Louisville Courier Journal
Published 4:08 PM EDT Sep 11, 2018
LOUISVILLE, KY -- Dave Triola waited near his 34-foot dump trailer, talking to other construction workers at the corner of Church and Vesey in lower Manhattan in fall 2001. They pulled 12-hour shifts to haul debris from the World Trade Center to Staten Island, where special teams sifted through pulverized concrete and charred steel.
The Teamster from Local 445 had been on the job less than two weeks, removing rubble from building seven, when he took his rig on the assigned route: under two sets of scaffolding where a fire hose drenched his haul to tamp down the dust. The beams were still so hot they steamed.
He passed laborers pulling debris apart by hand, surveying suits, EPA reps with clipboards, clergymen, celebrities, Marines and hundreds of posters of the missing on every street lamp and post. Papers dangled in the sycamore trees in Trinity Church’s graveyard. He glimpsed parts of desks and file cabinets and all that was left in one charred safe: the metal part of a three-ring binder and a heap of ash.
He rumbled across the Verrazano Bridge and dumped the first load of the day. Their instructions were never to look. He didn’t see anybody – or parts of any body. But the lift itself sometimes collected debris, so he reached down with his gloved hand to wipe it clean. With the dust and sludge-soaked wreckage, gloves didn’t last long.
He grabbed a new pair at a respite center: heavy-duty, gray and green ones still stapled together with the price tag attached. When he stuck his hand in the left glove, he felt something: a small, white square. He unfolded it and read the short message in wobbly, hard-pressed pencil on wide-lined paper:
These gloves are to help you when you search for bodies. Thank you for helping other people.
From Emily Ernspiker, Age 7. 1545 McKay Ave Louisville, KY 40213
Dave broke down.
“My friend Mike said, ‘What is it?’” Dave recalled. “I couldn’t even tell him. I just handed it to him. He had the same reaction.”
That letter touched Dave’s heart in ways he could scarcely express: the innocence, the small act of kindness from a first-grader — a stranger — living 740 miles away.
He worked less than two months clearing Ground Zero.
More: Firefighters honor ‘brothers’ lost in 9/11
More: Louisvillian eyewitness to tragedy
“I couldn’t handle it,” he said in his raspy smoker’s voice, his upstate New York accent. “It was very hard to get my head around how people could do this to each other. The destruction, the sadness of it.”
Dave moved on to other jobs, left construction and eventually transported show horses across the country. And every year, when he hauled horses to Kentucky, he wondered about that little Louisville girl.
For 16 years, Dave has held onto that letter. Folded back into its original square, stowed inside the pair of heavy-duty work gloves he never wore. Slipped into a plastic newspaper sleeve, tucked into his bottom dresser drawer.
He memorized the 19-word message and often thought about the little girl and what became of her. If she still lived in Louisville, had a family. If her letter had been a church or school project. If she ever got the letter he wrote back.
It still brings him to tears.
He’s made copies of the letter for firefighter friends who’ve hung it in their fire house community rooms.
And every year on 9/11 he posts a picture of it on Facebook. He’s not a very good writer or speaker, he confesses. He just writes what he thinks in the moment. But he always asks: “Please don’t forget this.”
“I’ve always thought about calling the local paper down there, and I just didn’t know if it was something that was noteworthy or not,” he said.
Then this summer, at home in Hyde Park, New York, Dave browsed Netflix and came across a documentary called 9/11: Stories in Fragments.
“It was about all these people who came across these different, everyday items after the towers collapsed and donated them to the Smithsonian,” he said. “Simple things: a briefcase or an address book. And I said, 'You know what? I should probably get a hold of somebody because it’s really not my letter. It wasn’t written to me. It wasn’t just for me.'
“I was thinking I should give it to somebody, maybe the curator at the 9/11 Memorial. Maybe they’d want it. I’ve had it all this time. And not to sound morbid, but when I die, where’s it gonna go? As far as I’m concerned it’s a piece of history. I figured I’d call you folks and see what you thought of it.”
He called a Courier-Journal reporter, hoping he might write about it, and if he did, that Emily would read how much her letter meant to him. But that reporter passed the idea to another reporter who found her.
On a sweltering morning in late July, Dave detoured from his usual delivery spot in Lexington and made the hourlong drive to Louisville. He finally put a face to the crooked-lettered name.
He and Emily met for the first time at Bill Howard Memorial Park at Mercer Transportation, where a rusted piece of steel from the World Trade Center stands in memoriam. It was her 23rd birthday.
They sat at a picnic table under a gazebo and shared their life stories. Emily’s two children, Julia and Clara, her mom and Nana tagged along. Dave teared up when she handed him a school picture of her in first grade – the year she wrote the letter – to keep.
As it turned out, she told him, the letter wasn’t a class or church project after all. Krispy Kreme had a deal: Bring in work gloves for those working at Ground Zero, and get a free doughnut. She ordered an original glazed, she remembered.
But the idea for the letter was hers alone.
She’d been sitting in her first-grade class at Camp Taylor Elementary School listening to classical music during a spelling test the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when a radio announcer interrupted the broadcast. Her teacher turned on the television just in time for Emily’s whole class to watch the second plane hit the tower.
“I knew that people died and that families were torn apart at that point,” she said.
She wrote the note in a little corner of her living room. Her Nana checked the spelling.
“My Nana told me to tuck it deep into the glove so it wouldn’t get lost,” she said.
Emily wondered about the letter for a few days and then forgot about it until she received one back from Dave. She kept his letter for years, but after a couple of moves, it got lost in the shuffle. Now, after meeting her, Dave was glad to finally know she got it.
They sat in the oppressive summer heat for more than an hour, swapping stories.
Emily was surprised her letter meant so much to him. It was just a small act of kindness, she said. Then they talked about small kindnesses and how much they can mean.
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“What led me to call the paper was the fact that things are split down the middle as far as our country goes,” Dave said. “I thought sharing this story would kind of make people remember how everyone was getting along right after this happened.”
“The thing is,” Emily added, “I think we all need to keep in mind to just help each other, not just when things go wrong. We need to work together all the time. … Small things add up to big things.”
Dave agreed: “I’ve heard it called the 9/12 attitude. And it lasted for a little while. Not long enough. And hopefully sharing this story will bring a little piece of that back.”
Dave hopes to donate Emily’s letter to the Smithsonian Museum or the 9/11 Memorial — a place that will display it so others can see it.
But he’ll always hold onto the kindness he felt from that 7-year-old Kentucky girl.
While we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, we continue to honor those who have served and continue to serve. The television program Salute to Veterans airs on Patriot Day, offering insightful discussion, resources and solutions for the ongoing issues our military veterans and transitioning service members face daily.
Salute to Veterans pays tribute to our nation’s 22 million veterans, 3.3 million active duty service members/reservists, and their families during important military/patriotic holidays and commemorations throughout the year.
The Salute to Veterans Series highlights the stories of veterans that are former collegiate/professional football players, who served their country, and then overcame setbacks and personal challenges when back in civilian life.
The veterans featured in the series talk about veteran employment, education, housing, healthcare and overcoming injuries – both seen and unseen. All share their stories on top veteran issues, perspectives on perseverance and serve as leaders in their communities, while inspiring their fellow veterans do the same.
Visit Salute to Veterans to learn more, and to find specific viewing times in your area.
Reporter Kristina Goetz can be reached at 502-582-4642 or [email protected]