Friday, September 11, 2009

That Day

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.
silence, then
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


kylie said...

i'm sorry

PI said...

I'm thinking of you all on this fateful day. I have to go out but I'll be back to read Sarge's account.

Candie Bracci said...

This was heartbreaking

The Unbearable Banishment said...

Ugh. It takes me back. I was living on Houston and Avenue B at the time -- only 3/4 of a mile away. Afterwords, they closed off the area below Houston and turned it into a military zone. We had to show IDs in order to get to our home on Clinton St. And it stunk for about three weeks after because of the underground fires. Mrs. Wife was six months preggers and had to walk home from Midtown because the subways were down. We didn't care. At least we were alive.

otin said...

Just gave me chills! The entire story! In the mid 90's, I lived in the Poconos and commuted to paramus NJ. When he found the Pocono home guide it almost made me cry, thinking of a life that I once had, that was very happy and knowing of the over 3000 people that lost all chance of happiness!

Hunter said...

This was very touching. Thanks for sharing.

Baino said...

Leah what does Sarge do? This was amazing and frankly really moving. I've just done a little tribute to an Aussie who died in the North tower. People will not forget-ever. This changed everything, everything. So, so sad but we also need to put it into perspective. People in other lands live with this all the time. There are 20 somethings in Afghanistan who have NEVER known a time of peace. Still, this was the shock of shocks and I'll never, ever forget. Ever. Thank you for posting and remembering. And bless Sarge for having the courage to retell such detail.

Brian Miller said...

shivers...through it all i came back to the shoes...and thought of who might have been in them...thanksto sarge for the reminder. shalom.

savannah said...

Thank you, Sarge. xoxo

Anonymous said...

Leah, I can relate to this only because I've been in many war-zones, just not on U.S. soil. It's mind-numbing, to say the least. Mike( brother of my brother's girlfriend ), was in tower #7 but got out; tho' I can imagine the mental scars he'll always have. This is gut-wrenching, yet moving piece and I thank you for sharing it...( getting a bit teary-eyed, I am )

Leah said...

Kylie: it's a funny day for us here (not funny hahah) but as UB says, at least we're here!

Pat: thanks and hugs--

Candie: I know, I cried a little when I read it, as Sarge told some things I'd never heard about before.

UB: your wife was pregnant at the time? oh dear...Hedgie was a baby, and I often wonder what I would have told her if she had been old enough to be cognizant.

otin: that Poconos home guide was one of the saddest memories of Sarge's, to me at least.

Hunter: thanks for reading--

Baino: I'm not sure any event like that can ever be put into perspective, nor should it be. It would be like saying to someone whose parent had died that they should put it into perspective because someone else lost two parents! Each event stands alone qualitatively if not quantitatively.

Leah said...

Brian: the shoes are really quite strange and sad, and emblematic, and he never found out why they were there.

sav: and thank you for reading, and putting your voice here--xo

subby: I'm sure you do understand and can relate--and here's a tissue, I bought an extra box for today. xo

nickq said...

A wonderfully detailed and evocative account. I can scarcely imagine the sheer horror and disbelief that those on the spot must have experienced. Of course like many people I watched the endless replays of what was happening on TV but that's very very different from being there.

Karen ^..^ said...

It was horrible having to explain this to my girls. There is no real explanation for it.

I remember for months afterward, my oldest was terrified to go outside, terrified of contracting Anthrax, terrified of any plane flying low, terrified.

I stopped watching the news after I woke in the mornings seeing those towers come down hundreds of times. It was burned into my brain for all eternity, couldn't even escape it in sleep.

I stopped watching the news forever after all of it. Seeing people decide to jump to their death rather than burn.

No, we can never forget such a thing. I can't even imagine being there.

My brother was born in St. Vincents.

Anonymous said...

Leah, thanks much luv!( sniffle... )HUGS!

The Clever Pup said...

Thank you Sarge. You describe it well.

willow said...

Frightening and compelling memories.

Anonymous said...

Please thank Sarge for sharing his memories- told so well, you feel as if you are walking with his eyes. It is a privilege to hear such a personal account- please thank him.

faycat said...

Thanks Sarge, I really loved reading this. I was really interested in your description of the smell as something you recognized. It was the first time I ever smelled something quite like that, and for some reason it's the most vivid memory I have of that day and the days after. Now if I smell anything remotely close to that it gives me the chills.

Leah said...

Nick: I watched it over and over and over on tv too, sitting in my livingroom worrying about Sarge for days on was numbing and terrifying all rolled into one. This is the first time I've heard some of what he was seeing there...

Karen: you're so right, those images are absolutely seared into our subconscious at this point. We're all so different because of it, although I'm still understanding how...Hedgie and I watched the reading of the names at Ground Zero today, and she was absolutely silent. We talk about it a lot but it certainly is different for her--the immediacy of the fear is gone. I'm glad she wasn't conscious then, because we were all so frightened here in NYC and there was no way I would have been able to hide it from her. Oy vey.

subby: hugs back--

Hazel: thank you for coming and reading.

Willow: I thought so too, and much of this is new to me.

Cinnamon: that is a lovely thing to say, and I will show him the comments here.

Fay: "sissy" was just mentioning that smell to me, as something she too remembers too vividly. Smell is so primal, I guess. I was too far away from the site to really know what you guys mean, but I guess everyone who smelled that will keep it forever...


underOvr (aka The U) said...

Hi Leah and Sarge,

Thanks for sharing your experience of that day. When you mentioned the smell, I recalled what it was like as I detoured around the Pentagon the following morning. I could still smell the smouldering of human flesh and property the flames had consumed; I will never forget that smell.


King of New York Hacks said...

Subby sent me over and ...I'm sure glad he did..this must have been a difficult memory to make so fresh again and relive it..Thank you for sharing it with us...the memory of smell is such an overwhelming sense, you really translated that day.

Beverly said...

Thank you for sharing this. I needed to read it. All day I've been morose thinking "are people forgetting?" I live in CT now, and it doesn't seem to have been as immediate and awful to people here. Every moment of the day is carved into my soul. I remember thinking the Saturday after as I bought supplies to send down "I'll be feeling better soon. I won't feel so bad in a week or so." I think it was just too huge to comprehend. Anyway, thank you.

PI said...

Thank you for that and especially for the heartening 'Day shall come again.'

Ronda Laveen said...

I'm sure the memory seems faded to you, but to me, it felt like it was occuring in the here and now.

Betsy said...

Wow. Thanks so much for sharing this! We must always remember!

merelyme said...


I just can't believe how much time has gone by. And how little.

C.M. Jackson said...

leah--it was a horror here in new jersey--i cannot begin to imagine what it was like for those in the midst of the devastation-your writing captured the moment and the reasons we should never forget-
peace c

Suzanne said...

Alan and I read it together. When we were done we sat here a long time and didn't speak. With tears in my eyes, thank you darling. Really. Thank you.

Much love.

Megan said...

Thanks, Sarge.

Megan said...

Thanks, Sarge.

Kookaburra said...

I have tears in my eyes as I read this. I remember a work colleague of mine from that time .... the poor lady was absolutely beside herself with grief- she had a friend who worked for an insurance company - AIG if my memory serves me well - in one of the towers. And being so far away here in Australia she was powerless to find out if her friend had been at work in his office on that terrible day. It wasn't until six weeks later that she learned that was safe.

You have vividly portrayed what it was like on that day for so many people.
You must have been overwhelmed with the the monstrosity of it all. No doubt your training kicked in to help you cope with it all; albeit with a hollow feeling at the pit of stomach.
Thank you so much for sharing this with us all. I hope that it hasn't stirred up any heartache for you.

Madame DeFarge said...

Leah and Sarge - thanks for this. It's interesting to hear from someone that was involved as I think that there are too many posts written by those who watched. We were in Portland OR at the time and I remember it seeming so unreal, especially as we'd woken up after everything because of the time difference.

mapstew said...



Leah said...

I have to add an addendum to what I already said to Baino, as it has been bothering me terribly all day yesterday and all day today.

It is easy enough for people who weren't in NY that day to say, "put it in perspective!" or "it happens all over the world everyday!" or, much worse, as I've been reading on other blogs. I've been reading blogs which suggest that we should actually just get over it, move on! People have become bored of what they perceive as American whining.


But coming from NYC, let me tell you it's different for us.

First of all, just speaking practically, an event of that magnitude simply doesn't happen every day all over the world. Yes "only" 3000 people died. But don't forget, TWO 110 story buildings fell down in the middle of Manhattan!!!!! Multiple planes were used as weapons in the middle of peacetime, by people that most of us didn't even know were our enemies! We were attacked, and we didn't know what was going to happen to us! I mean, unless you were there, or have experienced something like it, you just do not understand the abject fear, terror, confusion. You don't understand it. And not understanding is fine, but trying to quantify or qualify anyone's experience of terror is not fine. Not by a long stretch.

Please understand that there are many of us who were not just watching this on television. We were outrunning the smoke cloud, we were cowering alone at home with a baby, crying and afraid, while our husband went out to work in a battle zone. The point is, for those of us who were in NYC on September 11, 2001, putting it into perspective is not an option. We're not playing misery poker here! Saying to the people in Iraq or Beirut or Jerusalem or Afghanistan, "ours is worse than yours" or "yours is worse than ours." Not trading one sorrow for another.

Believe me, the people who live in those places feel their own sorrow. Just as the people who lived in NYC on September 11 feel theirs.

Please don't ask us again to put it into perspective. Please.

I realize I am going out on a limb here. But I simply could not keep quiet.

Leah said...

and p.s. Sarge thanks everyone for the very kind comments, and for reading. It really meant a lot to him.

Anonymous said...

Leah, I felt that; I really did! Kudos kiddo( and I'd give you some of my tissues but I ran out, sorry ) on!

lettuce said...

thankyou for this

the details are so powerful

Suzanne said...

Hi baby. I love you so. Thanks for the addendum. Alan's asleep and so are the kitties and T-Bone. The house is finally quiet and it's a good time to think. I didn't remember that yesterday was Septemeber 11th. Why? Because I made a choice in August to try desperately to forget. Why? Because it's so painful. But Renee called. I was with her and Charlie on Sept 11th. And when Alan realized I wasn't aware it was Sept 11th he was so insulted and asked why. I told him the truth, that I wanted to pretend for a short time that it hadn't really happened. And somehow I was able to block it out until the people I cherish desperately reminded me it had. How rude!

Of course I didn't really forget, I was just waiting for the sun to shine today hoping we'd all still be here. That's what 911 did to me. It took away my faith, and so in retaliation, I wanted to pretend (at least for one year) it never happened. Denial isn't a good thing because I saw my nephew's pain. He actually thought I didn't remember and it hurt him.

I do remember. Please thank Sarge for me. I love you.


Dave King said...

As moving an account as any I have read. We need such accounts, for without them the event is just unimaginable. That does more than all the pictures.

Maria said...

That made my throat get tight.

I have a friend who lives in Brooklyn and when she finally called me back to let me know that she was okay, she just whispered, "There are shoes just laying all over, Maria. Shoes..."

Brandy Rose said...

My heart is now in your hands.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the addendum. Hope you are all well.

just popped over to say the voting is open at the Virtual Book Club to see which book we want to read next.

Mr. Shife said...

Thank Sarge for sharing his story with us. Really do appreciate reading his words.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful and moving post. Thank you.

Donn w/2 Ns said...

Thank You for that Sarge. I'm going to always remember the shoes heating up. That dust will never settle.

My youngest son was born exactly one week later.
I remember watching the towers crumble on TV and wondering if World War 3 would be raging on his birthday.

What kind of sick world was I bringing this poor kid into?

Ducky Loves Minnie said...

Wow, very powerful reading for me. I tend to forget how bad it really was having expereinced that day only on television from Texas. Thank you for helping me (in some inevitably limited way) to understand that day a bit better.

muralimanohar said...

Thank you for that.

Eric said...

An amazing post. Thanks, Sarge, for sharing, and reminding.

Tracey said...

Thank you for posting links to your favorite posts. I am working through them.

I twas amazing of Sarge to share this. I love ( a strange place for this word) the human-ness of his observations and his own humble admission that obscure-ish Tolkien got him through.

In the context of what he was looking at, and all of you were living through, who cares that he is a big dork? Aren't we all in our way? And everyone who died that day, too? All human.

That, if you ask me, is perspective.

California Girl said...

Thank you for referencing this post today as I did not see it the first time.

Aside from the descriptions of the events of that day which are beautiful in their simplicity, I was struck by your addendum.

Most of us remember where we were that morning, even if we were not in Manhatten. My, then, 91 year old father, a WWII veteran, called me crying. It was between 5:30-6:15am PST when the towers were hit. He was up early always watching the news. He was convinced we were on the verge of WWIII. It was too much like Pearl Harbor. He was sure we were under attack. He'd been there before.

I, on the other hand, could not wrap my mind around the images I saw on the television: the WTC towers, the Pentagon, the plane in PA. It was like watching science fiction or a computer generated thriller. It wasn't real.

I don't think anyone who undergoes that experience can ever "move on". I saw and heard that from the war veterans.