10 Days At Ground Zero

The following story is dedicated to all the rescuers killed at the World Trade Center incident on Sept. 11, 2001. This tragedy portrayed the sheer evil hidden in man’s darker side and, in turn, the heroes who rise above it all. (Note: Because this...


The following story is dedicated to all the rescuers killed at the World Trade Center incident on Sept. 11, 2001. This tragedy portrayed the sheer evil hidden in man’s darker side and, in turn, the heroes who rise above it all. (Note: Because this article was written five months after the event...


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All I’m thinking about while in my room is getting that camera and trying to capture some of the devastation at the site. The scene needs to be captured and pictures are worth a thousand words. Leaving, I pull the door shut, wishing I had the time to clean up and get some of this dust off me. As we load up the trucks it strikes me how quiet it is, even up here in midtown. The streets are mostly deserted, almost no cabs anywhere, which is unheard of in this town. Even the few people I notice walking down the street aren’t saying anything. The city has gotten the wind knocked out of it. It seems all of Manhattan, usually a bustling metropolis, is a virtual ghost town. The silence is disturbing and unsettling at once. We race back to the site and set everything up. The volunteers are terrific and very much needed. The chief appreciates the effort, as he finally has a place to sit down and rest while formulating his next round of orders. I also give him a detailed weather report I found at the front desk of the hotel. Things are all clear for now, as we agree it is vital that the weather stays calm and clear for as long as possible.

I excuse myself and make a quick jaunt down a few streets on the northeast side of the site, camera in hand. I’ve got to snap off a few shots and record at least a small fraction of what things are like, before it gets dark. After taking about 30 haphazard shots, it’s time to get back to work. Now I need to find someone from the Port Authority to help me with that hazmat report and maybe some blueprints. Off I go wandering again, not knowing where to go, where to start. I stop more people than I can count, asking if they know where anyone from the Port Authority is located.

As I’m walking at a fast pace down West Street, I take note that it is now dusk and the light on this terrible day has passed. It is a long night. Sometime just before dawn, I decide to go back to my hotel and shower. My skin is crawling. I know that I must take about 20-30 minutes and flush my eyes, as the burning is getting worse. I greatly value my eyesight. My throat is raw, as if I swallowed a handful of dry straw. I walk for a very long way before catching a ride to my hotel. The hotel security director later tells me I looked like Casper, the Friendly Ghost. I am covered head to toe in white dust and soot. Receiving strange stares in the lobby, I head up to my room to “decon.” I turn the facecloths, towels and tub a disgusting shade of dark brown while trying to clean this film off me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so filthy.

Looking down at my chest and arms, I notice several areas where strange-looking red rashes have formed, probably from the irritants in the air, I’m thinking. Only I don’t remember scratching at all, anywhere. Strange. I remember standing there with my head resting against the shower wall, trying to sort out the day’s events and all that I had seen and felt. My mind decides it is better to just push everything to the rear and keep moving forward. It is simply too much to process right now.

I step out onto the tile floor and the realization that I have no clean clothes, not even a toothbrush. The scratching cough I’ve had all day persists. I’m not sure what to do first, gargle with mouthwash or begin flushing my eyes. I take care of my eyes first, then as I’m reaching for the mouthwash the hotel provides, I start coughing up bright-red blood. I think nothing of it, quickly passing it off to throat irritation. When I finish cleaning up at the hotel that first night, I put on the same nasty, contaminated clothes and head back down to the command post. I am gone only about two hours.

DAY 2. The sun rises on the second day and it is almost as hectic as the first. So much is happening, with everyone working at a feverish pace. The site has now been dubbed “Ground Zero” by the media. It seems fitting, since the term harkens to the origin of a nuclear detonation and this certainly looks like one.

We all know, without saying a word, that time is running out for anyone trapped in the rubble. The largest fires are being brought under control. The formation of multiple rescue teams continues in order to probe in and around what becomes commonly known as “the pile,” the large debris field where the twin towers once stood. The estimated number of civilians lost is declining, now at around 5,000. Oddly, though, the number of missing firefighters is rising, to about 280 today.

Security around the site is getting much tighter. The National Guard has been brought in to establish a security perimeter. We are hearing reports of looting and even of one guy who said he was with FEMA, slipped past police and went down to the site, stealing personal effects from bodies lying in the street the first day. Marvelous. (Later, we were advised of a new threat – reportedly, three suicide bombers made it past security on foot and were targeting the command post. We also were told of a terrorist cell stealing a fire truck, loading it with explosives and driving it past a checkpoint, “so be on the lookout.” Another rumor surfaces about a truck filled with explosives that the state police intercepted trying to cross the George Washington Bridge into the city. Thankfully, these rumors were unfounded, but they still kept us on edge.)