Looking for Survivors

Retired Naperville Fire Captain Chuck Wehrli was on his way to teach a class in Structural Collapse Training in Arlington Heights when he heard the news of the attack. As an active member of the Missouri Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) team he called to say he’d be available, not thinking he’d ever have to go to New York City. An hour into his class, he received the news.

“I drove back home, called my wife on the way there, told her to get my bags ready and got in my car and did the six hour drive to Columbia, Mo,” said Wehrli. “I made it there a little bit quicker than that.”

Once in Missouri, Wehrli and the rest of the 70 person team got on one of the only seven planes allowed to fly that day and headed out. They made it to New York City within 24 hours of the attacks.

“We were not sure what we would see,” said Wehrli. “We couldn’t watch TV on the plane or anything like that. So when we got there the most depressing thing was the block and blocks of people lined up to help.”

Wehrli spent the next ten days assisting FEMA teams from across the country. His role was a safety officer, watching over all the teams.

“It was obviously overwhelming, what do you look for?” said Wehrli. “We were just looking for survivors, never found any…alive. They were all pretty well done by about 5 a.m. the next morning; the last two police officers were pulled out alive.”

Wehrli didn’t know at the time, but one of the victims he and his team recovered was Joe Angelini Sr., a man who Wehrli met seven years earlier.

“I wanted to buy one of the shirts that said Rescue One on it and I wanted one of the rescue patches,” said Wehrli. “The driver that day was Joe Angelini Sr., he and his son both perished on 9/11. He ripped the patch off his hat and gave it to me. I said ‘that’s cool Joe, you didn’t have to do that.’ He said ‘I have several more at home, don’t worry about it.’ So four days into it our guys found the remains of a civilian lady and a firefighter, and they ID’d him as a firefighter from Rescue One. I got to help remove the body of the guy that gave me the patch seven years earlier.”

The memory of 9/11 still stands strong in Wehrli’s mind and he says he’ll never forget the heroes of that day.

“There were a lot of heroes that day,” said Wehrli. “Firefighters and police officers, we always looked up to them when we were kids also. I think everybody looks up to them. Many thousands have died since then, there’s always that respect for them. Every year you hear of more dying from the dust.”

Wehrli says we can never prevent something like 9/11 from ever happening, but says because of that day America as a whole is prepared much better than we were ten years ago.

In addition to the 28 nation wide FEMA teams, Illinois now has 32 state teams to help out in a disaster.

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