Story by: Major David C. Andersen, USMC, New York City PAO
GROUND ZERO, NEW YORK -- Pain shot through my back in the late night hours of 6 March 2002 from the weight of the stretcher, but Marines always complete the mission. With Sgt. Maj. Michael S. Curtin, 45, USMCR (RET) & NYPD, in my left hand and his wife and daughter only feet in front of me, sense of duty led the way as it has for many men better than I for hundreds of years.
As we picked up the Sergeant Major, I thought back to only hours ago when my U.S. Marine Corps Public Affairs Office in Midtown-Manhattan received the call that we stood ready for since September 11. In fact, I received four calls in about three minutes from numerous Emergency Services Unit men -- better known as "E-MEN" throughout the famed New York City Police Department. The messages were all the same, "Dave, get down here - we found the Sergeant Major."
We proceeded down off of a small plateau on the North side of the dig, which probably would have put us in sub-level five (five stories underground) of Tower One. My mind wandered to Sergeant Major's wife Helga, a former Marine, and his three daughters Jennifer, 15; Heather, 14; and Erika, 12. The native of Rocky Point, N.Y. had become a folk hero in the NYPD as he ran his Truck like a platoon - a platoon of Marines. "TRUCK-2" is located on 125th Street in Harlem and upon entering one might think they have entered a company office at Camp Lejeune or a barracks at Camp Schwab as proud men go about their business with Marine Corps haircuts and squared-away uniforms - Sgt. Maj. Curtin had obviously been here.
Leveling out at about sub-level seven in a pool of soupy-mud heading south toward the exit-ramp, I glanced back over my shoulder and saw the Ground Zero flag that I grabbed out of our office on the way downtown. It had been signed by the victim’s families months prior and we were able to get it to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit on the USS Bataan who then took it ashore to fly it in the face of terrorism over the Kandahar Airport in Afghanistan. Who gave it to us? E-Men that Curtin knew. Curtin had loved the American Flag, his family had told me, and it was fitting that he lay next to me covered in the flag that he raised in Kuwait City a decade ago. That flag had been waiting for him in a box in the ESU Headquarters that I noticed on occasion marked "THIS FLAG IS FOR SGT. MIKE CURTIN ONLY!!!!!!!!" And of course to make it complete - the Marine Corps colors were also present and were carried by two of his TRUCK-2 E-MEN.
As we started up the bridge, the voice of what had to be a former Marine rang out throughout the 16-acre complex - "present arms!" The exit-ramp was lined with hundreds of proud members of the NYPD, ESU, PAPD, FDNY and Steel Workers with the night lit up by thousands of flashing emergency-vehicle lights. As we pushed forward keeping step with former Marine and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, I thought of the infamous story that made the Sergeant Major a Marine Corps folk hero. It was not the story of his rescue efforts at the first Trade Tower’s bombing in 1993, but rather the story of him spotting the red stripe of Capt. Randolph L. Guzman's, USMC, dress-blue trousers in the rubble of the Oklahoma City bombing. He located a group of former Marines and then took approximately seven hours to pull him out as he said, "we never leave our brother's behind." He managed to free the “Skipper” who was probably watching this procession waiting to thank Mike one day. They carried him out draped in an American flag with his dress blue trousers sticking out with his shined shoes pointing toward heaven's gates. All was quiet. No talking. No machinery. Only the sound of a million thoughts - much like I could hear at this very moment heading out of the hole.
As we approached the top, I noticed that an ESU Truck was waiting for him - his truck...TRUCK-2. We hoisted the Sergeant Major up high - hands reaching with fingertips out stretched - and I wondered if anyone shared my thoughts at that very moment. It was reminiscent of the out stretched fingers of another famous group of Marines years ago on a small island in the South Pacific. Finally, with one last adjustment needed to secure the stretcher, a body was needed to jump up and climb to the top. Who scrambled to the top of the huge truck? Who else - Helga, his wife. In front of hundreds of tough cops - she made the last adjustment to take care of her husband much like I imagine he did for her for many years. That simple act was breath-taking - an act that the Sergeant Major represented for years - selflessly helping other people and NOT wanting to be recognized for it.
We then headed North on the FDR. The motorcade was long and bright as we approached the 0100 hour. All traffic was stopped and civilians stood outside their halted cars lining the roads with hands over hearts and hats off. Motorcycle cops at every intersection had salutes at the ready. At the morgue, my Gunny and I folded the flag under the watch of many eyes. Suddenly, TRUCK-2 members and other E-MEN stepped forward to aid us. We presented the colors to Helga and then took care of the Sergeant Major.
My ride home was long. Covered in mud that I never wanted to wash off. I hoped and prayed that we did the Curtin family proud as well as our nation. I think the Sergeant Major would have been proud. I also thought that although my Marines and I have seen the pile shrink on a daily basis - it is still there. It will always be there. The billions of tears that have fallen on this earth will never be washed away and we cannot forget. The mangled iron, smell and feeling is still lurking in that hole and I feel it everyday - you just cannot see, hear or smell it on the television.
I shed a tear coming out of "the pit" that night as I held my head high. I also felt like there were a band of brothers waiting at the top all dressed in our Corps' uniforms from day’s gone bye. Then it really hit home that the bridge was symbolic - it was a long steep trek up seven stories, but Sergeant Major Curtin made it out of that hell-hole led by his wife, carried by the entire Corps, and the rest of his country that he loved so much - REMEMBER THE TOWERS.