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‘It’s surreal’: Sugar Land firefighter recalls work at Ground Zero

Greg Hopper reflects on his six days on the search and rescue team after the 9/11 attacks.

Greg Hopper had never been to New York City before. He didn’t know what to expect when he stepped off the special plane the United States Air Force had provided, but what he saw definitely wasn’t the same city he’d seen depicted in the movies and on TV.

It was eerily quiet. The haze hovered overhead smelled like burning plastic, metal, and silica. A 14-acre pile of debris that used to be the World Trade Center waited for him.

Hopper had flown into New Jersey with 61 other Texans to help with search and rescue on September 17, 2001, six days after the most fatal terrorist attack on U.S. soil. It was a mission him and the rest of the Texas Task Force were not just qualified, but compelled to do.

Lieutenant Greg Hopper explains a piece of 9/11 memorabilia housed at SLFD Station 1.
Video by Roman Perez/City of Sugar Land

Growing up, Hopper didn’t know what he wanted to be. His family had one rule: go to college or get a job. He chose the latter — a fire ladder, to be exact.

“There was a fire station across the street from us,” Hopper, 49, said. “So I walked over there and talked to them. The one thing that they all had in common was that they all said they couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve never been to a place where everyone loved their job that much.”

After completing firefighter academy and volunteering with different fire departments around the Houston area, Hopper eventually landed a full-time position with Sugar Land Fire Department in Station 3.

Then, in April 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing happened, and Hopper became part of the inaugural group of the Texas Task Force.

The Texas Task Force is one of 28 federal teams under FEMA’s National Urban Search and Rescue system, established after the bombings in Oklahoma City. They received their FEMA designation six months before the attack on the Twin Towers.

September 11 was the task force’s first national emergency response.

“The morning of 9/11, I was at Station 3 working. I was a brand-new lieutenant,” Hopper said. “One of the other guys that was there, his wife called and said ‘Hey, one of the Twin Towers just got hit.’ As soon as we turned on the TV, the second tower got hit. We thought the same thing everybody thought – that’s not an accident.”

His pager beeped.

Hopper went home, grabbed his gear, kissed his wife and 4-month-old son goodbye and left for College Station, where the Texas Task Force is based.

“Everything was grounded,” Hopper said. “We sat there for three days and then came home on Friday because there weren’t any planes to get us there.”

Monday morning, the Texas Task Force boarded C141’s provided by the United States Air Force and flew into New Jersey.

“I can’t even tell you where we were because we got there at night, but as you’re driving by the city, there was still this great big huge column of smoke,” Hopper said. “You could see what it was, but you couldn’t tell where it was. That was my first big visual of (the site), other than what we saw on the news.”

They called Ground Zero “the pile.”

“As you’re walking through (the buildings), the pile just kept getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and bigger,” Hopper said. “What we had seen on TV was nothing compared to the pile of rubble. We were told at the time it was 14 acres. It was so much bigger than what we could’ve imagined. “

The task force set up their base of operations about two blocks from the pile in a bank lobby and split their team up in two. One team would work a 12-hour day shift, the other a 12-hour night shift. Hopper, the only first-responder in the taskforce from Fort Bend County, worked the day shift.

Every time the remains of a victim – a hat, a glove, a purse, anything – were found, everyone would stop and salute the object as it went by. Then they got back to work.

As part of the rescue team, Hopper was one of many digging up debris and other ruins from the attack. He worked 12-hours nonstop before boarding a bus with other first responders and heading back to the Jacob Javits Convention Center, where they would eat, shower, have 15 minutes to call their families, then go to sleep and do it all over again.

Six days after they arrived in New York City, it was time for another team to take over. The Texas Task Force came home and were reunited with their families, hugging them a little tighter than before.

“I remember that the Governor at the time (Rick Perry) came to visit us and gave us a pep talk before we left for New York,” Hopper said. “He said, ‘Hey, you’re the only 62 people allowed to go. There’s 30 million other people that would like to be in your shoes but can’t.’ It’s surreal.”

Five or six years ago, Hopper and his wife went back to the New York City for the first time since September 2001. They visited the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which Hopper described as “incredible.”

“From the top of the memorial, they have a fountain that has the same exact outline as the Twin Towers,” Hopper said. “But underneath the fountain, in the museum part, they left everything the same. I’m walking through it with the perspective of knowing this is where we dug and this is where we were. It was something else.”

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