Bellone and Barrett spent 257 days recovering bodies from remains
New York firefighters Bob Barrett and Mike Bellone told those in attendance at the American Midwest Healing Field exhibit at Bearcreek Farms on Wednesday evening that every remain (full or partial) exhumed from the destruction of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, received an honor guard, American flag and last rites, whether they were firefighters, law enforcement, or civilians.
"No matter the condition we found them in, we saw to it that everybody got an honor guard, American flag and last rites," said Barrett. "I was in charge of taking the news of the recoveries to the families that had lost the loved ones. When I arrived with the bad news, they would say, 'Bob, cheer up. You brought us a blessing. Now we know what happened to our husband or son.'
"Any day we found somebody, it was a good day for us," continued Barrett. "It was good for the loved ones to not have to wonder any longer about what happened."
Barrett said that he remembers Sept. 1, 2001 like it was yesterday. On that clear, sunny morning in New York City, Bob was at home in Brooklyn. His wife called and asked him if was aware of what had happened.
"As soon as I heard, I called the firehouse and said, 'are they there?'" said Barrett, who worked for Ladder 20 in lower Manhattan. "I reported to the firehouse nearest to me. I saw it on TV.
"I tried to take a bus to the World Trade Center but it wasn't working. Everyone was coming across the Brooklyn Bridge coming out of New York," said Barrett. "I didn't get into New York until 11 a.m. The towers were already down."
Barrett told those present at Bearcreek Farms that he and his best friend had worked together for 24 years and in any monthly period there was only one day that they didn't work together. Unfortunately, that day was Sept. 11. He lost his friend that day.
Barrett said that of the 75 firefighters in his company, many never returned home after clocking in that day. He noted that his unit lost four fire trucks and 15 firefighters that day.
Both Barrett and Bellone stressed that they were empowered by the support of the American public who continually sent words of encouragement, prayers and cards of support to them. As a liaison, Barrett was overwhelmed by the gratitude of those who received the grim news he would take to them.
"A little boy wrote us a simple poem. All he said was, 'twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder where they are,'" noted Barrett. "Me and Mike would say, 'come on, we're not tired, let's go back to work."
"We all need reminders of just how precious life is," said Bellone. "We all needed each other. Without all of the support from volunteers, we couldn't have done our jobs. We lost all of the chiefs, so we were left to figure out how to run the show ourselves."
Bellone said that in addition to the great sorrow around him, both of his parents died during the cleanup period and he didn't see his children for nine months. He and Barrett worked beside each other with relentless dedication to recover as many of their brothers as they could.
Bellone said that that those searching for bodies would often talk to the parts they would discover.
"If we had a name, we would say, 'John, we're taking you home now,'" said Bellone.
Barrett and Bellone estimated that between them found about 400 bodies, but noted that they stopped counting early on. Of the 343 firefighters killed in the attack, the remains of 189 were recovered.
These days, Bellone is forced to be seated during his speaking engagement. He is continually fighting forms of cancer and he is also afflicted with chronic edema, a condition that never bothered him prior to Sept. 11. He had worked out on a daily basis, with weights and running. The last day it happened was on Sept. 10, 2001. These days he suffers from high blood pressure, various muscle and joint pains and several other maladies he believes are associated with working for 257 days on the scene.
When asked why they opted to work for 257 straight days, the firemen answered that if they missed two days, the site would change. Certain landmarks were moved with the search.
"Our intuition was good," said Bellone. "We knew where to find the bodies."
But there was another group of beings that had been killed that the firefighters honored as they recovered â€“ the search and rescue dogs. Bellone said that the dogs were trained to sniff out bodies, but they weren't trained to recognize heat. When they would hop on a smoldering beam, they would often get hurt and had to be cared for. Barrett said that remains of dogs that were found would also be given the proper burial procedures of honor.
"At the memorial of my friend, Jimmy Grey, his eight-year-old daughter got up and spoke. All I can remember her saying is, 'Daddy, if I knew you weren't coming home I'd let you tickle me a little harder.' Those are the kinds of things that we remember," said Barrett.
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