A 9/11 Rescue Worker Remembers

Editor’s Note: This post contains descriptions of what it was like at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11 that some may find disturbing.
Color photo of volunteer rescue worker Dennis Grooms at Ground ZeroDennis Grooms at Ground Zero, September 2001. Missouri History Museum.

As a young boy, Missouri native Dennis Grooms knew he wanted to be a firefighter. Inspired by the 1970s TV show Emergency!, which told the story of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s fictional Squad 51, Grooms wanted to be part of the action and help people. In the days following September 11, 2001, he did just that.

When the first plane struck the World Trade Center, Grooms was working in the ER at St. Mary’s Hospital, taking a patient to get an X-ray. The TV was on in the room, and he saw footage of the North Tower on fire. As it did in other workplaces and homes throughout America, confusion, shock, and panic ensued. Grooms described how he and his co-workers wondered aloud whether St. Louis and the Gateway Arch were next. They continued with their shifts, but Grooms recalled that “you couldn’t hardly finish your day because you wanted to be doing something.”

A trained firefighter and intermediate-level EMT, Grooms wanted to help his firefighter family, many of whom were on-site searching “the pile” on rescue and recovery missions. Within about a week, he had obtained a leave of absence from St. Mary’s and boarded a plane bound for JFK International Airport—the plane and airport itself were nearly empty.

Color photo of rescue workers amidst wreckage of the World Trade CenterRescue workers gathered in the ruins of the World Trade Center, September 2001. Photo by Dennis Grooms. Missouri History Museum.

When he arrived at Ground Zero with his rescue equipment and pack, he was met with another disturbing sight. “Boy what a mess that was. Just like looking at an atomic bomb went off. Just unreal.”

He proceeded to the nearby command tent, where he joined a group of search-and-rescue workers from south Florida and immediately went to work. “They were already a week into it, but I thought maybe we’d still find some people alive. I was hoping to find somebody alive anyway. . . . I guess after the second day I was there, I was pretty well convinced there was nobody, we were[n’t] gonna find anybody alive.”

Color photo of display of Dennis Grooms's 9/11 rescue gear at MHMGrooms donated the clothing and equipment he used at Ground Zero to the Missouri History Museum, which displayed it in the Museum’s Grand Hall in 2001.

Grooms worked recovery at Ground Zero for eight days, spending 12 to 14 hours there at a time before being bused off-site with the other volunteers so they could wash up, rest, and reassure family members that they were okay. About halfway through that time he noticed the strap of a firefighter’s air pack sticking up out of the rubble. Digging with his hands, Grooms eventually reached the body of one of the 343 firefighters who died at the World Trade Center.

When asked how September 11 has stayed with him, Grooms had a haunting response: “It’s with me every day. There’s not a day goes by, every day since that happened that I don’t think about it. Every day. . . . It’s like it happened last week.”


Click below to watch the 9/11 oral history firefighter Dennis Grooms recorded with the Missouri History Museum in 2012.

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

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