An airplane that should have been headed to Cleveland Hopkins Airport was going the wrong way.
“I had a clear view of what could very well have been Flight 93,” Lombardi said. “Maybe 10 minutes after, I saw two fighters, F-14s or F-16s, shoot right over my house and head northeast. That’s when I knew it was serious business.”
Capt. Lombardi is a firefighter/rescue specialist with the Cuyahoga Falls Fire Department. In 2001 he also was a member of Ohio Task Force 1, the first urban search and rescue team outside New York to arrive at the Twin Towers.
Ohio Task Force 1 sent Lombardi and about 70 specialists including search and rescue, medical, hazardous materials, search canines and rigging experts from Wright Patterson Air Force base in Dayton to the World Trade Center. The crew rode to New York with an Ohio Highway Patrol escort. “Normally we would fly a C-130, but they had locked down the airspace,” Lombardi said. “The military was going crazy trying to figure out what was going on.
“We all thought we were getting into World War Three.”
The Pit and The Pile
Fifteen hours later, Lombardi arrived at Ground Zero. It would be another day before he and his Ohio TF1 brothers got a look at the site – what searchers called “The Pit and The Pile.”
Ground Zero was otherworldly. “It was the Apocalypse,” Lombardi said. “Like you used to see in the 'Outer Limits' on TV: a barren, smoking landscape, trees with no leaves.
“Things were pulverized by the forces that were generated,” Lombardi said. “When I went on the side of the pit, I remember seeing something that I could identify as a piece of a desk, and maybe the back of a computer."
Search for survivors
“Everything else was dust,” he said. “The whole 10 days I never saw a piece of concrete bigger than a football. … But you knew, theoretically, the possibility … in some of those voids there could be people who survived.”
Lombardi worked with Squad 2 at the Liberty Street Division, one of four sections at the World Trade Center. The group searched some of the heavily damaged buildings that surrounded the Twin Towers, as well as the Pit and the Pile.
They recovered only bodies – and body parts.
“We had worked our way through one building and got to the top of it, and we looked across the roof and there was nothing but rubble,” Lombardi said. “It turned out to be the outside of the Trade Center. There were nine women’s shoes for every one men’s. What it was is that they slip on, they’re not tied on. When that airplane blew through there, the meaty things absorbed the energy and got pulverized.” Lighter things, papers, wallets, ids, watches, necklaces, bracelets – and women’s shoes – floated in the blast, then settled on the roof. ”All that stuff was just scattered there.”
Lombardi was present at two iconic rescues. “You remember the movie 'World Trade Center;' we saw that whole (rescue) when it happened,” he said, “when those Port Authority security guys were brought out. They were below ground in the second tower, that’s why they made it.
“After that there were some guys in Ladder 6 in a staircase – just a staircase – with a little bit of debris around it who also survived,” Lombardi said, “but they turned out to be the only ones.”
Part of Squad 2's job was mapping the location of every body or piece of physical remains so the remains could be retrieved later.
In his own notes from Ground Zero, Lombardi writes about the “constant smell of death, concrete, drywall and burning plastic. ... Your choice was to breathe through a filter respirator all the way up … or motivate yourself to take the lead and stay ahead of most of the dust.”
Type A teamwork
Lombardi and his Squad 2 colleagues drew straws to see who would get the job that would take them beneath the rubble, or 27 stories into the sky to secure beams of what was left of the skyscrapers.
“They’re all team players," said Scott Hall, public information officer of Ohio Task Force 1. "They have to be, but they’re also something else. You take all these Type A people and throw them (together) and what comes out is scary – the amount of drive and determination they have – but it works. Tim was no exception. He went into where giant buildings just fell and (into) void spaces where you could fall 50 feet to the ground with really no regard for his own safety. There was a mission, and every day there was something you never encountered before. That’s a special person, that’s what Tim is. He put his life on the line. They all did.”
Shortly after the deployment, Lombardi wrote about the big-picture effects of the attacks. “We have all had a reality check of the basics of life which are so important, both individually and as a nation: Unity, courage, empathy, love for one another and our freedom." As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, he acknowledges that the experience marked him in a less abstract way. “I just learned to live day by day. I appreciate my loved ones. I always make sure to say I love you before I go – anywhere.
"I’ve seen the worst people can do to one another,” he said, “but I’ve also seen the best.”
Lombardi was a firefighter for 24 years when he served at the World Trade Center. He joined Task Force 1 in 1997 and retired last year. He still works at the Cuyahoga Falls Fire Department.
View Lombardi's 9/11 photos in the attached gallery.