Loomis fire chief returns to site of Sept. 11 attacks

By: Joyia Emard Loomis News Editor
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Loomis Fire Chief Dave Wheeler was in New York City for the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and revisited the site where 10 years ago he searched for survivors. “Sept. 11 is a real defining point in our country. It is the Pearl Harbor for our generation. It was a terrible tragedy, but Bin Laden did exactly the opposite of what he intended – he just made us stronger,” Wheeler said. In 2001, Wheeler led a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue team of 63 emergency responders and four canines that went to the World Trade Center to search for survivors. “I was in charge of the California task force out of Oakland,” Wheeler said. Wheeler said the last body was recovered 27 hours after the attack and his crew was left to search the debris for any type of human remains. Wheeler said the hardest part of his job in New York was when family members of the missing would come to the site asking to leave balloons, flowers or Teddy bears. “They all still had hope in their eyes that someone would find their loved one alive,” Wheeler said. Wheeler said he was shocked to see that the buildings and their contents were reduced to gravel- and fist-sized debris. “There was nothing that was even recognizable as coming from an office building,” he said. The recoveries, Wheeler said, were “few and far between – 10 some days, two others.” He said he and his team spent 10 days at ground zero. “The day we left, I stood looking at the rubble and I felt so thankful to have been there to do what I could. It was an absolute honor,” he said. In 2007, Wheeler retired from his Alameda County Fire Department job and moved to Loomis where he became chief of the Loomis Fire Protection District. This Sept. 11, Wheeler and his wife, Gayle, along with their daughter Sabrina and her husband, Clarke Caldwell, took a vacation to visit New York for the ten year anniversary. Clarke Caldwell is a firefighter with the Tracy Fire Department and he and Sabrina live in Rocklin. Gayle Wheeler said the young couple saved money for two years in order to make the New York trip. The two couples joined thousands of firefighters from all over the world who converged in New York to honor the victims of the attack. Wheeler attended memorial services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the relatives of the 343 New York City Fire Department firefighters lost in the tragedy. He said he talked with family members sitting near him about those they lost and listened to their stories. “They (the firefighters killed) were just regular guys doing their job. One victim’s brother told me they found his body with the body of a civilian he was trying to save. It brought closure to that family knowing he died doing what he was supposed to do.” After the service, Wheeler watched his son-in-law march in a firefighters parade to show support to the victim’s families “It was a real outpouring of love and support,” Wheeler said. Gayle Wheeler said, “I was able to see the journey from my husband’s photos of destruction and see New York alive again after such devastation. I was looking at a war zone (in photos), now I see a beautiful plaza." Clarke Caldwell said it felt good to be there for the anniversary. “FDNY appreciated all of us coming,” he said. While reflecting on the trip, Caldwell said, “It feels good to be an American. We’re rebuilding at the site, remembering those who gave their lives by building a memorial in their honor. We’re sending the message we’re going to be stronger.”