J.R. Calkins, of Silver City, was on a plane to New York City hours after the 9/11 attacks. Here's why.

Jennifer Olson
For the Sun-News
J.R. Calkins, of Silver City, responded to New York City on Sept. 12, 2001, to help with the recovery efforts at ground zero.

In the early hours of Sept. 11, 2001, J.R. Calkins had decided not to arrive at work at his usual pre-dawn hour. He rolled into the Gila National Forest Supervisor’s Office at 8 a.m. to find his colleagues gathered around a TV in the conference room. 

Calkins had worked in incident management for a dozen years by then and, in 2000, had joined Van Bateman’s Southwest Region Team — a Type 1 team designated to provide command and control infrastructure for the most complex of emergencies, namely wildfires but to include disasters like floods and hurricanes. He and his colleagues watched the most significant disaster of their careers play out on the screen until, at 9 a.m., they were told to go home. 

Before Calkins had walked the few steps to his office, he learned his team was being mobilized to New York City. They would be the ones to manage the operational, logistical, informational, fiscal and safety issues associated with the attack on the World Trade Center. 

All but one other National Type 1 Incident Management Team were tied up fighting wildfires in the Pacific Northwest that time of year, so the second available team was dispatched to the Pentagon.  

After saying good-bye to his wife, Calkins and colleagues Mike Head and Dana Carter drove to catch a plane in Albuquerque. The plane, which J.R. said was equipped with a squawk box signaling to military apparatus and air traffic controllers that they were “the good guys,” picked up the members of Steve Gage’s Incident Management Team in California and then loaded the rest of the Southwest Team in Phoenix. One person on the flight made the incident managers feel uneasy. The outsider wearing “a goofy golf hat,” Calkins later learned, ran the New Jersey Air National Guard and would be ensuring their teams were supported with helicopters to size up the scene.  

After dropping off the other team in Baltimore, where armored vehicles waited on the tarmac, the plane took Calkins and his colleagues to Newark, N.J. By 11 a.m. on Sept. 12, they had joined with the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Taskforces at Jacob Javitt’s Convention Center, and by noon, they had begun their post-attack operations.  

“All the FDNY chiefs were in Tower 1 when it fell, so there was a void in leadership,” Calkins said. That’s where his team came in, and his role, as a supply unit leader, was to keep track of materials and resources coming into the incident. “Orders range from supplies like shovels, food and clothes to equipment like dozers and engines — even people,” he said.  

But, with a knowledge of surveying, Calkins also spent 20 of his 35 days at ground zero “on the pile.” Every three or four days, they used a system of rigged prisms to create a surface and measure how much material had been cleared. The site spanned 15 acres, but the debris from the collapsed buildings and those surrounding amounted to 220 acres worth of “stuff” that had to be sorted through and ultimately moved.  

In the stuff were of course people. At the World Trade Center, 2,763 died. Of those, 494 were first responders. Most of the six survivors were found in the same elevator shaft. “When search and rescue switches to search and recovery, that’s a bad day for everybody out there working,” Calkins said.  

Every time a body was found, a bell was rung and work stopped while everyone stood in respect while the stretcher, draped with an American flag, was carried out. “Some days, we were standing for hours,” Calkins said. 

A normal day began with breakfast at 4 a.m. and continued until work wrapped at 11 p.m.  

The members of Van Bateman’s Southwest Incident Management Team were recognized with a USDA Honor Award in 2002. To this day, New York Fire Department members embrace Calkins and his family like their own, giving them VIP treatment during visits, whether at the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting or in the neighborhood dive bar. 

A resident of Silver City and graduate of Western New Mexico University, Calkins has remained in incident management. He has worked as far south as Australia and as far north as the Arctic Circle and has been mobilized to national events like the Columbia Shuttle Recovery and Hurricane Katrina.  

Calkins is giving the keynote address at the community 9/11 memorial hosted by WNMU on Saturday, the 20th anniversary of the attacks.

Southern New Mexico remembers 9/11

Jennifer Olson writes for Western New Mexico University communications.