Well here it is September 10, 2010 and I’ve been trying for nine years to decompress after the nearly 400 hours I spent in, on and around the pile that became a hole in the ground in downtown Manhattan. Friends, Tweeps and bloggers that I communicate with on a regular basis have been urging me to record some of my experiences and I had actually planned to start writing about it yesterday, the anniversary of that horrific event, but the politicization of the commemorative activities had become so palpable that I felt it better to hold back for at least one more day. Having finally accepted that the physical effects of my proximity to Ground Zero are irreversible, I’m beginning to think the many who have suggested that writing about it might possibly lead to peace of mind, may be right. At least I am proceeding on that assumption.
It was a bright, sunny Tuesday morning and my train from upstate New York where I had spent the weekend pulled into Grand Central Station shortly before 9 AM. I hailed a cab for the short ride downtown to the Lower East Side where I live. At my building while paying the driver I became aware of an unusually steady cacophony from what sounded like police sirens and my first thought was of a visiting dignitary. My apartment building sits in the right angle formed by the Williamsburg Bridge and the FDR Drive and police entourages with blaring sirens are not at all unusual on any given day, but these were louder and steadier. Once in my living room, I stepped onto my terrace to glance at the bridge and noticed immediately, that the sirens were coming from a steady stream of not only police vehicles, but ambulances, and fire trucks as well on the Drive, the Bridge and all the major neighborhood thoroughfares. I turned and looked to the West where everyone seemed to be heading and behind the couple of high rise buildings between me and The World Trade Center, I saw the thick black plume of smoke that signaled one of the buildings was on fire. I turned on the television and learned of the plane that had flown into one of the World Trade buildings. I picked up the phone to call a friend of mine to tell her what I was seeing and while I was talking I saw the second plane crash into the south building. I was momentarily transfixed and disbelieving. An attack on the World Trade Center? An area that I could walk to and where I had spent many hours?
Gathering my thoughts, I began to wonder if any one had opened the church where I was assigned. I went into the street and walked the two blocks to the church which was indeed open, but few people were inside. The street in front of the church was becoming fairly crowded with neighborhood folks who were standing, watching the World Trade Center with a nearly unobstructed view of all the floors above the 11th or 12th. By this time the news that the buildings were hit by two planes had circulated and nearly everyone was in a state of tearful speculation, anxiety and incredulity.
And then it happened. The first of the two buildings, the South Tower, collapsed. I hadn’t been back in Manhattan for quite an hour, and there I was five minutes from my house in the midst of a small crowd of people who were so stunned you could cut the shock and fear with a knife. And then, nearly a half hour later, the North Tower collapsed and none of us could make sense of what was happening in our neighborhood before our very eyes. The fire was raging, the smoke was intense and the wind was blowing a strange dust in shaded gradations of color from white to gray to black that appeared to be settling on every imaginable surface. By this time the Rector of the church had arrived and we both went inside to offer comfort and consolation to those who were filing into the church to pray. As the day wore on television reports and pictures rolled in and we began to understand that what had happened was a tragedy of enormous scope. Thousands trapped below ground on subways and Path trains, thousands more trapped in the Twin Towers, many hundreds in the streets running for their lives northward, to the south, eastward across the Brooklyn Bridge, in nearly every direction away from the Twin Towers. Practically everyone seemed to be covered with a white dust. Tragically, pictures of people jumping from the Towers in panic and landing on the street below underscored the desperation that everyone in the immediate neighborhood was experiencing.
At this point, I should note that I am an ordained Episcopal Deacon. The Diaconate is one of three ordained levels of ministry in the Roman and Anglican churches the other two being Bishop and Priest. A Deacon is the church’s manifestation of servant ministry, we usually serve without compensation helping those who need it and spreading the church’s message to those who would hear it. Naturally, my first thoughts were how could I be of service. Volunteering to help was not entirely too easy. Almost immediately my neighborhood was “locked down” and to travel out to the North, West or by some routes South required negotiating a police barrier with ID that approached government security clearance and a story that would convince both police and military personnel that you had good reason and intention, clerical collar notwithstanding. Mind you now at first if you got out of the neighborhood it was an equally tough task to get back in. I decided to first satisfy myself that my son who is an EMS Lieutenant, who by this time had probably arrived at Ground Zero, was safe because it was obvious the entire area was still tenuous as a result of the continuous fire and resulting collapse of certain structures. The Verizon building nearby to the Twin Towers had been compromised and telephone service was non existent or spotty at best. He finally stopped by my apartment to reassure me that he was fine and to urge me to stay away knowing that I might be looking for a way to get down there. I told him not to worry that if I did find a way down I would confine my activity to service in St. Paul’s Chapel the back of which is just across the street from where the Twin Towers stood. St. Paul’s Chapel the oldest public building in continuous use in New York City (1766), the Chapel where George Washington used to worship had not been damaged and was being used as a center where recovery workers could receive round the clock care. Little did I know then that once I gained access to the site I would be deployed not only to St. Paul’s Chapel, but to nearly every place someone thought I might be able to accomplish a specific task. I was just praying for the Grace to respond.
And then it happened. I heard through the grapevine that clergy were being staged at the Seaman’s Church Institute at the South Street Seaport. That’s easy, I could get there I just needed to be creative and figure out a route. After dark on the night of the tenth I put on my steel toed work shoes, blue jeans and clerical collar. Strange combination, I thought, I could only remember dressing like that once before. I made my way through a park a block south of my house, exited along a side road that led me to the FDR Drive and then onto South Street under the Drive adjacent to the East River. I walked south past the Brooklyn Bridge to Frankfort Street bordering the old Fulton Fish Market and then to 241 Water Street and the Seaman’s Church Institute. Inside everything was bustling with people, supplies being sorted, meals being served and a strange kind of quiet camaraderie, with heads shaking from side to side lots of hugs being exchanged and amazement at the amount of damage done to downtown Manhattan. There were clergy, firemen, police officers and volunteer medical personnel from all over the city soon to be joined by similar volunteers from all over the United States. I was given a badge, a hard hat and a dust/particulate matter mask. I had been asked to work a midnight to morning shift at Ground Zero so I had dinner and sort of hung around helping to load supplies destined for St. Paul’s chapel.
Finally, it was time for my shift. I jumped into the back of a red pickup truck and made room on top of the bottles of water, boxes of socks, underwear, hand wash, first aid supplies and other miscellany, donned my mask and hardhat and we rode ever so slowly west on Fulton Street toward Broadway, St. Paul’s Chapel and Ground Zero. It was eerily dark, no electricity and every standing thing, cars, boxes, piles of plastic bags full of uncollected trash all were covered with this strange grayish white dust. Finally, St. Paul’s Chapel which surprisingly seemed bright with candle light and the reflection from Con-Ed generators that were strategically placed all around for several blocks north, south and west. We unloaded the truck and once inside I spoke to several rescue workers who had been toiling tirelessly searching for survivors. No one seemed to be able to find words to accurately describe what had happened everyone had a semi vacant stare, disaster was the most often repeated noun. Several asked for prayer and I obliged trying desperately to be comforting in a totally non comforting situation.
Eventually, I came out into the street, showed my ID to the officer at the barrier and walked down to the site. I couldn’t believe my eyes the Twin Towers each of which was 110 stories tall had been reduced to twisted steel structures of approximately 40 or 50 stories each standing in the midst of a bed of steel, concrete, plastic and God only knows what else. Lots of smoke and flames as if the fire was still raging and indeed under the pile it did for many days after. Ringing the entire footprint of the World Trade center were huge cranes looking much like giant Praying Mantes pulling steel girders and other debris off the pile and placing them on the huge trucks ringing the site. On the pile itself there must have been hundreds of people digging, moving debris, searching for possible survivors. At the southern end the Deutsche Bank Building had a huge steel girder sticking out of it’s side at about the 9th or 10th floor as if someone had thrown a spear into the side of the building. Just across the street from Deutsche Bank the World Trade Center firehouse was burned out.
I spent the rest of the night pretty much bringing water and other cold beverages to the rescue workers out on the pile. Prayer was a big item at Ground Zero it was asked for quite a lot and when not, if offered never refused. My conversations with the sanitation workers who were driving the debris from the World Trade Center to the Great Kills dump in Staten revealed that more than a few of them seemed to hold the belief that the material that they were hauling away more than likely contained some human remains and that went for the dust that, as I previously mentioned, covered virtually every surface nearby and not so nearby. As daylight approached I was able to see that indeed St. Paul’s Chapel had survived the collapse of the two buildings remarkably well. In fact, hardly anything there seemed affected except for the centuries old graveyard in back of the Chapel facing what was once the Twin Towers. The graveyard was covered in debris and dust several inches thick.
The lighter the morning got the more it seemed to me that the pigeons were behaving strangely. New York pigeons are an in your face breed. The closer you get to them without offering something to eat the faster they walk away, get too close and they fly a few feet to avoid you. The pigeons this morning at Ground Zero would just walk as if they couldn’t get off the ground no matter how hard they tried and then I noticed they too were covered with a heavy layer of the all too pervasive dust and it seemed to be hardening on their bodies.
Next: Ground Zero A Few Days Later