A group of Conover officials experienced 9/11 first hand this week through the mouth of a “hero” and “survivor” himself.
While on a trip to retrieve a piece of the Twin Towers for the city, Conover chiefs, managers and citizens toured Ground Zero with a man who lived through the terrorist attacks. Nick Pendergast, whose father was the president of the Conover Family Historical Society, was a financial consultant who worked no more than 200 yards away from Ground Zero.
On Wednesday, Pendergast told his story at Ground Zero to a group of four Conover citizens, which included City Manager Donald Duncan, Police Chief Steve Brewer, Fire Chief Mark Hinson and citizen Don Barker.
“He escorted us around Wednesday night to the World Trade Center site and gave us a three-hour talk about what he saw that day and the horror he witnessed,” Barker said. “The most impressive thing I learned was that while there were those who ran away from the disaster, the most inspirational thing was the ones who ran to it."
Pendergast was one of those who ran toward the towers. Duncan said their “unofficial tour guide” worked for the U.S. Stock Exchange and helped first responders rescue victims on 9/11.
He walked the group around Ground Zero, explaining in detail what happened on that historic and deadly day.
“On TV, it was surreal to the point of the imagery, but he described the smells, the sound and the moments of absolute silence after the towers fell,” Duncan said.
Pendergast told Duncan how he walked into what was once the street, covered in debris and ash after the towers fell.
“He said, ‘It looked as if Zombies were arising out of the dust, but it was people,” Duncan said. “What he thought were objects and steel were people that started rising out of the ash.”
Duncan said Pendergast joined up with a group of firemen and helped victims to safety -- probably one of the few citizens to run toward the wreckage rather than away. He was not a fireman or a policeman; he was a citizen.
Barker and Duncan agree that the atmosphere around Ground Zero is unique.
“It’s not like a cemetery, and not like a monument, but a combination of the two. It’s really unique in itself, though,” Duncan said.
Construction on the 9/11 memorial continues and the area is wide open.
Nothing slowed down while the group toured Ground Zero at night while the rain poured down.
“There’s still a sense of disbelief in most folks. I think the human brain can only comprehend so much,” Duncan said.
Barker said the mood around the site was “solemn, very quiet.”
"As you near the site there are only murmurs and whispers, no frivolity or laughing or anything,” he said. At the same time, he said New Yorkers are ready to memorialize those who died on 9/11.
”They are all geared up for Sunday, and they are looking forward to remembering those who have fallen."
Nothing but steel
The Conover officials traveled to New York to retrieve a piece of the World Trade Center to bring back to Catawba County. The 5,000-pound artifact is part of a shear stud, which is used to keep steel floor beams and girders in place. It is 60 inches long, 45 inches wide and 45 inches tall, Duncan said.
Though the artifact is a rare piece, Duncan said people should focus on what it represents rather than the piece of concrete and steel itself.
“It’s nothing but a piece of steel, but it is a manifestation of what we should do as human beings to help each other.”
The artifact is on display at the Conover Fire Department on U.S. 70. It will be dedicated on Sunday during Conover’s 9/11 ceremony that starts at 8:30 a.m.