Monday, September 17, 2001

Devastation awes pair who aided rescue efforts

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Time stood still for two local volunteers who dug day and night through the rubble of the World Trade Center last week, searching frantically for survivors.

        “I saw people with pictures, "Have you seen my husband? Have you seen my wife?' That's what keeps you going,” said Jack Matalka, 36, of Liberty Township, who returned home Saturday morning.

        “I think the most sleep we got was four to five hours while we were there. It's not because we didn't have a chance. Bob and I had no concept of time.”

        Mr. Matalka and his friend, Bob Renner, 46, of Fairfield, spent three days helping rescue efforts. Mr. Matalka, a real estate appraiser for Property Values in Canton, Ohio, and Mr. Renner, manager of Value City in Latonia, saw the devastation on television Tuesday and wanted to help.

        “We grabbed a map, grabbed some food, put it in a cooler and left,” said Mr. Matalka, a retired Liberty Township firefighter and Army veteran.

        They drove all night Tuesday and arrived Wednesday at ground zero. “Getting in wasn't the easiest thing in the world, but we were too determined.”

        The drive into New York is one snapshot Mr. Renner will remember most about the trip.

        “It was very eerie,” he said. “All you could see was the skeletons of the towers still standing with smoke and dust rising.”

        When they came upon the first heap of rubble, it told a tale that television couldn't.

        “This is a lot bigger than what any news could ever say,” Mr. Matalka said. “We're standing here looking up and looking around, versus looking at it frame by frame. It is just absolutely amazing. My heart goes out to the people.”

        It was meticulous and gruesome work. The two men helped find survivors, but they found more bodies.

        “Everything is extracted by hand at this point,” Mr. Renner said. “As you put ash and debris in buckets, you're looking for pieces of people the whole time. It's a very slow process.”

        The men were moved by the unity at the site — people working side by side, hand in hand.

        “Everybody is just working like their family is buried in there,” Mr. Renner said. “Everybody. You don't stop until you can't go anymore. The resiliency of the New Yorkers, I think was amazing. For most New Yorkers I had ever come in contact with, I wasn't impressed. I have a whole new respect for them.”

        Mr. Matalka and Mr. Renner had to leave because the Federal Emergency Management Agency took control and only those with passes could return to work at the site. They hope to go back to New York in two weeks.

        When they left, workers still clung to the hope of finding more survivors.

        “Nobody is losing hope,” Mr. Matalka said. “Everybody is going to work for as long as they can. It's from the heart. Everybody there is working from their heart.”


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