By Clarissa Kell-Holland, Land Line staff writer
Many truckers were on the front lines after 9/11, hauling emergency supplies and debris so that rescue workers could continue searching through the massive destruction for the 2,753 people who lost their lives that fateful day.
On the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, truck driver Russell Vereen of Princeton, WV, reflects back to those dark days following the attacks, and the important role he played in honoring those lost.
Vereen told Land Line he had just delivered a military load in Yuma, AZ, and was resting in his truck when his mom called with the news that “we were under attack.”
At the time Vereen was leased to Bennett Motor Express of McDonough, GA, which was the natural disaster carrier for the Federal Emergency Management Agency – FEMA.
He said he wasn’t dispatched to NYC immediately, but waited a week in Arizona to find out if his truck was going to be needed to haul medical supplies to the devastated city.
“After that week, I worked my way back across the country, went home for a few days, then I got the call to head to New York City,” Vereen said.
He remembers the day he arrived, Sept. 29, 2001, because it is one he will never forget.
“I was told that my job was going to be to maintain the 21 refrigerated trailers that contained the remains of those who were recovered from the World Trade Center,” Vereen said.
“We’d bring the bodies so they could be processed through the morgue for DNA samples, articles of clothing, anything that could be used for identification,” Vereen said. “Then we would take them to Memorial Park, where they later built a tent over the back of the trailers where the bodies were stored.”
He said it’s important to note that during his time in NYC, none of the remains recovered from the WTC were ever hauled by tractor-trailers; it was by ambulances only.
Vereen’s responsibilities increased when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Rockaway, NY, killing 265 people, in November 2001. FEMA sent those casualties to the temporary morgue in NYC.
After being there for 93 days straight, Vereen said he called a fellow trucker, Brian Williams of Roanoke, VA, who was also leased to Bennett, to come relieve him.
Williams said he had no idea what to expect when he arrived in NYC.
“I knew trucking, but I have never experienced anything like this so it was pretty traumatizing for me the first month I was up there,” Williams told Land Line on Thursday, Sept. 8. “The next time I had a better idea of what I was doing and what to expect, but you never get over why you are there and what you are doing.”
Brian Williams’ daughter was 7 and his son was 2 when 9/11 happened. They knew he was gone – to New York City – but they didn’t know what he was doing there.
“It wasn’t something we discussed. I just couldn’t tell them,” he said.
He said the only person who identified with his experience in NYC was his dad, a Vietnam veteran.
“My dad shared some stories, some photos, from ’Nam, so he could identify with some of the feelings I had about what I had seen,” Williams said.
To this day, Russell Vereen and Williams talk on the phone every day, but both say they rarely bring up 9/11 and their experiences in NYC.
“We talk about everything else, but it’s nice to know that I could talk to Russell if I needed to,” Williams said. “My personality works well with driving a tractor-trailer because that’s when I do my best thinking and sorting of things in my mind, when I am away from everybody else.”
Williams spent a total of four months in NYC and Vereen was there a total of 205 days.
The first Christmas Vereen ever spent away from his home in West Virginia was when he was in NYC in 2001.
“I was so homesick and it was really a sad time around that place,” Vereen said. “Then I would think to myself that there’s all these bodies here that their families will never see, and somebody had to be there to take care of them.”
Both Vereen and Williams said they plan to stay home on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and privately watch footage on television about the attacks.
“I am proud I went, but I wouldn’t ever want to do something like that again,” Vereen said. “I would hate to see anything like that ever happen again.”
After FEMA turned things over the Office of the Medical Examiner of New York City, Vereen and Williams both took a little time off before heading back out on the road. Both truckers say they came away with new perspectives after what they’ve seen.
“My older brother said, ‘Whether you realize it or not you are a part of history,’” Vereen said. “I never looked at it like that until he said that.”
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