“Lord, why did you let me come up here?” 19-year-old Charles Reeves prayed as he stood on the water’s edge in New York in September 2001.
Reeves and five other members of the Smyrna Rescue Squad had come to New York to help with relief efforts after the 9/11 attacks.
Reeves, who had been with the rescue squad for only a few months, had already seen some bodies and thought he would be OK with the work in New York.
“Naturally, at that young age I thought, ‘Oh man, I’ll be all right. I can handle it.’ If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all mentality,” he said.
But nothing prepared him for one of his first sights near the rubble of the towers: three tennis courts double stacked with body bags.
Now, the days filled with moving debris and finding human remains and occasionally survivors were starting to take their toll on Reeves. He had just carried another body away from the rubble.
As he looked out over the water, he noticed for the first time the Statue of Liberty in the distance. Suddenly, the words on the base of the statue came to his mind:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”
The words immediately impacted Reeves.
“It reminded me that I’m up here because this is what we do in this country: We take care of our own,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that I’m in New York and never been in my life and I’m from Tennessee. We take care of our own, and this is what we do, and that’s why I’m here.”
Inspired to serve New York
Reeves had been at the rescue squad station in Smyrna when the twin towers were hit. Something inside him “ticked,” he said, and told him to call and find out what the rescue squad could do to help.
He called the Office of Emergency Management in New York. Officials there told him they weren’t sure what they were going to end up needing, but they were turning away no one.
He then started calling Rutherford County businesses for donations. Walmart donated a pallet of water and cash to fund the trip. Kroger donated first aid supplies. Another rescue squad member’s church donated money.
By the end of the day, Reeves said, the rescue squad had thousands of dollars in funds and four vehicles packed full of supplies.
“I kind of instantly became the spearhead of the 9/11 project,” he said.
Some of the rescue squad who went to New York were veterans of emergency services, like Tommy Parham, who was a lieutenant on the rescue squad and a lifelong friend of Reeves. Parham was actually the reason Reeves knew that he could be involved with emergency services.
Parham, who worked nights at Cumberland Swan in Smyrna, was asleep on his couch when Reeves called him and told him to turn on the television. He sat there in awe watching until they called him back.
The next day, the rescue squad was on the road with sirens on, driving like “bats out of hell,” Reeves said.
Parham, delayed by initial reluctance from his employer, caught up with the rest of the rescue squad in Pennsylvania. Parham, because of his rank as lieutenant, became the officer of the trip. His presence was like a sigh of relief to Reeves.
“He was a staple of the trip,” Reeves said, giving Parham much of the credit for making it all happen.
The rescue squad left Smyrna on Sept. 12 and arrived in Newark, N.J. at 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 13. They stayed in Newark in a hotel room with bunkbeds they got for half-price, Parham said.
While in New York, Parham said he met volunteers from Ohio, Colorado, Puerto Rico and even Australia.
The people in New York welcomed the workers. They would even try to throw supplies like sandwiches, socks, water and batteries through open car windows to the workers.
“It was unbelievable,” Parham said. “Everybody was begging us to stay in their homes, feed us.”
At Ground Zero, the rescue squad worked the bucket line, moving rubble away from the twin towers and sifting through it.
Five days later, the rescue squad returned home to much fanfare (except from a New Jersey state trooper who pulled them over for speeding on the way home. However, he thanked them for their work).
The rescue squad was greeted with a parade and has received several awards over the years for its service.
‘9/11 is always a bad day’
Parham said the trip made him thankful and realize how blessed he is.
“(I’m) blessed every day when I get out of bed to get up and stand and walk,” he said. “You never know.”
Parham continued to serve with emergency management until he was assistant chief of the rescue squad. Today, he lives in Portland, Tenn., and works with Sumner County Emergency Management in addition to his job at the Mars Petcare facility in Lebanon.
For Reeves, coming back was hard.
“I honestly feel like maybe I rushed back into my life trying to forget the negativity and stuff like that. I feel like I jumped in so quick that I just didn’t want to remember all of that,” Reeves said.
He said he should have sought out counseling to help him debrief from the experience, one that is still hard to talk about.
“If you weren’t there, you don’t necessarily get it,” he said.
He’s talked to a counselor since then, but he said the things he saw still haunt him.
“9/11 is always a bad day,” he said.
Reeves stayed in emergency services for only a few more months after realizing that line of work wasn’t for him. He said he enjoyed helping people, but first responders have to be able to compartmentalize the negative things they see and move on.
“At that age I wasn’t able to do that,” he said. “I do miss it.”
He also struggles with breathing problems from his work at the twin towers. However, getting help that is available from the 9/11 World Trade Center Health Program for people who were at Ground Zero is slow.
In the past three years, he’s been able to have three appointments. He hasn’t heard from his case manager in over a year.
Now, Reeves knows that there are dozens of cancers he could have gotten from working at the site. But he said that even if the rescue squad members knew the risks before they went, they would do it again.
Reeves and Parham said they want people to remember how the country came together after 9/11.
“I just wish that as a human race that we could come together and stay together and not just come together when something bad happens,” Reeves said.
Parham said it was strange how people pull together in a disaster.
“It’s amazing how far apart we’ve gotten to this point now,” he said.
Reeves said he doesn’t expect people who were only toddlers or not even born before 9/11 to get it. He said he would tell them to research and try to learn from it because it’s something that could happen again.
“You can’t just forget these people,” he said.