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Zack Unger is packing for a trip very few will ever take. He's a logistics specialist for an urban search and rescue unit, based in Oakland, California. As more professional rescue teams are embarking for New York, firefighter Zach and his team are readying and steeling themselves for their volunteer tour of duty. What remains of the collapsed World Trade Centers is fragile at best and recovering more than 6,000 bodies will be gruesome and ginger work.

Postcard - Tour of Duty

By Zack Unger, 9/7/2001

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Watching the towers fall last Tuesday morning, my immediate reaction was: "I have to get on an airplane." Within eight hours of being called, my team can arrive at the nearest Air Force base with 62 rescuers, 60,000 pounds of equipment and 2 dogs. We carry enough food, water, shelter and power to sustain us through a full four days of hard work.

In the basement of my firehouse I always keep a bag packed and ready to go: T-Shirts, socks, an out-of-date magazine to read on the flight. The details of traveling with this small city are daunting, and I'm responsible for the tiny particulars of this massive operation. While everyone else was glued to their televisions, I was in my car and speeding towards our warehouse, cataloguing all the things that needed to be done: Put new blades on the concrete saws; charge the batteries in the search camera; buy dogfood; call mom.

At the warehouse I started throwing lids on boxes, finishing up projects that I had half completed before there was any need for haste. Packing for a trip like this is like moving to a new house...and stopping at each K-Mart and Home Depot along the way and buying every single item they sell. It felt good to be doing something though, good to be involved in a project that made me feel I was helping. It kept my mind off images of a column of New York firefighters trapped in a smoky stairwell.

I worked in a frenzy, waiting for the signal that would send me East. But it didn't come. Hours later, as adrenaline finally gave way to fatigue, a man from FEMA called and told us to stand-by on high alert, that we'd be going for sure, but not for a week or more. This rescue and recovery effort is massive-the rubble pile alone is taller than the Oklahoma Federal Building was...before it was bombed. It will take months to finish the awful clean-up, and my team is being saved for the long days of work that are still ahead.

So, days later, I'm still here, still in Oakland, waiting for the call that will send me to New York. Sitting in the quiet warehouse late last night, with gear piled up to the ceiling, I realized that in the rush of my arrangements, I've been too busy to think about getting myself ready. Sadly, by the time we arrive, rescue will have given way to body recovery. My team will dangle from ropes, pressing heavy tools into the unstable pile of debris that they're hanging from. Among the many horrible choices brought about by this tragedy, the one that I face is this: How long should we continue to risk the living...to search for the dead.

I've oiled the jackhammers and arranged the meal packs: spaghetti to the left, kung-pao chicken to the right. I've stacked the boxes and loaded the pallets. But until I get there, until I go to work, there is no way to know how the blocks and blocks of destruction will affect me.

I'm packed, but not prepared.

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