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First responders at Ground Zero.

RCMP officer compelled to help at Ground Zero

Weeks after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, Cst. Manny Pizarro arrived to help at Ground Zero. Credit: RCMP

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Although they occurred in the US, the impact was felt around the world as flights were rerouted, security tightened and borders closed. In Remembrance, Gazette writer Paul Northcott talks to several RCMP officers and staff about their personal accounts of the horrific day and aftermath. Read Part 3 of our 4-part series below.

When planes flew into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Cst. Manny Pizarro was almost 5,000 kilometers away in the RCMP detachment office in Gibsons, B.C.

"I just thought at that moment, I've got to be there," says Pizarro, a Montreal native with family connections in the suburbs of New York City.

Pizarro was also a member of the RCMP's clandestine operation services in British Columbia, and as luck, or chance, would have it, he was scheduled to be in Montreal later that month to discuss an ongoing undercover operation.

Pizarro, being fluent in Spanish, had been solicited as a potential candidate for the operation.

Only once he'd arrived, the operation was cancelled as all RCMP efforts in Quebec were directed toward dealing with the fallout from the terrorist attacks in the United States. An RCMP Command Centre was set up in place of the cancelled operations.

"I was there, but I had no job. Mine was canceled," says Pizarro, who is now based in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Que.

But, officials in New York were looking for volunteers to assist with their massive security and clean-up needs. Pizarro immediately called the Command Centre to volunteer.

"I called, told them what skills I had and the person on the other end told me to get to New York City," says Pizarro, who also speaks French and is experienced in alpine search and rescue.

Pizarro arrived in New York on September 16 and was put to work at Ground Zero on a bucket brigade – teams of four that would meticulously dig through the debris of the World Trade Center towers looking for victims' belongings.

"The debris was like clay, so difficult to come apart. But everything we found –wallets, jewelry, anything that was a personal effect—was turned over to the FBI at the end of the day," says Pizarro.

He says every once in a while a horn would sound and work would stop.

"Sometimes you'd hear someone shout 'We found a brother,'" says Pizarro. "Someone would race to the location with a flag and it would be silent … as silent as it could be."

He also got a chance to put his alpine skills to use when he was asked to rappel 45 metres into an elevator shaft to look for victims.

"There was nothing down there, but I was glad to do it because I knew I could," he says.

Pizarro was at Ground Zero for five days – sleeping on site and eating lots of fast food. The work was monotonous and at time grisly. Bodies and body parts were a common find.

Pizarro says he felt his work was appreciated.

"We could have worked two or 12 hours a day. Nobody would have cared. The New Yorkers were glad to have the help," says Pizarro, who met dozens of Americans who flocked to the site to help.

"We all had a bond because we were doing things that most people wouldn't want to and finding things people don't want to see."

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