A construction worker from New London volunteered on 9/11. Now, he prepares to return to ground zero for the first time.
Ricky Free has traveled from his home in New London to New York City dozens of times over the past two decades, whether on business or for dinner or to attend a motorcycle show. But he never returned to ground zero, the place where he was bucketing debris 20 years ago, adrenaline pumping and time blurring together.
In a better place now mentally, he is planning to return Saturday with his niece Holly Jones.
"I'm nervous as hell," Free, 65, said in an interview Aug. 26. He said with a nervous laugh this week, "I really don't know what to expect. I'll see what my feelings are when I get there. I'm excited to go down."
And if it doesn't work out for him, he and Jones will "go to Little Italy and have lunch and call it a day," or he'll take her shopping.
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Hijackers linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network crashed two planes into the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City, a third into the Pentagon and a fourth into a Pennsylvania field, killing nearly 3,000 people. Free, a longtime Local 547 Laborers worker who is now a field representative in an office, has struggled to talk about his experience as a volunteer construction worker in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Jones, 38, was the family member who pressed him to finally open up about it.
"It took me 16 years of asking and begging him to tell me what really went on for him the days following 9/11, and last week he finally gave in and sat and told me all about his story," she wrote in a Facebook post on Sept. 9, 2017. She wrote about his experience and the impact it had on him, and said this week she wrote it because she's really proud of him and many people don't know what he did.
Jones said Free called her about a month ago and asked if she would go to New York with him on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and she was honored.
"She doesn't leave me alone," Free said lovingly, "so she's all excited."
Jones said since her own father wasn't in her life, Free was her main father figure. She said "besides my husband and two boys, he is honestly the best guy in the world to me. He's amazing." She feels that returning to ground zero is a big step that will help her uncle in the long run.
They're hoping to go to a memorial service Saturday, and Free also wants to retrace his steps. He wants to take the same route he drove in his truck with two other guys on Sept. 14, 2001, when they left Connecticut at 3 a.m. and arrived at the Jacob Javits Convention Center three hours later to sign up and have their credentials checked. He wants to take the same long walk they took from the Javits Center to ground zero.
That — the walk — is the biggest thing Jones can't stop thinking about.
"He said that family members were standing outside the area with pictures of their family who were in there, begging them, all the volunteers, begging the volunteers to find their family members and just showing pictures of people's faces," she said.
Asked if he would have volunteered if he knew then what he knows now, Free immediately said no, and reiterated a previous statement that he was naïve.
"We thought we were going down to help rescue people, and when we got there, everybody was dead. It wasn't a rescue. We were digging dead bodies out," he said. He doesn't think he would have signed up for that.
"Being from like a small town like New London, you don't see shit like that," he said. "You see a bad car accident every now and then, but to see something, that kind of devastation is just ..." He trailed off.
He remembers the buildings being hot from blocks away, and will never forget the smell hanging in the thick air, one he struggles to explain: "I guess it's death. I guess it smelled like a big morgue. I don't know."
'I've come a long way'
When Ricky Free got back after three days at ground zero, he wasn't himself.
"When he came back, we knew he was having a hard time, and he kind of just kept quiet," said his daughter, Jordan Pezzello. She was 16 at the time while her brother, Austin Free, was 11. They both said their father wasn't talking about it, so they didn't ask.
"I was scared," said Pezzello, who was in anatomy class at Saint Bernard School when she learned of the attack. "We just didn't know if this was going to happen again, why this happened."
She vaguely remembers her father talking about waking up in the middle of the night, though she didn't get into it with him. Jones said her uncle didn't sleep for a long time.
Free became scared of getting on a plane, and said the few times he flew in the past 20 years, he was "Xanaxed out."
"It wasn't so much that I'm scared of flying," he said. "I was looking over my shoulder and wondering who the hell is on the plane with me."
That fear, along with people getting on him to talk to somebody because he was so quiet and stayed to himself, were why he decided to seek therapy several years after 9/11.
Free said the therapist diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was in therapy for more than a year and said it was helpful, that "she kind of told me what was going on with me, and she was right."
He has also found it helpful to talk to his friends who are veterans, because it felt more natural.
Free opened up in a 2007 article in The Day about his decision to drive down to volunteer with two other men, from Waterford and Deep River at the time, and what the experience was like.
He keeps a collection of items related to 9/11 — newspaper articles people told him to read, cards he's been sent, photos — in his closet. He said he doesn't look at these items much, maybe once a year, usually in September.
"It's been a long time, so I've come a long way. I don't dwell on it anymore," Free said two weeks ago. He added this week that he's "kind of back to being Ricky," and while it all starts coming back this time of year, he's found a way to put it behind him the rest of the year.
Free is proud of his son, who also is in construction and is working on the State Pier redevelopment, but he hopes Austin will never have to do something like what he did. And a big part of what has helped Free move on is having three granddaughters come into his life. Pezzello's kids are 10, 7 and 3.
"That changes your life," he said, adding, "You get a whole different outlook."
"The girls are definitely happy little girls, so I think just being around them makes you happy," Pezzello said, saying they're the "best kind of medicine."