MUSKEGON, Mich. – Since the attacks on America 12 years ago, Barry Searles of Muskegon has been to ground-zero in New York City a total of four times. He said each time he visits, he takes away something different from the experience.
Like many people in West Michigan and across the country Searles watched the acts of terrorism play out on TV.
A few days after Sept. 11, 2001 he and four other firefighters from the Muskegon Fire Department were in a car bound for New York City.
“It felt like a pilgrimage,” said Searles. “It felt like something that I needed to do.”
His plan when he got there was simply to help out any way he could, “The overwhelming sense of, we have to do something whatever it is. Attending funerals, Ok. That’s something we can do.”
So that is what he did. From Manhattan to Staten Island, the Muskegon firefighters attended as many funerals as they could. They also went to ground-zero with a New York City Police Officer as their guide.
“He brought us into the site,” said Searles. “Got us all hard hats and said don’t take pictures of the people. You can take pictures of the site. Because, he said, these people are still finding their friends.”
In the midst of unspeakable tragedy, the city and it’s people showed the Muskegon Firefighter something about resiliency.
“The respect that we gET, just as firefighters… store owners wouldn’t charge us for food,” he said.
When Searles returned home to Muskegon, “It was very humbling. The realization that this stuff happens.”
He said the firefighters that he met in New York sent him thank you notes letting him know that what he did during his brief visit was working.
“I kept them,” he said of the notes. “I still have them at home. One of them says, ‘New York firefighter, still the best job in the world.’ ”
Searles would return to New York City three more times, most recently in July to see the completed memorial where the Twin Towers once stood.
He said 12 years can change a lot and some change is forever, “I think about a lot of things that are happening in the world now and I don’t know if they are any better. I don’t know if we ever will be, but they are certainly not ever going to be the same.”
Searles is now retired from the Muskegon Fire Department and said one thing that has stuck around after the attack is the respect given to those who put on a badge or a helmet. Something he said is a definite change for the better in his opinion.