WASHINGTON – Steve Arrigotti thinks her name was Julie, but he is not convinced that is the case. He is fairly confident that she is an African-American, although, because her body was covered with ash and soot, he is not certain.
Because of her clothing – yellow shorts and a half T-shirt – he thinks she was a tourist. But he can not say for sure.
But the face … he will never forget the face.
Weeks after horrific terrorist attacks killed thousands in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, Arrigotti, an Air National Guard master sergeant assigned to Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., spoke of the young woman he helped pull alive from the debris of the World Trade Center twin towers.
Still alive. Hers, he said, was a face full of shock and grief, but a face full of life.
“Her body was completely covered in soot, and as it turns out, there was not a scratch on her,” said Arrigotti, a pararescuman from the 106th Rescue Wing.
“But her eyes were completely swollen shut from the heavy smoke and soot.
Obviously, she was in shock, but she was alive.”
The rescue, one of only five successful extractions confirmed, came just a day after the attack, when New York officials were just beginning to assess the full impact of the destruction.
“We sent two nine-person teams,” he said. “The original intent was to have one unit work north of the ‘ground zero’ area and the other one south. We arrived in the city around 9 p.m. the day of the attacks.”
So many lost. But, upon arrival, the group learned that because so many firefighters and policemen had been lost when the towers collapsed, the command and control element of the rescue operation was greatly affected.
Many of the rescue workers were also trying to dig their comrades out from the debris on the roads leading to the towers.
“The first evening, there was not a lot of attention given to trade towers themselves,” Arrigotti said. “Most of the search effort was on the west highway in front of trade towers.
“When the towers came down, there were a lot of rescue vehicles on the street below. So when we arrived, many of the firefighters and police were desperately trying to dig their people out.”
Ground zero. The next morning, however, the teams made their way to “ground zero,” where they were directed to points both south and north of the debris. Arrigotti, along with Master Sgts. Robert Marx, Kevin Kelly and Jimmy Dougherty, were among those assigned to work the south area.
By that time, he said, the fire had been knocked down to a point where they could get much closer to the debris.
As they got closer, they immediately noticed there were many “cavities” which appeared capable of holding survivors. But that was not all they found.
Jumping in. “There were a lot of bodies near the debris field,” he said. “We took it upon ourselves to get right up into the building, climbing into the second and third floors – which were probably like the 80th or 90th floors when the buildings were standing,” he said.
“As we did that, it got the attention of many of the firefighters, who intuitively wanted to follow us.”
And that’s when they heard her voice.
“She was calling out for help, and I had to look twice to make sure I was not imagining what I was seeing,” he said. “There was a live person in there.”
It took a short time for the workers to get to the young woman – several large pieces of metal had to be cut away before they could get her out.
But as soon as that was accomplished, the workers formed a human chain to move her out of the debris and to medical technicians standing by. Arrigotti said he had a brief opportunity to talk to her before she was pulled out.
“She never said what floor she had been on when the building collapsed … only that she was with a group of about 15 people touring the trade centers,” he said. “Unfortunately, we never found any of those people.”
Then bodies. What the team did find, shortly after helping to rescue the woman, was a stairwell that contained the bodies of several firefighters. His voice filled with emotion, Arrigotti described the scene after leading a local fire chief into the debris to identify his fallen comrades.
“Their bodies were completely intact, and their chief had a very difficult and emotional time with it,” he said. “It was extremely emotional … very sad.”
Haunting memories. The memories of that scene will haunt him forever, he said, as will the images of the planes hitting the towers and their subsequent collapse.
But, he said, there were also good memories.
Although he never saw her again, he is confident “Julie” has survived her ordeal. And the support his unit received from others around the country was overwhelming.
“We in pararescue are kind of a brotherhood,” he said. “We only have about 300 people, but we’re all close. So it was no surprise that we received calls from units all over the country with offers to help out.
I”Everyone, from Florida to California to Alaska, wanted to get here and help. It’s the kind of support you expect from not only pararescue and Air Force members, but from Americans in general. They just wanted to help.”