Locals recall 9/11 Ground Zero experiences

Jim Jenkins (left) and Pat Gartman were on the scene at Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks that suddenly and without warning snuffed out the lives of 2,996 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the midst of the ongoing global pandemic, Americans still paused this week to remember those lost lives and the heroism of thousands of individuals who put themselves in harm’s way in the massive rescue and recovery effort that followed.

Two Grovers were among an army of personal support volunteers dispatched to New York City in the wake of the unfolding tragedy.

Images of the attacks are forever seared in the memory of millions of Americans who witnessed the horror unfold live on television on that late summer morning. After two decades, most who watched the events in real time still remember where they were and what they were doing on that tragic Tuesday.

For Pastor Jim Jenkins, his memory of that day began with a 6 a.m. phone call from a frantic member of the Cottage Grove Faith Center urging him to turn on the television immediately. Jenkins served 20 years as the Faith Center pastor, from 1992-2012, while concurrently serving as a U.S. Navy Chaplain with the Coast Guard.

“Within one hour of the news coverage I saw the second plane hit the tower and I knew we were at war, Jenkins recalled. “I knew I would be deployed and began to think about what my next steps would be: Is my seabag packed? Who am I supposed to report to? Will my family be safe? Does Judy know where my will is? I knew in my heart I would be going to New York City.”

In 1996, Texas natives Pat and Bill Gartman were ready to make a major life change. Bill sold his company and Pat retired from a career as a rehabilitation counselor in Dallas. As they drove to visit friends in Vancouver, British Columbia, they were unable to find a motel in the Eugene area due to a track and field event so they spent the night in Cottage Grove.

The next morning after breakfast, they explored the town and fell in love with it. After checking The Sentinel for property for sale, they bought a farm on the spot.

“He wanted to relocate to somewhere that wasn’t hot and humid. I was feeling some burnout after working many years as a counselor and was ready for a change,” Gartman recalled. “We didn’t know anyone in Oregon when we bought our farm here. I never did anything so crazy in my life!”

The Gartmans returned to Texas and made regular trips to the farm and happened to be there on Sept. 11.

By now, Pat was a pharmaceutical representative. She was up at 5 a.m. drinking coffee, watching the morning news, and preparing for a meeting with her regional manager. The manager lived near San Francisco and was in Eugene for the meeting.

As soon as the morning news anchors cut away to a plane crash in New York City, Pat woke up Bill and they watched the second plane crash into the other tower. Her manager called and was hysterical because her kids were in Walnut Grove and the babysitter left them to be with her family and all planes were now grounded. The Gartmans loaded their therapy dog, Uno, in the car and drove nearly non-stop to California to reunite the frantic mother with her kids.

“She cried most of the way sitting in the backseat with Uno who was doing his best to comfort her,” Pat said. “With Uno’s extensive training with Springfield’s Hope Crisis Response we were ready if called upon to help.”

In his book, Jenkins describes the brief encounter he had with Gartman and Uno in New York. It resulted in his circuitous and miraculous journey over many years to reconnect with them and to discover their Cottage Grove connection.

The Gartmans bred and showed German shepherd dogs. For many years prior to 9/11, they participated with search and rescue teams with another dog. They bought Uno a year before he was born from a German breeder because his bloodline consistently produced world champions. Uno’s mother was sold to their friend in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Pat was there in 1996 when Uno was born and selected him from the litter of six pups.

When he was eight weeks old, she brought him home to Texas and took him everywhere so she could to socialize him with people.

They went through obedience training and then he spent a year in advanced training in Germany where he earned all of his working titles in German dog shows. He was consistently rated #1 in dog shows when she retired him from competition.

Uno still wanted to keep working with people, so they began pet therapy training. The duo were frequent visitors to PeaceHealth patients and the Looking Glass’ homeless teen program.

“He was a natural and loved it,” Gartman said. “He loved helping others as much as I did. I had the counseling degrees but Uno was a better counselor that I ever dreamed of being.”

Uno celebrated his fourth birthday with the Looking Glass teens just before the Hope Crisis Response Team received the call from the Red Cross asking them to come to New York to support the recovery workers. They arrived on Day 14 as part of the largest deployment of working dogs in American history and became one of the estimated 400 dog teams supporting the workers on “The Pile”.

The media often referred to the area where the towers fell as Ground Zero. But rescue workers soon began using the term “The Pile” to describe the 1.8 million tons of wreckage from the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin 110 story buildings in lower Manhattan.

For 100 days the jet fuel burned beneath The Pile and when excavators uncovered an air pocket, a plume of fire shot up into the air.

 “The dogs were miraculous and very heroic,” Jenkins said. “There was destruction as far as the eye could see, yet the dogs were tireless even while the pads of their feet were burned.”

Pat said every day the dogs had to go to a Veterinarian MASH unit to check in and at the end of the day received another medical checkup and a decontamination bath. The vets created booties that were secured with duct tape to protect the paws from the heated metal they were walking on, which had to be changed at least three times a day.

“Uno wouldn’t eat, drink or use the bathroom,” Gartman said. “All he wanted to do was work.”

Jenkins and other military chaplains arrived on Day 12. Their team stayed for two weeks with their days divided into thirds: ministering first to the rescue and recovery workers on The Pile, then at a hastily-constructed morgue and finally at the Family Center inside Pier 94 designed to assist families of the fallen. Inside was a giant curtained-off area that served as a makeshift nursery and childcare center.

More than 3,000 children lost a parent in the 9/11 attacks.

The first meeting of Jenkins, Gartman and Uno was on the only day she and Uno rode the ferry with victims’ families.  

Jim reached an emotional wall about halfway through his time there as he dealt with refrigerated body parts in the morgue and the anguished faces of people surrounding The Pile looking for missing family members.

“I began to feel very vulnerable and after comforting a woman in the family center I had to get as far away as I could from the people in that building. I sat down on the concrete floor and put my head down between my knees to collect myself so I could go on,” he recalled.

Jenkins recalled getting a strange feeling someone was watching him and then felt someone breathing on him. He looked up and there was this beautiful German shepherd dog that put his head in Jenkins lap and looked up at him.

“In that moment the dam broke and I let myself cry. I don’t know how long it went on, but it was a cathartic, healing experience for me,” he said. “I looked up at the dog’s owner and only asked her the name of her dog and thought she said ‘Bruno.’”

Jenkins often told others of his experience with an empathic Ground Zero therapy dog and spent years searching the internet pages on Ground Zero dogs looking for “Bruno” to no avail. 

He had another chance encounter with Gartman and Uno in the pediatric unit at PeaceHealth and was so excited to see “Bruno” he again forgot to ask the owner for her name.

In another chance encounter 17 years after 9/11, he shared his dog story with the owner of a German shepherd sitting outside of a McMinnville Starbucks. It was then he learned the dog’s real name was Uno and the dog he was petting was one of Uno’s offspring.

“I went online and searched for Uno and found him last year during the pandemic,” Jenkins said. “I called Pat and learned her husband had just died,” Jenkins said. “In that phone conversation I discovered she lived in Cottage Grove so I came down to meet her. It was unbelievable!”

Gartman and Jenkins described some of their most memorable and moving experiences. They said rituals were everywhere.

Each morning as the workers returned to The Pile, people would line the road and clap for them. Stockbrokers on their way to work would stop and cover their heart with their hand to honor the Ground Zero workers passing by. Whenever human remains were found a horn blast sounded and everybody stopped working and formed two lines and saluted as an American flag draped bucket was brought down to the morgue.

Pat said she and Uno walked over to a catatonic man sitting on his bucket holding his flashlight and crying. On another day, one of the workers broke down and told her he had recovered a charred adult hand with a child’s hand inside.

Jenkins recalled the day he met Sal, an upbeat burly equipment operator. He asked if he lost anyone in the attack. Sal turned his hard hat around to show the FDNY photos of his brother and son.

The deaths of 343 firefighters made it the single deadliest incident for firefighters in American history.

One heartbreaking experience Jenkins had was seeing a catatonic young man on the ferry coming to see Ground Zero for the first time.

“When the man saw the site, he tried to scream but nothing came out and he just tightly clenched his fists,” Jenkins recalled. “A golden retriever came over and sat next to him and the man started petting the dog first with one pinky and then slowly unclenched his hand. He then told me he lost his fiancé and they were to be married next week and now his whole world was gone.”

They both will never forget the awful smell that hung over the site. Jenkins described it as a nauseating cocktail of acrid chemicals — jet fuel and burnt building materials dampened by fire suppression.

Hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic debris containing more than 2,500 contaminants, including known carcinogens, were spread across Lower Manhattan due to the collapse of the Twin Towers. Much of the toxic dust was pulverized concrete.

At the end of each day, Jenkins had a Hazmat team decontaminate his boots, but that wasn’t offered to Pat. Both say they still have their dusty boots to remember their experience there.

“It was not lost on me that there was some measure of the probability that we were walking on pulverized human remains,” Jenkins said.

By May 2002, when the cleanup officially ended, workers had moved more than 108,000 truckloads — 1.8 million tons — of rubble to a Staten Island landfill.

In the weeks after the attacks, few people on The Pile wore masks or respirators. Jenkins and Gartman agreed that it was especially difficult to interact and comfort a grief-stricken person wearing a respirator.

Both Jenkins and Gartman are among the thousands of first responders and local residents who have been treated for cancer and other health conditions stemming their exposure to Ground Zero.  

Earlier this year, Gartman had a lung tumor surgically removed. Jenkins has a precancerous condition of his sinuses and esophagus and now has a raspy voice. They are also among the 70,000 workers and volunteers who struggle with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jenkins said, “It was the most remarkable response I’d ever seen to a human event. People came from everywhere and asked, ‘What can I do.’ The biggest challenge for security was deciding who to let inside the area.”

Gartman agreed. “I look back and think it was the most horrible but the most wonderful experience I ever had. I saw heroes and believe we were there representing so many people who wanted to give.”

The Gartmans permanently moved to their Cottage Grove farm in 2002. Uno died in 2010 just before his 14th birthday. Pat kept one of his grandsons and named him “Dude”. Sadly, he died last year soon after Bill’s death. She still has Lucy, the mother of four litters with Uno, which produced 32 pups.

After 19 years as a Cottage Grove resident, this month Pat moves to Colorado to be closer to her daughter.

As the 20th anniversary approached, Jenkins felt an urgency to pull together all the notes he’d written through the years and write a book. In his newly published book, “From Rubble to Redemption: A Ground Zero Chaplain Remembers,” he describes in detail his experiences in New York immediately after the terrorist attack.

Jenkins said he was ready to write a book to never let people forget what actually happened there. He said he felt he had a duty to tell what happened because he knows how a narrative can be crafted and how memories are extinguished over time.

“In writing this book, I ‘followed the rubble’ and realized the ‘Face of God’ is the way God is toward people in The Bible. 

“So I want people to know that in the rubble of their own lives, in the brokenness of their own lives, as we minister to them we are like the face of God and they can see His face in the midst of the rubble they are dealing with. They need to know that God can bring redemption out of the rubble,” Jenkins said.

During his two weeks in New York Jenkins had encounters with the victims’ families, political leaders like Rudy Giuliani and celebrities like Elton John. He said God showed up in very unique and amazing ways.

His 210-page book has received positive reviews and is available on Amazon and Kindle.

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