A View From Ground Zero
A volunteer's account of September 11 aftermath
I arrived in New York Friday night, three days after it experienced the most horrific act of terror in the history of mankind. I had visited the World Trade Center two years before that and the scale of what happened on September 11 still refused to register in my mind.
I was trying to catch the news after my 10-hour drive from Detroit, while being stuck in a tremendous traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and Manhattan. But the city had already recovered from the initial shock and all the radio stations were back to music.
However, the feeling was not peaceful at all. The city was swarming with military and police, and the sense of emergency could be felt everywhere. And while we were crawling across the bridge, all the drivers were looking to their right, where several miles away from us, among the contours of the skyscrapers, a giant cloud of smoke, lit with spotlight beams, was still rising to the sky.
From Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, where I stayed at my friend's place, I was taking the subway to get to Ground Zero, the place of the rescue work. Lower Manhattan was closed and the train passed it without stops. Journalists and reporters formed a many-hour line to the central Police Department for the press passes. Even with these, the media was not allowed closer than several hundred yards from the place of the tragedy.
The phone lines had been damaged, and the technicians from Verizon were installing mobile phone booths, but they hardly worked.
It seemed that soldiers and police didn't have strict instructions on whom to allow at the site. While some let me go through without asking questions, others would look at my volunteer tag and turn me away.
Together with other volunteers we were delivering water and ice to Ground Zero from Seamen's Church Institute, which became one of the suppliers of food, equipment and medical aid to the rescue workers.
On the space between Vesey, Church and Liberty streets, we were assembling the supplied respirators, while doctors from the American Red Cross were demonstrating their proper usage. A day before that, on my way to New York City, in a little town of DuBois, Pennsylvania, I bought rubber boots, a fluorescent jacket, work gloves, and protective goggles. I could have as well not bought it. Donations from the whole country, distributed by the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, provided rescue workers, police, firemen and volunteers with everything needed, from hot meals to underwear, to shovels and flashlights.
I was meeting people. Tshimsus Jesus, a Congo student from a New York college, worked as a volunteer on the Ground Zero starting the day after the disaster. Olya, a girl originally from Ukraine, worked a twelve-hour night shift serving food and removing dirty dishes in the mobile kitchen. Kenny was the operator of a huge, 200-ton crane that stretched 300 feet over the ruins.
The work was progressing slowly, Kenny said. All the actions were coordinated between the fire department, police, FBI and construction team.
The first tower fell through two stories of the mall and three floors of the parking lot located underneath. Its top, having slid to the side, smashed through the eight floors of U.S. Customs building, and damaged 7 WTC building, the 47-story skyscraper at the intersection of Vesey street and West Broadway, which fell Tuesday night.
Welders cut steel beams apart in order to fit in the dump trucks. Out of millions of tons of rubble, only 40 thousand had been removed.
Even several days after the catastrophe, the ruins were still burning. The smoke could be seen many miles away. Through this smoke, sometimes one couldn't see the New York Telephony building, from which day and night the fire pumps were pouring water to extinguish the internal inferno. In the darkness, you could see the flames shimmering in the ruins. It would be a long time before this gigantic, devilish cake cools down.
The shifts of rescue workers and firemen were resting on the plaza in front of building number five. On the other side, The Millennium Hilton hotel was gaping with its torn facade letters and broken windows, while peaceful white curtains blew in the breeze.
From time to time a group of firemen would pass, through the lines of troops, toward the remnants of the second tower. I also passed the lines, giving out respirators, looking for those who didn't have them. I rose up the stairs, passed by what used to be a granite sculpture at the plaza entrance and approached the edge of the pit, where the firemen and police stood.
It was the most monstrous and surreal view I will ever see.
There was a gigantic foundation pit, filled to the brim with mutilated metal. There was no concrete. The gigantic cloud filling Manhattan was from the buildings' concrete floors, pulverized into dust, which settled as a thick gray layer on the roads, sidewalks and buildings for many blocks away.
Excavators and bulldozers were removing rubble from near the hills of chaos. Orange tapes, stretched across to keep people away from the carcinogenic asbestos dust, separated the onlookers.
Across the street, in a field kitchen on the first floor of a house with broken windows and crashed ledges, a generator supplied light. There was no running water. Inside, it was noisy from the voices of the many who dined there, but from time to time an order was heard from the street and the silence reigned. In this silence, the dog-accompanied rescue workers, who were climbing over the five-story tall ruins, froze listening, trying to catch the voice from underneath. No survivors were ever found. Bodies were - scorched, torn apart, without arms, legs, eyes. To keep the air clean, the bodies were put away, into the Brooks Brothers store, where they were later picked up by ambulances.
Near hospitals and churches all over Manhattan the walls were covered with photographs of the missing. The Armory at 26th and Lexington was turned into a center for families of the victims. Crowds of people were always there. There were lots of photos and lots of names - American, Spanish, Greek, Chinese, Russian, the list goes on.
It was beyond comprehension to look at the mountains of disfigured metal and think that there might still be people whose last memory was that of a crazy, unstoppable fall into a tornado of steel and concrete. I wanted to believe that the surrounding structures would stand firm while the hopes and forces were aimed at finding miraculous survivors.
The article was originally published in "The South End" newspaper.
My "thank you" goes out to Boris and Yana Mizhen for accomodating me, and to Olya Alekseyeva for her willingness to do so.
See the view