SENECA FALLS — One of Michael Bellone’s close friends died Aug. 15, the day Bellone spoke with the Catholic Courier. Unfortunately, the death of a close friend is a tragic experience Bellone has become much too familiar with in the days since Sept. 11, 2001.
That fateful day left an indelible mark on Bellone’s life in many ways. He is one of the hundreds who volunteered to look for survivors — and later bodies — in the rubble of the World Trade Center towers, and he worked at ground zero for 257 days. His participation in the recovery efforts after that day robbed him of his good health, but also led him to meet his wife, Julie, and help thousands of children throughout the nation through his Trauma Response Assistance for Children Team, or TRAC Team.
"I believe I was there for a reason, to talk about it," Bellone said.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Bellone, who now lives in Seneca Falls and attends St. Patrick Parish, was still living in New York City, where he worked as a medic. It was a beautiful, cloudless morning, he recalled, and he was about to go to sleep after working the overnight shift when a friend called and asked him to turn on the television. Planes had flown into the World Trade Center towers, and first responders were being asked to come and assist at ground zero.
"I got up, put the same clothes back on and I went down. The traffic was ridiculous," Bellone recalled. "A fire truck was passing by, and I knew the guys, so I hitched a ride in on a fire truck. … I couldn’t believe it, and then the first tower came down, and then it was really eerie."
Bellone worked in the remains of the World Trade Center towers for months, spending his nights at St. Paul Chapel on a pew adorned with letters and cards from schoolchildren across the country. He helped recover the remains of hundreds of victims, and by doing so brought closure for many bereaved loved ones.
It was only after the recovery effort had ended that he realized just how toxic ground zero had been. Tests have discovered a number of chemicals and contaminants in his system, including ammonia, bleach, cadmium, ink, Freon, lead, mercury and jet fuel, Bellone said. Many of his fellow recovery workers have already died, and most of the rest are unable to leave their homes or are completely bedridden.
"My life is 100 percent different now. I don’t think it’s fair so many of these guys are dying. I mean, how many fires have they got to put out up there?" Bellone asked, referring to an old joke that firefighters never die, but just move on up to heaven to fight fires there.
Bellone doesn’t dwell on his losses, however. He visited a school in March 2002 to talk about his experiences at ground zero, and shortly thereafter founded TRAC Team. Since then he’s traveled across the country and has spoken in front of approximately 150,000 people at elementary and high schools, colleges, and Boy Scout and Girl Scout gatherings.
He does his best to answer their questions about the 2001 terrorist attacks. Questions often include, "Why would God let this happen?"; "Why did the terrorists do this to us?"; and "Will this happen again?" Bellone helps children understand the meaning of the word "hero" and the importance of respecting others, taking responsibility for one’s own actions and always striving to make a difference, no matter how small it may seem.
He tells children how much he was moved and encouraged by the letters and cards he received during the recovery effort. Such a simple gesture probably didn’t seem like a big deal to the young authors, but it made a huge difference to him, Bellone tells his audiences.
Although the recovery effort was exhausting and emotionally draining, Bellone said his faith grew exponentially stronger during that time. Although he was at the scene of one of the nation’s worst tragedies, he still felt God with him and all around him, and he learned firsthand the value of prayer.
Both of Bellone’s parents died while he was working on the recovery. After his father died, his mother asked what she could do for Bellone, who told her to pray that the workers could find seven missing firefighters. When he talked to his mother on the phone one evening after that, she told him, "I took care of that thing for you."
Bellone’s mother died March 10, 2002, and the next morning he and his partners found the seven firefighters.
"That was the only company that was found together, and the only company that found everyone," he said.
Bellone used to limit his church attendance to holidays and occasional Sundays, but now he tries to attend every weekend. His faith has become a driving force in his life.
"I try to go every Sunday now, and I have my organization, which is open to anybody I can help, and that’s what I do now," he said. "I’ve seen positive come out of a big negative, and when you see that you have to believe."
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about TRAC Team, visit www.tracteam.org.