Johnston Fire Department Lt. Matthew Maurachian had just finished dropping off a patient at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when his eyes caught a TV in the hallway.
He said he and his rescue partner, John, watched as smoke poured out of the World Trade Center’s North Tower in Manhattan. They barely had time to process the tragedy before a plane struck the South Tower.
“The aftermath of the first plane strike was unfolding before our eyes,” Maurachian said. “Not knowing at the time that the terrorist plot was playing out on live television, we watched in horror as the North Tower burned.”
It began a weeks-long journey for Maurachian, who would travel to Ground Zero as part of Rhode Island’s Disaster Medical Assistance Team 1, or DMAT. He recounted his story during the New England Institute of Technology’s observance of the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, held Monday morning at its East Greenwich campus.
Maurachian stood at the podium buttressed by two tables, the one to his right featuring a piece of steel girder from one of the Twin Towers. The East Greenwich Fire Department – which was provided the artifact through a Port Authority program – loaned it to NEIT’s Criminal Justice Club for the ceremony.
To his left was the 9/11 Memory Table, draped in a white tablecloth symbolizing “the loyalty and courage with which the first responders answered the call” nearly two decades ago. A single rose in a vase represented family members and friends left behind, surrounded by a lit candle and police and fire hats and gloves.
Maurachian spoke after criminal justice department head Raymond J. Angell III played two audio clips – one of initial fire department transmissions on 9/11, and the other of President George W. Bush speaking at a ceremony shortly after the attack.
Maurchian spoke before dozens of people at the outdoor event, which attended by such local dignitaries and officials as Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, Cranston Police Chief Col. Michael Winquist and Warwick Deputy Police Chief Mark Ullucci.
“Early that evening, I got the notification that we were being mobilized,” Maurachian said of his DMAT team. “I went home, packed my duffle, explained to my then girlfriend, now wife, that I was going to be gone for two weeks, see you when I get home. Neither of us really knew what to expect.”
Maurachian and his team were told their mission was to treat a “multitude of victims,” but upon arrival their objective quickly switched to body recovery. Most of the victims had been helped prior to DMAT’s arrival, but Maurachian ended up “irrigating the dust-filled eyes of those who toiled on the pile” or working to treat sprains and lacerations.
Maurachian was in the last group to rotate into Manhattan, staying at first about four miles away in Midtown and “far removed from the mayhem.” He said that all changed during his first bus ride to Ground Zero.
“The closer we got, the more the reality and gravity of the situation sunk in,” Maurachian said. “All around was organized chaos. It looked like the immediate aftermath of a war-ravaged city. Hospitals and aid stations were set up in tents, in the lobby of a high rise and in a deli. Smoldering piles of debris were taller than the buildings in the town that I work. All around were the sights and sounds of desperation and determination.”
Maurachian described the scene, which included heavy equipment lifting steel girders and people placing small pieces of debris into buckets. Cadaver dogs working with search and rescue teams tried to find bodies amid the wreckage.
He said that during the daytime hours, “the sheer vastness of the destruction” was on full display.
“Sunlight filtered through the still-standing sections of the buildings’ exoskeletons,” Maurachian said. “It was mesmerizing how it lit up the wisps of dust-filled smoke that continuously rose from the pile. The streets were littered with shattered glass with surrounding buildings and thick, powdery debris coated the streets and stranded vehicles.”
Night proved a stark contrast to the day, and Maurachian said work lights cast an “eerie glow” over Ground Zero.
“[It] was palpably different at night,” he said. “There were times where it seemed that a type of calm had set in, a reverence. Everywhere you looked, day or night, people were doing their bit. There were those working the pile, medical staff, security and support staff of all kinds.”
Everyone worked to do their part. Massage therapists and chiropractors worked on first responders, while Maurachian recalled celebrities who offered assistance as well. Christie Brinkley had a boat off Battery Park that provided food and entertainment, and Maurachian still has his Billy Joel-signed hardhat.
They received widespread support from New Yorkers, who proudly held signs of thanks and cheered as they stood along the bus route. The appreciation floored Maurachian, whose voice cracked as he remembered the first responders who gave their lives on 9/11.
“I felt small and insignificant in the shadow of my 412 brother and sister first responders who gave their lives on that day in a final act of heroism. I was honored nonetheless by the outpouring of love and generosity from the citizens of New York,” Maurachian said.
He added: “We took this job because we want to help, and we feel lost if we can’t. I think we’re a different breed. Some may say a little crazy, but that’s a good thing, because when we’re doing our job, we’re laser-focused on the task at hand. It’s only after, once we’ve had a chance to reflect, that we start to allow emotions to creep in.”
Shortly after the recitations of the firefighter and police prayers – the first of which was offered by Leo Kennedy, a retired Cranston Fire Department deputy chief and RI DMAT member – Angell announced the Public Safety Professional Award and Scholarship Initiative.
In an effort to recognize first responders for their work, awards will be presented to two public safety professionals annually “for outstanding performance in their field.” Every Rhode Island public safety agency can nominate members, after which a committee will review candidates and select recipients to be honored at an annual ceremony. Winners are going to be provided the chance of donating to their preferred public safety charity as well.
Scholarship awards will also be created one student pursuing an associate degree and one seeking a bachelor’s.
“That kind of professionalism and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own live for one benefit or another isn’t something that just happens on 9/11,” Angell said. “It happens 365 days a year in every corner of this great country. Each day, thousands of first responders get up and put on their uniform … they all do it so we can live in a society that allows each of us every day, no matter who we are, a sense of security and freedom.”
The United States and NEIT flags were then lowered to half-mast as West Warwick High School senior Kanon Richard played taps. Chantell Marie Arrial, who opened the day with her rendition of the national anthem, closed the ceremony with “God Bless America.”
“The grave and selfless acts of many first responders that day clearly demonstrate what it means to be part of the first responder community,” Angell said. “Firefighters, police officers, federal, state and local public safety professionals from every field went to the scene and did everything they could to save lives and protect us all.”