DNR staff recalls emotional toll of 9/11 search and recovery

Sept. 16, 2016 edition
Sept. 16, 2016 edition

Fifteen years ago, the DNR set up a Map Mobile unit that would bring mobile mapping technology to the scene of remote wildfires. The unit’s first call: New York City and the deadly scene of what is now known simply as 9/11.

Within days of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center that killed thousands, seven DNR forestry employees were called on to help search and recovery crews, with five of these called to assist with mapping the attack’s aftermath in a 16-acre area of lower Manhattan.

Though it sounds complex, more difficult for Paul Olson, a GIS analyst in Grand Rapids, was working amid “all of the tragedy. So many people lost their lives. Technically it wasn’t a challenge. It was the emotional toll.”

A DNR mapping crew was sent to 9/11 to help recovery efforts. Paul Olson (left) looks over the rubble of Ground Zero.

At Ground Zero, he stood in awe of the devastation while taking photos to include in an overview map.

“You felt like you were watching history,” he said of the two-week assignment in mid-September 2001.

They mapped and recorded locations of “significant findings,” such as plane parts, casualties and personal items like jewelry, purses and wallets. Some maps pinpointed potential safety hazards where heavy equipment such as cranes were located or hot spots where below ground fires were still burning. Maps were constantly updated as the search continued.

Tim Aunan in the Map Mobile


Tim Aunan, who left the DNR in 2013, recalled the many fires burning all around the rubble of what they called “the pile” and the strong smell of jet fuel. “You could also smell death,” said Aunan, now a natural resources instructor at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids. His memories of the tragedy often come to him when he teaches a dendrology class and how to identify the downy arrowwood plant with its smell of rotting flesh. “It sort of reminds me of that smell of 9/11,” he said. “Every time I teach it I can smell it.”

Olson said the DNR team got the call to help because they are part of the National Incident Management System. “We were credentialed and experienced. We had the mobile equipment and we were ready.”

Of the seven DNR employees who were on the scene in New York, Olson and Cindy Tisdell are still with the agency. Tisdell, office manager in the Bemidji area office, was an ordering manager for recovery equipment and supplies.

Watch a video created by the communications team in October 2001.