20 Year Anniversary of 9/11: A National Guardsman Recalls His Mission at Ground Zero

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Natalie Filzen
  • District of Columbia Air National Guard

Chief Master Sgt. Tim Russer, special assistant to the D.C. Air National Guard Director of Staff, was a senior airman in the New York National Guard when the World Trade Center was attacked in 2001. That day, he was working his full-time job as an audio visual specialist for Freeport Public Schools in Freeport, New York. Due to the nature of his job, his office was one of the only rooms in the building that had a television, so he was able to witness the events that occurred 45 minutes away, unfolding on the news.

Understanding the gravity of what happened, he called his base multiple times to respond to the disaster as a National Guardsman, but the phone continued to ring off the hook. Days later, New York Gov. George Pataki called on the National Guard units from all over the state to volunteer for Operation Resolve, where Russer would put on his military uniform to guard Ground Zero.

“We were augmenting the New York City Police Department to help provide a presence around the event so that it was a safe place for the firemen and their emergency rescue workers to begin searching for survivors,” said Russer.

One of the clearest memories of the grounds for Russer was a church where Ground Zero volunteers would gather for food, rest or supplies. He recalled sleeping on the pews when he was exhausted and even visited the location years later in 2013. The church is now a memorial for 9/11. 

He remembers the organized chaos of Operation Resolve, akin to building a plane while flying it. He also remembers the community, how all of New York City seemed to band together to provide support for responders and affected families.

“My first night out there, I just remembered seeing folks that lived in the area go up to their apartment in New York City, make a tray of coffee in a coffee pot with all the fixings, and just walk around to whoever wanted a cup of coffee,” said Russer. “Then they'd go back up to their apartment and brew another couple of pots. Everybody was just giving, giving, giving, like a real community.”

During that time, he witnessed how people from around the country wanted to participate and send supplies. School children would write letters or color pictures, thanking first responders for their service. 

Growing up and living on Long Island, he would often take the Long Island Railroad to commute home from the school district. His route passed by a parking lot for New York City commuters. He would work late nights, and the night of 9/11, he left his office at 10 p.m. Typically, by that hour, the parking lot would always be empty because the commuters had gone home. That night, the lot was full.

“That was an eerie reminder that even 40 miles away, this was still affecting real people. All those cars still in the parking lot were the folks that didn't make it home,” said Russer.

His memories of his commute to Ground Zero when he transitioned from his full-time job at Freeport Public Schools to being activated as a Guardsman also exuded remnants of the tragedy.

“We'd have to go under a tunnel to get to the site, and I remember going through the tunnel and still smelling the smoke like it was a house fire during my fireman days. It was interesting that, even several weeks after the event, there was still evidence in a tunnel miles away,” said Russer.

The catastrophe that occurred 20 years ago was a defining moment not only for Russer but also for the country and the National Guard.

“It helped me realize why I'm a Guardsman, what it is to be a Guardsman. We have our federal mission, but we're also this extra trained body of professionals that have a duty not only to the nation but also to your state,” said Russer. “That brought some value to the career decision. There is meaning behind why we put the uniform on every day.”