Pennsylvania Task Force 1 recalls effort to help at Ground Zero after 9/11 attacks

"There was a sense of togetherness. It took that to bring a sense of togetherness," one crew member said.

ByWalter Perez and Heather Grubola WPVI logo
Wednesday, September 8, 2021
Pa. Task Force 1 recalls effort to help after 9/11 attacks
Action News anchor Walter Perez sat down with members of Pennsylvania Task Force 1 who answered the call on September 11, 2001.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- As our country approaches 20 years since the September 11th attacks, Action News is catching up with people directly impacted - along with the heroes and the families whose lives were forever changed. Among them is Pennsylvania's urban search and rescue unit.

Pennsylvania Task Force 1 is known as the group of elite first responders who run into situations that other people flee.

Action News anchor Walter Perez sat down with members of that crew who answered the call on September 11, 2001.

"It was surreal, and something you never forget," said Craig Murphy, who is now a First Deputy Commissioner with the Philadelphia Fire Department.

He said, putting aside the horror of that day, he remembers how it also united our country.

"On the ride down the West Side Highway, it's nothing but citizens from New York cheering us on. Going in, going out, everybody was together. There was a sense of togetherness. It took that to bring a sense of togetherness," he said.

But now-retired Task Force 1 member Francis Werner said that enthusiasm, coupled with the prospect of saving people who might be trapped at Ground Zero, rapidly faded as they came to realize that everyone inside the World Trade Center either escaped or died on the day of the attack.

"We dug and dug and dug and the enthusiasm turned into frustration. And as the days went on, frustration turned to depression," he said.

"All of the task forces, all of the members of the FDNY, we looked at it as though we were going to do some good here. I am going to help. So, it never came into our mind that we wouldn't find somebody," said Murphy.

But after 14 days, Task Force 1 returned home without finding a single person alive in the rubble.

Today, there is a small memorial inside their headquarters in Philadelphia's Tacony section, complete with a chunk of steel they pulled from the wreckage of the north tower. And it would be a few years before Werner realized he brought back something he did not want.

Local 9/11 Memorials: See map of more than 100 locations

Werner has been treated for several cancers over the past few years linked to his exposure to toxins released by the World Trade Center collapse. Still, his health issues have done nothing to sully his pride in responding during his county's time of need.

"My cancers are all under control at this point, and I am monitored," he said. "Would I still go back? Absolutely."

"It's our duty to remind everyone of what happened that day. Not only what happened that day, but what continues to happen because of that day," said Murphy. "I mean the illnesses, everything that's going on related to those that worked, friends of ours that worked Ground Zero at 9/11."

And Francis Werner is certainly not the only member of Task Force 1 sickened by the toxic debris from Ground Zero. Several of Werner's colleagues have suffered from long term illness, at least three have died.