CLERMONT, Fla. — When Andrew Feldman took off from Long Island on Sept. 12, 2001, he and two others with the Civil Air Patrol had a mission: photograph the demolished twin towers.

The Clermont resident saw only plumes of smoke where the two gigantic towers stood until the day before.

“We could not believe what we were seeing,” Feldman said.

The Cessna 172 was the only non-military aircraft flying in the continental U.S. that day.

Feldman will recount his experiences on the 15-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks as a featured speaker alongside retired New York police officer Rafael Rodrigo at Clermont’s annual 9-11 ceremony, set for 4 p.m. Sunday at the Clermont Performing Arts Center.

Some of Feldman’s photos are on display in the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum in New York. After the mission, he and the other crew members were acknowledged by New York Gov. George Pataki, who wanted to make sure the scene was photographed from above, and others in Albany. The mission was cleared with the White House, Feldman said.

Civil Air Patrol flights normally were filled with banter among pilots, Feldman said, but on 9-11 the only sound in the cockpit was the clicking of cameras and radio chatter. Civil Air Patrol is an Air Force auxiliary group devoted to aerospace education, emergency services and cadet programs.

As the Cessna flew toward Manhattan, it was escorted by a pair of F-15 fighter jets armed with stinger missiles as government officials were unsure if more attacks were imminent.

The aircraft flew “low and slow” around Manhattan four times for a little more than an hour, swooping as low as 700 feet as Feldman snapped photos of the harrowing scene seated next to the pilot. Smoke billowed into the air and ash covered the ground.

“It looked as if it had just snowed in lower Manhattan,” said Feldman, an electronics engineer who was trained in photo reconnaissance.

The images were invaluable to officials planning the recovery as well as workers and first responders on the ground, he said. The streets near Ground Zero were buried so deep in rubble that crews had a hard time identifying where they were standing.

In Albany, officials dropped street grids over the photos to help plot recovery efforts. The photos also offered new perspectives and angles, providing an aerial scope of the damage.

Rodrigo, a plainclothes narcotics officer on 9-11, was among thousands of first responders working amid the rubble looking for survivors. He and dozens of other narcotics cops quickly changed into police uniforms and commandeered city buses.

Rodrigo remembered sitting in silence during the half-hour trip toward the smoldering towers. As they approached the scene, he said they could see the thick black smoke billowing from the towers.

The 47-year-old Cape Coral resident said he was standing a block and a half away from Ground Zero when the second tower came down.

“It sounded like a million freight trains coming through,” Rodrigo said. “It was an unbearable sound.”

In the days that followed, soot covered his shoes up to his ankles and debris was stacked so high that he often couldn’t see the person in front of him as he and his colleagues picked through the rubble. He recalled working around burning police cars and firetrucks and often found himself looking up, noticing beautiful clear blue skies overhead.

Along with his colleague Chuck Broadway, who is now Clermont’s police chief, the group searched for signs of life.

“We couldn’t find anybody alive,” Rodrigo said.

As time passed, Rodrigo worked at a nearby landfill where debris was dumped onto conveyor belts. As giant pieces of rock and metal passed by, he searched for body parts and evidence. At one point he was assigned to remove body parts from rooftops near where the towers once stood.

Throughout his work, he inhaled huge amounts of smoke and pollution, and he still feels the effects of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, and asthma he developed soon after the attacks. He retired from NYPD in 2004 and then worked nine years with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.

Feldman, too, came to Florida, escaping the hectic life of the Big Apple. Friends who lived in Clermont pushed for the family to move south, but his photos always bring him back to that fateful day.

“It was striking to see our city in a state of absolute destruction and upheaval,” Feldman said.


Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/