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10 Days in Hell

September 10, 2011

Dan Tinnel trained to face the unimaginable. After September 11, 2001, he doesn’t have to imagine.

Road to the Horse producer Tootie Bland presented the colors at the opening of the 2011 event. (Photo by Holly Clanahan.)

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

From September 18 to September 28, 2001, all Dan Tinnel heard was the grind of machinery, the sirens of emergency vehicles … and deafening silence.

For 10 harrowing days in New York City, Dan was exposed to life-changing images and harsh realities as he worked to find survivors and clear rubble at the site of the World Trade Center collapse, commonly called “Ground Zero.” Prior to the events of September 11, spending a week at the 2001 AQHA World Championship Show would have been one of the biggest challenges of Dan’s life. But his perspective changed.

Back in 2001, the Chico, California, resident had been a firefighter for more than 30 years. He was working in the fire and rescue branch of the California Governor’s office of emergency services. His involvement with an urban search and rescue team plucked him out of a busy fire season in California and landed him and 61 team members at the site of the World Trade Center attacks in New York.

“In California, we have eight statewide urban search and rescue teams,” Dan says. “USAR teams are 62-person teams, with specialized training, from the four dog handlers to the physicians. These are national teams, actually under the umbrella of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I was pulled off a fire, sent home for 24 hours and told to get my affairs in order.”

Dan used that time to sleep, pack and say goodbye to family and close friends. September 17, he shipped out to join up with a USAR team, which happened to be the San Diego County group.

“For these firefighters, the No. 1 priority is the team,” Dan says. “The other task force leaders and I said when we started out that the object was to bring 62 people to New York, and we’re bringing 62 home. That’s the most important thing, and that’s what we did.”

He’s quick to remind people that he’s not a hero, but his words often go unheard. For many, including his cutting trainer, Don Wright, Dan has always been a humble man who goes beyond the call of duty.

“Dan’s just that type of person all the time,” the longtime friend says. “He’s helpful. When something happens, Dan will always be there to help out.”

Dan shrugs.

“Believe me, I didn’t do anything heroic back there,” he says. “My team was tough – they’d come in after 16 to 18 hours and be physically and emotionally exhausted. I was just doing my job.”

Team Players

“USAR teams are very specialized,” Dan explains. “At all times, we’re ready to travel with 25 tons of survival gear, go anywhere in the world, get on the ground and exist for 72 hours, including drinking water. That’s what we’re trained to do. With that come the physicians, who care primarily for the team, but who are cross-trained in emergency canine care for our four search dogs. Our doctors are Navy physicians, who work as emergency room doctors.”

Once Dan and his team members arrived at Ground Zero, the work was steady and tiring.

“I did 10 days in New York, which is a long tour because the teams were being rotated out in seven to eight days because of the emotional and physical burn out. We had 18- to 20-hour days. If I slept four hours, it was a luxury. But that didn’t happen too often. By the time the 10th day rolled around, your team was pretty burned out.

“One day, I was looking at the pound (that’s the nickname for the dog area), and my favorite, a Border collie named Manny, was licking his paws because they were sore and bruised. I thought, ‘That dog isn’t the same dog he was a week ago.’ Then I realized we weren’t the same people we’d been a week ago. The dog was a mirror, and I hadn’t really noticed it until I saw the change in him.”

Vacationing in OKC

While the AQHA World Show is often a mix of stressful anxiety for many competitors, it was a much-needed vacation for Dan back in 2001. He qualified his 1990 bay mare, Claudia Nic, in amateur and senior cutting. Bred by Alan and Claudia Sproles, “Claudia” is by Reminic and out of Bueno Chexs Macy by Bueno Chex.

“I’ve owned Claudia since 1996. I bought her from Jon Roeser,” Dan explains. “She was a futurity semi-finalist from the Pacific Coast and also a National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity finalist.”

Dan and Claudia didn’t qualify for the finals in amateur cutting – he blamed that on rider error – but he held out hope that teaming the mare with Don in senior cutting would generate a win. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen either.

“I got my horse qualified in July to go to the World and thought, ‘Now I need to go to some fires,’ ” Dan explains. “I started going to fires August 6 and had one day off between then and the attacks on September 11.”

With help from friends, Claudia was transported to Don’s training facilities 150 miles away to be ridden and shipped to Oklahoma City while Dan pored through the rubble in lower Manhattan.

But Claudia wasn’t Dan’s first foray into the cutting world.

“I had a horse that was really a cutting-bred horse but didn’t make it as a 3-year-old,” Dan says. “That’s about the time I met up with Donnelle Long and her husband. He roped, and she cut. I had the choice of which trailer I wanted to get into. I got into the cutting trailer, and that’s why I don’t have any money now!”

When Dan jokes about cutting, it is obvious that he enjoys his main hobby. After his time in New York City, it’s a welcome distraction.

“One of the nice things at the World Show was that I was pretty anonymous. For the most part, people didn’t know that I’d been to New York,” Dan says. “Since I got back from New York, as soon as people found out I was there, they’d start asking questions and it became awkward. Some of the issues are still emotionally heavy.”

In fact, Dan quit watching the news. He’d done his time “on the pile,” and there are things he just couldn’t talk about, emotions he didn’t care to put into words.

“Coming into New York, every fire station we passed had black crepe over the windows because they had a lost a brother,” Dan says. “It was horrible, dealing with the firefighters of the fire department of New York. They lost 343 guys. They were doing their job, but it was … it was horrible. When a firefighter goes down on a structure fire, there isn’t a hell you won’t walk through to find him. And then, in New York … well, I’m gonna pass on that one. It’s just tough.”

Words of Wisdom

So, how has Dan’s perspective changed after his return to daily routine in California?

“Life isn’t a dress rehearsal,” Dan says. “You need to be cognizant of the fact that if you don’t enjoy life, you are wasting your time. There are a lot of people I know who don’t enjoy their life, and they are waiting for something to happen. I believe in taking responsibility for yourself.

“When you see the things that I saw and experienced, you realize that all the security you have can be taken away in a moment,” he continues. “The only important things are your family, the people you love and those good things that make you feel like you’ve accomplished something in your life.”

He still credits the native New Yorkers as the real strength behind the people who flocked to the eastern state to provide assistance.

“Personally, I think the biggest thing that came out of it for me was a reminder of how much I love my profession,” Dan says. “The 62 firefighters I was with made me proud to be part of such a good task force. The way people treated us in New York and since I have been back has reaffirmed my love of being in a job that helps people in times of crisis. It is a job people respect, and after something like the World Trade Center, the feeling of pride is even greater. Enough said.”

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