Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christmas at Ground Zero: Six Years Later

World Trade Center Memorials
Serving the Heroes of 9/11

I was busy doing a little cleaning and organizing when I came across a piece of paper. I opened it up and it was a photocopy of my security clearance tag for responding to the Sept. 11th attack on the WTC. That was back in December, 2001. Now I don’t want to sound important, I was not. I was just one of thousands of disaster mental health volunteers. The clearance simply identified where I was allowed to go. We were not allowed to keep the tags so we all made copies on our last day in New York. So, in the middle of cleaning the memories came flooding back.

Like most Americans, after the attacks I wanted to do something, make a contribution, be helpful. I took a bunch of courses. I went to Detroit and took a Critical Incident Stress Management course through the Civil Air Patrol. I took a course in disaster mental health in Indy and another course on Biological Weapons in Evansville. Still, I wanted to DO something.

I talked it over with my family and we all decided together I would go to New York over Christmas break. This was the first time Cathi and I had not been together for Christmas since 1973. Still, Cathi and the girls felt sending me was their contribution to the nation. So off I went to New York City.

As I write this it is the Feast Day of the Holy Family. During the homily our priest pointed out that while we are to honor the Holy Family this is really a day to honor the entire Christian Family. When I think of going to New York six years ago I know I was honored to have my family. I was very aware that while I was not with them I never felt closer to them.

As I flew over Manhattan to the airport I saw the tug boats going from lower Manhattan to Staten Island. I did not know at that time that all of the debris from Ground Zero was being hauled to Fresh Kill, a park preserve. The entire setting was a gigantic crime scene. Because it was toxic workers walked around in HazMat suits. Because it was a crime scene there were soldiers on site. Because birds tried to take material away rocket flares were routinely set off. The site was so large it could be seen from the International Space Station. I just looked down and saw boats.

I checked in at headquarters, under the Brooklyn Bridge. I was briefed and then sent with my fellow workers by cab to our hotel in upper Manhattan. It was nighttime and when we drove past Ground Zero all of the construction lights were on. Work at the site was continuous. The lights set off a gigantic blue glowing ball around the site. It looked like a bad sci-fi film set.

Our hotel was two blocks from Central Park. At the end of our block was the Russian Tea Room and Carnegie Hall. Times Square was in walking distance.

We were all given different assignments. One worked at Pier 94. This is where folks who had evidence of DNA brought it to the site to have a death confirmed. If that occurred they received an urn with from soil from Ground Zero. The place was huge and had clergy from every conceivable faith. They also had a memorial wall made by volunteers from the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Another peer worked at the Big White Tent at Ground Zero. This was an enormous tent and respite center for the Firefighters and construction workers who wee doing the difficult work of body and body part recovery. My friend worked the night shift. We were told that when we arrived the fires at Ground Zero were officially declared “put out”. However, that was not true, they burned all night and the smell was horrible.

I worked at Service Center One. This was six blocks from Ground Zero. When I arrived my ears and throat were hurting. I was told that was expected, it was from Ground Zero. Luckily it only lasted a day.

Our job was to support the workers who processed the financial needs of clients. The clients were workers, students, residents of the area who lost everything because of the attacks. Their needs were great and their requests were often modest.

We had a small white tent across the street from our center. This was a waiting room. It was December and cold. We had a heater in the tent and coffee but it felt like the 1930s. This was New York and we always had translators to help us. There were at least three different Chinese languages spoken, numerous Slavic languages, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Pashto. I don’t know what we would have done without our translators.

The area was fascinating. To the south was Ground Zero and Battery Park. Next to us was Tribeca and to the immediate north was China Town. A block away was Nino’s. This was a free restaurant for volunteers served by volunteers. People from all over American came here. The firefighters sat by themselves. The police, Salivation Army, Red Cross, guards and construction workers mingled. The entire place was covered by hand made cards from children from all over the world.

I went to Nino’s for lunch on Christmas Eve. A lady at the door handed me a small gift wrapped box. I said I could not accept it. I was told it was not for me. They recognized that everyone there left family behind. It was pearl earrings for Cathi. They were honoring the folks that made it possible for us to be there. I was deeply touched.

It was difficult work. The stories we were told were graphic and stuck with you. We often needed time alone to recover between clients. Two stories that were vivid without being explicit stick out for me. One was of a college girl calling her mother to assure her she was OK. Her mom turned on the television, saw the towers fall and the phone went dead. It was an entire day before the mother found out her daughter was alive. This student reminded me of so many of my own students.

The other story was an old man who was crying, telling me of the horrible, slow death he imagined his friend experienced. One of the folks waiting in the tent was an engineer who overheard us. He walked up to us and explained to the older man that because of the physics involved his friend death was instantaneous. Three months after the day and this old man found some relief and peace because his friend had a better death than the old many originally imagined. That is when I knew we were at war, when we were talking about good deaths.

One night we had a Christmas Party in a loft for all of the volunteers. People from all of the U.S. singing God Bless America, it got to me. I kept thinking it felt like a scene from the old WWII films. Then we all started to sing White Christmas and I left.

Christmas night was spent at a local volunteer’s house. We had a wonderful meal and talked about the sadness of New York.

Christmas Day was spent at Ground Zero. Families arrived to spend time with their unrecovered. Police were there to relieve the firefighters for the day. Families sang, placed cards on walls, hugged and cried. The site was 16 square blocks and took four and a half hours to walk around, almost all in silence. There was no doubt this was holy ground. It had the DNA of people from around the world. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindu, men, women, leaders and servants, gay and straight, uniformed and civilian, the world was united here in death. Everywhere there were memorials, candles and people praying. It was the longest and most solemn Christmas of my life and I was glad I was there to serve.

What I did not recognize at the time was this was also the beginning of my return to Christianity and more surprisingly, to Catholicism. It was the beginning of a number of conversions. There were soldiers all over. The anthrax scare was still going on. I knew the world I knew had changed forever. I started thinking of our campus as a safe place. Not safe from airborne pathogens, just safe from fear. I did not recognize at the time that my job was becoming not just a place where I worked but an extension of my home.

Everyday we received the New York Times. In it they carried pages and pages of obituaries. The goal was to cover everyone who died in the attacks before January 1. It made the people real. Between the realness of the deaths and the soldiers everywhere I knew we were in a dangerous world. I knew we would do whatever it took to keep us from more attacks. I knew that was not nice but it was what folks did when they feared for the safety of others.

I began to think about how we had not changed as a species over the centuries. War and violence continued to escalate in ever vicious cycles. Century after century and we had not changed. I knew we needed forgiveness, we humans needed forgiveness. Slowly it became clear I was not talking about “them”, I was talking about “me”, and I needed forgiveness.

One night after a long day at work a fellow worker and I went for a walk. We went to Ground Zero and then to St. Peter’s Catholic Church. It was on the edge of Ground Zero. Inside people were lightening candles. The service was the Feast of the Holy Innocents but clearly focused on the Innocents who died right behind the church wall. Thirty years earlier Cathi had told me I should consider becoming a Catholic and I laughed. Who wanted to be a Papist? However it was becoming clear I loved ritual, sacraments meant a great deal to me, candles, memorials, order had meaning for me. I was beginning a journey and did not realize it.

I met many folks from the Middle East and from Islamic countries. They mourned the loss of the WTC, they wore American Flags. They spoke of their love of America, of freedom and safety and I knew they were not responsible for these horrible events.

When I got back home I began to study about the life of Francis of Assisi. I began to appreciate “respecting the unique dignity of each individual”. I valued a devout Christian who respected the leader of the Islamic world. The journey was continuing.

So, cleaning the house and coming across a piece of paper has sparked a lot of memories. That is good, I do not want to ever forget that Christmas. The memories are powerful, of clients and students, diversity, friends, food, smells, dreams and nightmares. However, what I remember most was people coming together from all over to help and support one another. And I remember a man from Egypt crying and asking why someone would do this to his home. We are all in this together.



Capt Rivera said...

Thank you for your service. Do you serve still? If not Civil Air Patrol can provide opportunity for continued humanitarianism.

Unknown said...

I do serve, with the American Red Cross. I was in CAP for about six years. I served as a Public Affairs Officer, I was on the Great Lakes Region CISM Team and briefly as a Moral Leadership Officer. I love the Civil Air Patrol and think it is one of the best kept secrets in America. It gives cadets structure, a place to excel but especially a place to contribute and belong. It gives Seniors of various abilities and talents a place to give back to their nation. so, yep, love CAP. I quit because I was over-extended but it will always have a place in my heart.