Sept. 13. 2001: Local officials answer national call for help

September 8, 2006 

Cotton Howell, York County's emergency management director, was whisked off to New York on a chartered Lear jet around midnight Tuesday.

York County Coroner Doug McKown left for New York in a van early Wednesday morning.

As members of the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) — a team dispatched to disaster scenes around the country — both men were called in to help handle the mass fatalities after Tuesday's terrorist attack, which left hundreds dead in New York, Wash-ington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

'Focused on our task'

"We're very focused on our task and what we have to do," a fatigued Howell said Wednes-day afternoon, speaking from a cell phone on the corner of Park Avenue and 67th Street in Manhattan — about a quarter mile from the site where terrorists crashed two jets into the World Trade Center's twin towers on Tuesday.

After spending most of the day Tuesday coordinating emergency personnel in York County, Howell flew out of Charlotte on Tuesday night. The jet stopped to pick up another passenger at Camp Lejeune military base near Jacksonville, N.C., before traveling on to Stewart Air National Guard Base in New-burgh, N.Y., about 50 miles from New York City, he said. From there, he was driven into the city.

Howell is one of six people nationwide trained to manage the portable morgues set up after major disasters with staggering death tolls.

To handle a massive number of casualties, emergency officials set up these temporary morgues in large sites such as military bases, aircraft hangars or high school gyms, Howell said.

"We just go where we're told," Howell said Tuesday, adding that he has been sent to other disasters such as the 1999 EgyptAir crash near Nantucket, Mass., that left 217 dead and the 2000 Alaska Airlines crash that killed 88 off the coast of Malibu, Calif.

In this case, Howell said, "we're looking at thousands of people dead."

Howell said Wednesday afternoon that he still didn't know where the temporary morgue would be set up to handle the victims of the World Trade Center attack.

Organized but 'surreal'

The scene in downtown Manhattan was "surreal," he said, with smoke still rising from the ashes where the two 110-story towers once stood. Nonetheless, most people were relatively calm and organized, he said.

The area surrounding the attack site was cordoned off as hundreds of emergency workers — from law enforcement officers to military personnel — combed the wreckage for clues and survivors.

"There's plenty of medical personnel here," he added.

Howell said it was part of his job to remain clear-headed and calm during emergency situations. "There's a mission," he said. "We stay focused, we work on our mission. That's just part of the professionalism."

York County emergency management officials said Wednes-day that things were back to business as usual on the local scene.

"Everything has actually been very quiet," said the county's Emergency Management Coordinator, Mike Channell. "We are still pretty much on lockdown." Duke Energy's Catawba Nuclear Station on Lake Wylie continued operating at a heightened level of security Wednesday, he added.

While federal emergency officials haven't yet asked for additional rescue or medical personnel, Channell said citizens could help out by donating blood or sending financial donations to the Red Cross.

York County's 911 director, Ralph Merchant, said the volume of 911 calls Tuesday and Wednesday was not much higher than normal. Most callers asked about where they could go to donate blood or how they could assist with rescue efforts, he said. Bomb threats were called in Tuesday to Rock Hill High School and to a Subway sandwich shop in Fort Mill, but the threats were later dismissed as hoaxes, he added.

Others ready to help

Many local emergency medical personnel said they were ready to help out with rescue efforts, if needed.

Ronny Green, director of York County Emergency Medical Services, said that as of Wednes-day afternoon, none of his workers had been called in to assist.

"We do have some nurses who are anxious to go up to the Washington and New York area," said Piedmont Medical Center spokeswoman Carolyn Carpenter. But as of Wednesday evening, no additional help had been requested from the State Hospital Association, she said.

Area police officials said the National Crime Information Center sent out a message Wednesday stating that they didn't yet need any additional "mutual aid" — police, firefighters or emergency medical workers — right now.

Contact Caroline Brustad at 329-4082 or cbrustad@heraldonline.com. Herald writer Susan Stabley contributed to this story.

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