PHILADELPHIA — Joel A. Kirch left his boots outside his hotel room every night because they were too dusty, but every morning before he went back to Ground Zero, someone had already spit-shined and cleaned them.
Mr. Kirch was one of the thousands of first responders who began traveling to New York City in the hours after 9/11. His job during his roughly 30 days at Ground Zero was to think about the long-term mental and physical effects on those first responders, which is why he’s still talking about his experiences on the 20th anniversary of the attacks. He would end up being diagnosed with prostate cancer in the years after he responded, which was determined to be linked to being in New York City after 9/11. He’s now cancer-free, but he’ll never forget what happened that day, and how the country responded.
Mr. Kirch is from Philadelphia and graduated from Indian River Central School before becoming a sheriff’s deputy for 10 years in Massena. He would go on to become a U.S. marshal in Albany, which is where he was stationed on Sept. 11, 2001. As part of the Critical Incident Response Team, Mr. Kirch caught a ride with a military convoy and was there early on Sept. 12.
“I was at work and was told my brother was on the way down there already,” said Pati Kirch, his sister. “My heart just dropped because we didn’t know if it was over. It was a horrible feeling, but he always said, ‘The only thing worse than being there would have been to not have been there.’”
His team’s job was to deal with major traumatic events and help debrief deputies on the ground, which means they encouraged first responders to talk about their experiences early on.
“If we can get peers to those people as quickly as possible after the incident,” he said, “we can severely reduce the PTSD they may develop over time.”
When Mr. Kirch got to the city, he went on to The Pile, or Ground Zero, to familiarize himself with the area. The smell of jet fuel had set in long before he got there. He saw a landing gear on a street. The debris and dust made it seem like snow was falling.
As he walked off the pile, a member of his team took a photo. It shows Mr. Kirch in the foreground, encapsulating the devastation and trauma into one stare as dozens of first responders sit on Ground Zero in the background.
“We call it the thousand-yard stare,” he said. “You see that look a lot in law enforcement after traumatic situations. I don’t want to get into graphic details. We would find anything imaginable, and that’s part of the trauma, is the evidence of what happened there.”
Mr. Kirch started to realize that the deputy marshals he was there to help were re-traumatized every time they stepped off Ground Zero. There were 125 deputies he was working with, so it was impossible to debrief them every day. He and his team had to observe when a deputy would be especially distraught and then speak with him or her then. It got to the point where they were debriefing all of them every other day.
But the thing he took away and is still reminded of is how the city came together in those days and weeks afterward. First responders couldn’t buy a meal as vendors passed out food around the clock. Volunteers also waited for first responders to come off Ground Zero with extra clothes. Nuns stood at the scene and passed out rosaries. Every time Mr. Kirch or anyone came off Ground Zero they would be covered in dust and debris. They would bag their clothes up and dispose of them before being handed a new set. But Mr. Kirch had a brand new set of boots. He wanted to keep them, so he placed them outside his hotel room every night, and every morning they would be cleaned. He didn’t know who was doing it until he asked someone at the hotel. It was the night security guard who was former military. Cleaning the boots of first responders was the one way he felt like he was doing something, which highlights why Mr. Kirch, who now works for Homeland Security as a tactics and active threat instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., chooses to think of the positives.
“It was just incredible to see people working together,” he said. “Of course it was one of the most tragic things that has happened since Pearl Harbor, but I don’t want to dwell on that. I won’t forget it, but I also want to remember the good and how the people of New York overcame it and came together.”