Coroner Fowler reflects on his experience as a 9/11 first responder

Dougherty County Coroner, Michael Fowler tells his 9/11 story

ALBANY, GA- When asked,  many can describe in great detail where they were on September 11th, 2001. Especially Dougherty County Coroner, Michael Fowler, who witnessed the horror of the World Trade Center attacks first hand.

This is his story.

“I was at the Secretary of State office and I got a call saying the plane hit the tower, we did not believe it. Next thing you know, another plane hit. The President declared it as a disaster, so they insisted for our federal team to come to New York because thousands of people had died” says Fowler.

At that time, all airports in the United States were closed, but that didn’t stop Coroner Fowler and members of the DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team) from making the overnight drive to New York City.

When the team arrived, Fowler described the amount of people and traffic as “overwhelming”, but a police escort helped navigate the vans through the chaotic crowd to the National Guard Base.

Eventually, they were able to stay in a hotel, but according to Fowler, having a place to lay their heads was the least of their worries.

“We just wanted to go to work. Many times when we go to major disasters we’re prepared to sleep in tents, random buildings, even on the street. I’ve been to a disaster when I just slept on the back of a truck. We do whatever it takes because we want to go to work and help find deceased persons and help families get closure.”

After making it to the base, the team makes their way downtown… a scene Fowler described as a “war zone”.

“We didn’t know what to expect. When we finally got downtown there were thousands of people there, all wondering where their loved ones were.”

His first initial thought seeing what used to be the Twin Towers, is chilling.

“How many people died in this town? That’s what I was wondering. How many people could still possibly be alive under this rubbish?” says Fowler.

“When we got to Ground Zero, you could see fire trucks desperately trying to put fires out, different fire departments and people going up on the power lines trying to look for loved ones, seeing if anyone was even still alive within the rubble. It was very touching. It seemed like a movie.. like something just wasn’t real.”

However, it was extremely real. The mountains of debris, crushed cars and buildings, people walking the streets of downtown covered in ash, humans missing limbs, children crying for their parents and civilians choking on the smoke and fumes from the planes’ exploded fuel tank… was horrifically real.

Fowler explains “it became real when they started bringing deceased persons and brought a child to us. That was touching because I thought ‘it could’ve been my grandchild’ so it was very touching just to see that many people’s lives taken like that.”

The Coroner spent the first three and a half weeks out of  a total nine and a half working at Ground Zero in the morgue. He and his team were responsible for sending deceased victims to the medical examiners office. They’re responsibilities included identifying victims, their cause of death and returning victims to their loved ones.

However, the identification process was far from easy.

“Sometimes they may bring an arm, sometimes they may bring a leg, sometimes they just brought flesh.. there wasn’t a body. I’ve seen them use shovels to shovel up a deceased person, I mean it was just so overwhelming knowing this is somebody’s loved one who had been smashed and was now the size of a sheet of paper. How all the bones had broken into pieces… it was very difficult to deal with.”

In the cases regarding the finding of body parts, victims without identifiable features or identification such as wallets, name tags or business cards, the Federal team turned to the families and DNA matchups.

“Many times when we couldn’t identify them through fingerprints, x rays or ID’s, we had to get family members  to come in and ask them questions like if they had any tattoos, birthmarks or what they had on that day. Families would bring things like toothbrushes or hair brushes to match it up with a DNA sample we had from each victim. We got this DNA by swabbing the victims mouth, blood samples, their teeth and things like that.” Fowler explained.

In his nine and a half total weeks in New York, he says families never stopped trying to find their loved ones.

“The crowd all day every day was so overwhelming. The block was taped off and the national guard was there trying to keep families members from crossing over. Every day families were trying to give us pictures of their loved ones asking and begging us to please find their loved one.”

The magnitude of the September 11th attacks were so emotional, it was the first disaster he ever cried at.

“It was very touching, I mean it brought tears to my eyes. September eleventh was the first disaster I ever really cried because there was so much grief down at Ground Zero and so many thousands of people looking for their loved one wondering if they made it out… and about 80-90 percent of the time.. they did not. From what I saw and heard, more people died than survived. Many families to this day never even got the closure of having a funeral for their loved one because they were never found. It’s very touching.”

Although he returned with the trauma of 9/11, he also returned with souvenirs from his first responder colleagues.

“When we worked in ground zero all of us had to wear safety hats.. when we came home from New York we had different people sign our hats.”

He keeps his hat hanging up in his office alongside the pins and patches traded among responders and NYPD and FD hats. However, the thing most special to him are the relationships he formed.

“The ones that deployed with us we call one another and talk to one another. Because nobody can relate to it. I mean we saw thousands of people.. fire department, NYPD, be brought off the pile… they went in to save lives and never made it out. So that’s what got us through” says Fowler.

Twenty one years ago, the United States watched on live television the planes crash into the towers, innocent people jump to their death because there wasn’t another way down and then the towers crash killing thousands… leaving New York covered in nothing but smoke and ash.

Just that alone brings trauma, but Fowler says unless you were there, you can’t fully grasp the horrific reality.

“Unless you were there, you really couldn’t experience what actually happened. No one can relate to those who were there. We saw thousands upon thousands of people die, including children. I could try to talk to my wife, but she would never truly understand because she didn’t see what I saw with my eyes.”

Although Fowler and his colleagues tried their best to support one another through phone calls, som went to counseling and therapy… 9/11 attacks took many lives long after the planes crashed into the towers.

“I am blessed to have gotten through that… I thank God everyday. I mean I didn’t turn to drinking, smoking, drugs, none of that, I fortunately relied on God and he got me through. But for many others, they ended up committing suicide because they just couldn’t take it. they couldn’t take the trauma and what they saw up in New York. If people didn’t take their life, many suffered from long term respiratory issues, developed things like lung cancer and long term medical effects because of the smoke and fire. I am very blessed to not have any of that. But people did not just die in New York, 9/11 killed them later on.”

Fowler has responded to 24 major disasters including the Haiti Earthquake, Tsunami in Asia, hurricane Katrina and Multiple plane crashes. However, the says September 11th, 2001 was the disaster that changed him forever.

“I will never forget the World Trade Center” Fowler says. “It changed my life and made me appreciate life. It made me grateful to be a first responder and appreciate all those who put others lives before their own.I just relied on God to give me the strength to do what I do and it’s why I love my job now.”

Lastly, Fowler touched on how the life of a first responder is not always promised.

“I tell people to always tell a first responder you love them no matter what terms you’re on. Just because they wake up to go to work that day, does not mean that they will make it home at night. So its always important to hug your loved ones because not every day or every shift is promised. I will never ever forget those whose lives were lost and the people who put everyone else before themselves.”