Ground Zero - The World Trade Center
"I'm sorry, but the public isn't allowed in there" apologized the New York City policeman manning the barricades along Broadway at Ground Zero. The crowd moved along. He then motioned me over and spoke softly "You a firefighter?" he asked.
I was standing there in my Sebago Fire Department uniform with a disappointed look on my face. "Yes, I'm in town for the funerals" I replied.
"Wait over there" he said, pointing to a spot behind the barricades.
About 15 minutes later, a minivan pulled up. He gave me a sign to join a group boarding the van. They were 8 people with white tags and somber faces. He drove us through several police checkpoints and barricades, and stopped at an inspection point where we all got out. We were handed hardhats and paper dust masks, and followed him in to Ground Zero. There on a wooden platform we overlooked the terrible spectacle - where the World Trade Center used to stand before September 11, 2001. Three days after my visit, President Bush, Secretary General Kofi Annon, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Mayor Rudy Giuliani would stand on this same platform and honor those from 80 nations who were lost here just two months before.
"Take all the time that you want" he said "When you are ready, I'll take you back in the van." The people with me in the van had all lost a family member or friend to the tragedy. This was their personal pilgrimage to pay respects to their loved ones.
For me, this trip to Ground Zero was also a pilgrimage. I had not lost a family member or close friend in the collapse of the World Trade Center. My sense of loss was profound in another way - as an American, and as a brother firefighter to the 344 who had died here doing their duty. I hoped that my own pilgrimage would help me to come to terms with my sense of loss and emptiness - to try and find some meaning to all the tragic events of September 11.
This is truly hallowed ground. It is a mass grave. Somewhere in and under the rubble are the remains of thousands of victims. I had the same feeling of reverence that I had felt when visiting the battlefields of Verdun and Gettysburg. The fellow pilgrims on the platform with me spoke in whispers, or wept.
Messages of love, of hope, anger and love were scribbled on the wooden railings. "Dear Daddy" began one inscription. "I miss you so much, and it's so hard with you not around." "Steve", began another, "I love you so much. You gave me in our 22 1/2 years more than I could have ever asked for. We will have you forever in our hearts. The kids and I will never forget all the wonderful memories you have given us. Rest in peace and know how very much we will always love you."
And another, written from parents to a son who had lost his life as a firefighter here, doing his job to bring others to safety: "You were our shining star in everything we did. Love, Mom and Dad."
A young lady next to me had lost a brother in one of the towers. Weeping, she borrowed my pen to add her own message of love and rememberance to him.
We have all seen the towers being hit, in flames, and the horror of them collapsing to the ground. As terrible as those scenes were, nothing in all the images from television, in the papers and magazines, had prepared me for the panorama of devastation before me. The first view of ground zero close-up was like a blow to the heart.
A smoking, steaming pit lay before me. The site was ringed by the burnt shells and stumps of buildings and the skeletons of the World Trade Center towers. Curtains still flapped in blackened window sockets. Debris, twisted steel girders, piles of cement, and grey ash were everywhere. The buildings still standing around the edge of the 13-acre site were dark and empty, their broken windows covered in plywood. Entire buildings were covered in netting to prevent debris from falling.
A giant red crane sat in the middle of the "pile" with at least a dozen smaller yellow tracked cranes and excavators removing mouthfuls of debris into a fleet of huge trucks that swarmed around the site. As a truck was loaded and left the site, an empty one came in to replace it. The tires of every vehicle that left the site were hosed down to remove the mud and ash.
Two or three deck guns streamed water onto the steaming, smoking pile. A New York firefighter I spoke with later had just come off a shift at the pile. "Temperatures are still running more than 1,000 o F., and the fires are still smoldering down deep. The water keeps the temperatures low enough for recovery work to continue," he said.
The water also helps keep the dust down, but the smoke and dust were everywhere. As the wind swirled around the pile, we were sometimes surrounded by it. It is unlike any smell I've ever experienced before - an acrid mixture of concrete and drywall dust, ashes, diesel exhaust, and the too-familiar smell of burnt buildings. One New York fire fighter I spoke with said that the smoke and ash permeates your clothes and they have to be discarded after each shift. I believe him - the smoke and dust seemed to follow me whereever I walked in the area.
I met Jason and Karen at a fire fighter funeral reception the next day. They have an apartment on Chambers, just north of ground zero. When they were allowed back to their apartment after three weeks, they found it undamaged but everything was covered in dust and ashes. Even now when the wind blows from the south, dust and ashes seep into their apartment through cracks in the windows. It is a constant reminder of the tragedy for them.
According to a recent report I read, nearly 40% of the firefighters, police and rescue worked at the pile have "the cough", caused by working in the smoke and ash without respirators. They have seriously irritated their throats and lungs. Now, everyone on site has either a respirator or a face mask. "The cough" is being treated with antibiotics and other remedies. I noticed it in a number of the firefighters and rescue workers I met and talked with.
The group of relatives left for their van, but I stayed on, unable to tear myself away from the terrible spectacle. A group of six firefighters from Orange County, CA, arrived and were awed at the sight as I was. We talked in hushed tones as if we were in a church - even though the engines of trucks and cranes, generators and compressors around us filled Ground Zero with noise.
As the sun went down, floodlights made the scene surreal. The bones of the blackened buildings stood in stark relief under the glare. The lights from undamaged buildings across lower Manhattan made ground zero appear even more tragic. As I left to absorb what I had witnessed, a group of firefighters from Chicago replaced me on the platform.
A Refuge Amid Chaos
I walked back up Broadway to visit one of the rest areas for rescue workers. As I entered, the smoke and noise from the pile were shut out, and soft music from a grand piano played in the subdued lighting of the sanctuary of St. Paul's Chapel. Since September 11, the Chapel has been a quiet refuge for those working on the pile to recover bodies of the victims.
St. Paul's is located at Broadway and Fulton Street. This venerable stone church is the oldest public building in continuous use on the island of Manhattan, since 1766. Just behind the Chapel, to the west, ground zero begins. Here bone-weary firefighters, police, and emergency service workers can have a free hot meal, showers, or a cot to rest on. Counselors, free clothing, and snacks are available. In one corner of the sanctuary a podiatrist gave a massage to a foot-weary worker. Elsewhere masseurs and stress counselors were available. It provides a more intimate atmosphere than the larger and better known refuge at Pier 94.
I spoke with one of the staff. Richard was manning a table on the side of the main sancturary as you came in. There he had supplies of underwear, socks, and personal toiletry items - all free to the rescue workers who needed them. He talked about the people he had seen, the grief on their faces after working at Ground Zero. He showed me his meager supply of long underwear for rescue workers, and worried about the coming winter and what additional trials the rescue workers would be facing. (Contributions can be made to St. Paul's Chapel, c/o Trinity Church, 74 Trinity Place, New York, NY 10006-2088.)
Tonight, dinner was being provided by the Waldorf. Stainless steel dishes of hot food were delivered from a truck and set up on a buffet line at the rear of the sanctuary as I watched. The selection tonight was was beef stroganoff, pasta, chicken, and a selection of vegetables and cakes. Workers lined up with their trays, and sat in the pews to eat their dinner.
I asked the person in charge, Diane, if church services were also offered. She smiled and said that, "Yes, we have a holy eucharist every day at noon, and other services as well during the week." St. Paul's Chapel is part of the Parish of Trinity Church and has held services, week day concerts, lectures, and has provided a shelter for the homeless for years. The World Trade Center rescue center is St. Paul's most recent community outreach. Truly this is one of the best ways that a church can serve their community and God's children in times of crisis and need.
When I stepped outside, the wind had shifted, bringing the smoke with it. The staff at the gate had donned paper face masks. "This happens all the time," they said. Their job is to guard the entry and to admit rescue workers while gently steering the curious public away. Posters reminded those entering the Chapel that no photos were allowed, to respect the privacy of the workers. People were reminded also that the Chapel was a quiet place for rest and refreshment of the body and spirit. The staff were proud of what they were doing and shared stories of the heroes and trials of these last two months since September 11.
On the tall wrought iron fence that surrounds St. Paul's were flowers, candles, flags, cards and photos, and large cloth posters with the names of well wishers from all around the globe. One of the staff loaned me a marker and urged me to add my name to the others. There were lines of people leaving tokens and offerings at this makeshift shrine.
In the days right after September 11, photos of the missing were posted. Now, their photos are mostly gone and the tone of the memorials has changed.
The outpouring of emotions and love in these hand-made memorials was a wonderful statement that the world cares about what happened here. And in St. Paul's Chapel are dedicated souls who are putting their love into action.
And the pipers played "Amazing Grace"
Every day since September 11 there have been multiple wakes, funerals, and memorial services for the 344 New York firefighters, policemen, and emergency services workers killed in the line of duty. On the two days that I was in New York there were 19 of them. I spoke to Eddie Burke, Fire Marshal representative at the Uniformed Firefighter's Association when making arrangements for my pilgrimage. "The firefighters are just getting worn out, physically and emotionally." he said "They are working their regular shifts, go to two or three funerals every day, and often pull a shift at the pile in addition - then get up the next day and start all over again. The stress is tremendous."
He appreciated all the visiting firefighters from out of town, coming to show their support by attending the wakes, funerals and memorial services. It meant a great deal to the firefighters of New York, and he welcomed my trip to town.
The kids in Sebago had carried around a firefighter's boot they borrowed from the Chief while Trick-or-Treating on Halloween. I delivered the money that they had collected to Sheila Petty at the Uniformed Firefighter's Association offices when I got in town. (Contributions can be made to the Uniformed Firefighter's Association, 204 East 23rd Street, NY, NY 10010)
In the evening I went to the wake for Captain Patrick J. Brown from Ladder 3 at Campbell's Funeral Parlor. "Paddy" had arrived on the scene when people were running out of the towers. "Don't go in there!" someone shouted "Its going to go!" "What, are you crazy - there are people in there!" Paddy replied, and led his men in to save them. Captain Brown was on his way down with his men, to safety, when they came across 30 badly burned people on the 40th floor. If they had gone on, they might have made it out. They didn't - they stopped to help the burned victims down the stairs. But it was too late - they all perished when the tower collapsed shortly thereafter.
The first and fourth floors of the funeral home were filled with firefighters from New York and a dozen other towns and cities across America. They were there in their dress uniforms and in turnout gear just coming off duty. We were all here to pay homage to Paddy Brown - a man most of us from out of town had never met. In reading the testimonials and honors displayed, and in talking to his friends and co-workers, we came away from the wake feeling that we had known him.
The next morning I walked from my hotel to St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue for two separate Masses of Rememberance - one for Captain Brown scheduled for 2pm and another for fellow firefighter Lieutenant Halloran from Ladder 8 scheduled for 9:30am. Both had lost their lives trying to save others, and their bodies are among those still buried in the rubble of the towers.
St. Patrick's occupies a whole city block on Fifth Avenue, between 50th and 51st Street. I'd never been there before, and was awed by its size and magnificance. The police were blocking off Fifth Avenue to traffic, and I joined a steadily growing stream of firefighters all moving toward St. Patrick's.
There were contingents from Los Angeles, Orange County, Texas, Chicago, Tennessee, Spokane, and several from different departments in Ontario, Canada. Boston had firefighters there, as did Portland Maine, Concord and Nashua NH, and several departments from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland. Every style of uniform and shoulder patch was present, and everyone with a black band of mourning over their badges.
Two ladder trucks pulled up across Fifth Avenue from the cathedral for each mass. They were sent by fire departments in New Jersey in honor of the two ladder company heroes. They raised their ladders and suspended a large American flag from their ends so that it framed the cathedral towers.
We formed up, shoulder to shoulder, facing the cathedral. There were ten or twelve rows of firefighters, and we filled Fifth Avenue from 50th to 52nd Street! Uniformed firefighters from New York were in the front row, and also flanked the broad stone steps to the cathedral. Family and friends gathered on steps in front of the side doors.
As we stood in ranks at attention, not a murmur could be heard from the solemn, somber hundreds of firefighters. Mayor Giuliani arrived and joined the front rank. The Bishop, priests and alter boys came down the center aisle and out onto the top steps of the cathedral. Family and friends arrived in a limo. A fire truck bedecked with flowers and draped along its side with a purple and black funeral banner slowly came down Fifth Avenue from the east and stopped. We all offered a hand salute as it went by.
And then we heard them - the pipers. They began playing "Amazing Grace" and shivers went up my spine. Tears welled in my eyes. I could swear that the smell of smoke from the towers blew across the crowd - perhaps it did, or perhaps it was just my Synesthesia kicking in and I imagined it all - but it was real to me nonetheless.
The pipers marched in from the left, with snare drums muffled with purple and black cloths. The refrain of "Amazing Grace" was picked up by the American Boys Choir inside the cathedral as people started filing in. We firefighters followed everyone in to the vast space - we filled every seat, and people were standing at the back.
The eulogies at the two masses moved the congregation to tears and laughter, in remembering these two firefighters with stories of their lives, their deeds, the close relationships with their comrades, and their dedication to duty, even to the end. In his homily at Captain Brown's mass, Father Rutler prayed that the nation would be worthy of the heroes of September 11.
Michael Moran, a surviving member of Ladder 3, was particularly eloquent and forceful. He said "If the terrorists who highjacked the planes thought they were going to meet Allah and be given 70 virgins as a reward for their actions, they were wrong. The only person they met was Paddy Brown, and they had to deal with him and his boys!" The congregation laughed and cried at the same time to that.
Of all the speakers, I thought that Mayor Giuliani was the most effective. He said that Halloren and Brown were true heroes, not just in saving lives but in defending the Constitution of the US against its enemies. They have shown us how to be proud to be an American. America will always be in their debt.
Rudy felt that America was attacked because of what we represent - freedom of choice, individual freedoms including the right to pursue our own careers, choose our own religion, and the success of our society and way of life. In honoring the New York firefighters, we honor the best of America.
I had stood close to the Mayor earlier in the day, in Times Square, when he received a photo from the Marine commandant on the occasion of the 226th anniversary of the US Marine Corps. There was a short ceremony, complete with birthday cake, a Marine band, and the Commandant of the Corps General James Jones. Mayor Giuliani was presented with a picture that had two photos - one showing the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima and the other showing the New York firefighters raising the flag amid the rubble of Ground Zero (see this photo at Our World is Different Now). Another picture showed the first Marine jet taking off from its carrier on the first bombing run against bin Laden - the pilot carried with him the same Ground Zero flag with him. When he released his munitions, he said "This is for New York!"
During Paddy Brown's eulogy the Mayor presented these two pictures to the Brown family. Paddy was a highly decorated Marine, and Rudy said that this was indeed fitting that Paddy's father should have them. Two uniformed Marines sat in the pew right in front of me. Later in the service they presented an American flag to Paddy's father.
What happened at the end of the memorial services moved me as much as anything else that happened in New York. The firefighters were asked to leave the cathedral first, so that we could line up as an honor formation in the street outside before the family and friends left. As we stood up to leave, the entire congregation also stood up and gave us a rousing ovation that lasted until the last firefighter had left the cathedral. This outpouring of love and support was overwhelming. The only thing that has come close to it in my life was the cheers of acceptance and honor from the crowds to the Vietnam veterans, as we marched down Michigan Avenue on a Veterans' Day parade in Lansing, many years after the war was over.
The family came out as all the firefighters in their ranks saluted. The pipers played "America the Beautiful" as they led the funeral procession down Fifth Avenue. First the pipers, then a firetruck with flowers, and then the limo with the family. People along Fifth Avenue stopped and stood, transfixed, as the procession went by. New York had honored another of the bravest, another fallen hero.
I didn't know either of these two brave firefighters when I came to town. Now, I felt as if they were brothers. As a volunteer fireman in a small fire department in a small town, I cannot presume to ever measure up to the challenges and rigors that face a big-city firefighter every day. Nor is it likely that I will ever be asked to lay my life on the line to save others as these New York firefighters have been, time and time again. But there is still a kinship with them, and my heart goes out to them and their families in this terrible tragedy.
I had to come to honor these men. It was a compelling need that I could not put into words. I needed to attempt to put the events of September 11 into some context in my life, to try and make sense of them and to perhaps bring closure to the feelings of grief and sadness that I just couldn't shake.
The experiences of my short pilgrimage has enriched me. And, I hope my humble presence helped show New York that the rest of America honors the sacrifices they have made and grieves with them in their losses.
But much more than myself - there is a definite change I can see in our country and Americans since September 11. The tragic events have brought us together and reminded us of the freedoms that we enjoy, and how vulnerable those freedoms are to those who would destroy them.
Nothing prepared me for the change that I saw in New Yorkers since September 11. To me, folks who live in Manhattan have "shells" that they develop to help them deal with the hurley-burley, fast-paced noisy world they live in. Underneath their shells they are real people, but their face to the outside world is often brusk, rude, and sharp-edged. The people of New York I met this time, however, had changed - they had opened their shells and were warm, loving people. Even taxicab drivers and policeman were polite and helpful! At least a dozen people, complete strangers, came up to me on the street to shake my hand and thank me - or perhaps they were thanking the firefighter symbol that I represented. I was not able to buy a beer anywhere in town - they were either compliments of the house, or someone bought one and brought it over to the table with their heartfelt thanks.
I tried to talk to as many people as I could while in New York. They all had a heart-rending story to tell. To a person they had been affected by the events of September 11, and were dealing with it as best they could. Despite the pain, the tears and the sorrow, the events have brought them together, together as one.
We have a wonderful country in America. Wonderful because of its people, and because of the freedom of opportunity that it offers to everyone. No, we are not perfect. Sometimes America has done things that we should not be proud of, that shouldn't have been done. But as a nation we have tried to do the right thing by our fellow man. We have held the concepts of freedom and opportunity close to our hearts, and held them up as a shining example to share with the rest of the world. It is gratifying to see that we are now again aware of the importance of those freedoms. It is OK to be patriotic now, and we are proud to wear and display the flag.
The outpouring of support to the September 11 charities has been overwhelming, and continues. Not everyone can be on the front lines at Ground Zero, or in the military. But we all can do our part to support America and what she stands for by taking an active part in our local communities and churches. Hate cannot win against a people discovering again what we have always known: the meaning of community, the bond of patriotism, the value of helping others. Even being a volunteer firefighter in a small fire department in a small town in Maine helps. America cares, and together we put our love into action in a thousand ways every day, and it makes a difference.
Above all else, my pilgrimage has helped me remember what it is to be an American, and to be proud of my fellow citizens - and especially proud of "The Bravest", the firefighters of New York, the heroes of September 11.
Last updated November 15, 2001
Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree