LA GRANDE — Steve Ruth remembers the horrors of 9/11 all too well.
The Perry resident, a member of the Salvation Army, assisted in day-to-day operations at the on-scene morgue at ground zero and provided counsel to workers and family members of the casualties. Ruth does not consider his actions heroic, but he was one of the many volunteers who put their life on hold to assist at the site of the World Trade Center attacks in Lower Manhattan, New York, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“I just see it as what we’re called to do,” he said. “We dealt a lot with the public that was coming in to pick up the remains of their loved ones. The counseling stretched to many areas of the gamut.”
Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attacks that day when 19 al-Qaida terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes in a plot orchestrated by Osama bin Laden. Two planes, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center before American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. The passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 fought back against the hijackers before the plane crashed into a field, missing its intended target in Washington.
Ruth, a Salvation Army business administrator and emergency disaster coordinator, flew in from St. Cloud, Minnesota, to assist in the day-to-day operations at ground zero. He spent 17 days on the scene in March 2002 as the cleanup efforts extended for nearly a year after the attacks.
During his time at ground zero, Ruth worked primarily at the on-scene morgue providing grief and trauma counseling to families, first responders and other workers on the scene.
All hands on deck
Ruth was born and raised in La Grande and graduated from La Grande High School before moving to Minnesota in 1998. He moved back to Perry in 2010, but experienced many facets of disaster relief during his time on the job. Starting as a business administrator, Ruth immediately learned how the job can turn into all hands on deck.
“On my first day in Minnesota, I walked in the front door, the officer handed me a Salvation Army jacket and told me we’re going to Albany because they had a tornado there,” he said. “We got up and went. That’s kind of what got me started in the disaster part.”
Ruth went on to take over as emergency disaster coordinator, a position that sent him to floods, tornadoes, house fires and anything in between.
“When you work for them, you wear many hats,” he said.
The graveyard shift
Ruth quickly adopted the Salvation Army’s mentality, and on the day of the Sept. 11 attacks he volunteered to go wherever aid was needed.
“It just became automatic,” he said of his mindset that day. “You need us? I’m ready.”
Upon arriving at ground zero, Ruth did what he could to assist at the morgue and provide counseling. During his time there, approximately 20 bodies were removed from the destruction, and family members often arrived to receive their remains. The long, arduous process caused emotional trauma for everyone involved.
“I worked basically the graveyard shift from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m., depending on when relief came in,” Ruth said. “My main job was to not only talk to people that came in for body parts if they wanted, but also for the workers that were there if they needed trauma counseling or just someone to talk to.”
According to Ruth, the on-site morgue setup took up about an entire block in Manhattan, with about 20 semitrailers used for forensic science and body storage. To this day, the impact of such a gruesome scene is replayed in Ruth’s mind from time to time.
“I still have a little trouble when I go out to truck stops, seeing trailers parked around,” he said. “I have my emotional times when I think about different things that took place.”
One thing that stands out in Ruth’s memories of his experiences in New York is the memorial services for those who lost their lives working for the fire and police departments. The departments held large ceremonies in downtown Manhattan for the deceased comrades. Of the nearly 3,000 total fatalities from the attacks, approximately 400 were either police officers or firefighters. Many of the surviving first responders are still impacted by lingering health effects from their time at the attack sites.
20 years later
Two decades after the attacks, Ruth still vividly remembers specific details and events from his time at ground zero. Like many across the country, the tragedy has a lasting impact.
As someone who saw the effects firsthand, Ruth hopes that the lives of those affected are always honored.
Now retired in his quiet home in Perry, Ruth finds time to reflect on the impact of the attacks and the heroes who put their lives on the line to help those in need.
“It’s about remembering the people that gave up their lives and took care of the situation without any hesitation,” he said.