Spotlight

"I Wish I Could Have Done More"

Ted Kakuris traveled from Scripps Ranch to New York City in the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He could not believe his eyes when he arrived at what had been the World Trade Center. He was overwhelmed by the enormity of the devastation.

"It was hard to describe," he says. "Turning 360 degrees, there was total destruction. Twenty-seven buildings, all taller than the tallest building in San Diego, were partially or totally destroyed."

Ted was one of 62 Urban Search and Rescue firefighters deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from the San Diego area to help in the wake of the terrorist attacks. The group flew by C-130 transport from North Island Naval Station to McGuire Air Force Base in N.J., arriving at midnight. From there they traveled by bus to Fort Dix to sleep.

At 5:30 am two buses took them to Manhattan's Javits Convention Center, where all the urban search and rescue teams were based. Each was assigned a cordoned off section of the convention hall where they slept on army cots or in sleeping bags on the floor.

At first the rescue workers ate "FEMA food from a cooking trailer," said Ted, making a face. But, he soon discovered tastier fare at food booths set up south of the convention center by citizens wanting to help. Ted was fortunate that during his tour or duty, five truckloads of barbecue rolled in from a donor in Texas.

Days began at 4:30 am with briefings on conditions, hazardous materials, and what adjustments to make in gear and equipment. After breakfast, military police escorts expedited their bus trip downtown. The military police rode onboard to discourage unauthorized passengers, such as members of the press.

Wearing special clothing--heavy boots, gloves, hard hats, goggles, masks with filters, and a 30-pound pack on their backs--Ted's team crawled through rubble. They cut, moved, searched, and assisted the New York Fire Department in any way they could.

Their primary job was to look for any sign of people--alive or dead--but they did not find any bodies. Occasionally they would find a body part. They also looked for personal belongings-- address books, notebooks, or photographs--which would eventually be turned over to the owners or loved ones.

The local search and rescue workers at Ground Zero were happy for the additional helping hands. Eighty percent of their personnel, including the chief, were killed, and 80% of their equipment was lost when the buildings collapsed. Ted's unit arrived with 80,000 pounds of equipment. Traveling FEMA teams are self-contained, carrying all the food and equipment they need.

The San Diegans worked 10-hour days, stopping only to eat--sandwiches at free food booths set up by local restaurants and the Red Cross. If they took a break to clean off their goggles, they risked eye injury.

When they took off their masks to catch a breath of air or change the filter, they risked inhaling harmful particles. It was probably one of these instances that caused the lung infection that plagued Ted for several months after he returned home. He's fine now.

The group would return to the convention center between 8 and 10 pm to restock their gear, eat supper, shower, and, of course, call home to reassure their families they were all right. They would get to bed around midnight, hoping for a little sleep before their wake up call at 4:30 am.

After they completed the assignment at Ground Zero, the crew was given a day and a half to do whatever they wanted in the Big Apple. Ted, having no heart for entertaining himself on this trip, stuck around the convention center and caught some sleep. He was disappointed when they had to leave after 10 days. He wished he were allowed to do more work, but he was glad to be going home to his family. He had never been away from them for so long.

Ted is still awestruck by his experience "working on the largest terrorist incident in this country." He views it as a "great learning experience," one that has added to the store of knowledge the team might need at other times. It looms as "the biggest job" he was ever called to do. But, he doesn't feel like a hero.

One year later, Ted says, "I was honored to be there." Scripps Ranch's Autumn Ridge neighborhood honored Ted and all firefighters with a float in the 4th of July parade.

Joining him on the ride were his wife, Terry, a speech and language specialist at Dingeman and E. B. Scripps elementary schools, daughters Sara, who will be attending USC in the fall, and Karly, 7, a student at Dingeman Elementary School. The low-key Ted confesses he was a little embarrassed, but he wanted to do it for the friends and neighbors who "had been so attentive to the family" while he was away.

Ted, captain of Engine Company 7 in El Cajon, has been a firefighter for 20 years. Born and raised in that city, he moved to Scripps Ranch four and a half years ago, "for the family." "There are 18 little girls Karly's age in two cul-de-sacs nearby, "he said. "If you can't find a friend there," he smiled, "I don't know where you can!"

Elinor Reiss