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Volunteering at Ground Zero

Rescuers at the base of the World Trade Center 14 September 2001, in New York.
Rescuers at the base of the World Trade Center 14 September 2001, in New York.

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Tad Daley is a former speechwriter and policy analyst for Congressman Dennis Kucinich and the late U.S. Senator from California, Alan Cranston. He’d gone to New York to speak at the United Nations. This story, special for Off-Ramp, is about what he wound up doing instead. (Tad is also author of Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World.)

I flew into New York from L.A. very late at night. On the Supershuttle from JFK, it seemed like every bus shelter had an ad for a show on the Sci-Fi Channel called "Crossing Over with John Edward." The tagline was, "What if you could talk to a lost loved one just one more time?"

It was September 10, 2001.

I slept through the attack. My wife, KPCC's Kitty Felde, called from L.A. with the news, and as soon as she learned I was intact, she put me to work as the station’s eyes and ears on the streets of New York.

I’ll never forget the first thing I saw: No traffic on Second Avenue. Instead, I saw a vast exodus of people walking right up the middle of the street, away from the cataclysm, several covered with a fine gray dust. They were headed north. I walked south, trying to do “man on the street” interviews for Kitty.

I asked people to tell me about their day. Many couldn’t keep themselves from talking about the scenes they had witnessed: People hanging out of windows, faced with the choice of plummeting 90 stories or burning alive. One man elaborately explained to me the difference between a voluntary "jump" and an involuntary "flight." "If you touch a hot stove," he asked me, "do you ‘choose’ to pull your hand away?"

As I headed further south, I got choked up for the first time. It was a cheap little Italian restaurant, bright neon lights inside, surrounded by locked-up, dark businesses. The owner had put up a big handwritten sign. "We refuse to give in to terrorism. We are open for business. God Bless America." An NYU dorm had another sign on butcher paper: “Free hugs, 6th floor lounge.” “Call mom and dad to tell them you are O.K.”

People kept looking up – at American fighter planes streaking overhead engaged in high alert air defense of Manhattan Island. One man waited for the aircraft’s noise to subside, then looked at me and said: "Sort of like locking the barn door after the horse is stolen, huh?"

From everywhere we could see the smoke column – big, gray, dynamic, a great rising column of spark and ash, constantly churning out new ruin.

That was Tuesday, 9/11. First thing Wednesday, I hiked a couple of miles across Manhattan over to the Jacob Javits Convention Center, the major staging area for supplies and volunteers, and they put me to work unloading trucks and vans and cars, filled with drinks, gloves, flashlights, socks, hot food, goggles, and “javaboxes” of hot coffee.

I told a few people I was visiting from L.A. They reacted with intense gratitude, as if 9/11 was something that had happened to them, not me; to their community, not mine. They were astonished when I mentioned something Kitty told me, that the lines to give blood in L.A. were even longer than the lines in New York.

Rumors were rampant among the volunteers. That the Air Force had actually shot down four other hijacked airliners on Tuesday. The space needle in Seattle had been one of their targets. JFK Airport had opened on Wednesday, then immediately closed – four men had shown up for a Los Angeles-bound flight carrying box cutters, "ready to do the same thing all over again." At news of this the next guy over in the hauling chain looked at me, and said quietly: "Hey, California, if I were you, I’d drive back."

The other thing all the volunteers at the Javits Center were talking about was how to get ourselves to "Ground Zero." The criteria for determining who got on the busses that headed down every few hours was ill-defined, and all of us wanted to climb aboard.

I’m a bit ashamed, even now, of how intensely I craved making this journey. I told myself that I’m a policy wonk, that I’ll be writing and speaking about 9/11 for many years to come, that my advocacy can only be enhanced by firsthand experience. But the truth was more primal. And selfish. It was a big, monumental, historic event … and I really wanted to get to the center of the action. It was, I felt certain, a horrific, cataclysmic, apocalyptic scene … and I really wanted to see it.

Saturday morning, I talked my way onto a bus with my CPR certification card and an exaggerated story about clearing rubble after the Northridge earthquake. “All right, all right,” said the lady in the orange vest, “pipe down and get on.”

The bus full of welders, ironworkers, and me arrived next to the East River shortly before noon – exactly 99 hours after the first plane hit the first tower. We all got goggles, buckets, shovels and heavy-duty masks. We walked carefully through the shattered but still-standing World Financial Center building, through water and the ubiquitous gray concrete dust.

We stepped through a broken doorway, and there it was, the pile, as big as Dodger Stadium, the site of a political mass murder. I thought about my grandmother, who graduated from secretarial college at this very address in 1916, then went to work – as a secretary – in the North Tower on the day it opened in 1972. I looked at the elegant Woolworth Building still standing just blocks away– the tallest building in the world when it was built – and thought about my parents, both dead, who had met inside almost exactly 50 years earlier. I headed toward the bucket line.

I was wearing Bermuda shorts I’d packed to wear around my hotel room, a T-shirt, casual hiking shoes, and a long pair of knee socks which made me look like an 18th century Swiss yodeler … plus kneepads, gloves, respirator mask, goggles, and hard hat. I moved in between two big sturdy fellows with sharp Brooklyn accents, one a copy, one a fireman. They looked me over. I hesitated. Then the firefighter said, “You know, there’s not a lotta guys who could pull off an outfit like that.” I got in line.

We were working bucket lines, clearing rubble twenty- to thirty-pounds at a time. It took me awhile to figure out the point. The reason we were using buckets instead of bulldozers was because we were searching for bodies, and body parts, and – only 100 hours after the attack – for survivors. One guy told me his brother, a firefighter, was under there somewhere. “I'm hoping to find him alive today."

About a third of the buckets, although already sorted through for body parts, smelled powerfully like rotting fruit.

Requests got shouted down from the very front toward the back of the line. “Torch! Gasoline! Burning Gloves!” Sawz-All! Batteries!” Then, “Dog!” “K-9!” The dog and her handler slowly made their way up the mountain of rubble and steel.

Then – after the dog had done her work – we got a call for something different. "Bodybag!" I’d heard this term as a kid watching coverage of the Vietnam War, but I’d never seen one before. It was folded tightly, sort of like a heavy-duty rubber flag. We passed it up.

Now, there were probably a thousand women and men at the site, running twenty or thirty bucket lines like mine. There were cranes, idling trucks, power tools, lots of noise. Then the next call came. “Quiet! Quiet. Quiet.”

The machinery stopped. The women and men stopped. The noise stopped. And we all stood silent, watching the coroners work their way back down the pile, as they carried the remains.

I don’t know who this person was. All I know is he or she was one of the 2,600 who died in the towers, was. But I imagine it was a 33-year old woman, who had been minding her own business at 8:45 a.m. on Tuesday September 11th, who’d had a fabulously fun day of bicycling with her two teenage nieces at the New Jersey shore the previous Sunday, who’d had five dates now with a new guy who had a good job and was wondering if she should bring up the "exclusivity" question, whose mother had died 5 years earlier and whose father had never really pulled out of his funk, who’d been reading Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation on the subway an hour earlier and had almost gotten through the entire seven volume series, who voted every election because it had mattered to her mother but who had never really paid much attention to politics, who had never heard of Osama bin Laden – let alone Mohammed Atta – and who, if you’d asked her at that moment if there was anyone or anything anywhere on planet Earth that merited her "hatred," would have likely replied: "Gee – I dunno. Nobody comes to mind."