Bob Thomas flew across the country from his home in Myrtle Point to New York City on Sept. 16, 2001 — five days after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.
He traveled with a 40-person Forest Service Incident Management team to help with the recovery effort, receiving donations of supplies for first aid workers and distributing them where they were needed.
“It was a little scary at first because we weren’t sure that we weren’t gonna get attacked again,” said Thomas, now retired and living in Lebanon. “Everybody was on high alert and you’re away from your family. But after a couple of weeks you got used to it.”
Thomas had never been to New York City, and even with far fewer people on the streets than usual, it seemed incredibly chaotic compared to his quiet home in Myrtle Point.
He was the deputy chief for logistics at a warehouse on Pier 37, receiving donations of necessary supplies for first aid workers and distributing them to four supply stations on each corner of the pit where the World Trade Center once stood. For 30 days, he made sure there were enough air masks, hard hats, gloves, shovels and boots to go around.
People also donated blankets, clothes and teddy bears to survivors of the attack. Thomas said he received dozens of shovels with American flags painted on them, and a bin of teddy bears with notes attached to them. There was $30,000 found in those notes.
Elementary school-aged children wrote letters to those who helped with the recovery effort, and Thomas remembers Skyping a third grade class in Kentucky, telling them what his team was up to.
The incident management team had one day off, and they decided to see a Broadway play. A limo driver took them on the excursion.
“I remember the start of the play and then I woke up,” Thomas laughed. “Working 14-hour days on the pavement and you just get exhausted.”
He spent his career on the Type One Team, which means he got sent to the worst natural disasters that happened. He worked on several huge fires in the Pacific Northwest and helped with hurricanes Katrina and Ivan. He is now retired and has not been back to New York since 9/11.
This year on Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of that unforgettable day, the incident management team is having a reunion in Prineville. Some have died from cancers caused by staying in New York City too long after the attack, but the rest of the crew is eager to catch up.
“New York was the strangest one for us,” Thomas said. “We all have stories that we experienced that others didn’t.”
Joanna Mann covers education for Mid-Valley Media. She can be contacted at 541-812-6076 or Joanna.Mann@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter via @joanna_mann_.