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Living in Charlotte with ground zero memories

Former New York EMS captain talks about 9/11

Former New York Fire Department Emergency Medical Services captain Jeffrey Race, who now lives in south Charlotte, discusses his three and a half months at the World Trade Center pit.
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Former New York Fire Department Emergency Medical Services captain Jeffrey Race, who now lives in south Charlotte, discusses his three and a half months at the World Trade Center pit.

It’s been 14 years since Jeffrey Race arrived at ground zero, yet memories still show up unexpectedly – while he’s lying in bed at 3 a.m., or talking with a neighbor outside his south Charlotte home. Even when he’s filling out back-to-school forms for his kids.

That’s what he was doing recently, recalling his middle son’s date of birth. The mere act of writing that date reminded him of another date – the biggest symbol of the terrorist attacks, 9/11. “Talk about triggers,” he says.

Race, 52, has lived in Charlotte since 2011. After retiring from a 27-year career with the New York Fire Department, he and his family – wife, Corinne, a pharmacist, and their four children, ages six to 13 – moved here to be near his parents and siblings.

There’s a lot Race can’t recall about the three and a half months he worked at ground zero. But memory is a strange thing. He remembers more specific situations and images now than he did several years ago.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Race was a New York Fire Department Emergency Medical Services captain who supervised an ambulance station in Queens. When he learned that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers, he rushed from his Long Island home into Lower Manhattan, where he stepped off a bus full of firefighters into 6 inches of rubble.

The hardest ground zero moments came when workers found remains or personal effects of a responder.

In the initial chaos, he did whatever was needed. The morning of Sept. 11, he pronounced the time of death of New York Fire Department Chaplain Mychal Judge, who became the first official victim after being killed by flying debris. Race dug for survivors until it became clear there were none. He grabbed sleep where he could, on a boat in a nearby marina, in a Marriott lounge chair. “I don’t remember what night I went home the first time,” he says.

A day off to marry

As the recovery assumed a routine, Race supervised the EMTs and paramedics who treated workers’ injuries. He doesn’t remember specific days. “It all blends into one,” he says.

Sept. 22, 2001, is an exception. He took that one day off to marry Corinne. Plans for an Antigua honeymoon were shelved. It has become a family joke: Four kids later, still no honeymoon.

Another exception: Nov. 12, 2001: He left the site to respond to the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in a Queens neighborhood his ambulance station covered. He tagged all 265 bodies with identifying information.

For Race, the hardest ground zero moments came when workers found remains or personal effects of a responder. At that point, everything stopped. “We did a little ceremony. They would drape whatever it was with a flag, and everyone would walk alongside it.” He would wonder if the remains belonged to a firefighter or EMT he’d known. Sometimes, they did.

Race left the World Trade Center in December 2002 but segued immediately into new disasters – anthrax scares, collapsed buildings, you name it. “I don’t know that I ever got out of crisis mode,” he says.

He eventually led Haz-Tac, a special ambulance unit that responds in hazardous environments. His proudest accomplishment: Developing a rescue paramedics program that treats trapped accident victims on the scene while firefighters work to free them.

Since moving to Charlotte, Race has launched a real estate company. And he’s still a first responder, working and volunteering at the Pineville-Morrow Volunteer Fire Department. His Pineville calls are mostly medical, not high-profile disasters, but he values the work and camaraderie, which link him to his past. “It’s like a maintenance drug,” he says.

He’s also using his expertise to help others, partly through service on the Washington-based InterAgency Board, a group that works to improve the nation’s ability to respond to emergencies and disasters. Race co-chairs a subgroup studying health, medical and responder safety issues.

Reminders in many forms

He keeps his 9/11 artifacts in his home office. Photos show a Lower Manhattan street buried in debris. One shelf holds a fire helmet signed by Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. On another, there’s a pair of black boots, still coated with soot.

But 9/11 reminders come in many other ways. Certain smells remind Race of the odor at ground zero – chemicals, burning, human decay. He gets frequent colds, bronchitis and sinus infections; he worked weeks before he began wearing a mask.

The approach of Friday’s anniversary also triggers thoughts – especially of the 343 emergency workers who died in the attacks, and those who’ve since died as a result of their 9/11 work. Many first responders have developed illnesses, cancer in particular.

Race refers to this time of year as a period of “heightened remembrance,” when the slightest provocation triggers memories. One came recently while he was talking with a neighbor about his work at ground zero. In his mind’s eye, Race could once again see the site as it looked at night, 14 years ago. Bright lights illuminated the 16-acre pit. Swirls of mutli-colored smoke and steam rose slowly from the rubble.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271, @pamkelleyreads

Area 9/11 activities include:

Friday, Sept. 11:

Reflective memorial and Flags of Remembrance: The memorial at Romare Bearden Park will feature 2,997 flags representing everyone lost on 9/11. It will begin at 8:30 a.m. and will include the tolling of a bell at significant times, starting at 8:46 a.m., when the North Tower was struck. A steel beam from the World Trade Center will be on display. The memorial will remain through Sunday, Sept. 13.

Veterans observation of Patriot Day: Mayor Dan Clodfelter will join the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9488 (at 2831 The Plaza) at 8:30 a.m. for a ceremony, including ringing of a bell at 8:46 a.m. when the first plane struck.

Patriotism Bowl: This fourth annual high school football game features Myers Park at South Mecklenburg High, 8900 Park Road. There also will be a skydiving exhibition. Pregame show at 7 p.m., kickoff at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8, with proceeds going to three charities. Availability is limited. More information: http://www.patriotismbowl.org.

Saturday, Sept. 12:

9-11 Memorial Stair Climb – Local firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel will climb the stairs at the Duke Energy Center, 550 S. Tryon St., 8:30 a.m. Details are at www.9-11stairclimb.com. Participants climb 110 floors in memory of firefighters and other first responders who tried to save victims in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

The stair climb is a benefit for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the Charlotte Fire Fighters Association Benevolent Fund.

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