These are my initial thoughts on the events of the day. This was originally sent in the form of an email to a private list group. At the time, Peter Merholz's asked me if it was ok to post it to his blog. In some way, I consider this my first "unofficial blog post" and for that I will always be thankful to Peter.
All week, I'd been too busy and scattered to think too deeply about the tragedy--other factors about my work and personal life (client demands, preparing for conferences, ending a romantic relationship, having two stranded Austinites staying in my house, etc.) left me little time for reflection. Yesterday morning was my first stretch of time alone since the hijackings, and the following email was sent to a small list I'm on. In it, Deborah Schultz relates her graveyard shift participation with the Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle team. The combination of simple human encounters over things like Cracker Jacks with the description of the enormity of the damage touched me deeply, and for the first time since the misery that befell us Tuesday morning, I cried. Deborah has given me permission to reprint it here.
I am one of the lucky few who has been able to channel my shock into action by being in the first group of Red Cross volunteers to be quickly trained and deployed. On Wednesday evening I worked with a great group of volunteers setting up one of the largest shelters for 70 displaced elderly. Last night I worked on the scene. Both events extremely emotionally impactful in different ways. Being on the scene, however is something truly indescribable.
I haven't processed anything yet, but after finally getting a good night sleep last night, I will give it a try. It somehow feels strange to write this all down, very ego-centric. But people have been asking me what it was like, so I am describing the scene not because I think I did anything special, but to let you all know what I saw and felt. Doc please feel free to post.
Last night (Thursday), I spent a 12 hour shift from 6PM - 6AM on a Red Cross ERV (Emergency Response Vehicle) with two other Red Cross team leads and 3 other regular folks like me. The ERVs are the red and white trucks that hand out supplies to the men and woman on the scene - the fireman, policeman and construction workers etc. Driving downtown in the van in the dark from the Upper West Side felt like a descent into Dante's Inferno. The further south we got the quieter and eerier it became, first checkpoint at 14th street, then below canal, then pulling up to the corner of Church and Duane. The smell was strong and memorable, bringing me back to a school fire I lived through when I was in fourth grade.
All around us were national guardsman, army personnel, HUMVs, police, firefighters, con ed andconstruction workers and media vans. There was even a group of Franciscan friars walking the scene along with religious Jews helping to comb the wreckage for bodies. Most people where wearing masks of all types. Red Cross had told us to be prepared, but it is impossible to prepare someone for entering a war zone. I found it hard to get my bearings..nothing looks the same. The landmark I always used was gone. Only the street signs let me know where I was standing. The area was lit only by floodlights. There was white ash everywhere. It was surreal.
We parked the truck and set-up shop. Loaded with coffee, power bars, sandwiches, juice, water and treats, as well as t-shirts, socks, gloves etc. We opened our doors and turned on our lights and spread the word where we were parked. We had heard that the fireman need to be encouraged to eat. So rather than wait around for them to come to us, we loaded two boxes with supplies, put on our goggles and respirators and walked down the street. At first we went up to everyone asking them if they wanted anything. Often we used hand signals as the masks impeded speech.
It is amazing how quickly you become sensitized to who is too tired or shocked and who can be approached. The men are exhausted and sometimes don't know what they want. So we tipped our boxes forward to show them what we had, and I watched the eyes of the individual workers to see if they registered interest. If I saw a flicker, I walked over and asked them if they wanted something.
Surprisingly, the biggest hit was the box of Cracker Jacks and Oreos. Somehow the simple pleasure of a bag of cracker jacks brought smiles to the faces of these larger than life workers. We joked with a number of them and they always asked if there was a prize inside. Every single one of these men and woman thanked us for all our hard work. When we handed them food they put a large hand on our shoulders, looked us square in the eye and said a simple but impactful "thank-you". I was humbled. I answered over and over - "thank- YOU". One fireman, tired and cold, amazingly said to me, "We are paid for this, but you come here on your own". Can you believe these guys?!
A fellow volunteer and I walked one or two blocks further south. I stood on the corner of Church, by the Millennium Hotel/Century 21/Borders (the east-side of the WTC) and stared in disbelief at what I saw. The two dimensional photos cannot communicate the carnage. I couldn't tell which pile was what bldg. I won't waste words describing it.
Then the wind shifted and the precautionary Evac was sounded...everyone started jogging north...no time to think..we ran back up the block-- back to the safety of the van and we pulled back to a safer zone. Headquarters called and asked us to relieve another van, but by the time we got to the new spot another van had arrived, so we decided to ride around to find a spot that was not being well serviced. There are plenty of ERV's and Salvation Army vehicles in the center of things but we decided to find a corner a bit further away. We pulled up in front of a group of con ed workers and they swarmed us for supplies.
Suddenly there was a crack of lighting that lit up the sky..This electrical storm added even more to the surreal and other worldly nature of the scene. We turned around to look at the sky and were amazed by what we saw...the shadow formed by the smoke and remaining buildings etched a phantom WTC tower in the horizon. It was shockingly real looking.
Then the sky opened and one of those torrential NY storms brought a deluge of rain. We took shelter in the van. Our first thought was that once the rain let up our coffee, socks, towels and t-shirts would be a big hit. We prepped. Once the rain subsided we found a new location on the corner of Greenwich and Duane. Greenwich is the main convoy route for trucks going down to the scene and back as well as the walking out route for a lot of the guys coming off duty to go back to their cars.
The rain started again and as we got the word out --cold shivering and wet workers swarmed our van. We handed out t-shirts, socks, underwear, gloves and lots of coffee and sanwiches. When we ran out of t-shirts we made scarves out of four pairs of socks and handed them to the men to prevent the pouring rain from running down their backs. We got our hands on a bunch of ponchos from another Red Cross van and handed those out to the inadequately dressed construction workers as well.
The convoy drivers stuck in their trucks began backing up in front of us, so we ran down the convoy in the rain taking orders for coffee and food. The six of us got a system together and started collecting orders and delivering it down the line. Cold and wet the fireman arrived at our van, some of them looking dazed, some of them just tired. We smiled, we flirted and joked..."latte anyone, shot of bourbon, champagne?" A unit of firemen walked by us stoically carrying a body bag, we can only assume they were carring out one of their own.
We continued like this till 6AM when we finally ran out of coffee. Then we packed up and headed back to headquarters. I exchange phone numbers with my new friends and we hugged and kissed as if we had known each other for years. I now have a small understanding of how my friends who have served in the army feel about the buddies in their unit.
There are many scenes, and images and sights and smells that are engraved in my mind. I feel privileged and lucky to have been able to serve these brave men and women. I am touched to the soul by their courage and spirit.