cDc paramedia: texXxt #396
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...presents... A Firefighter's Account of Ground Zero Following 9/11
by John Kozubik
__//////\ -cDc- CULT OF THE DEAD COW -cDc- /\\\\\\__
__ Grand Imperial Dynasty __
Est. 1984 \\\\\\/ cDc paramedia: texXxt 396-09/11/2004 \////// Est. 1984
___ _ _ ___ _ _ ___ _ _ ___ _ _ __
On the morning of September 11, I was awakened by my alarm clock
telling me of an airplane flying into one of the towers of the world trade
center. Although I had been to New York City many times, I had never visited
those twin towers, but I had an idea of what they looked like. I imagined the
scene of a private plane - some propeller driven machine whose pilot had
suffered a heart attack. Perhaps a publicity stunt gone horribly wrong. I
thought to myself what a mess it would be, and pondered the nightmare of
looking up from the sidewalk and seeing fallen wreckage falling onto the New
York City streets.
As I finished dressing I heard the words "commercial jet liner". Then
the crash of the second plane into the other tower was reported. I ate a
small breakfast as the president addressed the nation from a public school he
was speaking at. I had to get to work.
I walk to work every day from my apartment in Mclean, Virginia to my
office which is two miles away. Traffic on the highway I walk along seemed
normal, although I did hear urgent news bulletins from the radios of each and
every car as they waited at stoplights and passed me on the smaller streets.
At this time I grasped the enormity of the act itself - clearly an attack
against the United States that would result in a great many casualties. As I
walked I tried to guess at the number that would be killed. Would the
buildings fall? Did wreckage fall into the streets? How many people worked
in the World Trade Center? I was not angry, but I felt very sad. I did not,
as yet, grasp the effect that this would have on the nation as a whole, nor
did I imagine the enormity of the response that would be orchestrated in
I entered my office building minutes after the Pentagon had been
attacked by a third plane. Throughout the building men and women alike were
suffering emotional breakdowns - sobbing into telephones, holding each other
for support and sitting collapsed in a stupor against the walls and desks.
Since the office is in Virginia, most of my fellow employees had close
relatives and loved ones who worked at the Pentagon - almost everyone had a
friend that worked there. A fantastic and fast moving rumor mill was created
in the midst of this hysteria: gas stations in every part of the District of
Columbia were exploding, the large Gannett news building next to our own
building was on fire, the Internet was not working because media companies
and infrastructure were being attacked. All of this was treated as fact -
even the items that could easily be disproved (the building next to ours was,
in fact, not on fire). Some of the rumors were true though, and they were
just as fantastic: both of the twin towers had collapsed, a fourth plane had
been hijacked and was headed to Washington DC, victims had been seen jumping
to their deaths in New York City to escape the flames. My coworkers who were
not incapacitated or frantically dialing the phone were crowded around a
large TV that had been wheeled into a common area.
I watched with them for a few minutes and then left. I had no idea
where I was going - I was only living part-time in Virginia for business and
did not know the area well. I knew that I had no patience for watching these
events on television though. I still didn't feel angry though, just compelled
to respond in some way to what was happening. Somehow I felt as if I would
never forgive myself for simply being a spectator of such things, when the
Pentagon - and even New York City - were so close.
I had seen a volunteer fire department a few miles from my office once
while walking to a movie theater. I have a background in firefighting and
emergency medicine, so it seemed the logical place to find how to help. I
was thanked for my inquiry, but it was very clear that the atmosphere at the
Pentagon was not conducive to civilian volunteers - not even volunteer
firefighters. I was pointed to a local hospital another few miles up the
road where I could perhaps contact the Red Cross, and possibly give blood. I
begged a ride from someone at a 7-11 store next to the fire department. I
made note of a DC Metro stop as we passed it on the way.
The hospital was a flurry of activity as it was the assigned delivery
point for Pentagon burn victims. There was no Red Cross office though, and
no organizational structure in place to deal with volunteers such as myself.
I was given some phone numbers, but again, because of the nature of the
Pentagon, it seemed unlikely that there was any way for me to help. I was
told I could donate money to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. I could
always find a place to donate blood. For some reason, however, I wanted -
needed - to involve myself in a more direct and physical manner.
Without any thought of the feasibility or ramifications, wearing only
a t-shirt, pants, and tennis shoes, and with nothing but $130 in cash and a
mobile phone, I decided I was going to leave the hospital and go straight to
New York City.
Unfortunately, although I would not consider feasibility until many,
many hours later, this trip was in fact, quite infeasible. I did not own a
car in Virginia, being there only on business as I was. Greyhound and Amtrak
were completely shut down, and would remain so for most of the rest of the
day. Further, the only rental car agency with any cars left had a strict
under 25 policy, with no options to pay additional penalties or fees. I was
24 years old. I walked to the Metro station I had seen on the way to the
hospital, and took it as far north as it would go, which wasn't very far.
My plan was to hitchhike to Manhattan.
A man I sat next to on the Metro had been inside the Pentagon when it
was attacked. We agreed that he had been very lucky to escape. He was
visibly shaken as he called friends and loved ones to reassure them that he
was okay. He gave me my first ride on my trip, and explained the highway
system between Washington DC and New York City. Basically I needed to take
Interstate 95 north until I got to Manhattan. This seeming simplicity gave
me a confidence in my actions that I would come to question much later that
night. He dropped me off along the side of Interstate 95 just south of
Baltimore. My second ride came after only 20 minutes of hitching - a truck
driver making a local delivery in Baltimore.
"If you actually make it as far as Manhattan, I guess I'll have done a
little to help the victims myself," he said. I had felt compelled to explain
to him where I was going and why, as it turns out hitchhiking along Interstate
95 is not only illegal, but also very rare. He left me at a truck stop in
North Baltimore and explained that it would be easy for me to find a ride out
of a truck stop - eventually someone will be going north, he claimed. Nothing
could have been further from the truth.
Although it was difficult to tell exactly what the state of Interstate
95 was as it went north, reports ranged from "closed to all traffic" to
"closed to commercial truck traffic" to "my dispatcher told me to sit tight".
The truckers explained to me that many of them were taking their Virginia and
Maryland loads back to their sources and unloading them. They were upset to
be missing this "leg", and many were scheduled for a "return leg" which they
would also miss. Nobody had any suggestions as to how to get a ride to
Manhattan. At the same time, although I have visited truck stops before
(which represent a strikingly unique subculture and economy), I had never
been to one begging a ride before, and was not sure if it was considered bad
form to do so. I still felt awkward after asking and being reassured that it
The Greyhound bus station across from the truck stop was shut down,
like all of them in this area were. Hundreds of displaced bus passengers had
spilled onto the lawn and parking lot, or were eating at the in-station A&W
restaurant. The speculation and rumors that I saw at my office building
earlier were evident again as the police were called regarding an abandoned
suitcase. It turned out not to be a bomb. I begged rides and information at
the truck stop and Greyhound station, respectively, for two hours. It was
now 3pm. I grew restless and decided to continue hitching. I did so at the
entrance ramp to Interstate 95, but there were other hitchers there and it
seemed slim pickings. I walked up the entrance ramp and onto the Interstate.
I was not walking on a section of highway that one could hitch on.
There was nowhere to stop, and I was along an exit lane anyway. I walked for
about two miles before I found a suitable spot that was luckily underneath an
overpass and in the shade. The Maryland highway patrol stopped after about 20
minutes. Although I have only been stopped or questioned by police a few
times in my life, I have a habit of conspicuously keeping my hands in plain
view at all times and maintaining very open and passive body language. I
practiced this as they took my identification and told me to stand away from
the patrol car while they checked my ID. I think they understood my demeanor
and I think they thought it was funny. Soon enough I was against the patrol
car and being frisked. They relieved me of the Leatherman I had attached to
my belt and asked if that was a mobile phone in my pocket. Another car
stopped, somewhat recklessly, on the shoulder behind the patrol car - an
elderly couple frantically asking the state of the highway as it went north
into Delaware. I was placed inside the patrol car. I suppose that although
my identification checked out, all law enforcement agents were on high alert
that day - especially for rare occurrences like hitchhikers on Interstate 95.
They took me back to the Greyhound station where I started. Coincidentally,
they were the officers that responded to the suitcase false alarm.
I was very discouraged by my progress thus far. I made the rounds of
the truck stop again to no avail, and of course, Greyhound was still not
running. I weighed my options and made an offer to one of the taxi drivers.
We agreed that for $120 he would take me as far as the New Jersey border. I
had no idea what I would do at the New Jersey border, how long it would take
to get there, or what it would even be like when I did. Forward progress was
forward progress, though, and I had resolved to continue moving forward - by
foot or by car - until I got to Manhattan.
I slept most of the ride through Delaware. The cab actually took me a
fair distance into New Jersey before dropping me off at another truck stop.
During the waking part of my ride I wondered what had transpired since the
last time I had been in media contact. I had seen a few minutes of footage
on some screens at the first truck stop. I wondered if anything else had
happened - I wondered what the death toll had risen to, and what the
emergency crews were doing. Just before arriving at the truck stop, we
passed a rest area that had more than 30 ambulances staged and ready to
go - lights spinning and engines running - lined up for over a half mile.
Even this far away from Manhattan, men and equipment were being readied.
When we arrived at the stop, I met a group of volunteer firefighters who had
stopped their engine and a few personnel carriers (Chevy Suburbans) so they
could grab a quick dinner. All exits from Interstate 95 in New Jersey are
numbered, starting with 1 as you enter the state, and going as high as 14 as
you approach Manhattan. The firefighters explained to me that they were
going to a staging area at exit 14 where they would be allowed into the city.
No traffic of any kind was allowed past exit 14 on Interstate 95, they told
me, and no traffic of any kind was allowed into Manhattan unless it was with
emergency services. I asked if I could ride with them, but all spots on the
engine were taken, and the Suburbans were full. They wished me luck.
I was much further north on Interstate 95 now, but there were no
truckers to speak to, since none had come this far. I asked a woman working
at the Burger King inside the truck stop for a cardboard box, and borrowed a
large magic marker from the man tending the concessions counter. With those
items I made a sign that read: "Need ride to exit 14 so I can volunteer".
And stood on the exit road of the truck stop. I am not a very experienced
hitchhiker, but I suspect there are few places better than the entrance ramp
to a highway leaving a rest area or truck stop to hitchhike. Every person
exiting sees you, and they are traveling at a low rate of speed with ample
room and time to stop and pick you up. This theory was proven as I was
picked up within 10 minutes by a young Indian man who worked for Lucent
Technologies. He played Indian and Chinese music on his stereo for a while,
but then switched to national news. It was then that I learned that hundreds
of police and firefighters had been killed when the towers collapsed. For
some reason it hadn't occurred to me that there would be a large amount of
rescue workers killed who had been responding to the scene. It made perfect
sense, of course, and it would be driven home in a profound manner days
later. Listening to reports of unstable nearby buildings and evacuations of
personnel due to actual or imminent collapses made me think very differently
about this voyage to Ground Zero I was taking. I realized that if I
succeeded in making it to Ground Zero, I could very well be killed while
performing this work.
My ride dropped me off, as promised, right before exit 13. Which was
in the middle of nowhere. I was now on foot, on the shoulder of the New
Jersey Turnpike, crossing exit 13. The highway is eight lanes wide there,
sometimes 10 or 12 when counting exit and entrance lanes. After walking for
two or three miles, I came again to another truck stop. This one was much
closer to my destination, however the news about the road situation was much
more accurate as well. This deep into New Jersey, everyone already knew that
they were not going to make it to Manhattan that night - or anywhere else for
that matter. Nobody had any plans to drive any further North on the New
Before I could leave this, the third truck stop, I was stopped by two
Italian men, in their forties perhaps, in a brand new Lincoln Town Car.
Passenger: You got a charger for these phones? (holds up a Nextel mobile
me: No. I'm on foot.
Driver: Look will you leave it, there's nothing but nuts here.
Passenger: We're stuck out here - we can't get back in the city. Everything
is fucking closed. We been drivin' around for four hours now.
me: How far can I go North on the Turnpike ?
Driver: Great. Thanks for your time. Goodnight.
Passenger: Nowhere. You can't go anywhere, it's all closed. I told ya, we
been drivin' around or hours.
Driver: Can we fuckin' cut this out? (then, to me) Have a nice night.
And they peeled out of the parking lot. I suspect a lot of older
Italian men in New York buy such cars and wear such clothes and talk in such
a manner. Most people are probably at least cautious with them. Then again,
maybe they were the real thing. I left the truck stop on foot and continued
Traffic was sparse now. Occasionally a small fleet of ambulances
would drive by with lights fully emergent - ten, sometimes twenty in a row.
Other times there would be ten or fifteen large trucks for moving earth, all
driving north with their hazard lights on and flanked by four to six police
cars who, like the ambulances, also had their lights fully emergent. Some
sort of caravan such as this flew by on the freeway about every twenty
minutes. I walked for about four miles before I came upon three civilian
looking trucks parked on the shoulder of the freeway. The man in the truck I
approached, like the men in the Lincoln, was also stranded on the wrong side
of the roadblocks. He was explaining to me how he had resigned himself to
sleeping in his truck when a highway patrol car arrived and announced over
its PA system that it was illegal to be parked here and that everyone had to
move. I approached the patrol car and asked if they knew about the staging
area that was at exit 14. They had heard nothing about it, and were going
nowhere near there. I asked the man in the truck if I could join him and he
said yes. We took an exit off of the turnpike - it was not a numbered exit,
but a toll road of some kind. I became very nervous - not only was I leaving
the highway that I had promised myself to keep making forward progress on,
but I was now moving east in the middle of New Jersey with no idea where I
was. The man stopped his truck on the shoulder immediately after going
through the toll gate and resumed his earlier plan. I thanked him and walked
back to the toll booths.
The woman at the toll booth had no useful information for me, save that
if I continued walking east on this new highway I would get to Elizabeth, NJ.
Just then a highway patrol car came through the toll booth. I explained what
I was doing to the three officers, and unlike the first police officers I
encountered, they believed me. They could not take me North at all, but they
could drive me into Elizabeth so I could get something to eat. It was 11pm
now, and I had not eaten since I first arrived at the truck stop in
Driver: There - right after we get off the highway you can go to that
Officer 2: Are you kidding ? You're just gonna get shot there. Take him
to the go-go bar.
Officer 3: (laughs)
Officer 2: No, you'll like it - it's a cop joint, so it's cool if you're
Officer 3: Yeah, he'll like it. (laughs)
Officer 2 : They got a diner and you can get whatever you want - and there's
Imagine the most cliche Hollywood rendition of a cop strip joint -
straight out of a movie in which Jim Belushi plays a rogue cop who makes good
in the end. That is where they took me. The dancers were dancing, but
everyone was watching TV. Over 100 firefighters missing in the wreckage.
That was the place where I was going. The place where a building could
collapse and kill another hundred firefighters at any time. I could die
there. It felt a long way away, though, from this combination strip joint
and diner in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
The officers that dropped me off left, and I had a bowl of oatmeal and
some juice. After eating I went outside and considered my options. I was no
longer on the New Jersey Turnpike. In fact, I really had no idea where I
was. I was very close to deciding to stay at a hotel and continue North the
next morning. Instead I kept moving. It was midnight, and I couldn't bear
the idea of making it so far only to fail. I knew I would make it to
Manhattan eventually, but I felt driven to finish the journey before I slept.
So I walked back along the new highway I was on. Two miles later I was back
at the toll booth. The walking got a little precarious at this point. In
order to get from the toll booth to the turnpike, I had to traverse a very
long, one way, one lane raised overpass. It was a quarter-mile stretch of
road with no shoulder, raised about 20 feet from the ground. If a car came
while I was walking across, they would have to intentionally make room for me
walking along the side so as not to hit me or knock me off. Luckily no cars
came. I was now back on the turnpike, just slightly North of where I
originally encountered the man trying to sleep in his truck. I walked for
three or four miles until I found a place to hitchhike. While I did, I
watched strange lights streaking across the sky. I realized after several
minutes that these were fighter jets.
Surprisingly, I was picked up within a half hour. A male in his
thirties pulled over and told the woman in the passenger seat to get in the
back so I could sit in the front. This is a very smart thing to do if you
pick up a hitchhiker, as a non-trusted party should not be allowed to control
the events in the car from the backseat where you can neither reach them or
see everything they do. The woman did not understand this, though, and began
to complain. The driver told her again to get in the back seat in a much
I told the driver what I was doing there as he drove at an incredible
speed down the highway. He told me he would be dropping me off just before
the Holland tunnel and that I shouldn't have any trouble from there. I would
have plenty of trouble there, but I didn't know it at the time, so I just
rode quietly. When I got out, I thanked him and then, as an afterthought,
pointed to the woman in the back seat.
"That was very smart, what you did," I said.
"Of course it was," he replied, and sped away.
I felt very bad then. If you are hitchhiking, don't ever allude to
your potential as a hitchhiker to be dangerous in any way - even if the
allusion is in the form of a compliment. I was very glad that I had been
dropped off before I made that comment. I had no time to think about the
matter further, though, as I was addressed immediately by a man in a truck
that happened to be near where I was dropped off. This man was working in
some official capacity relating to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, as it
was called. He announced that I could not be standing there, I should not be
anywhere near where I was, and that I should immediately stand next to
certain traffic cones and wait while he called the highway patrol. It took
them about 30 minutes to arrive, during which the man allowed several
military transports to exit the freeway through the roadblock he had set up
on this particular exit. When the patrol car arrived, I was once again
frisked, relieved of ID and Leatherman, and asked to explain myself. Unlike
the last group of officers, this one did not seem to believe me. My ID
checked out though, and I had to be removed from the freeway, and since it
would have been difficult to move south from this point, I was driven
through the roadblock. The officer also told the latest arriving military
transport that they could follow him to their destination. I was moving
East again. Although I did not know it at the time, I was actually getting
very close to Manhattan. Since I didn't know that, I was once again
distressed to be moving East. I was further distressed when we drove East
for more than 10 miles, which would have made walking back to 95 very
difficult, not to mention that waiting for me back on 95 was the NJTA worker.
The officer, who had since given back my Leatherman and ID, told me to
get ready to get out. He couldn't take me past the next exit and I would
have to get out here - he explained that I just needed to walk about a mile
up and get off the highway there, and he made me promise that I would do that
and not stay on the highway. He was very emphatic about this point and told
me my problems would be greatly multiplied if I did not heed his warning.
The problem was, the military transport was following closely behind and had
no idea of the officer's intention to stop suddenly in the middle of a
highway. He did, and as soon as I opened the door we heard a very loud
squealing of brakes and screeching tires on asphalt. The transport was
certainly going to collide with the patrol car, and knowing this, the officer
had the car moving again just as my second foot left the car. I almost
missed the door as I hit it to close it. As I stood about a foot to the side
of the roadway, the military transport whose driver and passengers had just
seen their police escort come to a halt in the middle of a highway to have a
man in a t-shirt reach through the back window to open his own door from the
outside and literally jump out of the car, slid past me on locked brakes.
The passenger stared at me and screamed:
"What the fuck is going on?!"
I shrugged as the driver got the brakes unlocked and hit the gas.
I was walking east now. I really couldn't turn around and go back to
the turnpike, which bothered me. I still had no idea where I was, and from
the vantage of the highway, there was really nothing in sight. Seconds later
another highway patrol car arrived - just late enough to have missed seeing
me deposited from the first one. I explained that I had actually just been
left here by another officer - "the one with the military transport."
He had no idea what I was talking about. He didn't frisk me though,
or take my ID, but he did force me to get into the car and come with him. He
didn't force me to break my promise to the last officer though, as he took me
off the highway on the exit I was supposed to take. It was then that I
learned I was now in Jersey City - just across the water from Manhattan, and
much closer than I thought I was. I didn't know that I would be up wandering
and searching for another four hours, but I did know that my worries about
moving eastward and leaving the turnpike were unfounded. The streets of
Jersey City were blocked with police barricades in the direction of
Manhattan. I spoke with some of the officers who explained to me that I
could go to Liberty Park to volunteer tonight, and gave me directions. It
was about fifteen miles away though, and I had already walked over twenty
miles in the last ten hours. I called a cab, and with some of the last of
my cash, I went to Liberty Park. Unfortunately, they would not allow me in
without bona fide emergency services credentials. Later in the week, I would
have these credentials faxed to me, but at the time I did not have them. The
taxi driver agreed to take me a little further - a pier that the officer told
me I could find another staging area to report to - a staging area I would
spend the next three hours on foot trying in vain to find, only to see it the
next morning a block in the other direction from where I was dropped off.
Unfortunately the cab driver pointed me in the wrong direction. An hour and
a half later I had walked from one end of Jersey City to the other, and found
myself at a dead end in one of the most desolate and foreboding industrial /
warehouse parks I had ever imagined. At the end of the road, where I had
been told by one cab driver (and later by a convenience store clerk) would
lead me to my destination, I found myself with two pit bulls snarling at me
through a chain link fence wrapped around a truck lot on my left side, and an
abandoned factory with all the windows smashed and bricks crumbling to
nothing on my right side.
It was four in the morning now, and I had walked another four miles by
the time I returned to where the cab dropped me off. I was extremely tired
and very dejected from having mindlessly walked all the way to the end of that
industrial nightmare to find a dead end. I walked a few blocks in the
opposite direction, turned a corner, and that's when I saw it for the first
time. I did not know the layout of Jersey City, so all this time I had been
just far enough inland so as to not see the New York City skyline above the
level of the buildings I was walking along - having taken this particular
route, I found myself on the edge of a small park that turned into coastline
exactly opposite Manhattan. There it was, the burning and ruined cityscape
that I had traveled so far to see.
The power was out in every building along the Manhattan shore, causing
the first row of buildings - all roughly the same height - to appear as a
black picket fence. The lighting of the scene worked to remove all texture
and nuance from these structures and cause them to appear as a two dimensional
layer imposed upon a background of impenetrable smoke. Sometimes the smoke
dissipated enough in an area to allow the lights and shapes of the buildings
behind to bleed through, causing the viewer to waft, with the smoke, in and
out of a three dimensional diorama.
While the smoke billowed, the helicopters flew and the spotlights
searched. One battery of lights on the ground scanned from left to right,
one floor at a time, from the top to the bottom, every building surrounding
the site that would come to be known as "Ground Zero". I assumed that they
were watching for structural changes in the buildings, like cracks. At the
same time one of the helicopters flew a continuous lap around lower Manhattan
with searchlight wandering over a seemingly random collection of points on
the ground. Fighter jets continued to fly in tandem high above the city.
I sat on a bench in this Jersey City park for 30 minutes staring at
the landscape. I had never seen the lower Manhattan skyline before, nor had
I ever paid attention to pictures of it. I tried to guess where exactly the
Twin Towers had stood and just how tall they were. I was amazed later in the
week when I took time to study a picture. The towers had dwarfed all of the
surrounding buildings. They were over twice as tall as the rest of the
structures around them.
It was exhilarating to be so close, but I was very tired now - it was
4:30 in the morning and in addition to walking over 20 miles that day, I had
not slept. The course of action I should take was clear - Manhattan was
completely closed, but the upper half would be reopened to the subway at 7am.
I had the address of the Red Cross headquarters in Manhattan, and that
address was in upper Manhattan. Therefore, I had to just wait a few hours,
then take the subway and report for duty - whatever that would be. As simple
as all of this was, my mind was cloudy from exertion and lack of sleep and I
did not see it so clearly. I was very depressed and felt as if my trip had
been a failure. All I could think about was the fact that Manhattan was
closed NOW, and I was NOT THERE. For some reason I could not focus on
tomorrow, even though it was only two hours away. I chastised myself for
traveling all this way, knowing all the while that I had no credentials with
me, and was not associated with any agency. I would not be allowed into the
site, I would not find a place to help, and I would be just one more gaping
onlooker watching from New Jersey. It was with these thoughts that I lay
down on a park bench and, with my arms and head pulled inside of my t-shirt,
somehow slept for an hour. I remember waking once and taking deep breaths of
air so as to exhale the warm breath onto my chest and arms and stomach. It
was probably not colder than 55 degrees, but all temperatures are relative
and I was very cold.
I don't brood for long, luckily, and although I was still very tired
and stiff when I awoke, I was thinking more clearly. I walked through the
downtown portion of Jersey City towards the subway station. In the process I
finally found the staging area I had searched deep into the industrial
wasteland to find a few hours prior. There were six or so ambulances parked
between two office buildings on the Jersey City shore. They were from
surrounding New York and New Jersey communities, some clearly belonging to
volunteer organizations. Roughly twenty Emergency Medical Services (EMS)
personnel were mingling on the boardwalk, and a few card tables had been set
up with donated supplies. Tables full of bottled water, Gatorade, and
breakfast bars would become an ubiquitous part of the landscape as the week
The subway was easy, as I had ridden it in New York City on many
previous visits. When I arrived at the Red Cross building at 66th and
Amsterdam, I found a fairly large crowd of people. Most were interested
in giving blood, which was being taken at a nearby school. Those that were
there to donate time and expertise were filling out a standard form that
asked who you were, where you could be contacted, and what skills (if any)
you had. I filled mine out and turned it in, only to hear moments later that
the only volunteers that would begin work that day were those that had
registered on the previous day. Everyone that registered today would be
contacted tomorrow. I left for the McDonalds a few blocks away and
When I returned a half-hour later, most of the crowd was gone, either
discouraged in their efforts to help or satisfied that they had at least made
the attempt and could now weather the rest of the crisis without experiencing
any guilt or other moral dilemma. I began to lightly pester the full-time
Red Cross workers. Within twenty minutes I had a laminated ID card with a
chain to wear around my neck and had been assigned to a kitchen on the third
floor to help with distributing and receiving food supplies and to help with
the procurement and preparation of meals for Red Cross workers and volunteers
that were constantly coming and going. I worked in that kitchen for about
nine hours. After that, a crew arrived to relieve us and we were thanked and
told to return in the morning if we were able. I had mixed feelings about
that. I planned on staying in New York all week to help, and in that regard
I had accomplished my mission - I had finally made it to my destination and
was now in a position to donate my time for as long as I was able. What
could be more worthy than working for the Red Cross? All of the World War
Two Red Cross propaganda posters on the wall urging me to "Take Up The Call"
certainly made it seem noble...but it was not enough. I was positive that I
would not feel fulfilled until I had somehow responded to this crisis in a
direct and physical fashion - namely, going to the site with the rest of the
firefighters and joining the search and rescue effort.
In the meantime, it was now 8pm on Wednesday night and I had no place
to stay. I wasn't worried, as there was a makeshift barracks also on the
third floor of the Red Cross headquarters. I was not tired, however, and even
if I had been I don't think I could have slept. I discovered that a small
group was heading out to man a relief shelter just outside of the Ground Zero
area. They did not have enough personnel, so I volunteered to go along. I
manned the shelter with two young men and two young women. Amy and Allie
worked for investment banking firms, as did one of the young men. They had a
jargon-filled conversation consisting of seemingly innocent but probing
questions that basically boiled down to how much money they all made and how
promising their careers were. I ended up liking them more than I expected
to, at least once the career-track topics had been exhausted. Allie claimed
to be a lover of the outdoors at heart and contemplated quitting her job and
moving to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. On any other day I would have concluded
that there was a slim possibility at best of her following through with that,
but on that day I had no idea. Allie did not work in the World Trade
Center, but her firm had an office there and she easily could have been. It
is possible that she had been affected by the crisis more than she seemed to
We had several clients that night, as the Red Cross refers to those
that take up shelter at such a place. The shelter was at Seward Park High
School. The young banker noted that he worked with clients in his job, but
they came from a very different economic background. I thought that this was
very tasteless. One of the displaced families had a large but friendly
rottweiler that had been put between the brick wall of the school and a fence
that circled that wall. It barked often that night. The last client to enter
the shelter was a recent emigre from Liberia. He sat and talked with us for a
while, explaining his own country and the civil war that had caused him to
leave. Allie expressed disbelief at our ability as Americans to remain
unaware while other parts of the world were at war for decades. I went into
the gymnasium with the cots and slept for a few hours until we were driven in
a Red Cross van back to the headquarters at around 9 AM.
Upon returning to Red Cross headquarters, I contacted the fire
department that I had worked at in Boulder, Colorado and asked that they send
me, on their official stationary, a description of my credentials. I had
received a large amount of emergency medical training, including an EMT class.
Further, I had received certification as a hazardous materials operations
engineer and had participated in quite a bit of wildland firefighting
instruction. The wildland firefighting experience would prove most valuable,
in retrospect, as the work that I would find myself doing in less than 48
hours would be very similar to it. The Boulder Rural Fire Department faxed
the information to me promptly, after I explained where I was and the manner
in which I hoped to help.
After receiving the fax, I went to a Western Union office near Broadway
and picked up $300 that my friend Joan had wired to me - I had started towards
Manhattan with only $130 in cash, and did not have my credit cards with me.
Although my meals and lodging at the Red Cross were free, I needed money to
buy supplies to take with me to Ground Zero, and for a train fare home at
some point. The funds that she wired me were extremely valuable and made
possible my success in eventually making it to Ground Zero and helping in a
way that was not only useful, but satisfied my personal desire to work
physically and directly at the site itself.
It was after 3pm when I got back from the Western Union office. I
thought about helping in the Red Cross kitchen at headquarters for a few
hours, but decided instead to go to the barracks and get some sleep. Not
surprisingly, I slept until 7pm. After a short meal, I went to the main floor
of the Red Cross headquarters and tried to find out what was needed that
night. A fresh batch of volunteers had been signed up that day, and as I
entered the lobby they were milling about the outside of the ground floor
waiting for their orientation. I made myself available and was put to work
lining these people up, handing them nametags and pens, and directing them
into the auditorium which was also on the ground floor. The orientation, like
all that were given to new groups of volunteers, consisted of an explanation
of the mission of the Red Cross, what they had done so far for the victims of
the terrorist attacks, and what was available for volunteers. It was made
plain that most Red Cross workers worked outside of Ground Zero. In fact,
except for a few drivers who shuttled supplies infrequently to Ground Zero,
nobody working for the Red Cross could expect to be any closer than the
shelters like the high school I was at the previous night. After this
orientation, the man speaking was given a list of positions that needed
filling. I was surprised to see that there were more than enough volunteers
for every shift, regardless of the type of work involved. Phone operators for
Red Cross information hotlines were needed. Workers to sort paperwork were
needed. Word processing and secretarial skills were needed. Persons with
knowledge of foreign languages were needed. More kitchen staff were needed to
prepare and even procure food. Drivers were needed. Not only did all the
slots get filled, even those with very tedious and boring descriptions, but
every time slot, regardless of how late or early. After all of the positions
had been filled, the volunteers were dismissed and I left again for another
meal. I was very hungry, even after having eaten just an hour or so earlier
after waking up.
After eating, I returned to the place I had gone the night before to
leave for the shelter at the school. It was an entirely different group this
night, and the mood was different due to the fact that we were leaving for
the shelter on time, rather than waiting for hours to be dispatched. On the
way to the shelter, while stopped at a traffic light, a man in FDNY dress and
carrying firefighter bunker gear waved to our van and asked if he could ride
with us as close as he could go. He told us that he had been on a shift the
night before and had gone home to rest and was now going back to work with
the search and rescue effort. It was very clear that he was a member of the
New York Fire Department. Despite overwhelming evidence, a few Red Cross
volunteers in the bus shouted demands to see identification, which were
ignored by those in the front of the bus. The demands came less frequently
as the ride went on, but the whisperings among the suspicious increased.
"He could be anyone - who knows why he might be trying to get to
"If he was a real firefighter in New York he would know (such and such
After we dropped off the man, the suspicions turned to conclusions.
It was deemed a foregone conclusion by those that had originally demanded the
identification that the man had been an impostor. I was disgusted by this
contagion of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. After 48 hours of praise and awe
from these same volunteers and those like them regarding the heroic
firefighters and policemen that were risking their lives by simply being
present at Ground Zero, when actually confronted with one of these
individuals, all they could think to do was demand his identification.
My disappointment with the suspicious volunteers on the bus left me as
I experienced one of the most moving experiences of my time in New York. As
our bus drove along the roads leading to the Ground Zero area and related
relief command posts, we turned onto the last main street going into Ground
Zero. Almost all of the search and rescue teams, firefighters, welders and
cutters, police and other officials had to enter and exit Ground Zero through
this two block stretch of road. We had taken a different route the night
before, and it had been much later. Today, however, it was still light out,
and this central conduit in and out of Ground Zero was lined at least four
people deep for two blocks with New Yorkers. Young and old, some cheering,
some crying, many waving flags and signs reading things like:
"You are our heroes"
"Thank you NYPD / FDNY"
"Thank you to all volunteers"
"We will overcome"
As our van turned onto that street and drove through that gauntlet of
well-wishers, a roar rose up from the crowd. We must have been the first
vehicle or group of people to travel through for some minutes, as many people
that had been seated now stood up and waved. The entire crowd was cheering
and waving at our van and I could not help but smile and wave back.
A few minutes later our group reached Seward Park High School again.
It was a completely different collection of volunteers, and there were
additional personnel already at the school. As the days since the initial
attack went on, it seems that more and more official Red Cross workers were
being brought into New York to provide leadership, experience, and expertise
in things like counseling, volunteer management, etc. Because of this, the
mood of the shelter had changed somewhat since the previous night. A woman
who had worked as a counselor for the Red Cross for many years had driven
non-stop across the country to reach New York, and was now in charge of the
shelter. This night would end having provided some of the more comic events
of my trip, as well as some of the most frustrating.
As I entered the high school for the second night, the first thing I
noticed was that in place of the few cases of bottled water, coolers of
homemade sandwiches, and other assorted food donations that we had the night
before, was an incredible quantity and selection of food and personal items.
An entire wall was now stacked with cases of bottled water, two rows deep and
three cases tall. School lunch tables had been wheeled into the center of
the hallway and were themselves overflowing with everything from frosted
cakes and doughnuts to cases of potato chips and juice containers. The
amount of food present was incredible, especially considering that the number
of people in the building, including clients, was not more than 25.
Another difference from the night before was the presence of the
school maintenance and janitorial staff. Four men were ostensibly present to
provide support for the center, such as supplies like paper towels or access
to the school kitchen, etc. The following is a humorous example of their
conversation as they sat in the principal's office and snacked:
"We should just give (airline pilots) guns. End of story."
"Nah. Can't do that."
"Why the hell not?"
"You know my swimming pool? You know those drains in the bottom of
them? If you drain that swimming pool and after all that water is almost
gone and you get caught down there on that drain...it'd suck your bowels
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"It's the same god-damned thing - a bullet into the side of the
plane with no pressure outside...it's the same thing."
"Well at least they could lock the cockpit doors. That would have
"What if they have to go to the bathroom, huh?"
(later in the conversation)
"You can't find a flag anywhere. They're all sold out."
"Everywhere! Hardware stores, grocery stores, shopping malls - I hear
they're back-ordering them months out."
"I've got all sorts of flags at home."
"Yeah sure you do. Look, I said flags, not fags."
Later in the evening another incredible truckload of food and supplies
arrived. There were no more tables in the hall, so we were forced to stack
all of the new items on the floor with the crates of water. Other items were
also being added, like cases of soap, dental floss, and hygiene products. In
the absence of anything to do, the woman from California suggested we begin
taking apart some of the large sheets of sweet rolls and cinnamon buns and
placing them into individual sandwich bags with twist-ties for possible later
distribution. Soon thereafter, a police squad car arrived for some
The woman from California had an idea that perhaps we could load up
the squad car with food and drinks and travel around the borders of Ground
Zero distributing it to other police and volunteers. It was agreed that this
would be a good idea, the police officers pointing out that they were all on
12 hour shifts and could use some refreshment. I volunteered to go along
with her and the two officers, and we promptly started loading the car with
We made several stops at different checkpoints around Ground Zero. In
some places, our refreshments were not needed, as nearby restaurants and
grocery stores had been periodically feeding the police officers. In other
places, the supplies were greatly appreciated. During this tour, I saw some
tension arising from the closed nature of the Ground Zero area and the
perceived needs of some citizens to cross those boundaries. At most
checkpoints, there were two or three police officers constantly explaining to
a handful or more of civilians that they could not enter the site, they could
not retrieve their pets, and they could not visit their places of work. In
some cases these confrontations became heated, as they did between one group
of officers and a homeless man who was trying to get through:
"That's where I need to go. I need to go there. To live."
"Sir, I've explained to you that nobody is allowed in there. It's
considered a crime scene."
"But that's where I live! I need to go back in there...that's where I
need to go!"
"Sir, we need you to move along - you will not be able to pass here."
"I'm hungry! I can't breathe here! I don't have anywhere to go. I
need to go in there!"
(We gave a bottle of water to the officer who then gave it to the man.)
"Aagh! I can't have this! I said I needed some water! I need some
COLD water! This ain't cold!"
We did not stay to see the conclusion of this encounter. We ran out
of supplies after six or seven stops and were dropped off back at the high
It was now past 11pm and there was little to do. Most of the clients
from the night before had returned and gone to bed, and there were only a few
new clients from this evening. I decided to walk through the neighborhood
the high school was in, which eventually led me to the checkpoint borders
where we had just been distributing food. I walked for several hours. A
large number of civilians were on the streets milling about the different
borders and checkpoints. Many of them were video taping the scenery, some
were talking on mobile phones to persons outside of New York. The most
interesting things I saw on those borders were the massive amounts of
infrastructure and resources being mobilized. As I walked down Canal street,
every few minutes a cavalcade of empty dump trucks and semi trucks would pass
by - as many as forty consecutive trucks all roaring one after another down a
city street for up to ten minutes per fleet. The amount of food and supplies
at the shelter, which had earlier seemed so much, paled in comparison to a
five lane wide, four block long stretch of blocked off city streets that had
been turned into a bulldozer parking lot - the bulldozers were parked in rows
and columns as tightly as cars would be on a ferry deck.
As I mingled for a bit at the last (and busiest) checkpoint at the end
of Canal street, I witnessed a very interesting exchange that underscored the
conflicts between people trying to carry out their own activities and a very
alert and cautious law enforcement infrastructure.
A young man in normal street clothes was wheeling a ten-gallon
canister of gasoline and a cardboard box of various electronics and wires up
to the checkpoint. Without speaking to anyone, he proceeded to walk right
through. He made it about ten feet before someone noticed and asked who he
was and where he was going. He explained that he worked for one of the local
news stations, and that he was bringing additional fuel for the generators on
the broadcast truck. He was then asked if he had any identification, which
he did, but only personal identification. The officers needed no further
discussion to declare that he could not enter, and that he needed to clear
the area immediately.
All this time, because of the activity of this checkpoint, the same
officers were also waving through and checking numerous other groups of people
and vehicles, so their attention was clearly divided. This was the reason
that they promptly and without discussion denied access to the news employee.
However, this same division of attention also made what happened next
possible. The news employee asked if he could enter the area if he could get
credentials from his employer, and was answered, "Yeah, you do that. You go
get those," by an officer who then returned to waving in trucks. The news
employee then left, presumably to get said credentials. The problem was that
he left his cart behind in the middle of the checkpoint. Having witnessed
the exchange, I had judged the news employee to be genuine. I think that if
the police had not had their attention so divided, they would have come to
the same conclusion, even if that didn't change the fact that he could not
enter without his credentials. However, because of the hectic atmosphere, as
soon as the news employee physically left, the materials he left behind
suddenly lost their context, and were then viewed as items whose only context
could be the atmosphere that they were left in.
Just a few short days ago, the worst terrorist attack to ever occur
on US soil had been perpetrated just a few blocks from this spot. Since that
time, local and federal authorities had warned of possible future attacks.
One of the main reasons that these strict checkpoints were in place was to
thwart such attacks. Imagine then, that you are a police officer manning the
busiest checkpoint in and out of Ground Zero, and you turn around to see, in
the middle of the checkpoint, a large canister of fuel and a cardboard box
filled with wiring and electronics.
"You have got to be fucking kidding me. You have GOT TO BE FUCKING
(second officer turns to look)
"Oh...oh come on! What the hell is that? Hey! Who put this here?!"
(third and fourth officers walk up to the supplies)
"I cannot believe this. This is just ridiculous."
After some conversation and some nervous poking around, the officers
decided who it had belonged to, and had the cart wheeled well away from the
checkpoint itself. Having concentrated on the entire event and having judged
the news employee to be genuine, I had not experienced any fear, but it was
fascinating to see the sequence of emotions that the police officers felt as
they were suddenly reintroduced to this cart of supplies. It was very clear
that their first thought was that the cart was a makeshift bomb and that
their lives were possibly forfeit at any moment.
After an hour or so I returned to the high school. On my way back, I
passed a police precinct building and was given photocopied instructions on
volunteering with FEMA for firefighting work. After I returned, I was
rebuked by the woman from California for leaving the center. I thought that
the rebuke was fair, and felt bad about not thinking to explain where I had
gone. On the other hand, we were not technically inside Ground Zero, and it
was clear from the words she chose that her annoyance was not so much due to
the fact that leaving might be dangerous, but rather that leaving usurped her
authority as the Red Cross representative in charge of that particular
shelter. I took a much needed shower and went to bed.
The weather was miserable the next day. I woke up and helped to move
some of the lunch tables and rearrange the food and supplies. It had been
decided that the school would be re-opened that day so our volunteer presence
needed to be formalized somewhat. We were scheduled to return to Red Cross
headquarters at 9:30am, but it was made clear that we would not leave until
I needed to leave, however. I was in possession of my credentials as
a firefighter, and had received instructions at the police precinct building
the night before on how to make myself available. I inspected the piles of
donated clothing and found a pair of boots that were reasonably durable and
left my tennis shoes behind. Unfortunately, I was told by the woman from
California that I could not leave the center under any circumstances. This
seemed rather odd, since my volunteer shift with the Red Cross was over, and
that we were physically located in an area already reclaimed to the point
that children were allowed back to school, and I said so. Not wanting to
engage in an argument, I wished her and the other volunteers good luck and
It was raining outside and I got soaked making it from the school to
the nearest subway station. My flyer from the precinct building instructed
me to report to the Jacob Javitz Expo Center. After a few transfers, I made
it and was amazed to see a line of people over a mile long waiting to get in
and register themselves. The underground loading area was not very large, so
the line of people had to be looped back inside itself several times, causing
different parts of the line to actually intersect itself. It was very
confusing, and on several occasions tensions flared as people nearer the
back of the line were intersecting people nearer the front of the line and
switching to the part of the line they were crossing.
After an hour or so, I made it inside the center and presented my
credentials. It was clear that the majority of people in the lines were
civilian volunteers that were not working at other agencies like the Red
Cross, and wanted to help in whatever way they could. Therefore,
firefighting and hazardous materials credentials made it possible for me to
receive a control ticket that would allow me to enter Ground Zero, rather
than just being asked to leave my name and phone number like most others.
However, it was unknown what immediate need I would be asked to fill, or how
specifically I could help, so I was given my ticket and told to go to the
off-site staging area and ask to be placed somewhere.
At this point, I had with me only my normal street clothes, the boots
I had traded for at the shelter, and the gas mask I had purchased the day
before. It was clear I would need additional equipment if I was to be taken
seriously as a volunteer firefighter. Even if that had not been the case,
the rain that had been falling all day made it necessary to buy supplies.
Certain supplies were also needed in general, such as sledgehammers,
pick-axes, and shovels.
I went to three different hardware stores and bought a sledgehammer,
a heavy set of waterproof construction overalls and coat, a hard hat, and a
pair of goggles. I was asked if I was buying these supplies to aid in the
search and rescue effort, and was then given a discount for that reason.
Each of the hardware stores also donated several items, like dust masks, to
take back to the staging area and distribute.
It was 1pm when I returned to the staging area at the Jacob Javitz
Center. I would not leave there until very late that night, but my stay was
not a boring one. There was an incredible amount of physical work to be
done, mostly involving off-loading supplies from a constant stream of
arriving trucks. As each truck arrived, a human conveyer belt would
spontaneously assemble at the back and shuttle all of the materials to a
series of storage tents across the street. Every conceivable item went
through my hands from those trucks that day. Bags of dog food for rescue
dogs, cases of toothpaste, bundles of chicken-wire, and of course, the
ever-present scores of cases of bottled water. In fact, aside from the
twisted wreckage itself, the most vivid mental image I would later have from
this trip is that of the never-ending stockpiles of bottled water. I had
thought that the perhaps 12,000 bottles of water we had at the high school
was a lot. At the staging point, a 10-12 foot wide, six foot tall column of
cases of water stretched for a quarter of a city block. By the time this day
was over, a complementary cache would also be assembled inside the staging
tents. As I would later learn, these hordes would also be duplicated
numerous times inside Ground Zero itself.
Throughout the day, I made myself available to numerous commanders,
chiefs, planners, and the like, but it was going to be very difficult to
enter Ground Zero. First of all, I was alone and not accompanied by or
part of a larger fire department. Second of all, I did not have the standard
firefighters bunker gear, which would have been almost impossible for me to
buy (and quite expensive). Third, there were not many people being allowed
in under any circumstances. Most of the firefighters and workers were going
in and staying in, and the small trickle that was coming out at any given
time was usually replaced by New York firefighters. There was one exception
to all this in that metal workers (welders and the like) were pleaded for
almost desperately. When I finally did reach Ground Zero I would see why
this was so.
As the day wore on, I continued my work at the staging area. At one
point a busload of general laborers was taken in, and the pushing and shoving
of all the random non-skilled workmen that took place to get on the bus was
distasteful, although at first I had thought to try to get a spot on that
bus. Later I met a man from Apple Valley, Minnesota, where some of my family
live, who had also hitchhiked to reach New York and help. He had tried to
drive, but his car had broken down near the halfway point.
Finally, near midnight, I was taken into Ground Zero.
I had been moving some food supplies and helping some volunteers with
the equipment they were using to prepare food when the man from Minnesota
called over to me. I had not heard, but someone was calling for firefighters
and was taking as many in as they could fit into a Ford Explorer. I rushed
over and was able to squeeze into the cargo area along with another man. In
all, there were six of us plus the driver. I was the only one without a full
set of bunker gear. It took us twenty minutes to drive in, and when we were
dropped off, we were not anywhere near the Ground Zero Fire Command. We were
told the intersection where it could be found, and given general directions
on how to get there. The man driving the Ford Explorer was running late for
some other duty and had to leave almost immediately.
Unconsciously, we all took a moment to take in our surroundings.
Everything was covered in dust, and the air was full of it. We stood
on a street corner illuminated by portable construction lighting in two inches
of dust and debris. Every surface - even vertical ones like the walls of
buildings - was covered. It was impossible to see through most windows,
unless they had been broken, in which case the interiors of street level
shops and restaurants could be seen; they were of course covered in dust.
The entire world was a mix of grey surfaces, black night sky, and incredibly
bright white lights. All of this was seen through clouds of dust and debris
that would swirl as the wind blew through the streets.
As we navigated the five blocks we had to travel to reach Ground Zero
Fire Command, we got our first views of the actual wreckage. We were
traveling parallel to the area of devastation, and thus only saw it as we
looked down the streets we were crossing. Some streets were obscured by
smoke, allowing us to see only the blur of the lights behind that we inferred
were there. Other streets were clearer, and in our grey, black, and white
world we saw moving bits of color: rescue personnel, crane winches, and fire.
As we walked to our destination, two of the firefighters continually
lagged behind as they were taking pictures of the scene and of each other.
The man I was with was becoming increasingly angry over this behavior, and we
both decided to stop waiting for them. Another man who had ridden in with us
also eventually disappeared, for reasons I do not know. He was in no danger,
and it is safe to assume he wandered until he found a place to help, for at
this early stage in the disaster, (at least once you were in Ground Zero)
manpower was accepted without question. We were asked for identification
several times by military personnel posted on many of the street corners, but
our drivers' licenses sufficed.
One of the large skyscrapers directly across the street from the World
Trade Center had had its lobby converted into the Fire Command Center. The
lobby was simply a staging area of random equipment and sleeping firefighters,
and the cafeteria had been utilized as just that, staffed by two young women
volunteering for the Salvation Army. Between the lobby and the cafeteria was
a large open area and a long hallway. The open area was filled floor to
ceiling with medical supplies just as the high school shelter had been filled
with food. It was in this area that emergency medical personnel, nurses, and
even doctors and surgeons were cleaning wounds and administering eye washes.
There was no power or water in this building, which meant going to the
bathroom in the building consisted of making your way through unlit hallways
with a flashlight and entering a restroom whose stench had built up over
three days of draining without flushing. I used these facilities twice
during my two days at Ground Zero, and the smell was incredible.
The main entrance of the skyscraper pointed away from where the Twin
Towers had stood, and so a more direct way to get to the main work area was
to walk through the windows of the building we were in. The glass was gone
from all of the first floor windows making it easy to step over a two foot
barrier and through the window itself. The lobby ceiling was over two
stories tall however, which meant there was quite a bit of glass still in
the frames above us. In some parts of the lobby there were signs that read
"Do not stand near these windows" as large pieces of glass would
periodically fall inward into the lobby, shattering over people and equipment
We reported for duty. The person we reported to was acting as Fire
Chief, however I don't know how long that person had actually been the Fire
Chief. He did not have immediate instructions for us, but it was clear where
our help could be used. We went through the lobby and stepped through the
windows of the skyscraper into the center of the most barren and dangerous
landscape I have ever seen.
I was finally there. After all of the hitchhiking, walking, working
and waiting, I was finally at Ground Zero. I had left Virginia days before
with the blind, impossible, ill-advised intention of standing on this very
spot and working with my own hands directly on the materials of the disaster
itself. I was finally there.
These are the thoughts that ran through my mind as I took what must
have been over a minute to survey the landscape. The three color world I had
traveled through to get to the Fire Command Center was not reproduced here.
Instead, the number of spotlights and construction lights turned the scene
into virtual daylight. My 180 degree field of vision started on my left at
9 o'clock - an old white skyscraper with a huge gash many stories tall and
wide ripped out of the center of the side facing the Twin Towers. At 10
o'clock, a corridor into the next street down obscured entirely by black
smoke billowing forth from a five (or more) story tall pile of wreckage.
Directly in front of me the smaller black buildings that had stood at the
base of the Twin Towers were now black on the inside as well. A dense black
skeleton of offices dropping debris randomly. At 1 o'clock, dividing my
entire field of vision was a huge column of steel beams at least 8 feet wide
and four feet thick. It was draped over like a fallen tree but resting on
nothing. The end of this collection of beams projected two hundred yards
away from the building it had once supported and was hanging two stories
above the ground swaying precariously. Between 1 and 2 o'clock was a view
of a series of rolling hills of wreckage and rubble that stretched away from
where I was standing as far as several blocks where they were bounded by
still-standing buildings. At 3 o'clock was the hill that I would work on for
the rest of the day and the day after.
There were sparks flying everywhere. From every part of my field of
vision and from every possible distance away, someone was welding or cutting.
It was impossible to focus on any one aspect of the landscape without being
diverted constantly by the blue flames of the torches and the showers of
sparks - some from fifteen feet away, some from a block away. When I first
stepped through the window and into the scene, a huge crane was holding a
fire engine suspended three stories high in the air. The fire engine had
been crushed to a height of six feet, and remnants of the finer exterior
details fell off randomly as the crane carried it around to the trucks that
would haul it away.
I was pointed by New York fire officers to a specific location and
handed a large plastic bucket (I had left my sledgehammer at an equipment
cache inside Fire Command as it was needed elsewhere). The assignment
involved a fire truck much like the one that was just carried out by the
crane. Myself and roughly ten other assorted firefighters were to excavate
this fire truck which was buried up to the wheelwells in dust, dirt, and
rubble. The rubble consisted of two major components. First were
recognizable solid pieces of matter: a piece of a desk, a back of a chair,
a doorknob, a comb, a backpack. Second was an inexhaustible supply of a
strange white dirt that could only have been a mixture of dust, water,
asbestos and finely pulverized material. This mixture permeated every space
at the site, and was, as far as I can tell, the main impetus behind the
particular strategy we used to clear an area.
The strategy was thus: large pieces of metal superstructure from the
Twin Towers themselves needed to be removed. However, the pieces had not
been disassembled - they had been exploded - so many of them were still
linked to each other and to the remaining bits of the superstructure.
Therefore it was impossible to bring in a crane or a loader and simply pick
pieces up. This is where the welders and cutters came in. Before pieces of
the superstructure could be removed, the welders and cutters had to cut it up
into manageable pieces (which, at least in the area I was working, consisted
of 20 foot long pieces of beam). The problem was, no cutting or welding
could be done until all of the small debris had been cleared away from around
the pieces of the superstructure, which is where the human labor came in.
This process was thus excruciatingly slow and heavily labor intensive. At
one point during my work, it took hours to clear away the rubble from around
a single piece of beam long enough for the welders to consider cutting.
The painfully slow process that was thus required made it clear to me
that survivors would not be found. I had instinctively decided that the
second I took in my panoramic view from the windows I had to walk through to
get there. I had pictured in the preceding days things resembling piles of
debris and rubble. Piles are made of solid things and have air spaces
between and can be taken apart logically. Instead I found myself staring at
lumps of matter. Certainly these lumps of matter had many different
constituent parts, but they were lumps nonetheless, and it was clear from
looking at them that they would not have allowed survivors.
The next 24 hours was a blur of digging and hauling, and nothing else.
During that entire time I did not work anywhere but at the fire truck I was
first assigned to and the areas within a fifty foot radius. Most of the time
was spent digging with my hands through rubble and filling buckets with the
debris to be handed to one of the many human chains that were slowly passing
them back to a pile that would not obstruct cutting and could be scooped up
with a loader to be removed. Other times I was on the human chain itself. A
constant source of aggravation were the buckets themselves. They came to us
in stacks that were very difficult to separate. Most buckets we were passing
were actually stacks of two or three buckets that could not be separated.
New firefighters at the scene would invariably try to separate them, be told
that it was impossible, and knowingly knock at the sides of them with a
shovel or axe to prove us wrong. But we weren't wrong - they weren't coming
apart. It was probably due to the fact that the buckets were brand new and
had never actually held any material like the caulk they were made for.
The area I was digging in yielded human remains only rarely. During
my time on the scene I only saw ten or so body bags handled, each of which
never had more than fifteen pounds of material in them. I discovered human
remains myself only twice, the most gruesome of which was a shoe with a foot
When body parts were recovered, work was stopped and experts were
allowed in to catalog the parts and place them into bodybags. The excavation
of the parts was almost always fully completed by the time the experts
arrived. This was not the case, however, when it was clear that the remains
were those of a New York firefighter. In these cases, it became our custom to
stop digging immediately and allow other New York firefighters to do the
excavation. I do not know if this custom was mandated, or even if it
happened elsewhere or at other times on the site, but it was observed in our
area and I thought it was quite appropriate.
I would have guessed that the most difficult work would have been
collecting debris with my hands to fill buckets with. I was proved wrong
towards the end of my stay when I took a shift shoveling. Shoveling for long
periods of time is incredibly exhausting. After a while I was forced to
switch sides and shovel left-handed. Eventually I started taking turns with
an ATF agent in strange blue bunker gear.
It was actually not uncommon to see many different and diverse agencies
represented by men and women in strange uniforms. I regularly saw personnel
from the NTSB, ATF, FBI, and CIA along with the normal NYPD and FDNY
personnel. In fact, I even saw one man wearing a jacket proclaiming him to
be in the Secret Service. It was interesting to see things like official ATF
firefighting gear and FBI hardhats, etc. It was also disheartening to see
how many people were inadequately prepared to be at the site. I had been
worried about my own safety as I was not wearing bunker gear like I normally
would as a firefighter, however, I did have a good canister gas mask, a
hardhat, and goggles. Many people did not have any of these items, which
amazed me as the air bothered me instantly during the brief occasions I had
to remove my gas mask to drain it of sweat and condensation. Certainly these
people were very brave to be at the site without proper gear, however the
amount of spare gear at the Fire Command Center and at the various
checkpoints made it difficult to understand this recklessness.
Eventually I could no longer lift my arms to dig. I had reached muscle
failure in my upper body, and my back and legs were close. The nearest man
on the bucket brigade (as it was called) took the shovel and motioned for me
to move away. I slowly walked back up the embankment to the open windows and
stepped over into the lobby of the skyscraper that contained Fire Command. I
made my way past the medical supplies, through the connecting hallway that
was now packed with passed out firefighters, and into the cafeteria. Here
the two women were arguing whether it was acceptable for the Salvation Army
to be distributing cigarettes which had been donated. I ate some granola
bars and drank a few bottles of water, then returned to the lobby were I sat
in exhaustion for at least 30 minutes.
When I returned to the lines, activity was dying down. It seems that
a large part of the building that Fire Command was housed in, which was
directly above the area we were working in, was peeling away from the main
structure. At any time during the past 24 hours a three story tall section
of building facade could have fallen ten stories right onto our group. After
some discussion we were evacuated from that area while fire officers decided
what to do next. That was when I left Ground Zero.
I had started working at the Jacob Javitz staging area two days prior,
and had been at Ground Zero for 30 hours over the course of two days. I had
been awake for more than 50 hours and was barely capable of walking.
The walk back to the Javitz staging area was a long one. After being
given a clean T-shirt and a bottle of water at a Salvation Army relief booth
I hailed a cab and was driven the rest of the way. There was a constant
stream of official traffic in both directions, and many of the other
firefighters walking back were given rides, but I was not readily identifiable
as such because I was not wearing bunker gear. Before I hailed the cab
though, I was questioned by a reporter for the New York Times on a subject
matter that showed how little the machinery of the rest of the world had
changed. The reporter asked me about the climate of the volunteer staging
area at the Javitz Center over the last few days, specifically concerning who
was allowed to enter Ground Zero and who was not. I explained that after my
credentials had been submitted to FEMA, it was not too difficult for me to
successfully enter the site and begin work. She was interested, however, in
the fortunes of non-skilled laborers who had tried to enter. She explained
that laborers were required to show union cards to become eligible to
volunteer, and concluded that there had been some collusion between the City
of New York and/or FEMA with the unions to discriminate against laborers. I
explained that, while she was indeed correct that laborers were being asked
to show union cards, it was for lack of any better means of identifying
qualified personnel for the jobs available. Weeding out unskilled welders
or cutters or crane operators was an easy task, because these involved
readily identifiable certifications from recognized state governing bodies.
The same was true for firefighters - either you were one, and could prove it,
or you were not. However, the line became hazy regarding simple laborers -
how does one prove whether one is a competent physical laborer or not? This
was no trivial matter, as the type of work being demanded was such that
normal people off the street could have easily endangered themselves and
those around them. Therefore holding a union card was used (at least during
the time I spent at the staging area) as a means to qualify manual labor
I'm not sure if this explanation convinced the reporter. She seemed
to be convinced that something sinister was afoot regarding volunteer
placement at the site. I pointed out that, union card policy or not, when
the trucks for laborers showed up it was a shoving match to get on, and
anyone could have made it on as a laborer if they had waited long enough. I
cordially ended the conversation and caught my cab.
Within twelve hours I was back in Washington, D.C. Amtrak was now
running again, which made the return trip seem surreal in its speed and
comfort compared to the original trip to get to New York.
It was clear to me within a few moments of arriving in Washington,
D.C. what the most significant aspect of my week-long trip would be: the
chance to witness the largest concentration of humanity in the world all work
together in caring and sympathy towards a common goal. Somehow in my
exhaustion I did not expect the atmosphere to be any different in any other
part of the country. However, as I took my remaining trains through the D.C.
Metro and saw the students of George Washington University intoxicated and
happy as they got off at the Foggy Bottom station, I realized that even in
here in D.C. - a concurrent terrorist target! - the feeling of post-9/11 New
York City did not exist.
I felt a strange sadness as I walked to my apartment from the Vienna
Metro stop and realized that I would probably never again feel the energy of
community that I felt while working that week in New York.
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