Remembering 9/11: One 3Mer shares his story about helping at Ground Zero
Sep 8, 2021

Roger Roettger has never forgotten his first trip to New York City.

Unlike many visitors, he didn’t stop by the Statue of Liberty or stroll through Central Park.

Roger and a team of 3M respiratory experts were called upon to help in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Roger still remembers the smell 20 years later.

“The smell of burnt metal was everywhere. It was like being in the world’s largest foundry,” he said.

When he heard the news

On the morning of Sept. 11, Roger was sitting in a parked car outside of a diner in Latrobe, Pennsylvania., waiting to have breakfast with a 3M colleague and a nearby customer.

The car radio was on.

“I was listening to Howard Stern and he said, ‘We’re going to report that a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center towers,’” said Roger.

Like many, Roger thought it was an accidental crash.

Once the group was seated in the restaurant, all three of their cell phones rang in unison. Roger’s wife was calling him.

 “We’re at war,” she told Roger. “A second plane just hit the other tower.”

X-factors and protecting people

Roger began his 3M career in 1989 as a sales rep in the Occupational Health and Environmental Safety Division, now called Personal Safety, a business unit focused on worker safety.

“When I had the opportunity to work for 3M it was really exciting,” said Roger. “I grew up in a 3M family.”

His father and uncle were both long-time engineers for the company.

By 2001, Roger had been promoted to area sales manager of the U.S. east central region.

Three days after the attacks of 9/11, Roger’s boss asked if he wanted to be part of a 3M team to help with recovery and clean-up efforts at Ground Zero. He said yes immediately.

“It was an eerie sight because you could still see the smoke as we flew in to the city,” said Roger of the scene.

3M was designated as the official subject matter expert for respiratory protection at Ground Zero by the New York City Department of Design and Construction. Along with respirators, Roger and his colleagues were onsite to provide respiratory guidance and training to a variety of agencies and authorities. Several 3M employees did the same work at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Selecting 3M for its respiratory expertise was not done by chance.

“When 9/11 happened, we reacted to what we call an X-factor,” said Roger. “We are very prepared when these things happen.”

Other X-factor situations in which 3M has provided respiratory protection expertise include the Mount St. Helens eruption, the H1N1 flu, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

After the World Trade Center bombings in 1993, 3M knew it had to prepare for a new type of X-factor. And over the next several years, 3M reached out to federal, state, and local authorities to establish the necessary logistics to act quickly in the event of a mass casualty incident in which respiratory protection was needed.

“In any type of crisis, speed is everything,” said Roger. “We are obviously not hoping for these moments, but you have to be prepared.”

The preparation proved to be invaluable within days after 9/11.

Respiratory protection

The need for respiratory protection at Ground Zero was critical. Dust in the air was filled with hazardous material including asbestos, burning plastic, gases, vapors, glass particles and more. 3M respirators served to reduce responders’ exposure to those materials.

3M operated out of a nearby public school – the only way in and out of Ground Zero at the time. Team members worked in week-long shifts, consulting with hundreds of workers and officials, then flying home for a few days of rest before heading back to NYC. This work continued until February of 2002.

Amidst all the chaos, what sticks with Roger to this day is the human toll.

In attending daily briefing meetings with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and other top officials, Roger had to pass by a wall of missing persons photos, pinned up by friends and family members hoping to locate loved ones.

“Those pictures were haunting to look at every day,” said Roger.

A team effort

Shortly after 3M finished its work at Ground Zero, Roger and a few managers visited the U.S. production facilities where 3M manufactures its respirators. The management team recognized how crucial production efforts were to support the operation at Ground Zero.

“Our manufacturing folks did some amazing work,” said Roger. “We wanted to meet them in person and let them know exactly what happened in New York and why their work was so important.”

His praise didn’t stop with colleagues in manufacturing – he applauded his entire division.

“I have nothing but absolute admiration for everyone in our division, from the folks on the factory floor to our tech service support,” said Roger. “It was a top to bottom team effort.”

For Roger, those few months in New York reaffirmed his choice to join 3M 33 years ago.

“For us to react as quickly and cohesively as we did is the quintessential definition of 3M and its employees,” said Roger. “It reinforced what a tremendous company we are.”

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