Today is the 15th Anniversary of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. I served at Ground Zero with The Salvation Army for several weeks in the immediate aftermath, arriving in New York City on September 14th. (I wrote a detailed memoire recounting my experience, the link to this is In the Ashes of My Brothers.)
Every anniversary has been poignant for me. This year more so for several reasons. A year ago, I was diagnosed with an illness that may be related to my time serving there and I went to a New York Hospital to complete my diagnosis this past January. I took that opportunity to finally return to tour the Memorial site and go to the Museum.
My husband, Doug, also went with our team, and even at that time both of us believed it could carry long-term consequences. The pervasive heavy grey dust we walked through, the smoke in the air, and the smell of the rising fumes were certainly warnings. and our aid station was in the debris field, initially on a fallen girder from the South Tower. (as right)
Though Doug worked the 12 hour night shift with the Night Crawlers, and I was on a 12 hour “Day Watch,” we wrote notes and discussed it, even the possibility it would shorten our lives. Several times when the smoke was blowing toward us, the EPA told me the air “was bad.” But my team stayed. Both of us have had health consequences.
Neither of us have any regrets.
For us, somewhat like I have heard from family who served in World War II, our time there and our work there will always be the most meaningful experience in our lives. So, going back, visiting the Memorial Museum, seeing the fountains was something I have wanted to do for years. And just as I had hoped, going there with my daughter and sharing my memories with her, was poignant yet healing. Many things immediately triggered memories of our time at Ground Zero. (Above, me at one of the memorial fountains.
September 14th, our first day there, I had to climb through a broken window get into the site. The first things I saw, and I am sure you remember from iconic pictures, were twisted pieces of metal, girders, and large pieces of the exterior aluminum support sheathing which fell and embedded themselves into the ground.
I thought of these pieces, standing at oddly skewed angles, as looking somewhat like crazy teeth. The girder from the South Tower (WTC 2) which served as the site of our first Aide Station was directly in front of one set of them on what had been the West Street highway.
To the left is the only picture I have of our aid station. It is actually the picture of a picture that appeared in Others, the newsletter of our local Salvation Army (Syracuse Area Services.)
My team was deeply moved by the loss of the firefighters and police officers we served and agreed not to take pictures. We believed we stood on holy ground.
To the right, is a picture from a book I bought during this visit. I looked for something at the Museum store and opened a book to this picture. I think I gasped. These are the exact windows we climbed out of World Financial 2 and into Ground Zero. It shows the debris and the teeth from the South Tower.
To the left of our girder were the remains from the bottom exterior of the North Tower (WTC1). Another iconic image to responders, these support arches held up the aluminum exterior sheath of the North Tower, reminding me of the arches seen inside gothic churches, and pictures of bombed churches in World War II. (on left)
The arches and the teeth in front of us bracketed what remained of the Twin Towers. Between them was a pile of debris that rose like a mountain to a height of more than six stories, still burning at 1500 degrees.
For the whole time, I was there those aluminum pieces meant to add a flexible outer structural support to the Towers, those “teeth” framed my experience. So, I ask you to imagine what it felt like to walk toward the Ground Zero site and see this aluminum sculpture.
It was the first sign to me of how hard the designers had worked to create a place of memory for people who had images of the disaster seared into their minds and linked to their grief, and simultaneously, it was an indication of resurrection and redirection. To me, these new teeth, reminders of pain, had become wings, attached to the earth into which the originals were imbedded, but reaching for the sky.
Because I knew this would be emotional to me, once inside I chose not join a group with a tour guide, but to go with my daughter at our own pace through the displays. As we descended the stairs to the below ground museum, we saw the first remains of the Trade Center. There was one of the North Tower “church” arches, against a multi-paned window reaching for the light. Again, pain yet relief, remembrance and transformation, but united by the same sense of entering a sacred place I felt every time I brought supplies for the first responders into Ground Zero.
Then, we descended further next to the Survivor Stairs down which many in the North Tower escaped, and we reached the next amazingly sensitive piece of art, an immense wall of blue, a touching quote. Again, sharp memory.
I instantly was taken back to hearing about the first plane, thinking it must have been a small one, and going to a conference room to turn on the Today Show. I was shocked by the damage I saw to the North Tower, the smoke black against the brilliant blue sky, and then the second plane flew into sight and hit the South Tower.
This quote from the Aeneid, “No Day Shall Erase You From The Memory of Time” is set against Spencer Finch’s immense blue art installation of 2,983 individual watercolor renderings by artists of what color the sky appeared to be to them that September 11th. Each one unique, the squares represent each person killed in the original attack in 1993 and those in 2001, each person as distinct in memory as the different colors of blue sky.
My daughter and I passed a preserved though damaged fire truck, a glass encased fireman’s helmet, a wall outlining flight paths and a step by step progression of events, the slurry wall that held, many pictures, and places to listen to audio recordings from that tragic day. So many stops, a Via Dolorosa of tears for me. I know it wasn’t easy for Gretchen to watch it hurt me. She has more empathy than most and I am sure she felt my pain. I think she also felt my healing.
The last location I will share from the visit is aptly named “the Last Column.” During the clean up and recovery work that lasted until May 30, 2002, this support column from the southeast corner of the South Tower was left in place and intact to represent the resiliency of our country, to show that, despite this cowardly but devastating attack, America, like the column, was still standing.
As a part of the ceremony marking the completion of the recovery phase, first a flag representing those victims of the tragedy who were never recovered was carried from the site, put in a stretcher and placed in an ambulance, like all the victims who had been found. Then, the girder was cut down, draped with a black pall, and escorted by an honor guard that included FDNY and NYPD. After the playing of taps by a police officer and firefighter, The Salvation Army Band played as the Column was escorted from the Trade Center Site. A YouTube of the Closing Ceremony.
Seeing the column, now standing tall at the center of the Ground Zero Museum, made me straighten my shoulders at least a bit. It made me proud of the first responders and all who assisted them. It made me proud to be an American.
It also made me proud to have worked for The Salvation Army which on September 11th, as at all other times, truly was a strong army of salvation. The only agency authorized to serve inside the fenced perimeter, in a little more than 8 months, during Operation Compassion Under Fire, 39,000 officers, staff, and volunteers provided over 3 million meals and over 1 million volunteer hours.
Perhaps, most importantly, Salvation Army counselors provided emotional and spiritual support in extraordinarily difficult circumstances to the brave rescue and recovery workers there. I was blessed to have been part of that effort.
Today I will remember all of it, and I think we need to remember September 11th, not just at this anniversary. Why? Because on a day that was intended to humiliate America, Americans demonstrated all that makes us remarkable.
We must never forget that at Ground Zero, at the Pentagon, and on a Plane that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, heroes arose among us. First responders, military personnel, the amazing passengers and crew of Flight 93 AND ordinary citizens who helped strangers down the stairs or led others crawling out of smoke-filled corridors, those who gathered supplies on girders, who brought in pizzas to Ground Zero, and boys and girls who packed lunches with colored pictures thanking the rescue workers, heroes arose among us.
Stand tall America. You are a land of heroes. May we follow their example and remember we can never be defeated when we stand together. Let’s roll.
Again, a link to my memoire of my time at Ground Zero.