Ground Zero. Let us never forget

This is my account of my time @ Ground Zero. It is part of the official 9-11 archive @ the Library Of Congress. Just wanted to share in memory of all who still hurt.


There are some things you can never understand unless you were there. September
11th was that kind of thing for me. Shortly after 9-11 me and two other people
went down to New York to work with the Red Cross. I’m not one to really do
things like that. Usually I let huge challenges like that pass me by and then
later wish I had done something rather than sit back and feel helpless. I
thought going there would empower me. Make me feel like I had done something
for my country and in some small way honor those who died by trying to help
clean up their city.

On the second day I was there I was asked to go work at Ground Zero at a place
that had been set up to fed, support, and offer a place of rest for rescue
workers. I wanted to say no. I was so afraid to be in that place that had so
much death and destruction. But I went. I wanted to be strong and go wherever
they needed me. We all piled on a bus. We has red badges with our names and
pictures and in big bold writing “Ground Zero-Full Access.” Everyone was full
of nervous energy. Only one person on the bus had been to Ground Zero before.
He told us that he couldn’t impart to us what it was like. “You’ll know when
you get there,” he said. We inched through traffic. We were curious. We were
about to see in the flesh a site that had been made mythical to us through
hundreds of hours of television coverage. We were almost there when we heard
cheering. We looked out of the windows of the bus and saw about fifty people
yelling and clapping and holding up large signs that said “Thank You” and “You
are Heroes” and “New York Loves You!!” Wow, we thought, people are here just
to say thank you to nameless faces for what we were doing. It was overwhelming.
Myself and others cried a little bit.

We went through a check point guarded by men with machine guns. We started to
see ash covering everything. The bus got silent. This was getting real. Then
the smell came. It happened slowly. Like maybe at first it was just some fumes
from the bus. But then a smoky smell was added to it. Then to the mix came a
smell that I couldn’t identify. I began to breath a little deeper. The smell
was horrible, but I really wanted to know what it was. Then it hit me. I
suddenly knew what the smell was. I didn’t want to admit to myself what it was
but I knew. It was the smell of burnt flesh. You wouldn’t think that you would
know what that smelled like. But when it hit your nose and traveled to your
brain…you knew. It was unmistakable. It was a smell that in one degree or the
other was all over the city. You just had to get close enough to the source of
it to really get a handle on what it was. Or maybe you just had to get close
enough that you had no choice but to acknowledge what it was. It is a smell
that would be with me long after I left New York. For weeks I would smell it
every time I woke up. Even now when I think about it I can smell it like I am
still standing there.

When we walked up to where we got our first real view of ground zero we all
stopped. Even our armed guard stopped moving to give us a moment to take it in.
One thing that I don’t think people really realize is just how enormous it was.
It was bigger than words. On TV it looked almost small. Compartmentalized.
Like it all fell in a neat pile. No. It was so big that…I don’t know…it was
just so so big. So much.

I was asked a bit after being there to walk around the rubble with a fire
fighter to deliver water to the workers. And although the time I would spend
with this man would change my life I don’t think we ever told the other our
names. But we were brothers. United in a common mission to clean up this…mess.
This disaster. As we were walking along we talked about his wife and his kids
and of a friend he had lost in the collapse of the second tower. As we were
walking there was commotion in front of us and he began to run to it. He yelled
to me to follow close behind. You have to understand that the rubble and the
area around it were very unstable. He new the lay of it better than me. It
really just wasn’t safe for me to be without him. But as we neared the group
and saw what was going on I stopped in my tracks. I saw a body…half a body
really. It was a person, but only from the waist up. It was so badly burned
you couldn’t determine its color or gender. It had no hair. The smell was more
than I could handle. A firefighter to my right began to vomit. Someone behind
me began to sob. Others began to work the body onto a tarp. My comrade turned
and told me that they didn’t need us here. I was so relived to get away. We
pretended we didn’t see it. I handed a bottle of water to the man who was
throwing up.

We continued on our trek to hydrate the workers. He began to tell me that he
thought I was amazing for being there. He said that he couldn’t imagine coming
so far from home to do what I was doing and that he was really grateful. I told
him that he was being silly. That was the word I used to this huge fireman with
the thick accent of a native New Yorker. Silly. I told him that what I was
doing didn’t compare to what he was having to do. He said “It’s just my job.”
What he was going through shouldn’t have to be anyone’s job.

Then we heard a yell and saw all these guys running. We followed. There was a
firefighter covered by a beam. I helped them get it off of him. There was
blood everywhere. We got the beam off and I stepped back to let them all “do
their job.” When my buddy came back over to me there was blood on his face. It
wasn’t his. I wiped it off with a towel.

Then I began to cry. I was very ashamed of this. I was there to be strong. I
was there to lend support. But I couldn’t help it. We walked over to the side,
away from all the workers, and he wrapped his arms around me and we cried
together. It made me feel much less weak. I saw that this whole thing was
really just more than anyone could bare.

We finished giving out the water and made our way back to the Red Cross center.
On the way back he gave me a beanie baby that his daughter had given him. He
told me he wanted me to remember him. And to remember this. And to pray for
him. We hugged again and then he walked away. We would never forget each
other. I knew that this small amount of time that we had shared together would
be forever burned into our brains.

I went inside and started making some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then
my legs just went out from under me and I was on the floor before I knew what
was going on. They took me to the Red Cross break room. I felt emptier than I
ever had before or ever felt since. Suddenly in the doorway was my fireman and
a friend of his. His friend gave me a rosary. My guy patted my back and told
me he knew I would be fine. Then he ventured out back onto the ash covered

I told them I had to go home. I couldn’t take being there. I got on the
subway. That’s when I blacked out. I was in shock. I remember suddenly coming
back into my body somewhat and the doors to the subway opened. I just got out.
I didn’t know where I was and I wasn’t concerned about it. I walked aimlessly
for a very long time. I tried to ask people where I was but I couldn’t talk.
My mouth would move but no sound would come out. They would stare at me and
talk to me but I wasn’t even hearing anything. I didn’t know what was going on
but I wasn’t worried. I was as lost on the inside as I was on that street, so
in my utter self abandonment, it didn’t matter where I was.

A cab stopped. The cabbie got out and asked me if I knew where I was going. I
shook my head. He slowly walked me to his cab and started to drive. He told me
I was in a bad part of town. “You could have gotten shot,” he said. He asked
me my name and I had no idea what it was. He asked me where I was staying and
the best I could do was say “At my friend’s. Its by a bar with a purple
awning.” He drove me around for over and hour while I came enough into my
senses for him to figure out where he needed to get me. When we got in front of
the building he stopped in the middle of the road got out and took my keys from
me. He unlocked the front door of the building and walked me to the apartment.
He pointed at the door and asked me if anyone was there. I said yes. He handed
me the keys, knocked on the door, said “Thank you and God Bless,” and
disappeared down the hall.

When one of the people I was with opened the door, the look in her eyes scared
me. She looked at me like she had no idea who I was. When I looked in the
mirror I knew why. 1) I was covered in ash from head to toe except for a
circle on my face where my face mask had been. And 2) My eyes were empty.
There was no twinkle. No life. It scared me.

I took a bath which I sat in until the water was freezing. When I stood up and
the water ran off of me it still left behind a film of ash. So I had to take a
shower. I looked in the mirror and my eyes looked a little better. But the
smell was filling the room. It was in my cloths. So I threw the shirt, jeans,
socks, and underwear out of the window. I wanted them away from me. I wanted
to lose that smell.

Sometimes it all comes back to me. The look of it, his voice, and more than
anything the smell. And I cry. And I pray for him, just like he asked.  Its still too fresh. It will still be that
way in fifty years. It will always be permeated in that smell.


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