In the inky blackness beneath the rubble at ground zero a decade ago, fire captain Michael Bartley searched in vain for signs of life.
For 10 days in lower Manhattan, he and other members of the Sacramento Urban Search and Rescue Team scoured the smoldering, trembling mountain of debris created by the worst terrorist attacks in American history.
Armed with search dogs and listening equipment, cellphone receivers and cutting tools, they put their lives in peril in hope of rescuing people trapped in the wreckage.
They found only body parts and blood spatters.
As he emerged from "the pile" each morning, surrounded by scenes of grief and loss, Bartley began to search his own heart.
In tiny, meticulous prose on the back of touristy postcards he bought at a souvenir kiosk, he poured out his feelings to Erin Brittain, his new girlfriend back home.
A decade later, Brittain is his wife, and together they are raising two young daughters. Today, as they've done on Sept. 11 for nine years running, they will pull out the box where those postcards are stored. They will sit close together as they read them, one by one, a quiet tribute to those who died in the attacks and profound reminder of the tragedy that changed their lives.
September 13, 2001, 12:13 a.m.
Just have a few minutes to say 'Hi' before our team leaves for the debris area. So many of our brother and sister firefighters have been killed already. You should know that during our breaks I'll be thinking of you. Don't worry about me. Michael
The Sacramento team arrived on the East Coast in the wee hours of Sept. 12, on a military cargo plane that flew through eerily empty skies.
A day earlier, terrorists had hijacked four passenger planes and orchestrated a series of attacks on America. Two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, leveling the twin towers. Another had crashed into the Pentagon near Washington. A fourth that may have been bound for the White House or Capitol catapulted into a Pennsylvania field. Commercial air traffic had been suspended, thousands were dead, and the hunt was on for survivors.
Bartley and more than 50 other rescuers from Sacramento were to be dispatched to the center of the disaster in Manhattan.
As her new boyfriend headed across the country with food rations, generators, boring tools and other equipment, Brittain felt anxious. "I was heartbroken for the people who had been hurt, and I was frightened for Michael," she recalled. "It was very emotionally intense, scary and confusing."
But Bartley was an expert rescuer, having responded to numerous disasters, including the Northridge earthquake in Southern California and the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He and his team were eager to get to work sawing and digging, listening for tapping fingers and muffled voices, and saving lives at ground zero.
"I would have bet my paycheck that we would have been pulling people out of there," Bartley said.
On his first night at the disaster site, his squad searched the upper floors of the partially destroyed Winter Garden building.
From high above the ground, they peered through shattered windows facing the area where the hulking, beautiful twin towers had crumbled. Through the glow of hundreds of small flashlights and huge industrial searchlights, they saw gigantic piles of twisted metal and chunks of concrete swathed in ash and smoke.
"It was a surreal panorama," Bartley said. "You just knew that thousands of souls were under that debris, somewhere."
The rescuers stared silently for a while before turning away and beginning their floor-by-floor search downward.
Later, at the collapsed World Trade Center, they stumbled in steel-toed boots over jagged rock and hot metal, looking for pathways that might lead to survivors inside subways beneath the pile. Staggering across surfaces slick with rainwater, they threaded remote fiber-optic cameras and listening devices into narrow crevasses and used cell-phone receivers in hopes of pinpointing people who might be trying to signal for help.
At one point a rescue dog, a golden retriever named Anna, slipped and disappeared into an oily lake of fluid. When rescuers pulled her out, she was jet black from head to toe and had to be evacuated.
Meanwhile, Bartley and the others squeezed their bodies into pathways that continually narrowed as the infrastructure settled and stirred, and felt the heat of dozens of small fires burning deep within the building.
Occasionally an evacuation horn would blast, warning them of impending danger and signaling them to exit immediately. It typically took them 40 minutes or more to find a safe passageway.
After emerging, "I would immediately start thinking about Erin. The things I had in life, the things I didn't," Bartley said.
"I kept thinking about all of those people who lost their lives suddenly. If that happened to me, would I have had a fulfilling and satisfying life?"
When his 12-hour shift was finished in the early morning hours, he headed back to the Jacob Javits Center for a fitful few hours of sleep under fluorescent beams that shined day and night.
Sunday, September 16, 2001
I hope your Sunday went well for you. For the first time since our arrival, I feel physically exhausted. It's the effects of having perhaps 20 hours of sleep over 5 days compounded by a challenging search assignment. Everyone here is still working at full pace in the rescue mode. I personally think survivors will be uncovered for perhaps another week. Thank you, my angel. Michael
Brittain went to church twice that Sunday.
When her roommate put her arm around her for comfort, she began to cry.
The death toll from the terrorist attacks was climbing, and ultimately would reach nearly 3,000, including 343 firefighters.
"I realized that Michael could die," she said, "and I knew I wanted him in my life. At that point, I couldn't envision my life without him."
Brittain was 30 years old, working as an athletic trainer for the fire department and attending college when Bartley a confirmed bachelor at 42 asked her to dinner for the first time. Both had suffered recent breakups. Bartley had been engaged to be married three times but had never made it down the aisle.
"I had known him for about a year, and I respected him so much," said Brittain. "I liked the person he was. So of course I went out with him."
By the time Bartley left for New York the couple had become exclusive, "but it still felt very new," Brittain said.
That changed while Bartley was in Manhattan.
At ground zero, he was more aware than ever of the importance of family and the fragility of life.
One morning after his shift ended, Bartley picked up a magazine and saw an extraordinary photograph of a man and woman leaping from one of the burning high-rises at the World Trade Center. They were holding hands as they fell to their deaths.
"It struck me that in the last moments of their lives, they had each other," Bartley said. "That was very poignant to me. I had never allowed myself to think about something like that before."
September 19, 2001
I'm personally despondent that none of the USAR teams has, so far, recovered a survivor. We all push ourselves past our limits. Yet fruitless. The debris is settling frequently and ominously. It's more difficult to squeeze through many of the remaining openings. Identifying body parts, much less whole corpses, is almost impossible now. Oh, how I miss your smile, your voice, your touch. Michael
After a week on the job, Bartley began to dread the bus trips that took the would-be rescuers to and from the disaster site.
Every day, as he and his team rolled 40 blocks between the Javits Center and ground zero, they passed large crowds of people waving signs with oversized photos and descriptions of their missing loved ones. Desperate brothers, sisters, wives and mothers shouted "God bless you" and "thank you," and begged the rescuers to never give up looking for survivors.
At first, the scene uplifted the rescuers.
"For the first few days, those crowds were the caffeine I needed to get through those grueling, 12-hour night shifts," Bartley said.
"This was a task greater than ourselves. Each of those people under that rubble had someone that they loved, a wife or a brother or a child or a pet. We had to keep focused."
As the days passed, the crowds swelled, occupying street corners even in the rain and late at night. People cheered and surged toward the rescuers as their convoy approached.
Bartley started to avert his eyes.
"I felt profound guilt that we had found no survivors," he recalled. "I wanted to shrink in my seat. I felt that I was letting these good people down."
In a few days, the Sacramento rescuers would be sent home, replaced by teams from Florida and Texas.
"The pile" had increasingly begun to smell like death.
September 20, 2001
I sincerely believe our team did the very best we could under the circumstances. And I think, perhaps, the authorities here could not have done any better given the unprecedented scope of this disaster. Ordinarily I would feel satisfaction and pride; but then I think again of all the victims here, living and dead, and I am bereft of both. Michael.
After his last grueling hours on "the pile," Bartley went AWOL.
Restless and frustrated, he ignored a rule against leaving the Javits Center during off-duty hours and hit the streets.
He walked through the heart of Manhattan, alive with traffic and crowds. He listened to the cacophony of voices in myriad languages and reveled in the smell of coffee and freshly baked bread wafting from corner markets. He admired women in fashionable clothes, looked up at the tall buildings still standing.
Only the yellow ribbons pinned to the clothing of passers-by reminded him of his grim task at ground zero.
The scenes of life carrying on convinced Bartley, he said, "that this city will triumph beyond this tragedy."
At the center of Times Square, he spotted an ice cream shop and walked in. While he savored a butter pecan cone and smiled at children with chocolate on their faces, he thought about home. He thought about Erin.
By the time he arrived back at the Javits Center to prepare for his trip back to Sacramento, he decided that it might be time to build a family of his own.
September 21, 2001
We've been told that there will be a "media event" awaiting our arrival to the B.T. Collins Center. For our sake, I hope it is brief. I think all of us in the task force not only want but need to retreat, as soon as possible, to our loved ones. Just like the aftermath of Oklahoma City, I'll ponder and review our mission here for many months. But for now, all I can think about is holding you close again. I'll be seeing you in a few hours. Michael
A few weeks after Bartley's return from ground zero, the couple hiked to a mountain peak in Lake Tahoe's Heavenly Valley. As they stood in the crisp mountain air, he expressed his love for her for the first time.
"I really feel something special," he said. "I don't want this relationship to drift."
Brittain told him she felt the same way.
Less than a year later, he proposed on a beach in Carmel. They married at Crocker Park in Sacramento, in a ceremony that celebrated the diversity of their cultures, with Japanese food, African American decorations and Scottish bagpipes.
Their family has grown to include two daughters, Hanna, 4, and Emma, 5.
Ten years after 9/11, the searing images of ground zero are never far from Bartley's mind. But it was also at ground zero, he said, that he learned to open his heart.
"That experience caused me to examine every facet of my life," said Bartley, now an assistant fire chief. "It led directly to my decision to finally commit to love."
Once ambivalent about having children, Bartley has become a dedicated family man.
"My daughters have given me the greatest joy and pride beyond anything I've ever done or had," he said, holding Hanna on his lap in the family's living room in the College Greens area.
The girls are too young to grasp what happened to him at ground zero, he said. But some day, he will tell them all about it. "It was a surreal panorama. You just knew that thousands of souls were under that debris, somewhere."