9/11’s Recovery, Life Lessons Live on for Health First’s Emergency Preparedness Expert Wayne Struble
By Sara Paulson, Health First // September 11, 2020
Struble is front and center when Health First assembles a Command Center for hurricanes or public health crises
Wayne Struble Spent Two Weeks Combing Through the Devastating World Trade Center Rubble
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – Wayne Struble is dedicated to serving Brevard in its times of need, no matter the impending crisis. And his search and recovery work at Ground Zero reverberate in everything he does.
Every year, Wayne Struble sees the photo flashed across the screen during 9/11 memorial coverage. And that moment at the recovery site of the World Trade Center washes over him.
He’d found remains. And he knew he had to find out who that person was.
“I pulled a wallet out,” Struble said of the clothing he’d found.
“It was probably the worst thing I ever did. There’s the guy’s driver’s license, and he’s got all these pictures. There was a picture of his wife and two kids. I know he’s dead.”
It was devastating to see, but being able to provide closure to the man’s loved ones was his duty. His calling, as painful as it was. But putting a face to the man he found haunts him to this day. The man whose wallet he’d found had been a passenger on one of the flights hijacked by terrorists.
“Every year, I watch all the 9/11 things that are on,” he explained stoically from Health First’s COVID-19 Command Center last month.
“And every year, I see him. I see his wife. I know her. I don’t know her because I’ve never met her. The picture they put on the shows all the time is the picture of him he had in his wallet. That sticks with me. I wish I never opened that wallet. It becomes personal. And you don’t want to let it get personal, because it becomes very hard to deal with.”
A founding member of a state-based urban search and rescue team in Newark, New Jersey, Struble spent two weeks combing through the devastating rubble. He and his crew quickly came to realize this was a mission to deliver closure for families, clamoring to find out what happened to their loved ones.
There would be no survivor stories for his team.
“It was a horrible feeling,” he said.
Struble is the kind of person who does what needs to be done for his community. Things that most people never see or experience – and probably never want to.
Now, for him, that community is Brevard. The experiences Struble culled from his years in fire-rescue, search and rescue, hospital emergency operations and more have helped make Health First – and the community it serves – more prepared to brace for and weather whatever unfolds.
Struble is front and center when Health First assembles a Command Center for hurricanes or public health crises. It’s a role he’s relished since joining the Integrated Delivery Network (IDN) in September 2014 – 13 years after his time at Ground Zero.
It’s something not lost as we remember all who died on 9/11.
A PART OF HISTORY
Struble has responded to a myriad of emergencies. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The collapse of the parking garage of the Tropicana Casino in New Jersey. Natural disasters.
After Hurricane Sandy, he managed the disaster field hospitals, living in a tent for months on the field.
He’s been shot at. Had a gun held to his head. Planned for potential health pandemics from the avian flu and H1N1 virus. And countless other heart-racing scenarios that could fill a book.
From that, he’s gleaned how to steel Health First against whatever emergencies might arise.
“I responded from the stateside,” Struble said of his work in New Jersey and the surrounding areas.
“I went to dozens of hospital and nursing home evacuations from fires and more. To pull all that together here was kind of natural. It’s easy for me because that’s what I did.”
The morning of 9/11, Struble popped a video in the VHS player for his 3-year-old daughter when the TV flickered on. There was carnage. The north tower of the World Trade Center had a gaping hole in the side of it, black smoke billowing from its innards.
As the rest of the country was trying to piece together what was happening, Struble knew. He handed his daughter to his wife and headed to the heart of New York City, wondering who he knew in that building and whether they’d gotten out.
He could see the burning skyscrapers from the Jersey side of the river. By the time he arrived, some three hours later due to standstill traffic, both towers had collapsed. He was a man on a mission to save people. Blackhawk helicopters flew overhead. Military plans buzzed over him.
“It’s just a very surreal situation,” he recalled. “We got there not long after the second tower collapsed. When we got off the truck, and literally, the dust from the towers was almost knee-deep.”
Struble strode through the debris, light as powdery snowflakes. He didn’t feel it on his limbs as he trudged toward Ground Zero.
“It would just come up all around you and just settle,” Struble remembered. “You could see footprints. It’s just like when you walk through snow. It was a very eerie situation.”
As he walked, he wondered.
“I had no idea who of my friends were there,” said Struble, who eventually learned he lost a good friend, a Port Authority policeman, in the attack.
“You’re starting to think, ‘Who’s here, who’s not? Who do I have to look for? Who’s missing?’ You don’t know. I just wanted to get to work and try to find people.”
It was disheartening and exhausting. Even the rescue dogs, trained to recover living people, seemed depressed, Struble said.
“It was a horrible feeling to know you’re searching and doing everything you can,” he said of finding no survivors and the sheer volume of the search area. “People have no idea the size of the site, how big it was.”
There were debris piles eight stories high, similar in height to Health First’s Holmes Regional Medical Center. Struble compares the scope of the recovery area to the area around the Melbourne hospital — U.S. 1 to 192 to Babcock Road and NASA Boulevard.
Struble was so enveloped in his search efforts that he forgot an important detail – to let his family know he was okay. His cell phone was dead. It didn’t even register in his mind to use a landline.
“I didn’t think about calling home,” Struble said with regret, acknowledging he was consumed by his duties on site.
“They had no idea if I was alive or dead. When my wife last saw me, the towers hadn’t collapsed yet. She knew I was there. As far as they knew, I could’ve been killed.”
Seven days in, two colleagues came storming up to him.
“One grabbed me by the collar,” he recalled. “One grabbed me by the ear, like I was a little kid. And they’re like, ‘What the heck is wrong with you?’ They literally dragged me to a phone and made me call my wife.
“I felt bad I didn’t call,” he somberly continued. “I was so engrossed being there, my whole focus was on trying to find people alive. I was trying to keep my family sheltered from that in a way. I had no idea what the world was seeing.”
Grappling with the Past
But 9/11 didn’t leave Struble once he left Ground Zero. It lives in him to this day.
For a long time, he felt great unease. He’s had health issues he strongly suspects are a result of his time at the site.
And the memories. That’s a whole different story – one he’s learned to embrace through not burying what he saw into the depths of his mind, but talking about it. He’s done that as a docent.
“I became a tour guide for 9/11 tribute center and memorial, before the 9/11 Memorial & Museum was open,” he said. “It was such a relief for me because I was able to talk about it. I still get a little of the emotion, but it actually gets weight off of my chest to be able to talk about it.”
He’ll go to the site, provide private tours for family and friends. His tales could take him two to three days, if he were to walk a guest through the 9/11 Memorial, he said.
It’s something that’s important to him. To remember those lost. What he experienced. And to help him come to peace with it.
Despite the emotional and physical tolls on him, Struble would do it again.
“I would in a heartbeat,” he insisted.
A NEW BEGINNING IN BREVARD
It’s difficult to sum up Struble’s career in a simple writing. His memories here are but one small piece of the puzzle that landed him at Brevard’s leading healthcare system.
Struble expected to be a retiree, spending his days golfing and fishing. But the call of serving others in emergencies doesn’t end, no matter your ZIP code. So, he joined Health First in 2014.
He savors the opportunity to continue to help others in a healthcare environment, whether it’s bracing for or reacting to natural disasters, or helping to manage a public health crisis whose end seems to be nowhere in sight.
“To be able to pull all that together is natural,” he said, adding his experience in New Jersey gave him the tools to navigate whatever crisis Brevard is facing. “It makes it a lot easier. I’m able to pull from that to help us with COVID-19.”
As we mark the 19th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in history, it’s important to remember that even in the darkest moments, there is hope.
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A few days into his Ground Zero service, Struble, who admits being not particularly religious, and his crew found something beautiful amidst the rubble.
There, encased in a mound of debris in a pitch-black area, was a cluster of steel beams. A stream of sunlight shone through, illuminating the gnarled wreckage. Wreckage that resembled a cross.
Perhaps coincidence. Perhaps a nod from above. That even in tragedy, hope could prevail.
“We were all like, ‘I don’t care if you believe or not, you cannot tell me that is not a sign,’ ” said Struble. “It was one of those eye-opening, holy cow, we’re-going-to-get-through-this miraculous moments.”
Like any disaster, it’s those moments that pull us through. And remind us.
“It’s going to be okay,” he assuredly said. “We’re going to get through this.”
We always do.