painstaking  process. As the DMORT volunteers sifted their way through the one field, authorities were busily setting up the other field.

"Once we cleared the first field, we'd switch over and begin the same process in the second field," Callahan said. "While we were doing that, they totally cleared the one field of debris and hauled it to another section of the landfill. Then they spread fresh debris from the World Trade Center out on the field, and the sorting process began again."

This continued for many, many nights. Callahan recalled the eeriness at the landfill, which was entirely sheathed in darkness but for the work zone.

"It was totally pitch black except for the area where we were. We could hear the seagulls. Blank firing rounds were set off periodically to try and keep the birds away. The weather was bad some nights. It would rain, and then we all suited up in rain gear to work," he said.

"The search went on, no matter what."

As human remain were found, they were transported to the Medical Examiner's office by New York City ambulance or other type of conveyance. More awesome was when a partial or entire body was recognized as being that of a firefighter, police officer, or NYC Port Authority figure.

"That was a really chilling experience because everyone had to stop working, and the rig (with the body or part) would pull up," he said. "Everyone would line up and the body part — draped with the U.S. flag — would be removed from the rig."

All remains were taken to the Medical Examiner's office.

"Maybe an anthropologist there would identify them as human remains. The number of transports to the ME's office depended on what the finds were. Bodies occasionally were brought in from the World Trade Center that were whole, but that was done by another team," Callahan noted."

His reaction upon picking up his first body part from the rubble is an interesting question, the coroner noted.

"I don't know how I felt. It's like in the coroner's position — there's certain boundaries you create in your mind to separate them from the psychological effects it would have on you," he said.

"As you retrieved all these parts and thought about all the heartaches and destruction that was done to thousands of families, it would get you down in a hurry. So, you looked at it in an upbeat way — that the body part, or desk nameplate, or the photograph, may be the only thing you retrieve of that person that a child may have of his father or mother for the rest of his life."

The outpouring of appreciation the public showed for the work at the World Trade Center was encouraging. This helped him and other DMORT team members.

"There were cards from around the world that people were sending in support of everyone's efforts at the World Trade Center and the ME's office," he said. "A lot of these were from schools. Also, we could take a letter and respond to it."

Parts of the airplanes that plunged into the twin towers, plus remains of the Middle Easterners who flew the aircraft into the buildings, had to have been mixed in the rubble, Callahan noted.

"Hopefully there was very little left of them," he said of the terrorists pilots. "There's a very real possibility they were incinerated upon impact, and there's very little, if anything, left of them."

Callahan says today it hard to believe the attack on America happened 10 years ago.

"When I went there, we as a world were still overwhelmed by it. We had a pretty good idea who did this, but any action hadn't taken place yet then," he said.

"While we were there, the news came over the intercom that action was being taken ..., so that was a day to remember."

To this day, Callahan said he can't help but wonder how some of the families of the victims recovered from the horror of the attack.

DMORT teams train for airline crashes on the ground or a collision between airplanes, but never before had they been drilled for an aircraft colliding with a building.

"To be able to work at that scene was totally different," said Callahan, who has aided in several major disasters like the City of New Orleans train derailment at Bourbonnais in which nearly a dozen people died, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans six years ago.

Each disaster brings on new discoveries on how to handle something similar. But the World Trade Center catastrophe definitely ranks at the top of the disasters Callahan has worked at, including Katrina.


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