Fires still burning
“I am glad I went back. It has helped me to process what I did to help in those early days... It has helped me to heal and to move on.”
I received a call that volunteers were needed in mass care with ERV (Emergency Response Vehicle) training in New York City. This was Saturday evening and Sunday morning I got up, sang in my church’s worship band, got prayed over for strength, and headed for the airport to serve once again. I thanked the Lord for the strength He was giving me and would continue to give me.
After arriving in LaGuardia airport, I grabbed my first solo taxi ride ever. What an experience!
At headquarters, they assigned me to drive an ERV on the midnight to 8:00am shift at Respite 1 located at St. John’s University at Ground Zero. I knew that being at Ground Zero and working with “the pit” workers would definitely be a very different assignment than my time in New Jersey.
Instead of working with grieving family members, I would be dealing with people who spend many long hours going through the rubble, those who see and smell the damage that was inflicted on our country.
At first I had mixed feelings about the hours but actually got to like them. It seemed the workers really opened up to us during the wee hours of the morning and would share their stories with us in an effort to understand it themselves and to heal. Those hours also gave me time to see New York City in the early hours after I got off work, before the tourists started milling about. It was a peaceful time for me in the midst of a very emotional and physical time.
I am glad I went back. It has helped me to process what I did to help in those early days... It has helped me to heal and to move on.
My shift consisted of working with an ERV crew of 3 people. We picked up the meals that were prepared for us at a restaurant a few blocks away and brought them back to Respite Center 1 at St. John’s University. This involved driving through “the car wash” at the outer edges of ground zero, through police barricades and onto regular traffic roads, dropping off the empty cambros (insulated food coolers) at the restaurant, picking up full cambros of food, and then heading back to the respite center through police checkpoints to deliver it.
My partners and I figured that on any given night, we lifted and moved the cambros 450 times! We served hot food 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It seemed strange to be eating our dinner at 11:30 pm and then serving dinner (especially the popular bass dinner) to the folks until 3:30 am, when we brought in breakfast.
We would also make food runs over to Respite 3 at The Marriott Hotel on the south side of Ground Zero. We went through the site to get there and I cannot fully describe what I saw the first time I went through there. It is a war zone.
Upright rubble, piles of rubble, fire trucks, many cranes, bucket loaders, and other earth moving machines, trucks for hauling debris, smoke, fire, “the smell” , many, many people moving about, and the bright lights illuminating the 16-acre site, were what assaulted me on my first trip through.
“The smell” I refer to hung over the area the whole time there, thus the need for respirators. Sometimes it was stronger than other times, but it was always there. My partners in the ERV tried to warn me, but there is no way a person can be prepared for what they see in the area. One of them described it as “horror.” Well said. The other partner, Bob, said, “I have driven an American Red Cross ERV through the valley of the shadow of death that was once the World Trade Center and I have seen the face of evil.” My sentiments exactly.
A large knot formed in the pit of my stomach that I hope will someday go away. You feel the reverent nature in the area, knowing that many people are buried there. You also feel the sadness of both the families and the workers. I pray that I will never have to be asked to work at something so awful again; that our country will not have to face anything like this again.
The respite centers were set up to help the workers at the site. Respite 1 was on the north end of Ground Zero and they would come in to eat, get fresh clothing if they needed it from our supply room of donated items (coats, boots, shirts, trousers, gloves), get medical assistance, as well as mental health counseling. For a while, they could also get chiropractic care and massage therapy from licensed practitioners.
If they wanted to sleep in a quiet area, they’d come upstairs, sign in and tell us what time to wake them up. We had beds with sheets and blankets, letters from kids from all over offering encouragement, and stuffed animals. It’s heartbreaking to wake up a fireman and see him cuddling a teddy bear or even a fat, pink bunny. These animals were something to cling to, to give them rest and a little nurturing, which they needed.
Sometimes, the firemen, police, or other workers would just collapse in any position on the chairs in the upstairs hallway because they were so tired. As in New Jersey, I had to be stronger than the workers so that I could boost their spirits and make the respite center just that—a respite from what they faced at the pit.
One other room was the Oasis Room which had computers hooked to the internet, video games, big screen TVs and board games. They could lounge around in La-Z boy recliners that filled the room. That was a very popular room.
When not running with the ERV, my partners and I filled in where necessary in the respite center. Sometimes we cut up dessert in the back, took out trash, served food in the food line, stocked shelves, cleared trays from the tables, straightened up the dining room and card tables, handed out the drinks, or sometimes, just sat and listened to the stories the workers wanted to share with us.
A police Sergeant sat with my partner and me one night and shared how he couldn’t come down to the site for a couple of weeks after that first day. He had been in town on his day off and saw the second plane hit, the fires engulfing people and objects, saw people jump out of windows to their deaths and the final collapse of the towers. He said it felt good to talk about it with us; that he was dealing with it okay now. As he left, he thanked us for listening. This happened over and over again.
Some of the memories that stand out to me from my time in New York:
The Honor Guard line in Ground Zero of firemen and police getting ready to honor a fallen brother as the body is brought out of the rubble. And when a firefighter would come to Respite 1 to wake his buddies to form the next Honor Guard.
The many kind words and actions by New Yorkers as we made our way to and from work and the owners of tourist attractions who wanted to say thanks to relief workers by giving away free or reduced tickets to their sites. (Even though I did fall asleep in “The Lion King” play from sheer exhaustion.)
The many “silent volunteers” working at Bouley’s Restaurant to help with prep work so the chefs could prepare the food we would take to the Respite centers for the workers.
A backhoe worker telling me, “It is like a ballet out there; all the machines working so well together at once. You don’t find that many machines working in harmony normally—you don’t usually find that many machines in one place, at one time.” Just after he tells me that, he is alerted that the machine he does mechanical work on has just fallen 15 feet down into the pit because unstable rubble gave way. Two men are taken to the hospital to be checked out. It is still dangerous there.
The Teddy Bear Memorial on the west side of Ground Zero. So many bears and so many stories and notes written there in memory of loved ones.
The smoke and fires still burning the day before Thanksgiving.
The cross found in the rubble being used as a symbol of Hope as it stands at the pit of hell, and being able to attend Sunday services at the cross.
The few nights the Brinks trucks came, surrounded by police cars, going by Respite 1 at 2:00 AM, as they hauled out the gold found under the rubble.
Coming around the corner and seeing a parked truck on the road since Sept 11 with wires and junk hanging down from it, the top peeled all the way back as well as some of the side, filled with debris—a hollow reminder of that day.
Then many, many times, I heard the bagpipes playing and knowing that someone was in unbearable pain at that moment.
I did enjoy the relief of my days off and took advantage of this great city and what it has to offer. I sure know how to get around subways and buses in New York now, and have fallen in love with the city!
I could go on and on with stories, but it is time to move on. I am home now, resting up from physical work, and mending psychologically with the help of a Red Cross Mental Health worker, who also spent some time at Ground Zero.
She is able to help me better since she herself has seen what I have seen, and she too had to deal with it when she returned. The sadness is never far away and will rear its head at any time without warning, yet I trust God to help heal me and help me to move on to a more normal life. He gives back to me the hope and the brightness that I had to use with the workers at the respite centers.
A scripture was given to me (after I got home) by a friend who prayed for me everyday while I was at Ground Zero that says a lot about what I was doing: Hosea 11:4 “I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them”. I feel that says it all.
As I said before in my story from the New Jersey Family Assistance Centre, being an American Red Cross worker is an honor for me. Yes, sometimes it is real hard, but we learn and grow from hardship. I can serve my “neighbor” and put their needs first before my own needs. Flexibility is a must, as is the art of give and take, and learning how to make a “team” of people you’ve never worked with before, so that together we can give the best service to the clients.
It is now Jan 3, 2002 and I have just returned from an overnight trip to New York with a girlfriend, her children, and her mother. They wanted the kids to see it as part of history. Much has changed since I left at Thanksgiving: the buildings are down and the rubble is coming up from underground now, the Ground Zero perimeters have moved in closer to the site (what was Respite 1 is now unrestricted area), shops and food places right around are open for business, many people have moved back to the area, the big teddy bear memorial is gone, replaced by a different memorial (where I found a teddy bear from my local fire department in Vermont), but “the smell” is still there. It was more evident up on Broadway (as the wind was shifting that way), than by the water. The platform on Fulton St. and Church St. is up and attracting hordes of tourists to it daily, who want to see and understand what has happened in our nation. Who can blame them?
I am glad I went back. It has helped me to process what I did to help in those early days and to understand the scope of this tragedy as an American citizen, not a relief worker. It has helped me to heal and to move on.
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