Shouldn’t We Be Digging?

by

09/11/2002

Ground Zero, NY, NY 10048

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

I am not a firefighter, police officer or paramedic, but when a nurse at the Red Cross barricade mistook me for one and asked, “Are you coming?” I said, “Yes.”

That was 8:45 P.M. on September 11th. What followed was a two-day odyssey at Ground Zero.

I worked with many good-willed people on bucket brigades and setting up triages. I even started a campaign to get respirator masks, but the rescue effort on the whole was agonizingly slow and disorganized. Firefighters who wanted to search for their brothers stood in the toxic haze without masks breathing asbestos and waiting for the all the heavy pieces to be removed. One at a time, one crane guided by one construction worker, hoisted one piece of steel slowly overhead. There were 68 miles of steel.

Later, hand-held buckets were used to take out the dirt and smaller debris. Was that the best we had? Where was all the money that went into their construction? Where was all the state-of-the-art machinery and space age technology then? Is it because there’s no real money in saving people’s lives? If anyone was alive inside the smoke-filled crevices, there was nothing we could do to save them.

None of the firefighters were wearing particle masks or goggles. I took a box of masks around to different sites and started asking where to get more. I eventually was led to a school gymnasium where I found 200 officials in baseball hats seated at long tables.

It was the “Emergency Command Center.” Every public agency in the tri-state area was there, routinely reporting their presence to a sergeant with a Mr. Microphone. So this is where they all were. I felt relieved and agitated at the same time. It was good to know they were here, but I couldn’t believe they weren’t moving faster! What if there were people trapped, waiting to be rescued. Where was the urgency? All I saw was coffee and doughnuts.

Shouldn’t we be out digging? Maybe I just didn’t know what was going on. One official told me they already had boxes of the masks in a storage room but hadn’t organized how to distribute them yet. I volunteered to raise a crew and he said, “That’s alright. Thanks for all your concern and everything, but we’ll take care of it.”

The sun rose making reluctant survivors of us all. We all seemed so small, like ants scurrying. A familiar feeling at the heart of an industrial superpower, it was never so painful as now. Twenty hours after the apocalypse, men without masks waited in the smoke and mud with buckets, shovels and crowbars as a few cranes picked away at points on the edge. The Middle Ages with bureaucracy.

On September 13th, a procession of dark overcoats and somber smirks filed in forming a semi-circle. Some familiar faces: Koch, Dinkins, Lieberman and Schumer, then came Pataki and Giuliani (without their hats.) They worked the crowd with smiles, squeezes and heartfelt handshakes. I wondered if there were survivors in the rubble right now fighting for their lives.

A rainbow of inter-faith and community leaders joined the politicians fanning off to the side. It was entertaining to see the jockeying, positioning and the awkward corrections that saved adversaries from having to stand next to each other. Shouldn’t we be digging?

I felt like I had fallen into that vintage black and white picture, seen so many times throughout history, of all the leaders present at a tragedy. We stared at them, they stared at the road and we all waited another half-hour.

It was the most deadly act of terror on American soil and the first time since the War of 1812 that our mainland was attacked. On the list of dead or missing was our very sense of security and peace of mind. We had faith in our leaders to protect us before it happened and now we waited, in front of a mass grave of our fellow citizens, for our leaders to make some sense of the tragedy and try to show us the high road. It didn’t have to be another “Gettysburg Address” or “Day of Infamy!” speech, we knew the president didn’t have his speechwriters with him, we just wanted him to try.

We waited on hallowed ground, soil consecrated by the blood of thousands of “…brave men, living and dead, who struggled here…”

Arriving like a prizefighter surrounded by his entourage, Bush stepped into the circle to the chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” the cheer made famous in 1980 when the U.S. Hockey Team beat the Russians. With a big grin on his face, the president pumped his fist up and down then went from dignitary to workingman shaking hands. Instead of accepting the prearranged place to speak, the leader of the free world grabbed the bullhorn and triumphantly climbed up onto a burnt-out fire truck. Not fifty yards from the tragedy, the president started proclaiming emphatically, but the bullhorn was either broken or turned off. Somebody screamed, “We can’t hear you!” to which Bush cast away the speaking device and answered something I couldn’t hear, but others cheered “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” The pep rally persisted until he left with a thumb’s up.

Just recently I reflected on the year’s events: The War on Terror, Enron and Wall Street. No matter what I thought about, the image of people crushed or trapped in a collapsed building haunted me. Then all the firefighters who lugged a hundred pounds of crude equipment up skyscraper stairs and never came down. Then the people on the floors above the fire, leaning out of the windows crying to be saved, jumping instead of burning alive…Then I thought about the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on defense systems, space shuttles and federal aid to corporations. I realized that for all the talk from “hero politicians” in baseball hats, when it came right down to saving regular people’s lives we were on our own.

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