Two Weeks in September
A 9/11 VOLUNTEER LOOKS BACK (Part Two)
BY ALI VAN ZEE September 9, 2010
This part of my story now covers the time I spent in New York in the immediate two-week period following the attack on World Trade Centers One and Two. There is probably no one who doesn’t remember, in vivid detail, everything about those few hours during which the mortally wounded buildings burned, and ultimately collapsed killing almost everyone (with only few, rare exceptions) who was still trapped inside. It is intentional on my part that I do not dwell on my time spent amid the rubble. I carry with me now, horrendous images that are permanently seared into my brain and they come back to me, consciously or unconsciously at their will, not mine! In honor of all who perished there, I will not write about what I saw as no one, who wasn’t actually there, should have to share these with me. This now, is a love story of a sort to the wonderful people of New York and the thousands of volunteers who, like me, received their own “call-to-action”.
The sodium lights added to the eeriness of this ‘other-world’ landscape that had plunged Lower Manhattan into utter despair. It was 3:30 in the morning, hot, humid – not only from the oppressive late summer weather New York is infamous for, but from the still-burning fires deep beneath the rubble and here and there on the surface; in some places, just underfoot. Wherever we stepped, the ultra-fine powdery ash containing the remains of the World Trade Center towers, the planes and everything that had been in them rose up like a million banshees clinging relentlessly to all who would venture here. It was a chilling scene the heat could not dispel.
Of all the thousands of photos taken by professionals and amateurs alike, there was only one that truly captured the scope of this disaster. It hung at the FEMA and Disaster
Services headquarters hastily, yet efficiently set up at Pier 92, along JFK Drive, which was now the command center coordinating search and rescue and all clean-up activities. I believe it was a satellite photo – at any rate, the perspective was from above the site. Only this way was it possible to comprehend the scale and magnitude of sixteen square blocks of New York’s most prime real estate, now obliterated. The diagonal swath of this gaping wound mirrored the torn-open hearts of all who worked there. Not that any would admit it!
It didn’t take long to realize that I was a useless presence down in the midst of all that destruction. Hundreds of men and women – police, firefighters, construction workers of every imaginable sort – had two things and two things only on their minds: remove as much rubble as possible as fast as possible, and find survivors. They worked relentlessly and many had gotten there within minutes of the collapse of the North Tower
and were reluctant to take their mandatory breaks. They were not going to talk. This was no place to “share feelings”. There were no feelings…there was only the task at hand. I understood. Feelings were a luxury that no one could afford.
Feelings were not going to let you pick up body parts along
with pieces of furniture and broken concrete. Feelings were not going to get you through this! Finding someone – that was what was going to get you through this. And time was running out (though it wasn’t until September 24th, I believe, that the focus changed from rescue to recovery)! But I trudged on, bringing packaged sandwiches and water to workers, offering a hand on a shoulder, a look of empathy. Being present.
The most effective bereavement workers on-site in my opinion, were the dogs! Highly trained and extremely brave, dogs (and their handlers) had arrived from all over the country – from all over the world. Their only reward was finding survivors and
nothing could top their excitement when they did – or match their depression when they didn’t. On my third night of
feeling like I had nothing to offer, I did witness this extraordinary moment: two dogs who had been working one particular area seemed to notice a firefighter falter, suddenly overcome with the ever-present grief held at arm’s length. I swear they looked at one another and devised their strategy in advance as they turned to the man they recognized as a weary comrade. With wagging tails they flanked his sagging frame and showered him with kisses as he bent to ruffle their coats. “Good dogs”, he said with a quaking voice trying hard to keep it together. “Good boys! We’ll do it, guys, we’ll find ‘em.” He knelt beside them and let them kiss the tears he could no longer restrain. It was a brief moment, but it endures as a lasting memory for me. It was in that moment, though, that I knew I didn’t belong here any longer.
The turbaned taxi driver who picked me up near where World Trade Center Seven had stood (once 40+ stories tall, now only 7) seemed quite thrilled to have me for a fare. Hot, sweaty and caked with dust and ash, I can’t say that I blame him! I was, however, almost too afraid to get in his pristine Lincoln knowing I would leave an outline of my body on the immaculate leather seat. “Verrr to go, Missus…anyverr you need to go, I
take you!” By no means do I intend to make fun of his accent,
which was thick and rich and laden with Central Asian mystery. I loved listening to him and simply wish to convey the sound of his voice greeting my attentive ear as he drove. “I’m from Pakistan (more like pahky-shtahn)” he wanted me to know. He also wanted me to know how he and all other Pakistanis in New York were sorry for what had happened…as if he (or they) had anything to do with it. “I’m staying at the Hilton at 62nd and
Avenue of the Americas”, I croaked. My throat was parched and already being affected from the ash and toxic air at Ground Zero. (No one, by the way, at Ground Zero called it Ground Zero. It was The Pile. Simple, effective and devoid of the more titillating images the words ‘ground zero’ represent. So I shall call it The Pile from now on – hallowed as that ground may be, it’s the most fitting for me, and it’s the most accurate.)
My willing and gabby driver took me swiftly back to the hotel, offering me a fresh bottle of water for my thirst and refused to accept any payment for the trip or the water, not even a tip. As I later came to experience many times, cab drivers came from all over the city and State to line up at designated pick-up points for workers at The Pile and for volunteers and familymembers leaving the Family Assistance Center at Pier 93. They waited patiently and politely and drove people wherever they needed to go, no matter how far, for no charge. That’s
right! No charge! If you were wearing an ID badge, now being required to enter any of these areas, you got free cab rides. A cab driver picking me up at almost 1:00am a few nights later, told me it was her “honor” to drive me. Imagine. HER honor. That it was my honor to be there completely eluded her, no matter how I tried to explain. It was the same on the subways. Wear the badge and the subway was free. Say what you want about New Yorkers. I was only met with kindness, extreme courtesy and a “thank you for being here” wherever I went!
The police chief who was in charge of all police activity at The Pile, including Metropolitan Police, Port Authority, etc. was sitting at his desk in the cafeteria that had been set up at a pier closer to the site. I had gone there to eat lunch with some of the crew I had been ‘assigned’ to. I walked up to him with
red-rimmed eyes from all the debris, and a continent of tears that mixed with the fine particulates to give me a bizarre set of concrete eyelashes. But, I looked just like everybody else more or less, so he didn’t even blink. “Look”, I said, “the work down there is all-consuming and mind-numbing. No one has time, or the inclination to talk. Is there be somewhere else I could be of some help?” “Yeah, ok, let me think about it. In the meantime” (he paused and looked up), “go clean up and grab a plate.” His reply was calm, belying the now somewhat startled look at my appearance.
I sat with an equally dusty crew from New Jersey. One of them, Tim, a firefighter, had gotten there an hour after the North Tower collapsed. He was being forced to take two days off, having had none since the 11th, and he wasn’t happy about it – none of them were. They were focused, driven and driven
to exhaustion but couldn’t bear to stop. “How did you even know where to begin?” It was an idiotic question, but one I couldn’t keep from asking. He answered with utter simplicity: “You just pick up a rock from one place and throw it to another.” Bucket-brigades formed within minutes of Tower One falling from every conceivable entry point into that colossal debris field, and some worker would put rocks in one, hand it down to someone else and so it went for days and days. Even when the cranes showed up, it was still a manual job for the most part.
“I got you hooked up, come with me.” The Captain didn’t wait for me to finish – he was already out the door before I caught up with him. I sat in the back of his Police Bronco, one of his lieutenants was in the front with him, and we headed up JFK drive, which was closed to all but emergency traffic. On almost every street corner and along the median strip, groups of New
Yorkers with “Thanks, FDNY”; “We Love You”; “God Bless You” signs waved, whistled, clapped and cheered as we drove by. The Captain told me they were there day and night and I saw them many times after that. They couldn’t thank the workers enough, couldn’t love them enough! I felt almost guilty as we drove the 30 blocks (at least) up to FEMA headquarters and for a brief flash, like a rock star or something, before I caught myself.
The Captain took me over to a FEMA official, told him what I’d been doing and showed him my credentials. The next thing I knew, the man from FEMA walked me to the Family Assistance Center set up at the next pier over and introduced me to the Red Cross manager in charge there.
The place was huge! Way over 100,000 square feet. The Red Cross had moved in with extraordinary swiftness on the 11th
and started setting up booths for the FBI, police units from Manhattan (all 5 Boroughs), New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Upstate New York. There were also booths for every religious organization imaginable, insurance companies, social service agencies and now, for DNA collection. There were also quiet areas set up just for the families of the missing and those known dead, a separate cafeteria for them, nondenominational chapel and even an area for massage therapy, aroma therapy, etc. Away from that, on the other side and closest to FEMA Headquarters with its own entrance, was the cafeteria for everyone else – those who worked here as well as those working The Pile. It was teeming with volunteers, young and old alike, experienced with the Red Cross and first-timer’s, as I was about to become. The manager I was introduced to, filled out some paperwork, handed it to me with a card to give to another manager and gave me directions to get on the subway to the NYC Red Cross Headquarters in Brooklyn.
Although there were tens of cabs lined up outside the main entrance, I opted to leave them for those who really needed them and still plastered in concrete, walked 7 or 8 blocks to the nearest subway station.
To say it felt like a sauna is a real understatement. My concrete-dust ‘overcoat’ acted like a Tandoori oven and I was almost cooked to perfection by the time I arrived at my stop. From there, it was another 3-4 block walk to HQ – and New York blocks, particularly in the direction I headed in most of the time are very, very long.
The sight out in front of the Red Cross building was extraordinary. Literally hundreds, many hundreds, of would-be volunteers were lined up in neat rows all waiting for a chance to get inside, fill out forms, get interviewed and maybe be assigned somewhere. There were 3 eager young men who had
just driven all the way from Colorado without stopping, willing to do any task no matter how menial. Middle-aged women from right down the block who had been waiting for several days, but were back again, sure of their commitment and that there would be something for them to do. A couple from Germany, who had flown all night, in order to get involved – all great faces with great stories and all here to help. But I had a “ticket” – the card given me earlier (and my dusty coveralls) and was whisked right through. Photographed (someone at least gave me a brush to get some of the dust off) and fingerprinted again, and having to relinquish my “Ground Zero All Access - YES” pass, I was given a new pass, (‘All Access – No Ground Zero’) and rechristened ‘Alexander’ (I hope it’s because the typist wasn’t very good). From there, I was accelerated through several classes on shelter support and three hours later, after a quick shower and change, was back at Pier 93.
Outside the Family Assistance Center at Pier 93 was a wooden billboard. I don’t know if it has always been there as it had the look of old, weathered wood, or if it had been put up to serve this heartbreaking purpose: display the thousands of photos of the missing, along with notes and letters and pictures of their families telling their stories. There were also notes tacked on from complete strangers with words of support and gentle compassion. Inside the pier was a giant white wall, bathed in light from the skylights above, that was now being written over with more messages of support, condolences when someone was identified and drawings of hearts, flowers, rainbows and teardrops. For the rest of my time in New York, as I went to work each day there, I would go up to the billboard out front, or stand before the white wall inside and want so much to add
something of me there. But I stood mute. Humbled into silence. Instead, I served up meals, bussed tables and emptied trash, all the while feeling privileged to do so. I’m a caregiver, and I was finally giving care that could be accepted.
Although meals were served around the clock, there were lulls when only a trickle of people would come in. At these times, I’d get my co-workers to mind the pots and steaming trays and load up my Red Cross vest with bottles of water, candy bars and health bars, packages of cookies and apples till I looked like the Michelin Man and venture off into the maze of cubicles on my ‘rounds’. I had noticed almost right off that so many people working there who served everyone else, rarely served themselves. So this became my niche, my own little specialty, and during the 16 – 18 hours a day I would work there, I took these ‘breaks’ every hour to make certain no one went without something to eat or drink. It gave me the opportunity to start
forming bonds – a familiarity that then allowed natural conversation to flow, and my bereavement work took hold.
I started doing Reiki (I am a certified Master of this healing art) on over-tired FBI agents, chaplains, other nurses and physicians, politicians and firefighters. Just a few minutes of quiet hands on weary shoulders and some would cry but all would be re-energized then hug me – not an easy thing to do with all my bulging pockets. I know what I gave them was not insignificant, but what I got back was a thousand times more powerful for my own heart and soul.
Word got around and I was asked one day if I could do Reiki on the wife of a man missing from Tower One. She had been coming everyday (like all the other families), looking for information, bringing hair samples, filing claims and had actually asked if there was a Reiki practitioner on-site as she
desperately wanted a treatment. My co-workers on the food line were gracious to let me go and I met up with her at the ‘spa’. One of the massage therapists let me use her curtainedoff area and table and for the next hour and a half we shared a truly sacred space. While I worked, her tensed body relaxed and as she relaxed, the tears she had not yet shed spilled silently to the floor. This was so where I was meant to be. Not among the crumpled remains of concrete buildings, but rather, among the crumpled remains of those left behind.
As a child growing up in San Francisco, my dad would take me to football games at Kezar Stadium and baseball games at Seals Stadium (oh, oh, aging myself!). Seals Stadium always felt like a real home for baseball to me, unlike the more modern ones that littered the Bay Area later. It was small, right in the
heart of The City, cozy and with a fantastic view. The arc of seats overlooking the field also presented a fine look at the downtown skyline and the Hamm’s Brewery sign: a beer glass made of lights that would magically fill, from the bottom up, with golden beer topped with perfect white foam. I loved it! I never thought another baseball stadium would capture me so…until I entered Yankee Stadium on Sunday, September 23rd for the Memorial.
I was there, courtesy of one of Giuliani’s aides who had been one of my “customers” at Pier 93. She was young, drawn taut with exhaustion and hardly ate a thing but would come to me every day to talk. She became a surrogate daughter and I loved that she sought me out. Two days before the event, she came to me with a ticket for a reserved seat in what turned out to be an extraordinary private section. “Please take it, our entire staff would like you to come!” How this all was
happening to me, I could only wonder. Truly, I was simply doing what I came to New York to do: serve.
Everyone who attended the Memorial was handed the following items on walking into the stadium: a long-stemmed rose, a poster created by a young boy of all the cranes and stacks of debris at The Pile, a small American flag and a stuffed animal. Mine was a teddy bear – my favorite (almost everyone’s favorite stuffed animal, right?). These were touching and thoughtful gifts from a grateful city. Clutching my prized possessions, I entered the stadium and made my way to my seat, just above the third-base dugout and next to a ramp that would soon be filled with a cast of luminous dignitaries!
I got there early, almost two hours early, and was glad to have these quiet moments in this jewel of a stadium crowned with white picket fencing that almost completely encircled it. I’m so
distressed it has now been torn down, for it was not only beautiful, but became a shining symbol of hope during that dark, dark time.
I had brought a photograph of Andy (my firefighter boyfriend who had passed away 4 years earlier) as well as an invitation to the “farewell party” my mom and I gave for my father after he died (in late August of 2000) as it had my favorite photo of him on the front. They were very much a part of the reason I was in New York as both had inspired me with their selfless service to the world-at-large. My father was always a ‘run-tothe-rescue type of man and before the U.S. even got officially into WWII, he went up to Canada in 1939, joined the RCAF, was sent to England and eventually joined the Eagle Squadrons, a group of Americans flying for Britain. The legacy they left me needed honoring and I wanted them here with me! They accompanied me everywhere I went in New York and were with
me now here in Yankee Stadium, where I sat in quiet solitude reflecting on them, on the thousands lost and their families coming to mourn them here today. I also reflected on the grace of the people of New York and the many friendships offered me. Little kindnesses such as one person who got off a subway with me and walked 4 blocks out of his way to ensure I got to the right place. Huge kindnesses such as the ones extended by all the cab drivers, to me and to all who needed them. I reflected on how the country had come together with love and a sense of unity that carried around the world. The sense of love was pervasive and gave me hope we might finally get things right: throw away petty differences, let go of hatred and long-held misinformed distrust. It felt so good to sit in the warmth of the sun, lost in idyllic reverie.
Without my noticing, the stadium filled – every seat taken. I sat immediately next to the wedge-shaped section behind
home plate reserved for the families of actual victims and the press and separated from them by the ramp I mentioned before. My section was for City employees, officials, etc. Everywhere else, the stadium filled with thousands who had come to pay their respects and be a part of an historic moment.
The ramp to my right began to fill with the dignitaries who had come to take their place on the dais well behind the pitcher’s mound, now covered in flowers. I took a few pictures during my time in New York, mostly of co-workers, friends I was making – nothing, down at The Pile, though many did. But I couldn’t get my camera to click fast enough to catch all who now walked within just a foot or two from me: Cardinals and Archbishops, Rabbis and Imams, a small group of Sisters of Charity from Mother Theresa’s mission. Governor Pataki came out together with the Clintons. The crowd exploded in
applause and cheered to see them! The Pipe and Drum corps from the FDNY and police bands came next. Followed by Oprah and Placido Domingo! All here to lead this crowd, and the nation (and the world) in prayer and with riveting, healing words. Rudi Giuliani was the last to appear. He was alone, and haggard from almost two weeks of the most constant and immediate stress of it all. My own personal politics are miles from his, but this was not a place for politics. This was a place where everyone came together regardless of race, religion, sex, age or politics! Sadly, quite possibly the last time we, as a country, have been able to do so.
It was an over-whelmingly emotional memorial. No one, including myself could hold back whatever tears had not yet been shed. It was a giant, cathartic event, which for the next 3 hours held us all in thrall.
As people began finally to file past and leave once the memorial had ended, I still sat, head down, lost in the memories of the last 12 days. I sat staring at the pictures of my dad and Andy and hoped they were proud I had come. In that moment, a hand touched my shoulder and I looked up into the kind face of a woman who wanted to know if my pictures were of someone I had lost at the World Trade Center. I assured her they were not and told her very briefly why I was there. It was then she noticed my ID badges, the Red Cross pins I had plastered all over the cords that held them, as well as something else hanging around my neck that had become very special to me. Working at The Family Assistance Center, I became friends with a group from the New Jersey Department of Corrections. Just the night before, as a way to say thanks for the way they thought I looked out for people, they gave me the badge of one of their members who had been in Tower One
when it fell.
It meant everything to me then, and still means
everything to me now.
Her husband came up behind her and joined in our conversation. His accent, thick with the Bronx of his birth and where he still lived. I wish I could write his accent now as I tell you what he said to me, the harshness of it the perfect undertone for his words. I had just finished being all enthused about how the world had finally come together when he said, “You wait, just wait. This is New York! Six months from now, no one will remember!” I looked into his face, his features set like stone and replied, “Then make sure you’re not one of them!”
Let’s all make sure of that, shall we?
It is evening now, September 10, 2011. Tomorrow morning the nightmares that will be a part of this night’s sleep will jolt me awake at 5:45am and I, as you, will relive that awful day ten years ago as if it were happening again.
I had so much hope we, as a nation, would lead the world into a utopia of understanding and mutual respect. Instead, with appalling disrespect for humanity, we have engaged in two questionable wars, been responsible for many more thousands of deaths than happened on 9/11, labeled some innocent men terrorists and conducted illegal interrogations under the guise of “Homeland Security” (a term which makes my skin crawl). We have thrown the world and our own country into chaos and somehow allowed the erosion of civil and human rights as Right-Wing fanatics attempt to overthrow our sanity and our
Government. We live in a country now where teachers, nurses, firefighters and laborers are vilified as enemies; where millions struggle to find jobs as Corporations continue to reap billions in profits by sending those jobs overseas or cutting them completely. We live in a country where deep-seated racial hatred has come out of the closet and into the halls of Congress undermining everything we once stood for because a gaggle of white men and women cannot stand the fact a black man is our President.
Is this then the legacy of 9/11? Is this how we are really going to honor those who died at The World Trade Center, or in Shanksville or The Pentagon…or the heroic First Responders who have died or are dying from inhaling toxic fumes as they searched for survivors in the twisted steel?
I refuse to believe that we have devolved into a gullible, lemming-like society where such injustices could be so easily tolerated. Wake up!
Snap out of it! Because if you
don’t you turn us all into victims of that terrible day.