Fire fighter reacts to needs in New York
Sobieski man drives to Manhattan and volunteers at devastated fire house
By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor
Dale Liebergen's voice cracks with emotion when he mentions the fire fighters of Engine 54 Ladder Co. 4 of midtown Manhattan who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center.
"They lost everybody," he said somberly. "They lost their entire crew. They lost all their equipment. They lost all 15 fire fighters who were on duty that morning."
Although he never met any of these men, as a volunteer fire fighter in Little Suamico, Liebergen feels a bond with these fallen heroes. That bond was strengthened last week when he worked side-by-side with the remaining members of the station.
On Friday, Sept. 14, Liebergen, husband of Vicki Liebergen, advertising sales assistant for The Compass, left work at Schreiber Foods at 4 p.m. At 5 p.m., in his pickup truck filled with supplies, he hit the road.
"I just wanted to help and, because of my experience with special trauma and rescue units, I felt that I could," he said. "I drove straight through to New York. It took me 15 hours to get there. It took three hours to get over the river into the city. I had never been to New York before."
When he arrived, Liebergen, who lives in Sobieski, was amazed by the masses of people. Doubt entered his mind that he would be able to find a way to provide assistance. He had no contacts in the city.
"I found the Java Center where volunteers were dropping off supplies," he said. "I unloaded my truck and saw a fire fighter walking out of the crowd. I pulled him aside and said 'I'm a fire fighter from Wisconsin. I want to help.'"
The fire fighter from Engine 54 Ladder Co. 4 welcomed his offer.
"It was just a matter of hanging around the station to do what I could to help the guys," said Liebergen, who also serves a volunteer EMT for County and Tri County Rescue. "We would work at the station for 12 hours. Then we would load up and head to Ground Zero to dig and do bucket brigades for eight hours."
Seeing Ground Zero in person is horrifying, he said.
"I can't even explain it," he said. "It is so completely overwhelming. It looked like a war zone. It's beyond comprehension."
"The last couple of nights there were really bad," he continued. "We were all wearing respirators. It was so hot up there and there was so much steam. I crawled into one hole and found a part of a guy. In the last 21 years as an EMT, I've seen lots of bodies, but I've never seen anything of this magnitude. All my gear smells like death."
While the horrors of the devastation were striking, the human spirit on display in the city touched Liebergen.
"It was great outside the station," he said. "There were thousands of flowers left in honor of the fallen brothers. Local restaurants brought food. The Hotel Edison around the corner opened up an entire floor for volunteers at no charge. Celebrities stopped by to talk to the fire fighters. Brooke Shields, Tom Selleck and Ron Howard visited the station. I saw so many amazing things. The people would yell and cheer each time the crews would go out. People would drop off masks, gloves, boots, shovels and picks. Many people would come up to the fire fighters and give them money."
Liebergen will never forget a young boy who was a friend of one of the fallen fire fighters.
"He wanted to help by giving blood, but he is only eight-years-old," he said. "So he set up a lemonade stand outside the Red Cross to raise money. He came to the station in a police car. Everyone thought it was great and that he probably raised a couple hundred dollars. He gave the lieutenant $9,000. He had made eight pitchers of lemonade. People were giving him twenties, fifties and hundreds."
Security was tight at the scene of the attacks. Liebergen had to pass through a military checkpoint to get to Ground Zero. When security tightened and prevented access, he decided to end his four-day stint of service and return home. He will never forget the Manhattan fire fighters.
"It's a real brotherhood," he said. "It's like that everywhere. You have a common bond in what you do, but I've never seen it as strong as it was in New York."
"It was exhausting work, but these guys wouldn't quit," he added. "They would dig and dig until they dropped and had to be dragged to the medical area."
Liebergen, who also serves as a reserve deputy for the Oconto County Sheriff's Department, credits his employer with giving him the opportunity to serve in New York.
"They gave me a week off to go out there," he said. "Larry Ferguson, the president of Schreiber Foods, and Chuck Hunt, my department supervisor, were 100% supportive. Everyone told me to come back safe."
In looking back, Liebergen said he will carry the experience with him forever. "It was truly one of the most rewarding things I've ever done and one of the most horrifying things I've ever done," he said. His thoughts also turn to the men of Engine 54 Ladder Co. 4 who didn't survive.
"They were on the 22nd floor of Tower I when they were in last contact with the station," he said. "The father of one of the men who died visited the station. He was so proud of his son. He said that even if his son had known what was going to happen, he wouldn't have left the building. He would have kept trying to save others. None of them would have left."