9/11: Ground Zero Diary

Eleven days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, a muggy September Saturday, I got up before dawn.

I did it so that I could be on the subway before seven to reach the financial district before eight. Eight a.m. was the shift change at the Seaman’s Church Institute and St. Paul’s Chapel, the locations of relief worker aid stations sponsored by the Episcopal Church.

Standing ruins of WTC1 block the view of the World Financial Center from across the plaza

See a map of the World Trade Center areaVolunteering to help with the aftermath of the attack is, like so many things in life, a matter of who and what you know. Andrew and I had managed to get official volunteer slots the previous Sunday, so we knew where to go when to be accepted as workers. We felt lucky.

Although the basic setup at the Seaman’s institute was the same, much had changed in a week. Power had been restored (and therefore the elevator).

Workers take a lunch break near the Corner Store (bagel cart in center rear).

The desperately painful sense of mourning had been replaced by determination and pride. The upstairs café was still busy with police officers and workers. Bacon, eggs, and waffles were still being cooked on baking sheets over charcoal fires on the patio. But today there was conversation and even, occasionally, laughter. Last week there was a respectful hush.

We worked for a couple hours. Andrew mopped the floor. I kept the cooks supplied with utensils, pans, and boxes of donated waffles. There were plenty of helpers sent from churches all over, so when an opportunity arose to go over the St. Paul’s, we took it. Donning hard hats and green “church volunteer” ID tags, we walked west on Fulton Street.

There are three types of officials guarding the approaches to “the Pile:” NYPD, State Police, and National Guard. We had learned the previous week that the NYPD officers were the best to approach. It’s their city, so they seem to give consideration to requests from its citizens. The others tend to opt for a “no” answer when confronted with an unfamiliar request. We knew that our church id’s were pretty much meaningless in an official sense. What got us through to St. Paul’s was courtesy, a determined “I have business here” walk, and approaching the police, not the army.

The front of St. Paul’s Chapel draped
with messages from America.

Most people, at some point in their lives, have an opportunity to view a public event from a restricted location – backstage concert passes comes to mind. Getting close to what was once the World Trade Center is one of the most powerful such experiences I’ll ever have.

St. Paul’s Chapel and its antique graveyard take up a small block bounded by Vesey and Fulton on the north and south, Broadway and Church on the east and west. In 1789, after his inauguration, George Washington worshiped at St. Paul’s. These days the small, airy space serves an equally significant purpose. The chapel entrance is on Broadway, protected from the devastation and, now, decorated with banners covered with hand-written messages to the rescue workers. Tables on the front porch offered coffee and snacks – a grim sort of church coffee hour display.

Stockpile of donations in the Corner Store

Inside a national guardsman sat in a pew, head in his hands. What unspeakable horrors had he taken this time to contemplate? What visions was he seeking to expunge in the quiet of this sanctuary? A few rows away a police officer lay somewhere between sleep and unconsciousness loosely covered with a donated blanket.

Cards from children on the churchyard fence.

A cleaning crew negotiated their way past the barricades and came in to clean the chapel. Diligent workers more accustomed to tidying offices like the ones that lay in dust all around us worked their way around the sanctuary with cloths and mops. They carefully pick up each item stored on the deep window sills, wiped it off, wiped beneath it, and put it back exactly as they found it. Underpaid, overworked office cleaners tidied up the packages of cereal and boxes of Band-Aids in this new, strange workplace. And while they worked, a volunteer paused to kneel before the altar, and then a national guardsman did the same.In one of this crisis’s most ironic events, the Department of Health had visited the chapel and tried to site it’s emergency food service operation. Andrew was there on Tuesday evening, a week after the attack. The health inspector tried to prevent the distribution of turkey sandwiches because they were not on ice and they contained mayonnaise. The police officers being served drove off the inspectors. The sandwiches were consumed long before the mayonnaise had time to sour. But the inspectors had persisted.

A Red Cross food station adjacent to The Corner Store.

On Wednesday freshly made sandwiches from a deli were being distributed. The health inspectors appeared, seized the sandwiches, and poured bleach on them. That was the end of open bowls of chips and snacks – set out by volunteers to create a sense of home. By Saturday the apples were individually wrapped in cellophane, and the volunteers were spending a lot of time keeping the coffee service area free of the ever-present dust.

Looking west on Vesey Street, the ruins of building 7 across from the burned out building 6 (Border’s). An American flag graces the top floors of the abandoned American Express tower, upper left.

We were already growing weary when a request came for cases of Red Bull, that exotic “energy drink,” to be brought to the “Corner Store.” We each took two cases of the stuff (someone – probably the distributor — had donated more than 200 cases) and, securing our hardhats and white dust masks, trooped out around the corner and down Fulton Street toward Church street.I’ve walked that block countless times, but never again will I come out of the Subway at Broadway and walk beside the churchyard on my way to the World Trade Center. I walked on that side of the street because the service entrance of the Millennium Hilton across the street was usually blocked with trucks, while on the chapel side the sidewalk was clear except for a bagel cart selling coffee and pastries in the morning.

The Corner Store

On Saturday a road crew was digging a trench in of the center of the street with a backhoe. The racket this operation generated dominated the block. We went past a tarp-tented aid station where more supplies were stored, past more cases of bottled water, and entered the Corner Store.

Tarps had been tied to the 200-year-old churchyard fence and suspended across the sidewalk to form a blue-lighted tunnel that rounded the corner. A few feet along the bagel cart formed a barrier and tarp support. Inside it’s hazy window oranges and applies rotted on a shelf. Bags of donated clothing, face masks, and first aid supplies were the blue-light special in the Corner Store. We helped put the Red Bull on ice, then looked around for what more we could do.

Vertical facade pieces from a collapsed tower lean against the rubble of building 5.
A closed subway entrance draped with messages to the workers.

For that’s the way these aid stations worked. In the eight or nine hours I spent there these last weeks, rarely was anyone identified as absolutely “in charge.” When someone was identified as having authority, it was often because they had been there longer than anyone else had. By this system, once I was in a location a couple hours the newer volunteers came to me for direction. Clearly there were agents at work at a higher level seeing that ice was obtained and the donated supplies were distributed. But to we volunteers, and certainly to our customers, it was a divine mystery.

We were at ground zero now. The rubble had been cleared from the street and sidewalks and even, to some extent, from the graveyard. But the trees and lampposts bore evidence of extraordinary events. At first I thought a tangle of white strips on the top of a street lamp was shredded paper. Then I saw another such bundle hanging in a tree and recognized a venetian blind. In what high window had it hung before September 11th? What story could it tell of its flight and landing in those branches? From what floor had the ordinary black office wastebasket come that now stood like an imposter beside an ancient tombstone?

First Aid Supplies, the Blue Light Special
Border’s Books — entrance to the underworld. The rubble of building 7 can be seen behind it.

The Corner Store was across the street from 6 World Trade, the northeast building, which once housed Border’s Books, a child daycare center, and several floors of offices. The building stands, but its windows are gone, it’s interior blackened. I peered across the street at it. Go through those doors under the still hanging Border’s sign; turn left down the stairs to the mall level and out the store’s lower level. Turn left again past Lechters to the hair salon I’ve been using for the last couple years. Was Fran, the woman who cuts my hair, at work that morning? Did the workers in the salon understand the danger high above and get out in time? I have been unable to find out and it grieves me. But for the guardsmen and police barriers on the sidewalk over there it seems like I could go into the store, go down the stairs, see for myself how a world where I was once comfortable has been rearranged into horror.

Looking into the Plaza between buildings 5 and 6.
Andrew helps a tired worker assemble a new hard hat.

Instead I turned to the task at hand. Boxes of particulate filtering masks had arrived (another of those divine organizational events). A worker urged us to screw in the filters and put them on, that our white fiber masks were inadequate. The national media had repeatedly reported that there was no asbestos on the air here, but we took his advice and exchanged our masks. The new masks also filtered the smell, a worth while benefit, asbestos or no. It was not, as some have started to say, the smell of decay. We were not near enough to The Pile for that. But the acrid, burnt smell that permeates the area is bad enough. After a time it irritates the throat in the way that sleeping in a room with a bad chimney does. Lower Manhattan will not easily shed the smell, either. Even when the rubble is gone, the very stones of the remaining buildings will retain the scent of this tragedy.

A ConEd worker studies a wiring diagram amid the chaos.

I had left my backpack in the chapel, and after nearly an hour at the Corner Store it was clear we would complete our shift helping there. So I went back up the block, around the corner, and into the chapel. Someone had set out vases of fresh flowers. Gentle light filtered in through the dusty windows. The freshly washed marble floor shone. A rescue worker had uncovered the keyboard of the piano and was playing. Others sat or lay in the pews. I retrieved my bag and hurried out of this surreal Nordstrom at ground zero.

A ConEd worker studies a wiring diagram amid the chaos.

I grabbed a case of water to carry back to the Store and walked past the guardsmen on the corner. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one look my way, but I guess my determined stride, and the water, lent me credibility. Then a passed the stack of water halfway down the block and felt really silly carrying mine from the chapel. Oh well, it worked.

The rest of our shift was spent assembling masks and seeing that new workers received them. Many of the workers who visited us spoke little English, and, as with the cleaning crew, Andrew and I exercised our meager knowledge of Spanish to help them protect themselves.

We marveled at the workers who were delighted to get the cold cans of Red Bull. Finally I tried one: somewhere between lemonade and Gatorade, with a bitter aftertaste. I did not experience the buzz that it’s reported to give. Maybe just being at Ground Zero had already provided all the stimulus my system could manage.At last, exhausted, we turned in our good masks for others to use and made our way back along Fulton Street. It was 12:30, and the crowds of spectators had gathered behind the barricades at the intersection of Fulton and Broadway. They saw two weary civilians – two lucky individuals who’d somehow gotten “inside” — wend their way through the emergency vehicles and officers and step around the barricade to re-enter the free world. We walked back to Seaman’s and went upstairs for lunch. Tired as we looked, we were treated by the volunteers there – a new shift who didn’t recognize is from the morning — with the same respect as the police who were our dining companions.

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