I have had a very difficult time dealing with this awful attack on our nation. Although all my family members that live or work in the WTC area are accounted for, at least 5 friends and family members of friends are missing. The frustration and anger building inside of me since Tuesday was almost unbearable and I felt strongly that I needed to help in some way. Last night (Wednesday Sept. 12th) as I drove up the NJ Turnpike heading towards Jersey City, I didn't see the Twin Towers. All I could see coming from the base of Manhattan was smoke. I almost stopped the car because I felt as though at any minute I would be physically sick. I arrived in Jersey City, dropped some clothes off at my former roommate's apartment and headed towards Hudson Street. When I reached the river, I witnessed exhausted rescue workers coming off boats to thunderous applause. Needless to say, it was an emotional scene.
After speaking with some firefighters from Chicago, I walked with them and signed in at the Fire & Rescue Command Center on the 11th floor of a building on Hudson Street.
Lt. Louf of Jersey City (made sure I had the right bunker gear) walked me to a tug boat and while doing so, we bumped into Woodbridge Mayor and Gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey. He shook my hand, thanked me for going over to NYC and then said he remembered that about 10 years ago my girlfriend at Rutgers helped him get elected to the State Assembly. I wished him luck with his Gubernatorial campaign, jumped onto a tug boat with the firefighters from Chicago and we started a chain to load some supplies. As we pushed off and I looked at the skyline, my heart was stuck in my throat. Not knowing what we were heading into, some guys were writing their name, SS# and blood type on their arms. I borrowed a marker and immediately did the same.
When we landed in Battery Park City near the old Moran's (a restaurant), my heart was racing. I was walking in an area covered with ash & debris, an area where I had spent many pleasant days over the last ten years. I couldn't believe my eyes. What I was looking at was infinite times worse than what I had seen on TV over the last three days.
After we off-loaded the boxes of supplies, we were sent through Moran's to a staging area where my group with shovels in hand, were asked to report to the corner of Church St. & Cortlandt St. As we walked (with dust masks in place which was not enough protection) near West Street I stopped to look up at the American Express building (there was a big tear in the upper left side). This pause was a big mistake, because when I looked ahead to continue on, the group I had been walking with was nowhere in sight. Suddenly a Doctor in hospital greens asked me to help him find the Medical Aid Station area. I said I would (especially because I didn't want to walk alone). After asking several members of the NYPD, we finally were told that the new Medical Aid Station had been moved due to an unstable building and was now set-up at HSBC bank on Broadway near Liberty Street. Since I knew the area, the Doctor asked me to walk with him and I was relieved to do so once again. Because of the absolute devastation, we had to walk east on Vesey Street to go around the World Trade Center buildings. Once we arrived at the Medical Aid Station the Doctor and I wished each other good luck and hugged goodbye. I knew I was close to the area I was originally told to report to so I started walking in that direction.
As I walked down the street I quickly caught up to some National Guardsmen who asked for, and after being satisfied with my ID, walked with me to Church Street. We passed a Cemetery (St. Paul’s on Fulton Street) that was totally covered (except for some headstones) with soot and debris. This was especially unnerving to me. When I arrived at the corner of Church & Cortlandt, nothing looked familiar. I looked up (and back) to see The Millenium Hotel on one corner and The Century 21 Department Store on the other. Both buildings looked horrible. I shopped at Century 21 several times and couldn't believe that the front of the store was blown out. I hooked up with some Boston city workers and we started working on a pile of debris. It was slow going, because if the sonar picked up a sound, everyone would stop and then the search dogs were brought in. While moving debris, my group came across some horrific items. I used 3 different pairs of work gloves throughout the night (the rule was if you put an “item” in a bag you had to put your gloves in with the “item”). Apparently there was some looting done by individuals who were dressed as doctors and rescue workers, so at some point during the night either a police officer or National Guardsman attached a light string to my shoulder bag. This was to identify me as a person actually helping.
It was a VERY emotional night for me. Not only was NYC the focal point of some very special memories for me, but the search and recovery task at hand (in my opinion) would probably take more than a month or two or three. I was emotionally and physically drained and at 3:30am I wanted out. Now that the National Guard was fully in place, it took several frustrating conversations to explain that all I wanted to do was to get back to Jersey City the same way I arrived in Manhattan. I ran into a man from Hoboken who works at Heidrick & Struggles and together we made our way around the Promenade.
Finally back near the old Moran's, I (along with 3 others) was able to hitch a ride on a NYC Correction Dept boat. I cried most of the way back to Jersey City. When I arrived in Jersey City at 3:30am, the area was relatively quiet. A Jersey City police officer offered me his hand as I stepped off the boat. As I looked up there was a line of about 25 volunteers holding boxes, waiting to load them onto the boat. As I passed the sixth or seventh volunteer, I could hear hands clapping behind me and by the time I reached the end of the loading ramp, all the volunteers had put down the boxes and were clapping and cheering. This was another very emotional moment for me, as there were only four of us coming off the boat.
A few moments later as I was heading towards the building to sign out on the 11th floor, I heard someone in the distance say "Would you like a cup of Campbell's Chunky Soup?" I looked up and about 20' away there was Cindy Settles passing out soup to some of the EMS workers standing by. I called out to her and she looked quite surprised to see that it was me. After signing out and showering the dust and mud off, I left the building and made my way over to the Chunky / NFL Bus. After downing a cup or two of Chunky Soup, talking with Cindy and her husband, reminiscing with someone who I used to work with who now works for The College Kit, I was again surprised by the appearance of Janet McClure, John Faulkner, Mary Jane Johnson, Kevin Kaiser, and a few other CSC WHQ employees. It was comforting to see familiar faces after a long night. I tried to wind down on the Chunky / NFL Bus, but I was still pretty wired and all I really wanted to do was get home to my wife Andrea and daughter Gaby. I said my goodbyes and headed to my friend's apartment. After waking my friend and his wife (actually it was their 98lb. dog barking that woke them) I grabbed my clothes and keys that I left earlier, thanked him for making the extra bed for me, and told him I was heading home. He asked if I was ok to drive and I replied that I was ok to drive, but I wasn't sure if I would be "ok" for a long time.
I arrived home close to 6:00am and sat in the driveway long enough so I would not wake up my family who was not expecting me to come home till much later. When I came in I was greeted by my dog who was probably thinking it was perfect timing for her morning walk. A few minutes later while I was walking the dog, watching the sun light up the sky and breathing in the crisp clean air, I thought about how I would describe my experience of being so close to Ground Zero. This is what came to mind:
I was trying to figure out where I was.
Then I realized I was standing in a
place I had been a hundred times before,
but I couldn’t recognize where I was
for nothing looked familiar. The City that
I loved was forever changed.
May we someday again know peace.
Post script: This was written immediately after my 1st night at Ground Zero. A few days later I ended up back at Ground Zero, obtained proper credentials from the Red Cross and helped organize the Campbell Soup relief station that was set up on the corner of Murray & Greenwich Streets and remained there for 3 months. My role was miniscule, compared to the crew doing 12hr shifts on what was later referred to as “the pit”. It was a life changing event for me that I will never forget.