Remembering 9/11: Madison firefighter reflects on how search at Ground Zero has impacted his life

“Fireman Rob” works to “look for the positives instead of the negatives”, as his healing continues
Published: Sep. 8, 2021 at 5:51 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 8, 2021 at 7:22 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The morning of 9/11, Madison Firefighter Rob Verhelst had just returned from fighting a fire in Madison when he heard and saw the 9/11 attacks unfold on radio and then television. He felt he had to go help with the search and recovery efforts, and drove to New York City, where he joined the search efforts at Ground Zero on Sept. 12.

Verhelst has held onto a tattered piece of a baby blanket he found in the Ground Zero rubble to remind him of the fragility of life, and the importance of “living forward, instead of worrying about all of the little things you can’t control.”

In this 1-on-1 interview, the man known as “Fireman Rob” for running the marathon portion of Ironman competitions in full firefighting gear, opens up about the PTSD, depression and anxiety he has endured after working the 9/11 site. He also shares how removing the stigma from mental health issues, and helping others through his Fireman Rob Foundation has helped him continue to survive by finding a purpose in life.

The following is a partial transcript from our interview with Verhelst:

Rob Verhelst: “The morning of September 11th, I was actually working shift (in Madison) and we had a house fire that morning. I was less than a year on the job. When I got back up to the station I was up in the showers and we were listening to the radio. I heard that the first World Trade Center Tower had been hit, and you know, didn’t think anything of it. I was young. I was 23-years-old. I saw on the TV that the second Trade Tower had been hit, and this was more than just some bi-plane hitting the towers and….at that point, I contacted the rescue team that I had been a part of. They said, if you can get out here, get out here. There were no flights going, and so I drove. I had a little purple Saturn at the time. I drove from Madison to New York City and got there on Sept. 12th.”

John Stofflet: “Why did you feel compelled to go?”

Verhelst: “You know…(pause)…I felt compelled to go just because of the fact that I knew they needed people. I knew they needed individuals to be able to go in there and be able to handle what was going to be put in front of you. I was 23. I was ignorant to what was going to be put in front of me.”

Stofflet: “And what did you see? Share what you’re comfortable sharing. I don’t want to make it uncomfortable for you.”

Verhelst: “The hard thing was it looked like a movie scene. You know, going in there, nothing really felt real or was real until you got onto like the bucket brigades and you got into the holes and then you got so tired searching. You got so tired that you just didn’t know what was in front of you. Being there--I think the positives, we always have to look for the positives, instead of these negatives. The most amazing thing I haven’t seen since is that I would love to see again is that everybody came together for such an amazing reason—to move forward. We saw everybody from Ironworkers, who weren’t tunnel rats—who weren’t built to do rescue or recovery—were going into the holes and were cutting rebar so we could go farther. American Red Cross workers were making sandwiches around the clock for us…and a lot of people who have never seen anything like this before. Everybody just worked constantly--maybe 22 hours a day. You maybe slept a few times on the pile, or there were recliners on the side streets…but it was going the whole time.”

Stofflet: “What was the most difficult part of being there and seeing what had happened?”

Verhelst: “Understanding why. I think the struggle is still there. Why does something like this happen? Why do…you can’t rationalize it in your head and you can’t try to…but it just makes you feel even worse. And you can’t control things in your own life and that’s where you spin out of control, is you try to understand things that you’re really never meant to be able to understand. It was hard because one of the days I remember there was a fire crew that came up to us as we were searching and the guy just kept saying, ‘He’s right here. They’re right here. I know they’re right here.’ And that is where the engine company was…and he wanted us to search, and of course, we went down and searched. But the hard part of all of this was the reality that we were looking at. And the reality was that this was not going to be a rescue operation….(emotional pause)...trying to rationalize that in your head for the other individuals…it’s not easy. That family that you have in the fire service? I’ve learned from day one until now. At the beginning of our shift we all say, we’re here to get everybody home at the end of the day. and that’s hard when you can’t do anything to help those individuals get home. While I was there, I was just focused on what I was supposed to do. I mean, I was so focused, one of the days I went into the Porta Potty, thinking I had gone to the bathroom, and as I was walking back, I actually went to the bathroom in my jumpsuit. I think the hardest day is the day that I left. That’s when everything let down. You knew you were done. And that’s when everything started to come to grips.”

Stofflet: “So you’ve been back (to the site). It’s not easy for you.”

Verhelst: “I’ve been back twice. It’s not easy. Both times there have been physical reactions—throwing up, just not able to function. The last time I went back with my wife we went to the museum, but it didn’t last long. It’s hard when you see something that you lived through, and people just kind of going through and looking at it likes it’s a show or something. I know you have to remember it and commemorate it, but it’s just a hard pill to swallow.”

Stofflet: “This is a question only if you’re comfortable answering…but the most vivid memory you have from being there. Things that kind of stick with you?”

Verhelst: “There’s a lot of them, and I get to live with those, but it’s sights…smells, are probably one of the biggest things. Concrete dust sets me off. I think the biggest thing when we went back is the buildings had changed. That was good, but the firehouse that was there was still the same exact place that we had seen. Everyone always says remember-never forget... but a lot of us that were there will never forget. We also never forget what we were there for. It’s traumatic having to deal with it every single day, but you never get a day off. "

Stofflet: “So, do you feel your life has been improved as a result of this ultimately, or....?”

Verhelst: “It took a long time. It took a long time for…it was ten years I was lost in my life. I was lost. I had problems with drinking, and not really grasping my life and who I was. You know, in 2011 I started to do races in firefighter gear to commemorate those lost, and those still living with the trauma…and to be honest, it did help me find who I was, and did help me continue to survive every single day, because I know I have a purpose.”

Stofflet: “For people who’ve lived through, and very few people have lived through the type of trauma you’ve seen, but those who are experiencing that in their lives what would your advice be to them? If you could give some?

Verhelst: “I think the biggest advice I could give to them is be okay with not being OK. That’s one thing. I think for so long it was a stigma of, if you have this, or you’re feeling this way that there’s something wrong with you. And it’s OK to be not OK. And the second part is in all of these things it takes time. And you have to think of it in terms of what are the positives that came out? Maybe there’s only one, compared to the 10 negatives, but that’s something you have to hang onto is the one positive—like all of those people working together. That’s the one positive I hang onto is that this tragedy brought something of all these people bonding together. It didn’t matter what gender, what creed, what race, or anything like that. We were all going for that common purpose. And you have to find a positive to keep moving.”

Stofflet: “You also went on to do some nonprofit work in all that. How do you feel you’re doing now after all of that, vs. a couple of years after you left the 9/11 site?”

Verhelst: “I think I’m far beyond where I was. I think I’m starting to understand myself a lot better. Being able to talk to others about these kinds of situations and not break down and just not be able to talk at all. I think the ability to take those steps forward for me was critical…and I need to continue to do that and I can’t just sit down. I don’t do well in silence. I don’t do well in idle time. Making sure that I can continue to do good things for other people…it’s about making moments in your life—not just taking time. For me I think that was a huge moment in my life at 23-years-old that completely changed the trajectory…and I’m sure it changed many other lives’ trajectories. And you know, looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing but yeah, definitely, it’s been a struggle. Every single year on Sept. 11th, a guy that I was there with, who was part of the Chicago Fire Department gives me a call. I know exactly that he’s going to give me a call. He gives me a call in the morning, and we just talk. I mean, even if we haven’t talked for months. Remembering that day? It’s always a very struggle day for me, usually pretty quiet. I don’t like to do much that day. But it’s always the days that are around it that you have to think about. It’s great to remember one day, but understanding there are people out there struggling every single day….from that one day.”

Stofflet: “Tell us about the bike ride you’re going on with the Quell Foundation?”

Verhelst: “It’s going to be a group of 23 individuals that are going to ride 5 days, trying to impact lives and help people to understand that dealing with mental health issues, you’re not alone. And it’s not a stigma that you have to live with. Like I said before: It’s okay to not be okay. And the Quell Foundation is a fantastic organization that’s helping to break that down for first responders and front line workers as well.”

As we were just about finished with our interview, Verhelst reached for a small, tattered piece of a baby blanket he had found while searching in the rubble at Ground Zero.

Verhelst: “I’ve carried this throughout my journey…and there are little pieces I give to people throughout my journey that needed help.”

While speaking about the significance of the baby blanket, he handed it to me to hold. The symbolism of that small baby’s blanket, and the unknown story behind it all of these years later made us both pause in silence...before bringing us both to tears.

Verhelst: “The last day I was there on the pile as we were walking off, and I had seen down in the one of the holes a baby blanket. I asked the Chief if I could go down and see. They put a ladder belt on me and I was about 6 to 8 feet down and I got closer to it and I saw it was a baby’s blanket. Thank God there was nothing under it. I took it with me as a reminder, and I had a blanket (like it) made for my son to help him, protect him. It was just a reminder that life is fragile. Life’s about moments, and you need to keep living forward instead of worrying about all of the little things that you can’t control.”

Stofflet: “Wow. Yeah. That’s powerful. As a father, I can understand. I’m grateful that you were willing to share this. Thanks for that....and thanks for what you did too.”

Verhelst is currently biking in the Quell Foundation 9/11 Ride of Hope, working to bring awareness to mental health issues first responders face.

The Quell Foundation said the event, “Aims to educate, inspire, and empower first responders to recognize mental health crisis warning signs amongst their own. Americans in public service are more likely to die by suicide than performing their line-of-duty life-saving roles.

In 2019, at least 114 Firefighters died by suicide, compared to the 52 that died in the field. In the same year, 228 Police Officers took their life while 132 died in the field. We have lost 22 as of February 15th, 2021″.

If you or someone you love is having an emotional crisis or thinking of suicide, call 911, or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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