On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, truck driver Russell Vereen reflects on the 205 days spent working at a refrigerated trailer morgue at ground zero, ensuring the trailers were fueled and running and storing the remains that medical personnel worked tirelessly to identify.
At the time, Vereen was leased to Bennett Motor Express of McDonough, Georgia, a FEMA contractor. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was in Yuma, Arizona, when he and other owner-operators received the initial call to stage there in case they were needed to haul medical supplies from Phoenix to New York City.
But Vereen said after a week he was told most of the medical supplies weren’t going to be needed as few survivors had been found at ground zero.
Instead, Vereen, a member of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a trade group representing small-business truckers, said he deadheaded home to Princeton, West Virginia.
His truck didn’t sit for long.
“No sooner than I got home, Bennett called and asked me to come up to New York City,” Vereen told FreightWaves. “Bennett had rented some refrigerated trailers and FEMA had built shelves and numbered them inside of the units and set them up near NYU.”
After the medical examiners documented partial remains from the nearly 3,000 people who died at the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks, Vereen said they were cataloged and brought to the refrigerated trailers for “us to store.”
Two months after the 9/11 attacks, Vereen said he was asked to help with another mass casualty after American Airlines Flight 587 crashed on the Rockaway Peninsula of Queens, New York, shortly after takeoff, killing all 260 people on board the flight.
“Never in my life did I think I’d ever do anything like that,” said Vereen, who is now leased to Virginia-based TNT Transportation and hauls oversized loads.
He worked at ground zero for 93 straight days before taking a few days off, but stayed on the job until his services were no longer needed.
Few people understand what he experienced during that time, Vereen said, but he now works with the truck driver who relieved him at the morgue at ground zero 20 years ago so he could go home and rest.
“It is nice to have someone to talk to because few people understand what we’ve both seen,” Vereen said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
While there are a few particular cases that stick out in his mind about his time at ground zero, Vereen said it helps knowing that most of the remains of the loved ones lost during the 9/11 attacks have been identified.
“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years — sometimes it feels like yesterday,” Vereen told FreightWaves. “You just never forget.”