Warning: This podcast contains themes that may be distressing for some listeners. Listener discretion is advised.
The Shrine Stories podcast takes you on a deep dive behind the objects in the Galleries.
In this episode, Major David Bergman explains his role in the recovery efforts following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Major Bergman was one of only five Australian Defence Force personnel embedded with the NYPD and other units who worked in the months after the attacks.
Music: Across the Line - Lone Canyon
LAURA THOMAS: The Shrine of Remembrance embraces the diversity of our community and acknowledges the Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which this podcast was recorded. We pay our respects to Elders, past and present.
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: The stamp to me was a reflection of how prior to the event a person was going to their workplace, as if just normal work, and then an event one day and it's totally removed. In fact, the entire history of you know, two huge buildings is basically reduced to rubble.
LAURA THOMAS: Welcome to the Shrine Stories podcast – a place where we take you on a deep dive into the stories behind the objects on our gallery floor.
Before we get into this episode, just a warning, it does contain details that some listeners may find distressing.
September 11 2001 is a date burned into the collective global memory after attacks were carried out by the terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda, on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the United States of America.
Our guest today experienced the horrors of the aftermath firsthand and was one of only five Australian ADF personnel embedded with the NYPD and other units working in the months after the attacks.
That man is Major David Bergman and he joins us now to speak about his experiences. Thank you for joining us today David…
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: Thanks very much, Laura. Pleasure.
LAURA THOMAS: Now you've got a long history of service that also extends back to your family. So can you give me a little bit of an overview of your service up to 2001?
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: Yes, I joined the regular Army straight out of school. So I joined when I was 17 in 1981. And I went through recruit and then infantry training and then was posted to 3RAR. After doing my three year commitment to with 3RAR, I then transferred to the Reserves and went to the First Commando Regiment and, in particular, the Second Commando Company in Melbourne. And I was there for a number of years until I got selected to get commissioned. And then I went off and got commissioned and ended up in the Engineer Corps. And so I spent a number of postings with the reserves in engineer positions up until 2000 when I rejoined the regular army, and spent time at headquarters Northern Command, it was from there that I got selected to do the specialist training overseas for engineers.
LAURA THOMAS: Tell me a little bit about that, what was this training about?
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: So prior to 9/11, the Australian Army and the engineers in particular, they, they maintain an understanding and working knowledge of various specialist areas. And one of those is CBRN, or chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear.
LAURA THOMAS: A bit of a mouthful
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: It is indeed these acronyms, that's probably why they make them acronyms. So that capability was raised for the Olympics, and they had a large component to do that. And then it was scaled back down at the end of the Olympics. And so there were only one or two people needed to be posted there. And to do that, they were sent off and did overseas training. So my training lasted six months. So myself and one other. Previous to Canada, I'd attended the first component, which was a training at Fort Leonard Wood in the United States. Then the second component was to do training in with the Canadian Forces, which was the advanced NBC course.
LAURA THOMAS: Now you were in Canada, on the 11th of September 2001. Talk to me about that day.
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: Well, a very interesting day for all right around the world. That was the second day of our course. And so it was a Tuesday, and we just started the first training serial. So sitting in a lecture room, and the doors basically burst open, a Canadian soldier came in and said, 'Right, if you're Canadian, straight out the doors, the rest of you finish the training, finish this lesson, and then have a look at the TVs'. And so we finished the lesson and then went out and observed the TVs to see the towers being hit and the like. So the reason the Canadians were needed immediately was that they actually made up that component that would respond and so due to the attacks there everyone else, all the other nations, were obviously very nervous that they were going to be next. And so a lot of preparation was started very quickly.
LAURA THOMAS: And what was your reaction to walking out of that training room and seeing the footage on the TV?
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: Yeah, very interesting, because everyone was very, I think, overwhelmed with what they were seeing. And again, the early footage, in particular, was basically live. So there were a lot of images that came across early on that were probably censored later on, because of the graphic nature of it. So yeah, it was a talking point for everyone and for myself, I just found it quite interesting. It wasn't either negative or positive. It was well, it's sort of happening. So yeah.
LAURA THOMAS: Can you expand on that a little bit? Is that to do kind of with your military service? How did you-
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: Yeah, a lot of things, a lot of the training that you get in various areas are all, is cumulative. And so you're generally given the opportunity to grow and develop, particularly as a as a leader, in being able to cope with the unexpected and cope with things changing very quickly. And, and so that training basically kicked in. So for me, I didn't find that I needed to overthink anything, it's just taking on board that those things were happening.
LAURA THOMAS: And what happened from there, did you stay training in Canada?
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: So the Canadian course, actually involved visits all across Canada, and back into the United States. And so the area where we spent the first portion of our training, which was Fort Leonard Wood, was the first stop of the training with the Canadians. So the towers were hit on the Tuesday, and we actually flew back in on the Thursday into the United States. And so the significant change since we'd been there last was significant.
LAURA THOMAS: How so?
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: So the levels of security. So, for example, the United States has a very high level of security around their bases, but it became more obvious with with soldiers positioned on rooftops, that type of thing, just to ensure a very, the presence of security, which again, can be comforting for many people.
LAURA THOMAS: And I imagine that flight over two days after the attack would have been a very quiet one.
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: Very interesting was how I would describe it, I sat next to a a woman who was travelling and was, you know, a little bit agitated with fear. My comment to her was, this is a really good time to be travelling, because with those type of events, once it's happened once everyone's very wise to it. And so it's actually safer now than what it was, you know, earlier on, so she didn't seem too upset after that line of logic. Yeah, very interesting times.
LAURA THOMAS: So you were in the US kind of immediately following the fallout of the September 11 attacks, but a couple of months later, in November, you actually had more of a direct involvement in recovery efforts. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: Yeah, so as part of the training after the official training, it allows you to go and visit other places and other agencies. So we worked with the Canadian Mounted Police, for example. And so there was a series of visits organised. However, when we visited New York, the arrangements changed, because normally you do a week and then move on because of our recent training, the New York police offered the Australian government 'Hey, we'd like to keep them longer'. And so we basically spent a month in New York, and we were attached to what were called Hammer teams. And these were teams brought together to tackle the anthrax attacks that were then happening in predominantly New York.
LAURA THOMAS: For those who don't know, can you explain what the anthrax attacks were all about?
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: So the anthrax attacks occurred concurrently and probably just prior to the 9/11 attacks. And what occurred was that a individual or individuals started sending anthrax to various government agencies and individuals in particular. The anthrax powder was in envelopes so when a person opened the envelope that anthrax would then spread and then generally be inhaled. And that would cause illness and potentially death. So, the response was multifaceted across different areas with letter interception, with giving people awareness, but what it spiked was a huge amount of reporting of suspicious white powder. And so that suspicious white powder would be anything from, you know, a call to a hotel room where in a small plastic bag, you know, there's suspicious white powder that is obviously just someone's washing powder.
LAURA THOMAS: Okay.
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: And so there needed to be a high level of clarity to where things were probably in line with being suspicious. And so that's always the challenge with these type of events, is really knowing what, what to look for, and why to narrow out the other ones that still need to be dealt with, but generally at a lower priority.
LAURA THOMAS: So you were charged with going and investigating all of the calls and things that were coming in?
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: So I was part of a team that did that. So the team is comprised of two search and rescue police officers, a police detective, and generally one general duties police officer. And so what would occur is that with the report, the detective would do his detective work. And generally, they are exceptionally good at getting right to the crux of what the issues are. And then the two search and rescue police officers would don their protective gear and respirators and then go in and assess the situation and decontaminate and do all of those tasks. So I was involved and became part of a team for probably three weeks. So it was very well aware. We worked as a team and got on with it. Very fascinating and a very rewarding period to share another nation's challenging times. And so out of that there was probably one or two real occasions where things were so we responded to a call for the Chief Health Officer who had received a suspicious letter. And that turned out to be the case. And so, again, from a team perspective, we just went through our required protocols to decontaminate and clear that area to allow it to come back up and be used.
LAURA THOMAS: What was the mood like at that time in the work that you were doing? Because obviously, a lot of these people had seen and been exposed to the horrors of 911. And then we're immediately dealing with other crises popping up everywhere? What was that like for you?
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: There were two insights to it. On the day to day basis, everyone maintained a very high level of professionalism. They turned up to work, they were very professional, they could maintain the focus. At different times, though, because of the intimacy of the groups and things and you got exposed to the underlying realities of people that have been involved in very traumatic events at a national international level. So the flow on effect can be very great and reside just below the threshold of detection. So people who appear to be really coping well may actually not be coping particularly well.
LAURA THOMAS: After your time working with the NYPD on anthrax attacks, you actually did some work at Ground Zero. Can you tell me a little bit about those experiences?
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: Sure, Laura. What occurred was that I got to the point where the anthrax attack calls were diminishing. And so the person who was facilitating our involvement with the New York Police Department was the chief of police's personal assistant, who was Jerry Kane, he facilitated our, our involvement with the New York Police. And so after a couple of weeks working on the anthrax side of things, I just broached the subject. I wouldn't mind visiting the Ground Zero site to have a bit of a look and a better understanding. So next minute, I'm working with the Port Authority police. And so I was attached to one of their recovery teams. And so working night shifts with them. We'd go in and work on particular segments of the Ground Zero site on a rotational basis around, so every night, you would change over to a different section and that enabled the load to be spread and for none of the involved agencies to take ownership of one particular area. So they were very conscious of the shared impact. Having noted that, as part of the recovery efforts, if, in the event that a body was discovered, and it was of a one of the agencies, the agency who's identified it would then withdraw, and the other team would come in and recover their own personnel. And that was a significant aspect to the coordination that they provided. So we then went around and did various support to recovery aspects. And it was very fascinating. At that time, I did very rough calculations of where we were below the ground surface, which was approximately just over 100 feet below the surface. And we were, I think, working on probably the 78th floor. So it had compacted significantly. So the the role of us, as we worked on the site was to both look for human remains, and also items of value and interest. When items of value and interest were identified, then they'd be catalogued through the using normal police methodology, and then predominantly returned to the owners to be returned to the owners at a later date. So the interesting thing working with the Port Authority Police Force was that they were predominantly significantly impacted by the downing of the towers, and they, off the top of my head lost at least 30 uniformed personnel. And so as I was saying, about being part of the team, you're quite intimately involved and so with Americans and, and one of the things with Americans is that they are very religious people. And so when we would attend, at the start of the shift, we we'd have a memorial saying, and prayers for people that were deceased. And that was quite an emotional time. Because again, you know, it's, it's a time of vulnerability for people when they're there and to their credit, they would then switch that off and switch back to, okay, we've got to get out there and fulfil our responsibilities. And so it's, it's a significant, almost honour to be involved in something like that. Because, again, it comes with an awful lot of trust, and mutual understanding. And again, even, you know, alluding to it through a podcast, you know, is, is challenging in regards to sharing those things. But in the greater scheme of things, I think it's important for people to understand when those things do happen, just the the impact because if you can have some thoughts and experience in that a lot of the issues can be better, mitigated over time.
LAURA THOMAS: And how did working side by side, shoulder to shoulder with these people who've lost people so close to them, how did that affect you emotionally? And how did you process that? Because am I right in saying you were there for five night shifts?
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: Yeah, so I basically did a week of night shifts at Ground Zero. So emotionally, again, based based on training, you know, the clear distinction was I was part of the team, but I'm not part of the team. So therefore, I could empathise with the people on what they were going through. But at the same time, I was removed. And so for myself, I recognise that it was, you know, one of the most amazing periods of time in the world and significantly changed world events. And so I was more conscious of that, and being able to approach things from a learning capability because subsequent to working at Ground Zero site, I actually went around to all the other recovery sites such as the morgue and the Staten Island area, just to get a greater appreciation of the difficulties in different areas. And so nationally, everyone was affected. The interesting thing that I found was that just going back to the New York Police and the Port Authority police, to enable them to focus on addressing that major issue, other police forces from outside all around the US came and did the normal policing duties. And so you'd find a full range of different authorities who were brought in to help support those two police forces to allow them the time to focus their efforts. And so it was, these times of National Emergency just brings everyone really closer together. And it's not the way you want to bring everyone closer together. But it is an interesting observation.
LAURA THOMAS: Now we have some of your items from that time on display here at the Shrine, a couple of photographs, but also a stamp, and I was hoping you could shed some light on this stamp.
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: So there's the stamp, as I spoke about earlier, we were I forget the floor level, but roughly about the 78th floor. And so the interesting thing was that the recovery process was that they had heavy machinery that would lift up the compressed layers of office space. And so they'd been compressed to just a couple of centimetres. And so as they pulled that up, the whole, everything had been compressed, so desks, phones, everything like that. So the reason that I was interested in the stamp was because it had no value, other than as waste at that period of time. However, the stamp to me was a reflection of how, when the event prior to the event, a person was going to their workplace, as if just normal work, and then an event one day, and it's totally removed. In fact, the entire history of you know, two huge buildings is basically reduced to rubble. And so it's, it allows people to just think, into that space of, you know, what, how you go about your daily duties, and what you're responsible for, and things like that. And then whether personally, indirectly, you know, nationally, you, you can be affected. And so to a certain degree, we, it reminds me that you shouldn't take everything for granted that you need to be always aware. And by being aware, you're always conscious and more resilient to understanding that sometimes, luck doesn't go your way. And sometimes it can not be helpful. But again, the people who have the resilience skills can cope better. And if you can cope better, then we can help other people to be more resilient.
LAURA THOMAS: And, David, you've touched on this a little bit. But just to wrap up, 9/11 was obviously a big turning point in global politics. And there's the saying that everyone remembers where they were, it's burned into a lot of people's memories. Why do you think it's important for you to share your stories and your experiences from that day and the months after?
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: For me, generally, I'm not a person that will go out of their way to talk too much about things as a number of people will. But for me at that time, and at that place, I think it's important for people to understand just the closer link that we have with allies around the world. For veterans from World War Two, they they remember the Americans coming out and assisting during those times. And so there is a close relationship with it. And again, with that event, not too many people would know that there were five Australian Army officers over there assisting during that, that national time and that to a large extent they need to be they should be aware of that that close relationship and be mindful of it.
LAURA THOMAS: Well thank you so much, David, for taking the time to speak with me today.
MAJOR DAVID BERGMAN: No worries at all or an absolute pleasure. Thank you.
LAURA THOMAS: Thank you for listening to this episode of The shrine stories podcast. If this episode raised any issues for you know that help is always available. You can contact lifeline on 131114 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046. Thanks for listening and we hope you'll tune in next time.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the Shrine Stories podcast.
If this episode raised any issues for you, know that help is always available. You can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, and Open Arms 1800 001 046
Reviewed 11 September 2023