[ X ]=return
I set out at 6:55 AM and I maneuvered and shortcutted my way through approximately 9 police checkpoints through out the East Village and China Town.
I dressed with a hard hat, plaid workman's shirt, filter mask and gloves. I felt the outfit was as authentic looking as it could be and my route down the Lower East Side of Manhattan would be my best bet. With police blocks on every corner, I had my story and stuck to it: "I volunteered yesterday on Kenmare and North Moore and was told to go to meet my group on Chambers and Church at 7:30." They kept on letting me through. At two locations I had to show ID and talk to a sergeant.
Finally, I was walking down Franklin Street off of Broadway ankle deep in dust and soot. I saw a deli on the corner with its plastic containers of watermelon and fruit, flowers and spring water and thought, "a deli open down here?" As I got closer I noticed it was veiled in a thin mist of dust. The store was closed and abandoned.
I turned another corner and came face to face with a group of firefighters putting out fires at Tower Number 7. The building was slumped over and oozing smoke and water. It looked like a helpless whale, gasping and dying on the beach.
I then moved past skeletal cars, buses and rescue vehicles toward Tower 1. I arrived at that location in the first moments that rescuers were stepping onto the delicate debris of this twisted wreck. I immediately joined them. We made a bucket brigade line and started digging. I went to the front of the line, near the digging. We began to hand the debris back through the line.
In front of me was a block-wide crater filled with metal and mortar. To my left was a giant hole with a ladder leading downward. Dogs were sniffing for bodies and about ten to fifteen men crawled through long lengths of foundation trying to get into crevices. The still standing facade of some of the building looked like honeycomb sculptures stabbed into the ground; God's art.
Most of what we dug through was plaster, concrete and people's office paperwork. Tons and tons of paperwork. Printouts of employee review sheets, email correspondences, training guides and inter-office memos. I saw a penny loafer, a black high heel shoe, a Raggedy Ann doll, pieces of desks, a jacket, rubble, dust and twisted metal.
Two bodies were pulled out from three levels below the ground - in body bags. One looking like a black latex cocoon strapped to a stretcher, the other like a Hefty bag filled with kitchen trash. No more bodies were found between 7am and 4pm. The rescuers went three levels below the earth to look. No more bodies.
I walked into the Cortland Station stop underground. Pitch-black. No sounds. No life. Plumes of white smoke and black smoke were coming from the wreckage above ground. Through out the effort we could feel the wreckage getting hot under our feet and we moved from place to place. Some debris was still steaming as we passed it backwards. We had to retreat from one area because a nearby building looked unsafe.
When I first arrived, I expected to see the great World Trade Center's 110 stories in a heap at least 3 to 6 stories high, instead it had been reduced to a smoldering crater of sandstone-brown concrete and reams of paper. I thought "we're standing on the top floor which is now the first floor." The Twin Towers stood only about 25 feet above street level, hardly one story high.
Before I arrived, I was told to have a strong stomach because "there were body parts everywhere." I saw none. My good feeling is that many people got out and therefore we saw no human carnage. My bad feeling is that many people were not found because they were disintegrated and incinerated, carried away towards Brooklyn in the dust that billowed for hours after the collapse. I'm not a pessimist and have no rescue training so my thoughts on the lack of survivors are based on what I saw in the horrific pancaking of the buildings on Tuesday combined with the awful image of a one-story trade center this morning; "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
As I began to walk out of the scene toward home, I kept a steel claw tool in my hand, wanting to stay authentic to the end so I'd have no hassles at all. It didn't matter, no one was interested in why I should or shouldn't be there. Everyone was focused on the rescue effort. The mood in there was not grim, not solemn, not sad. It was workman-like. It was calm and efficient and empowering. The only time it felt sad was when I'd see groups of rescuers exhausted, eyes wet and red from being up all night, the
realities of how huge a mission this is, setting in.
Up ahead I saw some hot white lights on the corner and knew it was the press. My first thought was "oh shit. I don't want to deal with the egomania of it all." Then I realized part of why I woke up and did this was to relay some real truthful information. As I got closer to the media group, the yammering of the TV hosts was nauseating. They sounded so uninformed, standing 8 blocks from the nexus, dramatizing what tidbits of info they had. When they saw me, they pounced and asked, almost in unison, "Did you see any bodies?" When I told them no, they were totally let down yet persisted in asking me the same question at least three or four more times.
A woman from the Boston Globe approached me and we spoke for 15 minutes. She was just as intrigued by my method of infiltrating the operation, as she was with the operation itself. Other journalists gathered around us as I spoke...Korean news, New Jersey News, The New York Post... Then FOX5 Television saw me in my dusty state and wanted an interview. They gave me about 3-4 minutes to talk and it felt cathartic. The interviewer was genuine.
When I finished, CNN wanted an interview. It was then that I realized that I had an opportunity to make a statement to the people of our country and to an international audience that went beyond the actual description of what I had been through. ( I thought about how, when I watch boxing matches, after the fight the interviewer usually says something like, "you hurt him in the third round and put him away in the fourth, how difficult was that?" The fighter 9 times out of 10 doesn't answer the question first. What he does is makes a thank-you statement to God or, to the Nay Sayers, he shouts how he showed them, then, he answers the question.
So I decided to make my first statement one that was powerful and affirming. It went something like "the rest of the country should know, the world should know, that New Yorkers have their heads held high today. That we are not going to let our grief keep us from being in the streets and doing what's right to save and protect ourselves. People are doing everything from volunteering on the site of the disaster, to baking cookies for medical technicians, to standing on the West Side Highway with homemade signs cheering the fire engines that are coming into town (some from as far away as Ohio). We are strong Americans and New Yorkers and the world and our fellow countryman need to know this. Nobody comes into our town and brings us down, nobody. So please keep praying and offering your support and know that our heads are held high today in New York." The rest of the interview was about the details of what I saw.
I then moved on to ABC 7 and WPIX 11. George Stephanopoulus was there and he flagged me over. We spoke about what was going on and then waited for his producers' signal. We waited and waited. George, like so many other news people, had to drive up from their home base. He drove 15 hours from Atlanta to be here. After about 20 minutes, the producer said that they were not going live. We shook hands and wished one another good luck. I left the media and began walking home. To my surprise a young woman stopped me on the street and thanked me for what I said on television.
When I came home there were 5 messages on my answering machine, friends thanking me for what I said and did. Telling me that I inspired them. I felt great. I called them back and let them know how much it meant. I received a few congratulatory emails now too. People are telling me how my sharing of my experience has empowered them and made them stronger and more ready to help in some way. One friend bought three pizzas and a case of water and brought it to the police precinct. Another went to the west side highway and made a sign thanking the fire fighters. That's great.
I must admit I am just an amplifier at this point. The people doing the real work are still in there sweating and grunting and straining themselves. I am grateful that somehow I was allowed to get past all of the security and to witness this for myself. I don't know how to end this message, because I know it isn't over.
I've been crying on and off everyday since. I am on three or four group lists in email where friends are sharing information. Every thing I read, good and bad, makes me cry. Between each word I see images of lower Manhattan frozen, shattered and covered in the dust of those beautiful twin sisters and all of the people who were inside.
My windows are open in my apartment and I can smell the burning. I am breathing the buildings. All of Manhattan smells like this. All I can say now, it isn't over.......
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