It seems to me that some things don't get easier with the passage of time; 9/11 is one such event. I asked Sarge to tell something about his experience of September 11, 2001, and this is what he remembered.
It doesn't matter why I was there, or what I was doing. You'll have to take my word that I had work to do and the work was there. I could be a doctor, nurse, pipe fitter, steel worker, clergyman, heavy equipment operator, firefighter, cop, EMT/paramedic, truck driver, engineer, public utility worker, federal agent, soldier, transit worker. Maybe I work for FEMA, or NYC OEM, the NTSB, the FAA, the Salvation Army, or the EPA. Maybe I am a DMORT team member (and if you've never heard that acronym and have no idea what it stands for, be very glad). It doesn't matter what I do. I did not run in as others ran out, nor vice versa. I walked in many hours later. My team and I were held back until just before sunset.
Here are a few things I remember about that night.
When we entered the plume, it was weird. I recognized the smell. To me, from a distance of about a mile and a half out, it smelled exactly like the chemical smoke we used to use in the Army, not the colored smoke, the white concealment smoke.
At Park Row and Chambers St. a guy was handing out fiber filter masks to everyone who passed. I have no idea who he was. That kind of mask wasn't going to be very effective in that situation, but I guess they were better than nothing.
Walking east along Chambers approaching Broadway, there were shoes everywhere. I mean dozens of pairs. Why? Where did they come from? Who did they belong to? Did groups of firefighters responding from their homes gear up at that location, leaving their shoes when they put on their bunker pants? Sometimes I wonder what happened to the shoes.
Chambers and Broadway was sort of the northwest corner of the NYPD's inner perimeter that first night. When I got there, a group of very tired looking police officers from Brooklyn relieved a group of totally exhausted looking ash-covered police officers from Manhattan. The sergeant from the Brooklyn precinct, who looked like a smaller version of Captain MacAfee from Mad Max, talked to the Manhattan sergeant, but other than that there was no interaction between the groups which seemed strange. I think the Brooklyn cops were just respecting the utter weariness of the Manhattan cops.
That intersection was a very busy place. ORP is a military term It stands for Objective Rally Point, and it's basically the last place you stop (to get your shit together, do a leader's recon, make any changes to your plan, whatever) en route to an objective. Quite a few people from different agencies were using the area around that intersection as a sort of ORP.
A National Guard platoon formed up there and then deployed to different locations.
There were also three or four members of the Rutgers University Police at that spot.
Some FBI Special Agents tried to get in and were almost turned back when the one doing the talking showed a cop his badge. If you've never seen an FBI badge, they're tiny. They look like miniature badges, incongruous, sort of, well, fake. ID cards were soon displayed and all was well, though the FBI folk may have been a wee bit hurt at having their badges referred to as "mini-shields."
There was another reason there was so much activity at that location. Church Street was pretty much impassible to vehicles. Greenwich and West Broadway ended at Barclay, but they were screwed up as routes in and out when 7 WTC collapsed. So Broadway and West Street were the best roads in and out. Vehicles heading to the site mostly came in on Broadway and exited somewhere else. There was a surprising volume of traffic. Transit Authority trucks bearing names like "Iron North" and "Third Rail" came through. NYC Housing Authority trucks with the names of the housing development they were assigned to passed through. I think I remember seeing "Walt Whitman" "Langston Hughes" "Samuel J. Tilden" "Louis Pink."
Fire trucks from other areas, mostly Long Island, came through. I saw a massive caterpillar-tracked crane pass, a cop sitting on top directing the driver, it reminded me of pictures I'd seen of "erks" (I think that was the term) sitting on the wings of RAF planes in the Western Desert, directing the pilots as they taxied. I thought that crane might tear itself to bits before it got to the pile, those things are really not meant to be driven the distance it had been driven, but the crane operator seemed determined to get his machine where it was needed, where it could do some good.
Medical personnel were directed to staging areas elsewhere, as were volunteers with construction skills.
A Greek Orthodox priest accompanied by a young man and a young woman came up to the check point and introduced himself to an officer:
Priest: I'm Father N__ from Saint Nicholas. I'm here to check on the church.
Cop: I'm sorry, Father, I can't let you in. It's too dangerous.
Priest: I'm not afraid. I should check the church.
Cop (quietly): You can't check the church Father.
Priest: But why?
Cop (deep breath): Because it's not there anymore.
Priest: Well, okay, but maybe I could help the injured.
Cop: There aren't any.
Then the cop turned away and the Priest and the young people left. If the cop seemed a little brusque to you reading this it's because you couldn't hear his voice or see his face as he talked. I think maybe he was trying not to cry.
Two Salvation Army ladies came by with a cooler full of sandwiches. Was it just my imagination, or were they wearing bonnets and cloaks, the way I remember Salvation Army ladies from my childhood? In any case, they went where they thought they were needed, and did what they thought they could.
There was one portable light generator at the intersection and as you walked south you were soon in darkness. The power was out in that part of Manhattan. Once you got south of the open space at City Hall Park, once you were back between tall buildings it got really black. There was no artificial light, except for small pools around light generators (and on that night very few were in place), almost no natural light, because of the canyon effect and the smoke.
We shined our flashlights down one of the side streets and saw all these little blue blobs. There by a derelict fire truck we found what had obviously been a temporary triage site. The blue blobs were gloves. The medics must have gone through hundreds of pairs at that location before they had to pull back. They were all over the street in the ever thickening ash and dust.
We passed abandoned hotdog carts and fruit carts. There were some beautiful-looking mangoes on one with a half inch of dust on top looking like some sort of frosting.
Walking west on Dey St (I think) I can only compare that darkness to night under triple-canopy jungle.
And there we were at Ground Zero. And where the hell were the towers? I mean, where was the wreckage, the debris? Okay sure there's a big pile there, but that can't be two 110 story buildings worth. Where did it all go?
The noise low air alarms from Scott airpacks seemed to come from all over. The ash was thick, thick, at least boot-top high on Church Street. Some places where water and ash had mixed, the sludge was even higher. If you got any of that crap on your shoes, you got a hotfoot when it dried, it heated up like concrete does as it cures. The ash made the graveyard behind St. Paul's chapel look almost like a winter scene, except for all the paper all over the place.
There was an unbelievable amount of paper littering the area. Weird how much paper "survived" intact. I picked up an undamaged "Pocono Homes Guide." Strangely it made me feel like crap. Here's some poor schmuck who was contemplating a 90 mile commute to give his family a better life (cause a single guy or gal is probably not moving to the Poconos). This is not a rich person (cause a rich person is probably not moving to the Poconos), this is just a regular person trying to make his or her way through the world, and, for the sin of being a responsible adult and dragging their ass out of bed and going to work at some crap job they get snuffed out just like that.
Also in St. Paul's graveyard was an old-fashioned water-filled fire extinguisher. It was just lying there, pristine. How did it get over the fence? Those things are heavy. If it fell shouldn't it have at least had a dent somewhere?
And across from the back of St. Paul's where I think the entrance to the parking garage used to be there was a "No Standing" sign completely undamaged while all around it was utter chaos and destruction. If you had been standing under that sign, you would have been all right; two feet away in any direction, dead. We moved on.
Later that night, I borrowed a ride north, I had been elected to get some coffee for the gang. We passed St. Vincent's hospital. There was a crowd of doctors and nurses standing at the Emergency entrance. I only saw them for a few seconds as we passed, and maybe it's me projecting my feelings but I knew with great certainty that they were Waiting. Waiting for casualties to come in. Waiting desperately to help, to be of use. As it turned out, and I think they knew, though they hoped it was not so, waiting almost utterly in vain.
I brought the coffee back and we worked through the night. I kind of wish I had written some of this stuff down when it first happened. It's not as clear as it was. Things fade, you know? But it doesn't matter. In another 50 years it'll be ancient history. Academics will know names like Rick Rescorla, "Red Bandana," "The Falling Man," and the others who had their "Kairos moments," made their choices, and acted how we would all hope to in similar circumstances, but few people will feel these events the way we do. "All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."
Which just goes to show what an absolute science fiction nerd I am. If you needed any further proof, at one point during that night when I started to get a little freaked out and upset, I thought a particular phrase several times until I calmed down and laughed at myself. I thought "Day shall come again." Not so damning unless you know the source:
Huor fell pierced with a venomed arrow in his eye, and all the valiant Men of Hador were slain about him in a heap; and the Orcs hewed their heads and piled them as a mound of gold in the sunset.
Last of all Hurin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield and wielded an axe two handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Hurin cried: "Aure entuluva! Day shall come again!"
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion