American history is filled with iconic moments that live forever in everyone’s memory. They change the course of events and drive our collective lives as a people. Some of you could tell of December 7th and Pearl Harbor. I can remember hearing over the school PA the announcement of President Kennedy’s assassination. Many of these later memories have become visual in our television age: Neil Armstrong’s ‘step’ onto the moon, the explosion of the Challenger, 9-11. You can probably call up pictures of these events.
All have personal elements. For me Tuesday, 9 11 started with a 7:30 appointment, so I was in my car headed to the Salvation Army in Syracuse, New York when the first plane hit the twin towers. I heard about it on the radio. I visualized a small commuter plane, but got to work troubled. With several colleagues, one whose brother was a NY Police Officer, I went to our training room to see the news. We were watching when we saw the second plane strike the South Tower.
For me the next few days blur together fast. The Salvation Army has an Emergency Response arm and is the only agency in New York State authorized to provide emergency services at crime scenes. As the Director of Family Services at Syracuse Area Services I am asked to recruit volunteer counselors to go to New York City and to get training for them. Bobbie Schofield, our Executive Director, Tom Schmitz, the Upstate NY Human Services Director, and others work on innumerable details including getting us clearance to enter the perimeter around Ground Zero.
By Wednesday Bobbie has asked my husband, Doug, to go with our team. By Thursday our volunteers are trained, badges and shirts prepared, and we have a place to stay at Star Lake, a Salvation Army Retreat Center.
Friday the 14th we are in New York and meet with Major Molly Stotzburger who leads the support services at Ground Zero, personally serving as chaplain at the on-site morgue. Then we are at the Salvation Army on 14th Street dividing ourselves into day and night crews with 12 hour shifts. ( To the left the helmet and shirts we wore.)
Site Map for Ground Zero from Wikipedia.
Following firefighters, our whole team walks in together down West Street which was closed, goes through a military check point at the perimeter of Ground Zero and walks to the Salvation Army Canteen preparing food near Vesey Street. So the night crew, the Night Crawlers, which Doug was on, can get some rest they leave. Our first day shift lasts until they come back at midnight. Later “the Day Watch” will work 10am to 10pm and Doug and the night crew 10pm – 10am.
Far left picture, sunset across the debris facing World Financial Center 2 (with dome), to its right WFC 3 (pointed top). Picture of WFC2 and WFC3 on right when the South Tower collapsed.
With several others my first task is to clean a place inside the lobby of the World Financial Center Building 3 (WFC 3) on the corner of Vesey and West Streets, facing World Trade Center 6. We will organize hot food and drinks there. Those are plain facts, but now let me take you into the heart of Ground Zero.
Salvation Army Major Robert Reals comes to me and asks if I can go in with him to minister to those responders working inside the site who won’t come out to eat. Walking behind him, I see his footprints appear ahead of me in the pervasive blanket of thick gray dust, our footfalls completely muffled by it.
We walk through the eerily quiet financial building, past the motionless escalators and empty rooms. No people, no movement, just a hallow emptiness that somehow echoes a soundless sadness to my straining ears amidst everything that just stopped three days before.
With a bucket in each of my hands filled with bottles of water and bars of chocolate, I am led to “the pit.” No, not the deep hole in the earth that months from 9/11 will be what Ground Zero becomes, but rather to the pile of burning rubble, that the first responders call the “pit of hell,” and is what the Twins Towers became when they fell. As we go outdoors for a diagonal shortcut across a small plaza, going past empty tables I see that every inch of the exterior of the building is covered with pictures of the missing and every tree trunk is wrapped in them.
The sun is setting. It is early evening, but the silence in a place clearly intended for many hundreds of bustling people is almost painful. As we near the door to the wing of the building bordering what was the West Street highway I see a copy of a tabloid paper pasted to it proclaiming, “Bin Laden Wanted Dead or Alive.” Alive has been struck through with red magic marker, so that it now reads Bin Laden ‘Wanted Dead.’
We enter the World Financial Building 2,(WFC2) across West Street from the North and South Towers (World Trade 1 and 2) and turn into a service corridor lit by glaring yellow emergency lamps, completely filled with fire hoses. Water has seeped from the hoses and I hesitate to step on them, but there is no choice. I slip off once into water that is over my ankles. I shift my buckets and walk on.
Entering a hall we cut through a destroyed bathroom. The stall doors have been blown off the hinges, unfilled toilets exposed. We enter another lifeless room shrouded by the ever-present dust and it takes a moment before I realize it was once an exercise center, the empty bikes and treadmills inert testaments to lives that stopped.Following the hoses which snake across the floor we reach the back wall and a bank of windows the gym enthusiasts must have looked through as they watched the West Street traffic and performed their daily ride to no where. All the glass has been blown out or perhaps whatever shards remained were removed. Now the hoses snake through and Major stops and points me forward.
Almost like a movie where the soundtrack stops and then abruptly restarts at too loud a volume, as I crawl through the window my ears are inundated. All my senses are engulfed. High intensity emergency lights held aloft by cranes shoot yellow spotlights on a scene that no movie could do justice. Smoke rises from the debris which reaches up for stories, looking like a building constructed from tinkertoys, destroyed by an angry two-year-old. This pile reaches high into the sky.
I crane my neck and see figures moving amid the wreckage, a bucket brigade shifting the rubble in the unstable pile carefully with shovels, looking for survivors. Dogs and their handlers are circling, searching, moving spot to spot. The sparks fly from the cutting tools of volunteer iron workers seeking to free the lost.
In the twilight red-orange light shines up from different places in the pile where the fire still rages at 1500 degrees. It will burn until December. Over everything else there is a smell that is unlike anything I have ever smelled before. It fills my throat and I feel it in my chest, smoky, sweet, heavy, cloying.
I walk forward a few steps gingerly stepping on aluminum panels. These were blown from the outer covering of the buildings, used to give them the ability to flex with the wind. Ten feet in front of me jagged pieces protrude from the rubble and make me think of garish teeth, pointed and broken in the slack-jawed grin of some horrible smashed alien creature. Standing still it strikes me that my climb through the windows is comparable to what it would be like to be able to climb into my television. Everything seems unreal and yet strangely too real. The sights are ghastly and then the sounds begin to sort themselves into things I can understand.
Ahead of me a crane is struggling to pull a crumpled something from the ruins of the highway. I think of trash compactors and wonder what it once was. The chain creaks and strains, metal shifts and I stare caught in fascination as shards of other ruined things fall from the flattened something. Finally, it is free, but I cannot find a name for what it had been.
Somehow, with its freedom, I too am freed and I realize I should pick my way forward and try to help. I approach a group of firefighters just in front of me who also have watched this small resurrection. Two of them wear the white hats of officers. Fearing to intrude on their intimacy, timidly I offer my water and chocolate. Several reach in and begin to pick out candy bars. Most take water. I walk on a little further and before I can truly adjust, or even know how, I have given away all I have brought with me.
As I head back to the windows I see that only the two officers remain watching the crushed box swing from the end of the crane. I see flecks of red paint and finally realize this was once a fire truck. As I pass, one officer says with unbearable sadness and resignation, “I just hope they find him so I can give him back to his mother,” and I realize this crumpled truck was what brought his son to serve in this place.
My whole life names have been lost in a black hole in my head. The name of this officer, imprinted on his helmet, has been seared into my heart forever. Later that week at a Memorial set up near the waterfront I will learn that among the missing is a firefighter with the same last name. My heart aches and my tears fall. For me, he has come to represent all the first responders who gave their lives to save others. (I have decided against sharing his name on the chance it might cause someone pain.) When I return home it is months before I can see a police officer or a firefighter without tearing up. Every anniversary I listen to the reading of the names of the fallen and when his name is read I mourn his loss.
Over the next days, as we serve, there were many striking, poignant events, some so painful I have only shared them with Doug but these I will share:
- leaving Ground Zero that first night when our shift was over, we drive past New Yorkers all along the West Side highway holding vigil with candles and signs thanking us for serving, we arrive at a restaurant where everyone stands and applauds us and someone pays our check;
* the next day, Saturday, taking over an aid station set up on a girder from the South Tower in front of World Financial Center 2 (WFC2) by Leia, who lived just a block away, which she has run without sleeping since that disastrous Tuesday; (my only picture of the pretty rudimentary aid station to left.)
- talking to FBI officers whose evidence tent is to the left of our girder aid station. They are sorting through artifacts looking for evidence and we can see their sharp-shooters on surrounding buildings;
* Being told we must move from the girder in front of WFC2 as larger equipment was now able to come into “the Pit” and it is no longer safe and having dozens of firefighters and police move all of our supplies to a new spot under a walkway bridge over Liberty Street connecting World Financial 2 to World Financial 1 in a matter of minutes.(WFC2 is the green domed building in lower right of the picture, the walkway is between the smaller two domes to the right of WF2. WF3 with the pointed green capped is to the left. Later, when the glass began to fall from the walkway bridge, they moved us again to a nearby corner.)
- speaking to the architect of the Twin Towers who came with the original blueprints seeking to help the rescuers locate potential spots where people might have sought shelter;
- looking at hundreds of firefighters and police officers lined up waiting for the honor of going into the pit and praying with one of them, a police officer named Hope;
- taking water bottles from those who chase our van desperate to do something simply because we recognize their need to help;
- struggling with the EPA who kept threatening to shut down our aid station. While there are many Canteens and the major Salvation Army Feeding Station on Vesey Street, I tell him we need to stay to help the Rescue Workers who won’t leave the pit. He says he can bring the National Guard with him to make us move. Seeing my debate a Fire Chief and a Police Chief approach me to ask what is wrong. When I tell them, the Fire Chief says, “We want you here. Our guys need you.” The Police Chief says, “Don’t worry about the National Guard. They aren’t carrying guns, but we are.” The Fire Chief concludes, “You aren’t going anywhere.” Both promise they will talk with Mayor Giuliani. The aide station is never closed.
- talking to the firefighter whose clogged, dust filled mask hangs from his neck while he tells me, “Don’t worry the smoke can’t hurt me, I am breathing in the ashes of my brothers;
- befriending the police and fire chiefs from Oklahoma City who ask me what I need, and then, somehow, bring me a gigantic box of ice on a fork lift, along with a wheelbarrow and shovels;
- thanking firefighters from Corpus Christi for their service and having them call me their ‘adopted’ sister, of being called an angel when I tell them they’re my heroes;
- developing a list of “suppliers” who I can call for boots, gloves, cigarettes, anything, who find gators to bring them to our aid station;
and a lifetime later, on my last day, I am orienting my replacements. We round a corner that I forget leads to the morgue. Seeing the flag draped body of a fallen firefighter ceremonially carried from the site, we snap to in a salute while bagpipes cry a farewell. And in that moment I realize how numb I have become, that it is only in standing with Kent, an Ottawa fire chief who rode his motorcycle from Canada to come to help America, and seeing his pain at the loss of this brother, that reawakens me to the loss once more.
In these ten years many reawakening moments of pain and loss have come, each time taking me by surprise, sweeping me back to Ground Zero, to that place hallowed by the ashes of my brothers.
My last memory is the one I will leave you with. As we prepare to leave for the final time, those around us begin to point to the elevated walkway bridge under which we had the aid station for a time. As heavy equipment moves beneath it, the glass in its windows begins to fall. A view of Ground Zero is revealed through the broken panes, open to the harbor. I talk to several firefighters who point out that the braces that previously held the glass now perfectly form a cross. This cross was only one of many formed by beams and girders in the rubble.
Somehow, I pray all of us may always find a way to view Ground Zero as we did that day through the cross of our shared humanity, our shared membership in the family of America, through the cross of our shared faith and our belief that those who died live on. May we recover the unity we shared on 9 11.
- Salvation Army Needs Volunteers For Hurricanes And Disasters (browardnetonline.com)