DIARY OF A LOGISTICS DRIVER FOR THE AMERICAN RED CROSS IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE ATTACK ON THE WORLD TRADE CENTER
17 September, 2001
I volunteered at the American Red Cross on Sunday the 16th and they took me on as a logistics driver. I started on Monday at 6am, just six days after the attack. However, for three solid days after the attack I had cycled all over a hushed and eerie city bathed in a surreal, sparkling sunlight, looking for work. Most of the streets were deserted of traffic and the long avenues were empty pathways flanked by abandoned buildings.
Long lines formed on the sidewalk in front of the Jacob Javits Center, people coming from all over the country to sign up for any kind of work or rescue operation. Some hard hats had actually slept on the West Side Highway the night before in hopes of being the first to get sent down to Ground Zero. The sign-up lady asked me if I had any specialty or just wanted to help out as a volunteer. After looking at the long lines of ‘white collar’ volunteers on the right side of the sign-up table, and the smaller line of construction workers on the left side, I opted immediately for the latter. I decided on the spot that I was a carpenter, being handy with tools. However, after a few minutes in that line I began to realize that most of these tattooed guys with hard hats had arms the size of telephone poles and were built like refrigerators. And most of them were wearing sweaty trade union T-shirts and steel-toed construction boots. I looked down at my Adidas and thought: this is not where I belong. I signed up anyway but they never called me. Of course, anybody who was a steelworker was immediately ‘shipped’ downtown. There were crews waiting in pickup trucks with their search dogs that had come from Virginia. Big trucks pulled up with supplies and everybody spontaneously pitched in to unload them. Somebody walked around with a tray of fat sandwiches and others distributed bottled water to all those who came.
Anyway, I finally started on Monday after I received my security clearance with a photo ID that allows me ‘full access’ but not at the actual ‘Ground Zero’. My clearance gets me to within one block of Ground Zero but not through the gate and onto the wreckage itself. Ground Zero is a crime scene and access is completely off limits to anyone not actually digging at the site. Fact of the matter is that there’s probably too much asbestos still in the air for me. No TV or photo image can ever replace the riveting sensation of seeing the wreckage up front in your face, of feeling your body surrounded by ripped and gutted architecture and at the same time the throbbing heartbeat of a powerful city. You look up at this behemoth, this junk pile of twisted steel and smoke, and the hairs on your arm stand up. How those firemen and construction workers dig there all day long at the risk of their lives is beyond me. And many of them I see without goggles and with only a small white filter over their mouths.
I began by taking Red Cross nurses to some of the hospitals in Brooklyn and Staten Island to help burn victims. The nurses, part of the national system of the Red Cross, came from Montana and Colorado and from all over the South. Sometimes I felt like I was in the Deep South, the accents were as thick as refried hominy grits. Perhaps 70 percent of the national volunteers were retired citizens. People from all over the US have been pouring into this big city to help out. The wealth of support has been just amazing. The biggest problem is that there are so many out of towners that nobody really knows how to get around the city. That’s where I’m an asset. I know just about every nook and cranny and all the short cuts around the downtown areas. Also, I know just where I can get away with outrageous U-turns, going down one-way streets the wrong way and running a red light. Some of my forays into the zone of devastation were to pick up and drop of workers manning the ERV (emergency rescue vehicles) on Greenwich Street or employees running the Cambell Soup stand. But most of the trips over the Brooklyn Bridge (which is closed except for emergency vehicles) were to take senior Red Cross officers to the various kitchens set up to feed the emergency workers and take care of the many displaced people. On one trip I fetched fifty Domino’s Pizzas from East 32nd street for the Brooklyn headquarters. On the way back the heat from all the boxes fogged up my windows and I smelled like mozzarella for the rest of the day.
Out again I went with a van full of ham radio operators and all their equipment-antennas, power supplies, transmitters and cables- dropping them off at secret locations in ‘bomb shelter’ type buildings. Each time I returned to the Brooklyn Headquarters the scene was more chaotic than when I left. Volunteers milling about in the entrance, supply trucks unloading, new phone lines being installed, people dashing through the hallways for who knows what…
Tight security protects the piers at 54th street where the mayor has his office set up and where many of the police and marshal services have set up their makeshift offices. At the same location is the ‘Comfort Center’, the size of two football fields, where the relatives and friends of missing people come with personal items that can be used for DNA testing. Perhaps this is the most intense and emotional part of the process in the aftermath of such a tragedy. I saw a young priest in blue jeans and a black shirt standing, bent over in a hush, talking to someone. You get the feeling of being in some kind of makeshift hospital with all these curtains hanging down to form ‘offices’, and Red Cross workers in their gray and white vests with badges dangling from their necks. Off to one side are a massage therapy area, a kid’s corner, an area marked ‘spiritual care’, an interpreter center, and a food area. But a pall of emotional mumbness hangs over this large space, tempered by the faint hope that some will still be found alive, despite the fact that eleven days have already passed since the attack. And for many the reality has not settled in…..
I came across a couple from Staten Island with two of the sweetest golden retrievers that they call ‘smile retrievers’. The dogs sported collars that read ‘Therapy Dogs’. When I knelt to pet one, it quickly placed its paw on my arm and held its head up high. I was amazed to feel the warmth of its response. The couple told me they wanted to get official sanction from the Red Cross. Judging from the way they had trained those dogs, had it been up to me I would have given it to them straight away. Outside the hanger is a wall plastered with photos of missing people, some in color and some in black and white, each with a detailed description. It’s hard to pass by that without getting choked up and wanting to scream in rage.
Today is Saturday and I’m resting up for another week. I enjoy this work and feel connected to the events on a real human scale because everybody with ARC (the American Red Cross) is so nice. We are all volunteers and nobody is a boss or ‘building any empires’. We are all on the same level and doing a job because we want to do it.
24 September, 2001
Already eight days have flown by since I first began driving for the American Red Cross. Each day I take the One train to 59th Street and change for the A which drops me off at the first stop into Brooklyn, right at Cadman Plaza, which is where ARC has its headquarters. I knew something was up this morning when the security officer refused to admit people. A bomb scare at the Brooklyn Bridge had the whole place on high alert and FBI Marshals were everywhere.
Soon however we were able to enter and begin our day. Eight drivers were sitting round waiting as I strode into the dispatch area, some reading the paper, others discussing the best way to get from Kitchen Two to the Service Center on Murray Street, which adjoins Ground Zero (GZ), or how best to beat the horrific traffic jams going towards the Williamsburg Bridge, etc. Logistics finally received a much-needed batch of cell phones, which they dumped out like candy bars on the table. Now we can all stay connected. Up to that point I was using my own. Also our security clearances changed over the weekend and drivers are now required to wear badges with the ‘Full Access & Ground Zero’ green stripe at the bottom. This was done to facilitate our access to a new service area next to the devastation, where food and supplies are being delivered.
Pulling out of the parking lot for my first run into Manhattan, I felt the weight of a balmy pall hanging over the city under gray, overcast skies and wondered just how the search and rescue crews were coping with such sadness in the air. The smell as I descend the Brooklyn Bridge tells me which way the wind is blowing: if it stinks, it’s coming from the west i.e. Ground Zero. After dropping off tired, national ARC co-workers at their respective hotels in the theater district, I made for the West Side Highway and slipped into the emergency lane reserved for vehicles such as mine. Heading downtown I was held up at 34th street while police waved on a long train of NYC passenger buses filled with the new shift of Ground Zero rescue workers.
I counted maybe twenty buses and as each one went by I observed a collection of faces behind those windows like I’ve never seen before. Every day these guys face death and destruction in a crater from hell. Each face appeared frozen in silence, telling a story of anguish and sadness. The diesel roar of the buses as their drivers gunned the engines and swung south onto the West Side Highway seemed to intensify the already charged atmosphere. Waved on by the federal marshals, the buses kept coming. A police car at the front and rear, each with its array of whirling lights, locked the buses into formation, challenging other vehicles to keep their distance.
I saw something that caught me by surprise as I followed this cortege alongside the Hudson River. At each ID and badge checkpoint on the way, the FBI marshals, sheriffs and police officers burst out clapping. Many times I had flown down this route to the cheers of clusters of New Yorkers lining the highway, but to see these uniformed men standing tall with their hands together was really something. And to go by these groups of local residents lining the road, holding up hand-painted signs saying “Thank you! Thank you!” which they’d also yell at the tops of their lungs to all the emergency crews, is really a heartening experience.
The West Side Highway tells it all even before you get near the area of devastation. The first chilling reminders of human death are the numerous 54-foot refrigerated trailers, ‘reefers’, lining the road, ironically placed near the 14th Street Meat Market. Each of the found body parts is placed in its own plastic container and stored in these reefers. I also learned from the ERV (Emergency Rescue Vehicle) drivers, those making the runs to the land-fill in Staten Island, that they are using these big reefers out there, too. Just below the Meat Market you see numerous flat bed trucks with huge sections of cranes waiting to be placed in action. Then come the rows of mobile TV stations, each one with its large dish antenna pointing towards the southern skies and a makeshift studio in front replete with camera crew, silver reflector cloth and an announcer poised before a camera.
I could barely believe the story that one of the ERV drivers told me as I shuttled him back to his hotel. The forensic devastation engineers are attempting to separate the rubble into Tower One and Tower Two! Hundreds of tons of the stuff each day makes its way in mammoth dumpsters to what was a defunct dumping ground known as ‘Fresh Kills’ (sic!) in Staten Island. Nobody within miles is allowed there. The place is swarming with Federal marshals. Hundreds are dressed in full Type A biological protection suits, painstakingly raking through the debris and separating the stuff into large piles of metal, cement, crushed motor vehicles, and of course, human remains if there are any. This is an area which even in normal circumstances requires full protection to work in, so powerful is the stench of decaying garbage. Old television sets are rotting next to food waste, dead batteries and oilcans, etc. while seagulls hover above so thick they block the sky. And unless your olfactory system has shut down, you wouldn’t want to live with 25 (or more) miles of this area.
I pulled into Canal heading east and swung down Varick towards Chambers but suddenly felt the need to stop for a few minutes near GZ. I parked the van and walked towards the rubble. I felt a tightening around my chest and something like a lead weight in my stomach as I made my way past the military control point. They checked my backpack and I walked the last few steps right up to the final fence beyond which only work crews are allowed with heavy boots, hard hat, etc. Several cranes were operating next to the rubble. From one hung a ‘basket’ with two workers suspended several feet above this beast of a mound. I suppose they were searching for signs of life, although I could not imagine anyone surviving after such a long period. Incredibly after two weeks, wafts of smoke can still be seen rising upwards and they say that fires are still burning as deep as eight stories below. According to one of the workers, they’re still recording temperatures of two thousand degrees from several stories below the site, heat from the trapped gases and oils and other chemicals that came from all the machinery that was used to power these monster towers.
Another smaller crane seemed merely to be pecking at the rubble, its slow pace making it hard to imagine any progress. Reaching up about five stories, it made several attempts with its clasping device to withdraw iron girders. When one girder wouldn’t budge, it moved to the next until it finally got one loose. It had rained heavily the day before and the rubble appeared totally compacted, the tons of dust and crumbling bits of cement turned to what appeared to be a thick mud and settled into a monstrous mound with nasty shards of jagged steel beams. Yet despite the heavy rain of the preceding day, each time a piece of steel was dislodged it sent a cloud of dust skywards. In the backdrop the vestigial columns of the exterior façade loomed tall above the debris. On them I could see the gothic niches that had decorated the world-famous monument that once defined New York. Hanging on the fence to my right I noticed a panel with various photos of the aircrafts’ black boxes, explaining to the site workers how to recognize them.
I grew up with the powerful and unsettling images of a Japan crushed by atomic force, and these were the images that suddenly flashed through my mind. Then came the fear that we’d never really understand this hidden enemy whose logic is so different from our own, and no matter what we do we’d always be like sitting ducks to them. It is impossible not to feel helpless against people who are willing to blow themselves up.
Being here at this spot was my way of saying a prayer and feeling the pain of those souls whose lives were so quickly snuffed out. The pull of gravity beneath my feet was strong and I resisted a desire to drop to my knees and wail in anguish. The need to curl my fingers into a fist and scream gushed to my throat. How could these workers simply go about their business without screaming in pain?
New York City is my home. As these two towers rose high above the earth I remember watching them in amazement each time I found myself roaming the Wall Street area. They were the state of the art in the science of tall buildings and a monumental achievement in engineering. Mathematically, they had to be built from the top down with each floor especially designed to support the one above it. A whole generation of people grew up with them. And now suddenly New Yorkers find themselves searching a skyline for something that is no longer, like an amputee still feeling his missing limb.
The odd noise of a vehicle chugging behind me shook me back to reality. I turned around to see the lovely, serene smile of a blond lady officer in a golf buggy. She was bedecked in so much emergency paraphernalia that I couldn’t resist the feeling that her costume would soon emerge as a sick new fashion in the glossy fashion magazines this winter. I found these emotions reinforcing my reason for being here and doing what I was doing. Slowly I shuffled back to my ARC van, headed down Chambers and back to the ARC headquarters.
New assignment from HQ. This time to pier 94 called the Comfort Zone area, described in my previous missive as where the parents and relatives of the missing come to seek their loved ones and where the ‘triage’ of DNA evidence takes place. My passengers are a bigwig, the head of the Brooklyn headquarters, and his colleague. Pulling into the area the van is scrutinized by security. My passengers descend and I park just behind the stern of the US Navy ship ‘Comfort’. It’s so gigantic that I have to crane my neck to espy a gunman on the deck perched behind sandbags with a machine gun at the ready. I haven’t a clue how long I’ll be waiting but my cell phone is on. I stretch my legs by walking over to the entrance. A long wall plastered with photographs of the missing, almost assuredly forever gone, lines the whole entry to this ‘funeral parlor’. I see smiling people sitting at their work desks, in some they’re holding the family dog, others appear snapped at a recent wedding. I take careful notice of what floor they were last seen on and invariably it’s the high floors, the ones above the 85 or 87, where people were virtually condemned to death at the instant of impact. Tears roll down my cheeks and I’m afraid to linger lest, moping in my loud ARC vest, I set off a chain reaction.
Sauntering back towards the ‘Comfort’, I decided that I should wait in the van. A troop of US Marines in T-shirts and heavy combat boots came jogging by to the cadence of motivational slogans bellowed by the leader.
Finally, the call came telling me it was ok to leave without the bigwig. I called HQ for a new assignment and headed south to Kitchen Two. K-2 is just by Canal Street and opposite the Hudson River. There was a lull so I strolled into the kitchen to admire the way all these retirees from the Tennessee Southern Baptist Convention work so well together. At the fold-up windows of the cooking truck you could see the shinny kitchen equipment: the vegetable steamers, ovens and industrial can openers-and boy do they have cans to open. For the meal that day they were opening #10 cans of corn beef hash and dumping them into a large receptacle called a ’tilt skillet’, which heats the stuff up to the required temperature of 180 degrees.
Carmel Beam, 74 years old with a shock of white hair, stood there in his new Adidas, churning away at this goo with a spatula the size of a broomstick. And like the other folks he was wearing his bright yellow insignia hat and polyester vest. Once food is poured into the cambros for delivery the temperature is constantly monitored and should it fall below 140, by law it is chucked. A cambro is a thick, red plastic box with two flip-doors at the top which snap open for easy serving.
Hundreds were lined up and being readied for distribution, each marked for its destination: Fire Dept. Center, DOH 1, Chinatown, Cherry & Pike, Greenwich & Chambers, Landfill, Seabees, OEM, ad infinitum. The ‘Landfill’ requires 525 meals every four hours raising the total number of meals for the day to 3500. Records of all meals are meticulously recorded.
Inspector Singh, from the NY Dept. of Health was on the spot taking notes, and observing the cooking and handling of the food. Originally from British Guyana, one could not miss Singh’s impressive gold badge from the City of New York, prominently displayed on his chest. He seemed to have no qualms about his job description and it’s exigencies. But as he began to dwell on the subject of the fly’s life cycle, it’s mating habits and the filth it carries, I decided I really had gotten into a conversation I didn’t need to hear.
My day is over. I make my last run up to the hotels to drop off more tired kitchen workers and head back to HQ.
29 September, 2001
Each day I walk into the Logistics office the mood is different. And I never know exactly what runs will be tossed at me. In the first week a desperate call went out to drive a 28 foot box body diesel truck to the US Tennis Stadium, fetch three thousand meals and deliver them to Kitchen Three, under the Brooklyn Bridge. Growing up in the family business of used cars and trucks save for a tractor-trailer, I could drive anything with a steering wheel. However, that was twenty five years ago and unless my life depended on it had no urge to jump behind the wheel of one of these big monsters given the present traffic. Finally, someone stepped forward and I’m recruited as the navigator to guide this bloody beast. We hop in the truck and the guy who’s suppose to be the driver has feet that can’t reach the pedals and the seat can’t be adjusted, it’s broken. So, guess who winds up driving the truck. Finally, by the time we got the meals to K-3 they find out it’s below temperature and three thousand Salisbury steaks have to be chucked.
Raised in the Bible Belt of the Deep South, Isiah Wilcox at one point in time ministered more than 30 churches in and around his hometown along the northern edge of South Carolina. He had also been an officer in the military and probably that’s where he got the great knack for what he’s been doing great here in New York with ARC. Isiah oversees the distribution of food supplies between the three main kitchens, all of which are run mostly by retirees from the Southern Baptist Convention. K-1 as we call it, is located at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the guys making the grub hail from Virginia. At K-2 they come from Tennessee whereas those from K-4 (K-3 under the Brooklyn Bridge was eliminated), are from various other Bible Belt states. One has only to see these hearty people in the waning years of their beautiful lives move about the complex task of preparing thousands of meals everyday to understand the spiritual wealth inherent in selfless service.
Isiah Wilcox, a paradigm of this great southern American tradition, was sitting next to me today as we sped through the emergency lane over the Brooklyn Bridge, and I was proud to be his driver. Other drivers are in Logistics but Isiah likes to ask for me. I believe he likes my clipped New York accent and the way I doff my hat, or perhaps he just likes the snappy way I zip in and out of traffic. People from the south move about slowly, I guess. Isiah’s southern accent commands respect. When I see his belly rise almost to his chin, like a deep sigh, I ready myself for a slur of words. They seem to spill out in short sentences, all linked together so that by deciphering the first part quickly, I can catch up to the end, if there is an end. As a minister he certainly had many years to hone his loquacious chops. I tell Isiah some of the stories I had heard from the ERV drivers who drop off food at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island and I see his interest piqued as a curious as mine. From K-2 the ERVs left every four hours and I suggested to Isiah that we drive one of them out there to get a first hand look at the wreckage. However, by the time we set things up to go out there, the system changed. No longer were ERVs going out there and food was now being supplied by Staten Island companies.
I was a little disappointed about that but then something happened the following day. Waiting for my next run, Joyce, a lovely girl from Seattle Washington with fine, porcelain-like features and who has been working tirelessly at the Logistics desk since day one, gets a call to bring a mental health worker to the landfill. This was it, my opportunity to get a first hand peek at just how the tons of WTC rubble were being sorted. I guess Isiah is going to have to wait his turn on this one.
Joyce throws me a set of keys to one of the vans and I exit with my mental health worker in search for the vehicle. One of the petty challenges of this job is locating the vehicle since returning drivers rarely note where they parked them. And with more than thirty vans being constantly shuffled about it’s easy to waste time walking around in circles with your passenger(s) trying to match plate number to key tag. It’s even more fun in the rain.
Anyway, we finally get on our way and head down the Brooklyn Queens Expressway towards the great Verrazano Narrow Bridge that will take us into Staten Island. Just arriving from Indiana, my passenger, Jack Piel, is sitting next to me asking a lot of naïve questions about New York. Jack, a trained psychologist on the verge of retirement is maybe 65 with a large face that reminds me of the comedian Jonathan Winters. Each time he speaks I can’t help imagining his lips to curling up into some hilarious twisted mug shot. But Jack just sits there staring straight out as if waiting for some impending doom. I’ve never been to the landfill but I have a map and know approximately what directions to take. We stop at the tollbooth and I flash my Red Cross badge at the officer who jots down our plate number. After a short stint on US 278 we pick up 440 south until I spot a large Dumpster which I recognize as coming from the WTC site and very soon I see he’s pulling over towards exit 5, marked Muldoon Ave.
To my right I notice a small sign “Native Plant Restoration” almost buried in the high grassy weeds swaying violently in the windy wake of the 18-wheeler Dumpster truck we’re following. We’re entering a yard marked NY City Department of Sanitation with buildings on either side: To the right stands the Boro Repair Shop, to the left, methane extractors connected to the landfill, and a Special Waste Drop-off Site. The yard sits alongside what could have been a quaint inlet had it not been for the barges of debris that were being unloaded by large cranes. Off in the distance on the New Jersey side of the Arthur Kill inlet a huge oil refinery stretched its stark white tanks for perhaps half a mile up the shoreline.
Strange, I see no rubble in the truck we were following and so it may be empty. Or, perhaps it’s possible that by design the FBI decided not to overload them lest something would fly out during the haul. We followed it right into the gate with no check and about 300 feet up the road it pulled into a weigh station area along with about a dozen other vehicles. That’s when I understood just how meticulously the tonnage of the devastation removal was being recorded. We swung around towards an intersection where the large vehicles were headed up a long hill. Two plainclothes police officers jumped out to inspect our credentials. Approaching the top of the hill one begins to see hundreds of piles of twisted ‘whitened’ steel looking more like aluminum, a result of the extreme heat of the devastation. It hard to imagine how steel could even get to this shape, so intricate was each of the shards making up the stacks. As the terrain leveled off we arrived upon vast plateau with dumpsters, monster Caterpillar tractors and other zoomorphic earth moving equipment rumbling ominously close by. Of to the right were piles of motor vehicles from civilians, fire departments, and the NYPD, crushed or flattened into almost unrecognizable shapes. Next to this, oxygen/acetylene welders with FBI printed bold on their backs, exploded showers of orange sparks from their torches as they sliced through trunks, clove compartments and hoods, searching for the VIN or motor serial numbers needed for eventual insurance claims. In one of the subterranean parking lots they say that more than a hundred vehicles are still buried.
I pulled up to an army bivouac and parked. Jack and I went to greet his relief co-worker. It turned out to be Susan, a wonderful lady whom I had the luck to meet on a previous run. She knew the place inside and out and offered us a short tour of the place. The men are working the wreckage 24/7, twelve-hour shifts each, and crises are happening: they must process the fright of discovering human remains. For two weeks they’ve been working and until yesterday hadn’t found a body. It was a man and within one hour they identified him. The forensics saw that it had undergone a hip replacement and that greatly speeded up the process of identification. That and an address book in the back pocket were all that was needed to bring some desperate closure to a grieving family. A large military helicopter swooped down and gently alighted not 100 feet from where we were grouped. Some civilians appeared strapped to their seats but remained. The pilot jumped out with his cell phone to his ear, distancing himself from the noise of the aircraft. Perhaps they were family members of one of the victims they were trying to identify. And as fast as it appeared it flew off again.
We approached another area almost the size of a football field surrounded by tall poles ending in powerful halogen light clusters. A large backhoe digger with a shovel full of debris raised high was inching back in reverse and scattering the stuff in small mounds for the workers to more easily pick through. Off to the side, were sifting machines that shake the rubble through a strainer before it’s strewn out on the ground before the men. I counted eight workers carefully eyeing the sifted debris for any evidence as the conveyor belt carried it towards a bin. The evidence could be in the form of say, pieces of the Black Box or of the aircraft, or valuables destroyed from the collapsed buildings. Dressed in white Tyvec suits, yellow boots and gas masks, groups of four or five of these guys sift through the debris with pitchforks and rakes. And each group employs German shepherd dog that works the debris just as hard as the men do. One guy holds a white plastic bucket and goes about looking for small objects; another is dangling an article of clothing off the end of his pitchfork. Anything of importance is quickly inspected and handed over to the specialists, either the bomb squads, Secret Service, CIA, police or whatever agency that needs to be informed. Off to the side two folding tables covered in muddied plastic are there for placing evidence that needs to be recorded. A large hand-painted cardboard seen behind the tables reads: “No body parts on the table”.
Sharp rays of sun break suddenly through a high ceiling of cumulous clouds as blustery autumn winds propel them to the far reaches of a crisp horizon, casting drama to an already grim sight. The rays ignite white Tyvec suits into a brilliant glow, transforming the men into ghost-like creatures. Once they finish their search with the rakes and pitchforks a bull dozer scoops up what remains and pours it once again into a Dumpster only to be place in some other pile. The American Humane Association provides a long trailer marked “Animal Planet” for the dogs’ R & R. Emblazoned across its side a large greyhound dog is in full gallop, surrounded by a fierce looking eagle, a cow’s head and some waddling ducks- a surreal cartoon so close to fields of death. As a means of breaking the ice and reaching out to a worker, Susan likes to offer a newspaper. Once a conversation has been established, she tries to get to the point where he just pours out what’s on his mind. In an environment where the camaraderie among the men in police uniforms is established along the lines of strength and courage, the accumulation of grief, anger, sadness and frustration become suppressed to the point where there is no place to turn. When those moments arise and there is no one with whom to share your thoughts or emotions, the presence of ARC mental health workers provides a much need support. Personally, I don’t understand how the mental health workers go about it without breaking up themselves. None of them I spoke to ever encountered such a scene before. They’re more used to dealing with dysfunctional families or psychosis.
3 October 2001
This week I noted that the mood and ambiance at the ARC Headquarters changed quite a bit. Because the GZ operation switched from search and rescue to one of recovery and clean up, the tension and immediacy of our chores lessened dramatically. Most of the kitchens that had been set up by the Southern Baptist groups had closed. Some of the respite centers had been regrouped with others and thus the number of runs required of the drivers has diminished accordingly. A strange period of relative calm had descended over Manhattan. By the look of the people and the bustling activity on the street, and given the horror of the attack, you would never know that part of lower Manhattan had recently been blown away. All the hastily scribbled pieces of paper that hung like graffiti on the walls, showing the locations of the hotels, respite areas, kitchens, vehicles, etc., had now been replaced by neatly printed signs. In the beginning the need for drivers was great, and just about all were welcomed. But walking into the office now, those without a good knowledge of the city’s complex roads are politely turned away.
Like her co-worker Joyce, mentioned previously, Marlene adroitly slipped into her role as a drivers’ dispatcher shortly after a stint driving, deciding that perhaps it was more exciting fielding the endless phone calls and requests of ARC workers needing to be chauffeured. Marlene’s telephonic expertise seems to function best when she’s surrounded by a smorgasbord of snacks- sour dough pretzels, tootsie rolls, miniature Hershey bars, half-eaten gooey sandwiches, etc. With the receiver crunched between ear and shoulder, her chestnut mop of hair swirls forward as she turns to beckon one of the drivers. Before clearing her throat, Marlene’s tongue pushes across the inside of her cheek and dislodges a gob of pretzel stuck under her gum. “Frank, can you take this big guy to the Crown Plaza?” she yells over din of the room. The big guy is Bud Stalker, a strong burly man from Northern Michigan and a Native American Indian of the Chipewyan tribe. Bud, a national ARC volunteer, flew in that morning and was readying himself to take up the post of Systems Log Officer, a division of logistics, at one of the New Jersey warehouses in North Bergen. Bud still lives true to his Indian traditions, going up to the lake areas for his tribe’s annual pow wows. When he left military service, he drove semis across the US before settling down as a Juvenile Officer in Placenti, California. One of Bud’s friends was the mayor there but after a good few years on the job and then finding the mayor’s daughter dead in a sleazy hotel with a needle still stuck in her arm, it was all too much to handle and so he quit. As we cruised along the emergency lane of the West Side Highway, Bud and I exchanged stories about our moms and the final moments before they ‘left’ their bodies. Since it was only a few months ago that I had lost mine, tears swelled easily to my eyes. My Indian friend described how his mom had for a long time been in a coma and miraculously popped out of it just before passing away. It was a cloudy day and all of a sudden a lone ray of sun broke through the window and moved across her bed. Suddenly her eyes opened and she told her two sons gathered at the bed: “You guys are going to learn something from this” and immediately drifted back into the coma, never to return. I couldn’t help feeling that within her passing words lay a profound tribal revelation. As I dropped him off at the Crown Plaza Hotel on 7th Avenue, turning to me and pointing across the street at the famous Stage Diner, Bud beamed: “that place over there serves one hell of Reuben sandwich, Frank”. He had stalked the best sandwich in town!
Though the tension and chaos of the first couple of weeks had diminished, the work of the mental health people has increased. There are survivors who haven’t slept since day one; displaced people still in hotels that are refused entry into their apartments; family members of the missing that have to finally accept the fact that they will never see their loved ones again. My trip the next morning was to New Jersey to visit a survivor who had had six minutes to vacate his office. With two nurses and two caseworkers we rolled out of the parking lot on a beautiful sunny day and headed for the Holland tunnel. The tunnel under the Hudson River, even on a quiet day, is packed with traffic. Now, reserved only for emergency vehicles, it was deserted. I sped through the tunnel astride two lanes knowing this was the only time in my life I’d be able to get away with this. An F-16 attack jet could shoot through it with ease.
Bonnie, a strong buxom lady with a determined look, is a registered nurse from Fairbanks, Alaska. She piloted a twin-engine airplane and for twelve years had run her own medical flying service. I felt comfortable when she rode shotgun and helped navigate to this obscure address about an hour from Manhattan. Curiously, none of my passengers had talked with the survivor we were going to see. However, when they showed me the directions to the house, two pages of Cartesian, left-right-left gibberish printed from a map website, I decided I needed to called this guy for better directions. As we pulled into the driveway he came out in his shorts and T-shirt looking a little disheveled. He greeted us warmly and beckoned us into his living room where we all sat down. I listened to my fellow travelers go about their work of filling out forms and asking the necessary questions. He was extremely grateful to us for coming but he explained that the classified nature of his job as a government service employee permitted him to reveal few details of exactly what happened that day, something which I thought rather strange. My guess is that he was with one of the secret services. With bruises on his legs and eyes frightenly sunken from lack of sleep, he lounged on his sofa explaining his bout with nightmares and how impossible it was to share with his wife the events of that terrible day. He insisted he felt no anger but only guilt. And because he never detailed the events, except for the bodies he saw raining down, I found this guilt he harbored difficult to understand. OK, so he survived and others did not; only later did the thought come to me just what horrors he might have experienced. We only hear of those who performed heroic deeds to save lives. What we don’t hear about are the hundreds of others who stepped on, jumped over, or even pushed others away to save themselves. And although this might not be the case with him, these people have not only to wrestle with the trauma of the event itself but also with unbearable shame and guilt.
I listen to the nurses recommend that he go for counseling, that he take good care of himself. One of them mentioned that when she counsels the women she advises them to go to the florist and buy a favorite flower or take long aromatic bubble baths. Likewise, she advised him to partake in whatever healing process he could create for himself. But above all, he needed to eventually share his experience with someone so that whatever had happened didn’t remain locked in. As with most of the mental health workers with whom I came in contact, none of them had much experience in dealing with the consolation of so many people and death on this magnitude. Many of them were social workers and psychologists used to dealing with dysfunctional families, problem children, school issues, etc. But now each one of them had to come to terms with powerful emotions; deep wounds caused by grief and despair. This was something quite alien to the clinical third party academics of psychology in the office. There is no room for triteness, false emotions or ego. To connect with these families on a deep human level, all this stuff must be dropped and in the let-go of this process the mental heath workers themselves undergo deep transformations. A psychologist friend of mine, Fred, working at the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94, spotted an elderly couple sitting at one of the canteen tables. As Jews they had fled Russia to come to American and raise their son in freedom. On that Tuesday morning, their Ivy League educated son, a stock analyst, had gone to a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World. Waiting for an opportunity to broach a conversation, Fred stood quietly next to them until he made eye contact. He asked them if he could be of some help. The mother, opening an envelope and removing a photo of her son, replied: ” Yes, if you can find my son that would be a great help”
On a run to Staten Island, I drove two mental health workers, a husband and wife team, Don and Vale, to a stately place on a grassy knoll, called the Mount Manresa Jesuit Monastery, where families of the missing NY firemen were gathering. Crossing the sleek Verrazzano Bridge with the yawning expanse of the sun-lit New York harbor to our right, I knew a task of unimaginable proportions awaited them. Dark memories of my childhood resurfaced as I began to relive the experience of my own brother’s death at the age of 14. For six months I had lost my ability to speak. But at this moment it was heartening to know that there could not have been elected for this task a more beautiful couple. If Vale had a prepossessing charm, her soft-spoken husband certainly had a warm personality. They must have made a formidable team. A few hours later I drove by to collect them at the monastery and we returned to HQ. As I slid open the side door they stepped out and we hugged each other for what seemed a long time.
Night had already fallen as I wound my way across Chambers towards the huge Municipal Building that stands like a bastion at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. My cell phone rang. “Frankie boy, where are you? Can you pick up two at Service Center One?” I made an about face and headed back to Ground Zero where it’s located and waited for my passengers.
Work at GZ never stops. Colossal halogens illuminate the area like a Hollywood shoot as 18 wheelers roar through the narrow streets with tonnage of burnt steel, heading for barges docked at the Hudson River. That night I was driving a brand new BMW SUV, sink white and emblazoned with ARC emblems. I open the door for Mac and Gladys Bunter. It always amazes me how many great husband and wife teams serve as volunteers. The Bunters came from Billings, Montana to serve as ERV drivers and, to feed the GZ workers, have been transporting the cambro meals from Manhattan’s famous chef David Boulet. At seventy years of age you could see the Montana outdoors written on Mac’s leathery but still boyish face. He claims his parents were Cherokee and that if he were back home now he’d be out deer hunting. I slipped into the glitzy driveway of the Millenium hotel near the UN and the doorman looking like Pee Wee Herman helped the Bunters up to their room. My day is over…
11 October 2001
For some strange reason Mental health workers are no longer stationed at the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, the place where the rubble is sifted through and finding body parts can become disquieting. The search dogs, too, were recently eliminated due to the multitudinous scents that confused them, which in turn caused the men to lose valuable time. And the scene at HQ is now fairly quiet and humdrum. As the weeks roll by, the initial large perimeter that cordoned off and defined the crime scene in lower Manhattan, underwent a slow shrinkage, to the point where it basically takes you within three blocks of Ground Zero. And with that, many of the pesky road blocks and checkpoints disappeared, providing public access to the many spots where one can stand and gape in amazement, though still from an acute angle, at the scene of devastation. A closer view may never happen. Many of my friends refuse to go near from fear of nightmares or anger and whatever else that may all too easily disturb the consciousness of an individual. Some volunteers with GZ clearance avoid approaching it, and they work right at Respite Three, or at Service Center 1, both just around the corner! As for myself, after almost four weeks as a volunteer logistics driver, I still feel compelled to observe GZ’s daily transformations. Until a week ago, the West Side Highway, which becomes West Street at GZ was closed to all except construction vehicles. Now emergency vehicles can actually continue through the western end of the rubble area on their way to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel or the FDR Drive. Thus, making my way the other night towards Respite Three to deliver mail, a Federal Marshal waved me through the barrier. I cruised ahead over an undefined, bumpy dirt road and within seconds found myself surrounded by colossal earth moving equipment. Under the powerful halogens strategically placed in and around the 16 acre rubble, man and his machines bathed in brilliant rays of intense white light. Squinting, as if suddenly finding myself thrust upon a blinding stage, I slowed the van to the point where I became mesmerized by the dance of shadows bouncing off the gigantic cranes, cranes that have the largest lifting capacity in the world. The “Matatowa”, they say, can lift 1000 tons! A ‘panza division’ of Hitachi, Komatsu and Caterpillar excavators, crept like insects across a compacted field of twisted steel and pulverized cement, using their powerful mandibles to uncover new pockets for the search crews to enter, or to separate chunks of steel and drop them into the 18 wheeler that never stopped coming, even at this dark hour of the night. Incredibly, a month after the catastrophe, swirls of hot white steam still rose from the rubble as the men hosed it down. The end of a recently-yanked steel girder was cherry red! The remains of the exterior north wall of Tower One arched precariously backward with its brownish aluminum girders, like upraised skeletal arms stretched maybe 23 stories high. At Tower Two, whose south wall stood about four stories high, a pile of rubble appeared to be cascading over what was left of the first floor superstructure, spilling down into a pit that leads to the foundation of the towers, almost 90 feet below. To see these ghostly remnants of skeletal walls, like the ruins of a Roman coliseum, blown open and looming up from the rubble is almost to hear a final scream from those who perished. To my right, from perhaps the 25th floor of the American Express Tower known as Three World Financial Center, sharp intermittent flashes flew from an arc welder. From the high windows of the surviving tall buildings, the twinkle of hundreds of yellow lights patterned the stark blackness beyond the bright halogens. From the partially damaged structures, long black veils of protective netting hung, as if the buildings were grieving widows. Rising majestically on Broadway a few blocks away from GZ, the Woolworth Building, awash in emerald green lights, stood proud with its tiered floors all aglow. Over on the site’s east side, the remains of WTC’s diminutive buildings Four and Five stood charred and shredded, waiting to be demolished, while the Nasdaq, though still relatively intact, may have to be imploded. It wasn’t until my eye slowly fell on a hard hat frantically waving to me to get my ass in gear that I awoke from my silent communion with GZ to see behind me, waiting impatiently, two chrome-out-to-the-max, 18 wheeler Freightliner Dumpsters. I parked the van and before entering Respite Three, as an anti-contamination requirement, I had my shoes sprayed off with a water hose by one of the ARC volunteers. I had a feeling my sister Joyce might be on duty but she was nowhere to be found. Joyce and I live in the same apt building and after reading my diary she got the bug to volunteer. However, I did bump into Jackie Roth , also a tenant in our building. To have three people volunteering from the same building is a wonderful feeling, and in fact, if I count Marcel who lives in the contiguous building,the West 73rd Street block is well represented.
Around 8pm the queue for food was growing rapidly while the large dining hall was filled mostly with blue uniforms. Although I already had eaten at HQ I eyed the buffet table to see was on the menu. Opposite, the desert table had neatly laid out plates of chocolate brownies, something I have a hard time refusing. I swiped one and munched it while chatting with Jackie who stood near the dining room door tending to tables. A strong feeling arose that my time as a volunteer was finished. A break was needed from constantly being close to GZ and the emotions it stirred up. With the frantic events since the eleventh and now the anthrax scares, it had been a while since I’d had a good night’s sleep. Friends often asked me how I was coping and I usually responded positively since I was so bent on performing my logistics duties. But in reality I was pushing everything else aside, including myself. Distancing myself from GZ and returning to normal work and daily routine suddenly seemed more than appropriate. One of the highlights of my time as a logistics driver was meeting the beautiful retirees who came here to donate a part of their skills as ARC volunteers. It was an honor to serve them in a metropolis whose complicated roads and infrastructure, even without a September 11th, is otherwise quite daunting to the visitor. I sincerely hope that we never have another catastrophe like this but if we do I have a newfound confidence in America’s amazing resource of ready, willing and able volunteers.
© 2001: Frank Ames