Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

September 5, 2011

Local trucker called to serve key role after Sept. 11 tragedy

PRINCETON — Most truckers, especially independent owner/operators, don’t know where their next load will take them. That was certainly true for Russell Vereen of Princeton who was delivering a load in Arizona on Sept. 11, 2011, when the terrorist attacks on the United States changed his life.

“I was leased to Bennett Motor Express out of Georgia, and I had just delivered on base out in Yuma, Ariz., when I heard about the attacks,” Vereen said. “Bennett was FEMA’s [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] National Disaster Carrier at the time. The military put us off the base and went on lock-down, but [his dispatcher] told us to stand by in Yuma in case we were needed there.”

Like most Americans, Vereen, 42, wanted to get home. He remained in Yuma for about a week, then got a load that would bring him back close to Princeton. After an additional week at home, he received a call from Bennett Trucking, telling him to go to New York City, to the temporary morgue serving the victims of the World Trade Center attack.

“I had never been to Manhattan before,” Vereen said. “I bob-tailed up there, and when I reached the George Washington Bridge, the New York State Police escorted me the rest of the way.”

For the next 205 days — including 93 consecutive days — Vereen was on duty 22 hours per day, seven days a week, maintaining the climate-control units of the 21 FEMA trailers that were used as a temporary morgue for the 2,753 victims who died in the attack on the World Trade Center towers.

“It changed my life,” Vereen said. “During that time, I dealt with many different religions when the medical examiners would release a body. Every time the teams would bring in the body of a MOS — Men of Service — firefighter, police officer, Port of Authority employee or emergency responder, everyone stood still and remained quiet.”

Vereen stressed the fact that all of the bodies were treated with utmost respect. “I’ve heard all kinds of stories since that time about hauling bodies in trucks, but that was not true,” he said. “The personnel working at the World Trade Center transported bodies in ambulances. The remains were held at the morgue while the medical examiners took DNA samples. They took their time and were thorough.”

Vereen said that while his initial job was to maintain the trailers, he soon was given additional responsibilities when other FEMA personnel were moved to other sites, including the Rockaway Park plane crash on Nov. 12, 2001.

“They rotated the FEMA employees out every two weeks,” he said. “Bennett had 450 owner/operators when I was driving for them. We hauled FEMA equipment where they needed it and assisted during training exercises. I got to know several of them when I was maintaining the climate-control units on a trailer that was being used to store drugs for a training exercise. I guess that’s why they asked for me.

“Working at something like that will make you look at life a lot differently,” he said. “It was a sad place.”

Vereen grew up in Princeton and graduated from Spanishburg High School in 1987. He worked at the Dean Company in Princeton for a couple of years and started driving tractor-trailer. During the 22 years he has been a trucker, the Thanksgiving and Christmas days of 2001 and New Year’s Day, 2002, were the only times he was away from home on those holidays.

“I stayed in my truck,” he said. “The Salvation Army fed us, and the food was good. Food was available 24 hours a day. They had priests up there for us to talk to. They were all good to us. Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani was there and several of the big wrestlers came up to visit with us. They were all good to us.”

Vereen said that all of the personnel working with the morgue had to wear identification badges at all times. “People would stop you on the sidewalks and say: ‘God bless you ... Thank you.’ They were all good to us,” he said.

After he arrived on the site on Sept. 29, he remained there for 93 days. “I went home, took a load out and went back,” he said. “I was up there a total of 205 days.

“It was a life-changing experience,” he said. “When you go through something like that, you just can’t explain it. It was life changing,” he said.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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