Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11 and Ground Zero ...In My Own Words.

It has been thirteen years since 9/11 and to this very day I don't know where to begin sharing my visit to Ground Zero, so I will just jump in.

Or should I say jump off into memories that come in flashes. The memory of peoples faces cloaked in dread and covered with silt and dirt flash in my mind as I recall that first day at Ground Zero. The only thing I really remember are wide eyes void of all emotion. They were eyes. that after over a month of digging in rubble and seeing those things best left unseen, needed and yearned to see or hear from a loved one, or find some resolve for the "WHY" of the the enemy attack that had turned New York City into a war zone of rubble.

But there was no answer, there was no resolve to the "WHY." There were only more and more questions. And more digging for the unknown. And hour upon hour of searching.

I made the trip with some wonderful woman I met from the Silver Creek, NY VFW. They were making the trip to volunteer at the famous Nino's restaurant for a four hour shift and to deliver 200 dozen Petri cookies. They were cookies for the many volunteers who came into Nino's three times a day to eat and rest, and to forget what they were there for, if only for a little while, before they returned to the wreckage that was right outside the door. 

I wrote for the newspaper then and as a reporter it was the perfect opportunity to get that "BIG" story, the first hand account, the one to sell the papers. But it only branded in my mind an event so horrific that most people only witness it in third world countries, or on the news. I can honestly say that I do know what the people in war torn regions are living in. And I was only there for a weekend. I could never imagine living someplace like that on a daily basis.

In American few know what that would ever be like or look like. 

Thank God for that. 

My friends and I were scheduled to work a lunch shift at Nino's after delivering the cookies. And the majority of the volunteers I saw during that one, four hour day didn't offer smiles. I think their smiles had been stolen from them by the repetition of such grueling, heart wrenching work, so as we served the food, we offered them our smiles. We offered our gentle words of "how are you doin' today,"  and a gentle touch to a tired and weary hand, or to a shaking arm, or a pat on a tired back. They were only there to get their food and slowly walk to a table where they ate in silence. It seemed that even though they had tried to talk about the carnage that was surrounding them they couldn't, or it was going to eat them up from the inside out. It seemed they felt if they gave words to what they were seeing and feeling, it would settle in their soul and that is what they would become, so they didn't talk at all. 

Not about what was going on outside anyway. Small talk was the news of the day.

But it was still noisy there. There was still chatter in the air. There were State Police that we knew from home and firemen and cooks and visitors dropping off donations. It was a busy place considering the reason,it was almost like all was well with the world outside.

My mind is so full of moments, too many for this blog. Each day we were there we saw more unbelievable sites and touched more shattered buildings and said very little.

What could we say?

Some of my most vivid memories are on the tips of my fingers right now so I will get them out and maybe my mind will be satisfied to have finally spilled them.

I took my camera with me and as we walked from our hotel to Nino's the first morning I took many, many pictures. The street was silent and we were the only ones walking in the street. The walls of buildings and telephone poles and every bare spot left open was covered with wanted posters filled with pictures of people who belonged to someone, someone who was waiting to get a phone call from them. And who probably never did. The air was thick and dirty and you could almost see it move, and the echo as we walked down that street was deafening. I never knew quiet could be so loud until I walked that street with my new friends.

I was reminded of a bird that started flying with us and followed one of the women we were with for a very long time. We don't know why he did it, but I think maybe he had lost some friends too, and needed some company.

At Nino's where we volunteered,  we left our belongings in the back room for safe keeping. That included my camera. And my camera was stolen, full of pictures. I believe to this day it is because I had pictures on there no one was supposed to see, faces of missing people and phone numbers and shattered buildings and dust and dirt. What we saw was only for us and some of what we saw was frightening. And I just believe there are somethings that aren't meant to be shared. 

My camera was never found.

It was an exhausting four hours, but rewarding to share some hope and some smiles with those men and women. I don't know how many volunteers we served, hundreds I am sure, and there were just as many empty eyes. We were the lucky ones, we got to leave after four hours; for the rest of the volunteers, they returned to their posts, ready to commence digging. They were dedicated and quite passionate about what they were doing and that, I think, fed their need to help.

That night as we toured the town, we saw Ground Zero from the top of the Empire State building and had no trouble recognizing the site because in November it was still on fire. We could see the big lights and the flames in the middle of that huge, terrible mess, with the huge water hoses spraying water on the heap to keep down any chance of explosions. One long look was enough. We knew from the flames something big was missing from the skyline, even in the dark.

We got a free tour of Ground Zero because we were volunteers, so we got to walk down into the rubble the next day, to the Trinity Church. It was located right by the site, and was one of the only building left standing. That was where the volunteers rested and slept and where the first aid station was. There were white sheets hanging off the fence surrounding the church with hundreds and hundreds of signatures of visitors to the place. Prayers, well wishes, hopes and fears written all over those sheets. Thoughts that went out to over 3000 missing people.

To this day I have no idea where those sheet are?

One of the day tours took us deep down to the bowls of the rubble of Ground Zero were the air was heavy and gray, and filled with filth and dirt and dust. 

And that was when I saw it. 

We saw a building that actually had windows left in it and initials and names etched in the dust. I have to admit I almost did it, I almost put my initials there and then It came to me, or someone may have said to me " don't, those are peoples ashes,"  and I pulled my hand back. It was then I noticed how thick the dust was and how it covered every inch of every window and every building and every wall. And we just kept staring and walking. And I didn't touch another things. 

In November most of the buildings at Ground Zero were still standing. The outer walls of so many of them were missing though, exposing the offices that were once covered to the wind and the weather. Papers hung out of desk drawers and chairs and filing cabinets stood, exposed, in those lifeless offices. Long abandoned from the falling of the Twin towers, they stood waiting to be dismantled by the volunteers who, bucket by bucket removed the mess, day in day out, for months on end. 

Ground Zero seemed to go on for miles. And I think we walked for hours. And then we finally went back to our hotel. We had finally seen enough. I know I had.

For the rest of our time there we had fun. We went to dinner, we watched Chinese men sing a Garth Brooks song at a Chinese Karaoke bar, we toured Macy's and were amazed at the animated Thanksgiving and Christmas scenes they had on display in the lobby windows. We went to see 42nd Street on Broadway and after we just walked around NY City and got to know it a little better. It is the city that never sleeps and it is a whole different world at night.

It was a terrible thing that we had come to see and volunteer our time, but people were still there, lots of people; they were still living, they were still hopeful, they were still excited about life, and so we joined them. We painted our own little part of New York City, and even fell in love with it a little.

I do have pictures, but they are better off left in my closet. I think now, thirteen years later, we need to live in the present. I know no one should ever forget, but we don't have to rekindle the old pictures either. We need to remember the Twin Towers like the picture on this blog. Tall, proud and a symbol of freedom. I know the new one is beautiful, and I hope to get to visit it one day, but the old ones need to be remembered too. They were a symbol of greatness that will now, forever, be gone. The tears in my eyes are a sure indication that I am still mourning that fact. 

And that's all I have on 9/11 and Ground Zero for today. There are more stores of my trip and I am sure I will share one day, but this is long and I know you are tired, and right now I just can't remember anymore. 

When we left NY City it felt like we had become a part of it, or the city became part of us. Either way, we took something there to share; some hope, some joy and some smiles, and hundreds of cookies. And we left with an experience we were fortunate to have been a part of, no matter the terrible circumstance. I am proud to have been able to be part of it. And so were my companions. 

And one thing I know for sure about 9/11/01, I will never forget where I was. I was in my recliner drinking my first cup of coffee when I saw the news reports of the first tower hit by that plane ... and the rest is History. 

Do you remember where you were that day?

God Bless all of you. We are SO lucky to be living in America. Every single day.

New Twin Towers