20 years later, officers remember their role in the Sept. 11 terror attacks

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published September 3, 2021

 Lt. Dustin Lockard, Lt. Tom Van Simaeys and Chief Noel Clason of the Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Department were among the volunteers who went to aid responders in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

Lt. Dustin Lockard, Lt. Tom Van Simaeys and Chief Noel Clason of the Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Department were among the volunteers who went to aid responders in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Lt. Tom Van Simaeys and Lt. Dustin Lockard look at photos taken during their volunteer trip to Ground Zero. The pictures were taken on a disposable camera, intended to be handed off later to investigators.

Lt. Tom Van Simaeys and Lt. Dustin Lockard look at photos taken during their volunteer trip to Ground Zero. The pictures were taken on a disposable camera, intended to be handed off later to investigators.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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BLOOMFIELD HILLS/FRANKLIN — Hung on a concrete wall in the Bloomfield Hills Public Safety station is a large, framed gallery of photos from Sept. 11, 2001.

It was 20 years ago, but the photos of the wreckage are still startling: walls folded in half or completely reduced to dust; office chairs, phones and family photos from workers’ desks; volunteers lined up with signs and sandwiches to support first responders.

At the center of the display is a photo of young firefighters from metro Detroit, sporting crests from Troy, Bloomfield Hills and other municipalities. They’re wearing helmets and heavy, fire resistant pants, and they gathered together for a picture that illustrates the camaraderie they felt, but also the despair. There are no smiles in this portrait.

The image is eerily reminiscent to those you might see on the frontlines of a war zone, and that’s not totally inaccurate, according to Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Chief Noel Clason, Lt. Tom Van Simaeys and Lt. Dustin Lockard. They were volunteering with the Troy Fire Department at the time, and when they heard about the attack on New York City’s World Trade Center, they gathered what equipment they could and hit the road to help.

“We thought we were probably (more) needed in New York than we were here at that moment,” said Van Simaeys. “We left about 10:30-11 that night… you didn’t really know what you were going into, and this was before phones, where we could watch the news. But I think we were all confident we were doing the right thing.”


The Bucket Brigade
When they arrived, the scene wasn’t as bad as the media had portrayed — it was so much worse. There were smells of burning and decay, an unnatural quiet not usually heard in N.Y.C., and a white coating over everything in sight.

“Everything was an off-white, like chalk. And you stepped off the bus and there was this ‘poof,’ because everything was covered in dust,” Clason recalled. “For the next few days, we were covered in dust. Back then we were invincible, you know, but now I worry about what we were breathing in.”

The air quality from that time still worries the officers, knowing how many other first responders have been diagnosed with respiratory issues in later years, seemingly caused by particles of debris they had inhaled.

Still, all three of the officers said they have no regrets and they’d head back into the wreckage all over again.

“They had that whole area shut down, so we checked in and they told us to go to the Navy Pier, which was kind of a rallying point, and they would put you on a bus to drive into the rubble, basically,” Van Simaeys said. “The silence sticks out — there were no car horns or anything — and the smell. It was like a third world country. I was in the Marines, (Clason) was in the Navy, and we’ve been to places where it just smells like war, I guess. That’s what it smelled like to me.”

They hadn’t been at Ground Zero very long before they realized their work wouldn’t be helping victims out of the rubble, like they had thought. The job wasn’t to rescue, it was to recover.

“At first they sent us to the pile of rubble and said ‘Get in there.’ They called it the Bucket Brigade, basically (we) took garbage and put it in the bucket and sent it down. Every once in a while you’d get a body part. But you’re just filling the buckets and handing them down,” Van Simaeys said. “Every once in a while someone might think they heard something, so you’d have thousands of people go completely silent because they’re trying to hear if there’s somebody found. But there wasn’t.”

“I thought we were going to recover people, people that were alive. That was a let down. We have a skill set in this line of work that thought we could help people, and we knew the Fire Department of New York was crippled, so we went out to do what we could. I was just amazed, because there was no life,” Clason said.

In the days to follow, the volunteers were assigned to survey equipment — look for signs of instability so responders could navigate the wreckage as safely as possible — and search missions underneath the rubble. Van Simaeys remembers crawling into an opening to search a downtown mall underneath one of the buildings. There were coffee cups, purses, and entire stores left perfectly preserved — just covered in dust.

Construction workers from across the country came to volunteer their expertise too, carefully pulling apart steel beams without bringing down other structures so first responders could access the debris.

Naturally, they were on high alert the entire time they were in New York, and Van Simaeys remembers the heart-stopping panic he felt every time he heard a plane fly overhead.

“You’re two stories below ground trying to find people, and there’s no quick way out, and you hear an airplane fly overhead and it makes you nervous,” he said.

“(In those instances) you had hundreds of guys running at full steam toward the Hudson River, and everybody jumped onto any boat that was there. We’d go out into the Hudson, wait for the all clear and come back and start the Bucket Brigade again,” Clason said.

In a lighter moment, Van Simaeys recalls a story about a seemingly wealthy man who made his way down to the rubble, surrounded by a team of security. He offered his support to the first responders before saying goodbye, and Van Simaeys patted the gentleman on the back, leaving a dusty handprint on his clean suit coat.

It was Donald Trump.

“I didn’t know he was going to be the president,” he said with a laugh.


‘It didn’t even look real’
Miles away in Washington, D.C., a similar panic ensued in the city’s downtown district as word spread of a plane hitting the Pentagon nearby.

Franklin-Bingham Farms Police Chief Dan Roberts was a leader in the FBI’s violent crimes unit, working at the agency’s headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover building just blocks from the White House.

Roberts said he was fortunate enough to miss the chaos that ensued downtown when the plane hit the Pentagon — he was headed in to work late that day because of a dental appointment. But his route to the office went right past the Pentagon, and he could see the ruins from the freeway.

“I was listening to WTOP as I was driving in, and they started yelling that the Pentagon had been hit. And I saw the smoke,” Roberts said. “So I parked a few blocks away (from the building) and as I approached I couldn’t really tell it was a plane that hit, it was just all fire and smoke.”

Nearby, investigators were charged with surveying the outer perimeter of the scene to look for any evidence that could be used later in an investigation. Like the responders at Ground Zero, Roberts said the tension in the air was palpable.

“We heard murmuring that another plane was on the way, so we all ran underneath the 14th Street Bridge and waited there until we got the all clear, and then we went right back,” he said. “It didn’t even look real. It looked like a movie set. All this fire and smoke against a backdrop of the most beautiful day that you just don’t get in D.C. There was sun, no humidity. Very surreal.”


‘Everyone was the same color’
After a few days clearing destruction in N.Y.C., Clason, Van Simaeys and Lockard decided it was time to head home. They stopped and donated blood, and started out toward Michigan.

Their spirits, eager to help, had sunk as they sifted through the remains of the two towers. It was only as they left that they saw a glimmer of hope in the people of the community who’d survived.

“There were some people who didn’t know what to do, so they stood there with signs supporting us. There were stacks of food; old ladies were making sandwiches for the first responders. Not to sound cliche, but it was that American spirit. Everyone came together to help, and that’s what stood out to me. As we’re driving out, we finally had that sense of pride,” Clason said.

Lockard agreed, remembering the sense of unity in N.Y.C. and then back at home in southeast Michigan.

“You think about how race relations are in this country right now. I think back to when we were down there. There was no color. Everyone was the same color, because of the dust and the dirt and the debris,” he said.


Tripwires missed
As years passed, that tremendous pride that swept the nation began to wane. But the experience has forever impacted the way Clason, Van Simaeys and Lockard do their job.

“A lot of mutual aid has come into play since that incident with some of these other groups and task forces around the county. So knowing we’re never alone in this department when something goes down, I think, is a takeaway for me. The whole fire service was rewritten, in a way,” Clason said, turning his attention to Van Simaeys and Lockard. “And these two are the coolest, calmest, most collected command officers I have. We’ve had some huge fires, monster incidents, and these guys — I trust them to run a city. All of my command is capable, but these guys were in the thick of it, and now I notice their voice doesn’t elevate, they don’t get excited, they can really handle it. It helped prepare us.”

Roberts said he also came away from the experience better at his job. In fact, he said the entire FBI changed course after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The FBI organization changed almost overnight. Three thousand (investigators) were immediately moved off of cases like bank robberies, kidnappings, drug investigations to investigate terrorism. That became the FBI’s top priority,” Roberts said. “In the weeks and months that followed, we learned that there was clearly an intelligence failure. We missed tripwires we should’ve seen. So one of the things that came out of this was the idea of intelligence-led policing, on every level. There’s no way law enforcement can follow up on every lead without the help of state and local agencies.”

Though Roberts is breathing a little easier now that he’s in the quieter area of Franklin and Bingham Farms, he hasn’t removed himself completely from the FBI. Now he helps the agency’s Detroit branch train municipal chiefs on how they can help with national investigations.

“They get security clearance and they’re briefed on what the FBI is doing in the area, what they’re looking at and how officers can help. That type of task force mentality didn’t exist before.”

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