Memories of a 9/11 Responder – Ground Zero Remembered


twin-towers-on-fire-copyToday 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.

deris-south-tower-girders-copyMy 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)

9-11-ground-zero-debris-with-archesThough 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.

me-at-911-fountain-copyFor 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.  (To the right, me  at one of the memorial fountains.

sheathing-falling-teeth-911-copy-2When I climbed through a broken window into the Ground Zero 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.teeth-2-copy

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 West Street. (see just below)

members-of-our-team-on-the-girder

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.book-with-picture-of-the-windows-copy

 

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.

support-arches-north-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.

sculpture-teeth-copy

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.

teethwings-911-memorialIt 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.

support-arch-copy 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.

survivors-stairs-copyThen, 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.

blue-sky-tribute-copyThis 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.

gretchen-and-events-wall-copyMy 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.

last-girder-copyThe 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 salvation-army-shield-copymade 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.

news-clippingPerhaps, 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.

flag-and-towers-copyWe 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.

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About joanneeddy

Writer living in North Carolina. Originally from upstate New York. I love my family, my community, and my friends, and embrace 'living deliberately' in the world, trying to make a difference. I have written an as yet unpublished book, The Call, an epic fantasy with historical fiction and folklore elements. My blog is for other writers, for those who love a good read, and for all who, like me, are looking to find and live their call.
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18 Responses to Memories of a 9/11 Responder – Ground Zero Remembered

  1. Reblogged this on The happy Quitter! and commented:
    Not much introduction needed; this post speaks for itself.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this post, Joanne. I am without words for how hard that experience must have been, for my gratitude for your service there, for the sadness of that day that still makes me cry. Wishing you the best. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I found it hard to read some of this Joan. I have stopped watching the news because it upsets me too much. I am thankful that there were good people like you helping despite great risk to your own health. God bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I can’t imagine being there during the devastation, or for the aftermath and recovery. Thank you to you and your husband for doing so. Sad day for humanity, but should never be forgotten. 😕

    Liked by 1 person

    • joanneeddy says:

      Thank you for reading, and for your kind words. This horrific event also manifested so much kindness, such goodness by ordinary people reaching out to one another. I am forever better for having been there. Jo

      Liked by 1 person

  5. shruti502 says:

    No words come out as I write this.Thank you is certainly a very short word which fails to measure up to what you and your husband have done.Wishing you the best of health.Take care.God bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Chris B. B. says:

    Having known you just a short time, I can see that you are that person who is able to wade into some horribly difficult thing and offer help. Your compassion and dedication shine through. Your account of that time helping, and of your return visit provides additional insight on a day that all of us remember in our own way. Most of us grieve from afar for those lost. You saw pain and loss more directly. God Bless You and your husband (and everyone who helped in other ways) for your selfless acts. Praying that any illnesses you experience from your exposure can be managed effectively.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mary M. says:

    Of course you and your husband responded to a desperate situation, it is the type of people you are. Not thinking of consequences, just helping those who are in need. We are all deeply grateful for your service in those days and can not imagine the pain and devastation you experienced. Our country was stunned at what had happened, but caring people like you and Doug have shown us all how strong we can be. Thank you. May God bless you and keep watch over you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • joanneeddy says:

      Thank you, Mary. We were among thousands who helped and many more thousands who wanted to be there. We both were uplifted by the fact that in the midst of such devastating hate and hurt, the goodness and kindness of people was evident everywhere. To me it was a time, despite the pain, that shows that the path forward is to remember that nothing is as important as the spirit that unites us. It was the worst thing that ever happened to America, but showed the best of who we are as a people.

      Like

  8. Clive says:

    Very poignant and difficult memories for you, Jo. Beautifully written and very evocative of what you went through, both at the time and on your return. Stay well x

    Liked by 1 person

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