Matt Schofield was a 24-year-old firefighter in Jefferson City when he got a life-altering call on Sept. 11, 2001.
Schofield, a member of Missouri Task Force 1, had been alerted that his assistance was needed to search for victims of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. At noon, all 62 members of Missouri Task Force 1 were officially activated and began to pack up 40,000 pounds of equipment to help with rescue efforts.
“We were deployed on 9/11, and we knew there would be a good chance that we would go [to New York City] once we saw what had occurred,” said Schofield.
The task force drove to Whiteman Airforce Base in Johnson County and departed via military aircraft, escorted by military fighter jets.
It was then that Schofield and Missouri Task Force 1 officially began their first federally-deployed mission.
“For a lot of us, it was new and very intimidating. But I think we knew that we had a very good team and that we were very well trained,” Schofield said. “We felt like we were ready for the challenge, but at the same time, there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty.”
For the next 10 days, the unit worked along with seven other FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces from every corner of the nation, and other local jurisdictions like the New York City police and fire departments.
The task force set up a command post at Battery Park, less than a mile from the scene of the terrorist attacks.
“When you first turn that corner and you look out onto essentially the rubble pile, the first thought is that it’s just so big,” recalled Schofield. “It’s overwhelming — it’s 10 to 20 stories high in some places, and that deep, as well. I think a lot of people don’t realize there are so many sub-levels."
It was a three-dimensional challenge, as Schofield explained. There were subway stations interconnected to the towers from below and floors to search for people in, and the remains of the buildings were still burning.
“There was a lot of smoke, a lot of fumes and heat from the fire that was still burning,” said Schofield. “[The fire] burned the entire time we were there in some areas.”
Schofield’s role as a search team manager was to look for bodies in the rubble piles.
“Our first priority was to find anyone who was trapped (in the rubble). That is really what our bread-and-butter mission is,” said Schofield.
Schofield also assisted in looking for human remains, which he believes helps bring closure to the victim’s families.
“It was long, hard days,” said Schofield.
Another challenge that Schofield faced was keeping the equipment clean. Toxic dust and dirt covered his gear. Fumes laid heavy in the September air. Missouri Task Force 1 wore respirators and heavy equipment as they worked in the remains of the attack.
“Everything that you can imagine was in that dust,” said Schofield. “Everything. Human remains were in that dust; hazardous materials were in that dust. Everything that was part of that building was pulverized into the dust. That created a very toxic mixture.”
To this day, Schofield is a part of a health monitoring program for first responders who helped during Sept. 11. Many have been shown to have higher risks of diseases like cancer, respiratory disorder and other life-altering illnesses.
The emotional challenge of searching for individuals perhaps is the thing Schofield most remembers on the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
“As someone who is in the fire service, I know there will always be a connection between the service and the events of 9/11," he said.
"Our priority is to honor the fallen, the people who lost their lives that day, not only at ground zero but also on the (Flight 93) plane and the Pentagon, those who have passed since because of complications from those experiences,” said Schofield. “Our goal is to honor their legacy with what we do every day.”