BARNEGAT – More than thirty years before September 11, 2001, Barnegat resident Fred Rubenstein served with the fifth Air Rescue Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam. His experiences then left lasting impressions of a war-torn land.
Just 19 years old at the time, Rubenstein participated in air rescue missions conducted during the night. Under cover of darkness, a rope was lowered down to pick up pilots who were shot down or other soldiers able to communicate by radio.
“If we came across someone who was dead, we were ordered to leave them behind,” explained Rubenstein. “We took one of their dog tags for identification. If there were signs of life, we brought them up.”
Rubenstein was one of the lucky ones who returned home from the Vietnam War. His luck carried him through yet another life-threatening encounter as a survivor of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
A native of the big city, Rubenstein and his wife decided to move to Barnegat 28 years ago. Rubenstein kept his job with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority and made the commute by catching the bus from Toms River.
On September 11, 2001, Rubenstein, 52, was scheduled for a 9 a.m. meeting with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani as part of a transportation planning task force at 7 World Trade Center.
“My expertise was in buses, while others on the task force represented the subways, ferries, and taxi and limousine industry,” Rubenstein shared. “We were meeting to plan the reorganization of buses; at the time, exclusive bus lanes were just coming out.”
Once he was in the city, Rubenstein hopped on a subway from his office to go downtown. It was primary election day, and the subway was in great demand. Rubenstein’s initial plan was to drop off some donuts to share with some of his colleagues at one of the MTA garages.
As he got off at his stop by Pace University at the City Hall/Brooklyn Bridge, Rubenstein began his walk to leave the station.
“It was a bit of a walk, so it took me a few minutes,” said Rubenstein. “As I got out, I heard the loud engines and knew something was wrong. I looked and saw the impact a few minutes earlier, precisely at 8:46.”
Rubenstein’s first reaction was that the plane hitting the tower was accidental. However, as thoughts raced through his head, he examined the situation logically. Rubenstein knew something about air traffic, which included the fact that commercial jetliners did not fly over the populated portions of lower Manhattan.
He next considered the prospect that mechanical failure caused the plane to veer off course. But, he changed his mind as his digital pager started issuing bulletins about the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
“I was standing near a young cop whose shield was so new that his badge was still shining,” Rubenstein recalled. “He was a rookie and a young kid and looked at me. We were both in awe.”
“My God, we’re at war,” said Rubenstein to the young officer he would never see again.
As the air filled with a cloud of greyish powder, people began running away. They were covered from their noses to their toes in a horrible soot. Rubenstein couldn’t believe what he saw, including people falling or jumping from the towers.
“It was one of the most heart-wrenching, but at the same time, scary and sickening things I’ve ever seen in my life, “admitted Rubenstein. “It made what I saw in Vietnam look calm.”
Rubenstein’s instincts as a veteran kicked in. He immediately sprang into action and walked to the nearest MTA bus garage. Rubenstein then made good use of the bus license he still maintains to this date.
No one had any plans of what to do in the case of a catastrophic event. So whatever bus was in drivable condition started heading south along the West Side Drive.
“We organized people and packed several buses with people willing to go to the Red Cross to give blood,” Rubenstein shared. “We realized there were very few people to be carried out or to have blood transfused into them.”
The buses ultimately ended up transporting emergency crews from Long Island, Queens, Staten Island, and Westchester County. They brought in scores of firefighters, police officers, and medical personnel who would have no other means of transportation to come to the scene.
Buses don’t have fuel gauges and there was no time to stop at the regular city garages. None of the private filling stations ever charged for refueling the tanks. After all, they were all Americans in this rescue mission together.
Rubenstein came back to Barnegat after 36 sleepless hours. At the local mayor’s request, Rubenstein spoke of his experience at a Barnegat Township Committee meeting. He also shared his plans to go back to Ground Zero.
After hearing Rubenstein speak at the meeting, now retired Barnegat Police Officer Steve Tater contacted him. The two headed into New York and went down to the staging area, where the Red Cross was set up on old Broadway.
“At this point, I was with the rescue crew,” said Rubenstein. “I was doing part of the digging because a number of transit personnel were lost and unaccounted for – I knew them.”
“I had both a professional and personal stake in the game,” continued Rubenstein. “As we worked, all of us would get overcome with emotion and get down on our hands and knees, especially if we pulled up a body part.”
The discovery of any human part would cause the digging to move madly in search of the rest of the victim.
No one had to utter the words – the rescue mission was one of search and recovery. As he and the others dug feverishly, silence permeated the air. Every team member’s face was etched with total shock and bewilderment.
“I was there for the whole thing from when it happened until after we just about shut it down,” Rubenstein shared. “We had dogs out sniffing for human remains. We did everything we could to try and make sure that nobody was left under that debris.”
No one thought of the toxic environment as they worked on the recovery. Among the materials used in the construction of the World Trade Center was asbestos, a known carcinogen. Like many others, Rubenstein learned the atmosphere impacted him.
Rubenstein recently passed his first year as a prostate cancer survivor. The Victim’s Compensation Fund confirmed that his diagnosis was causally related to his presence at Ground Zero. The Barnegat man also continues to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the result of the tragic day 20 years ago.
Barnegat Mayor Al Bille requested that Rubenstein head up a solemn 9-11 commemoration on the anniversary. The event starts at 8 am at the Barnegat High School Athletic Field.
“I see the ceremony as therapeutic,” said Rubenstein. “I’ve asked Brian Latwis (Superintendent of Schools) to talk as we must be educational. We must get young people to understand that if their judgment is telling them something is out of sorts, it needs to be reported.”
Fred Rubenstein might know a few things about war, rescue and recovery. But, at 72, he also considers himself blessed to be a survivor.