Former Arizonan and firefighter recalls days at Ground Zero

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, former Arizonan Robert Sebold — a volunteer firefighter and EMT — watched the attacks on the World Trade Center on TV from a high school construction site in Virginia and knew he had to do something.

Sebold tried to gather his fellow firefighters from Gladstone, Va., to make the trip to New York to help, but said he ended up alone.

The former soldier packed up his gear, put on his firefighter turnout clothes, then boarded a bus and headed for Ground Zero.

When he got off the bus in New York on Sept. 13, Sebold, 48, said police officers walked up to him and hugged him, thanking him for coming to help.

“I’d never seen a cop cry,” said Sebold, who grew up in Cochise County.

“And the only time I’d ever been hugged by cops is when they were body-slamming me,” he joked.

The police officers gave Sebold a lift to Ground Zero.

‘All that twisted metal’

Crossing through the police barriers, Sebold was directed to a command center where he checked in with a doctor and was given a respirator.

He went to work on a bucket brigade, pulling dirt, dust and debris from piles to search for victims. Moving closer and closer to larger piles, he began to lose hope.

“It felt like it was done. There’s no way anyone’s alive in there. All that twisted metal….”

On that first day, he worked 14 hours alongside fellow volunteers from around the country, buddying up with Ryan Luddick, a college student from Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, S.C.

Sebold and Luddick walked through New York to Manhattan where they were to spend the night in a hotel. Along the way, they were pulled into bars by New Yorkers who wanted to buy them food and beer.

“Manhattan was in total diametric opposition to the feeling at the site. They were giving us food and beer and telling us, ‘You’re our guests.’ ”

The pair returned to the site in the morning and Sebold was given a cooler full of first-aid supplies, which he used throughout the day to treat workers who were being cut by metal and having to rinse their eyes frequently.

He also continued to search for victims.

“I felt like it was futile. Everyone was so desperate to find anything,” he said, adding that he believes many also felt it was hopeless, but working hard was a way of coping with the horror of 9/11.

Days at Ground Zero took their toll

Sebold left New York on Sept. 18, five days after arriving. He felt he did what he could and authorities began turning volunteers away.

“We were told it was becoming a liability. FEMA was there and closed off the site to volunteers.”

But those five days haunt Sebold, more than just emotionally. He now has serious health problems that began developing within weeks of returning home to Virginia.

It started with a hacking cough, he said. He now suffers from chronic bronchitis, chronic rhinitis, COPD, sleep apnea, acid reflux and PTSD.

Sebold enrolled in the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, which monitors the health problems of those who served at Ground Zero. It also covers all of his medical expenses.

Despite the health problems, Sebold, who now works as a construction superintendent and has a recording studio, says he did the right thing in helping.

“I love America. I love it with my whole heart. There’s no way I’d be able to stay home and not do anything.”

Sebold returned to New York on the first anniversary of the attacks.

He recalls being in a restaurant with New York firefighters listening to the names of the dead being read and jokes made among them about names being mispronounced. But by about the 100th name, Sebold said the mood turned somber.

“Everyone started crying. It was very emotional.”

He hasn’t returned since.

“It’s too big to go there,” he said. “It encompasses all of our lives, everyday. It’s just one drop in the ripple effect.”

And how will he spend the 10th anniversary of the attacks Sunday?

“I can stay at home and pray for the victims and their families, and for our soldiers,” he said. “I’ll watch the service on TV and I’ll think about the people I met and served with. I’ll be thankful for that honor.”