Ground Zero Diary

by

11/02/2001

West Street and Chambers Street, ny. Ny 10013

Neighborhood: Financial District

For more than 100 days members of New York’s Fire Department, along with thousands of contractors, have been working in 12 hour shifts in the recovery effort at World Trade Center. With the subterranean fires finally extinguished and the last skeletal wall bought down last week, the work has taken on a new complexion. About half of the twisted steel beams and dust that makes up the wreckage of the twin towers has been removed, leaving an 80 foot hole in the ground, and the weather has turned cold. At least a quarter of the 6,500 firefighters who have worked at ground zero since the terrorist attack have respiratory problems, with perhaps 500 sick enough to be forced to retire, adding a further blow to the 343 that died in the collapse on Sept. 11.

Lieutenant Mickey Kross, a firefighter who was in the North Tower when it collapsed and miraculously escaped injury, has been working down there for the last month. This is his account of a couple of shifts. –Edward Helmore

Lieutenant Mickey Kross

`Whenever they find a fireman or a cop, everybody stops work and they sent a stretcher down even though what they’ve found would fit into a small shopping bag. The cops and the firefighters line up, the stretcher is covered by a flag, they take their hats off, and carry it out. It’s very ritualistic. Basically what they’re finding is clothing but barely a trace of a human being. In a way, it’s very peaceful there, almost Zen-like. The people are mixed into the dirt. Dust to dust is not just a saying now, it’s become a reality.

One night I found a smashed up office chair, that was the only thing that stood out. Nothing has colour or tone anymore, it’s all just this dull grey. We look but there’s nothing solid except papers and office manuals. Sometimes it seems like only the bureaucracy survived.

You have to be very alert down there. It’s very dangerous. There’s no goofing around. It’s very easy to fall down into a crevice or get hit by a one of these huge diggers or the trucks that cart the stuff out. When they pull a beam out, we have just enough time to rush in, see what we can see, and then get out of the way again. It’s simple work, I work with a flashlight and shovel. You just move and look, move and look. It’s a miracle that no one’s got seriously hurt.

Last Thursday we were assigned to babysit a welder in the Banker’s Trust building next to the World Trade Center. We were up there for four or five hours watching this builder with his boombox cutting through the flooring. It was pretty aggravating but it was interesting to see the building.

You’d go into one office and it’s perfect, like someone just got up and left to go to the bathroom. The coffee and a half -eaten donut is there, the appointment book with everything dated 9/11. You go into the next office and there’s a 10-foot steel beam that came from across the street, through the window, and embedded itself through the floor like a spear.

It looks like everyone’s just gone on break, leaving everything as it was on that day at that time. It’s so strange to see somebody’s notepad with an appointment at 10.15 on 19/11 for a training session in room 17. Everything’s just covered in dust.

It’s the weirdest thing to see. One room’s like a museum room, the next is gone. No floor, no nothing … totally destroyed by the debris that came through the window when the tower came down. There’s even a couple of clocks that stopped at the moment the trade center came down. Like time just stopped.

Finally we got down onto the pile and were assigned to a transfer point where they dump all the material they bring up from the hole. As I was leaving they finally found someone so I assisted with the removal. The guys that were removing the remains were really good at what they were doing. They’d been working there since Sept.11 so they had a lot of experience and have turned removing remains into an art form.

I looked at it like a learning lesson. How they identified the person as a woman, what tools they called for. The person was imbedded in concrete and steel bars, so they had to take her out in pieces. They were doing this with their hands in the dark with just a flashlight, and just using their senses of touch, smell and sight. It was something to see.

We’re down to the bottom of the pit where the towers were. Before it was dust and twisted steel, now it’s dirt and twisted steel. Just layers and layers of twisted steel. A couple of days ago they found a fire engine 50 down. It was flattened out but still the same length. There was no one inside.

Although all the fires are all out, there’s still steam coming out of cracks in the earth. It looks like mini-earthquakes in the ground. They bubble and crackle like Rice Krispies. You don’t want to step too close because it looks like the earth could open up near them. Then you’ve got these thirty foot drops you gotta be careful of.

It’s kinda’ like being on a mountain range. You need to be careful of your footing. In a way it’s a survival game. I don’t mean to make fun of it, but it’s the WTC reality show. Only we don’t get a million dollar prize if we survive.

It doesn’t feel good to be taking out somebody’s rotting flesh but I’m doing what needs to be done and I feel good to be part of it. It’s being done with such dignity that it feels like you’re doing noble work.

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