I was just looking back at the two previous years of 9/11 posts on this blog, and realized that, oddly, I don’t mention my own experience at Ground Zero in any detail here. Maybe that’s because I assume that everyone who knows me in the flesh already knows, and I forget that some of you don’t know me. And now that we’re seven years out, and I am a little better equipped to talk about it without completely losing my shit, maybe it’s a good time to share.
To start, here is an e-mail I wrote on September 12, 2001:
I’m an EMT, and was there today to provide medical attention to survivors and emergency workers.
What you see on TV is not an exaggeration. It doesn’t even give a full impression of the devastation. Not just the WTC, but buildings for six blocks in every direction are all blasted open – windows shattered – for at least a mile in all directions, dust and debris lying two feet thick over everything.* Chairs are sitting outside of restaurants, bicycles are still chained to parking meters – everything covered in the same grey snow.
For those of you who know New York, you wouldn’t recognize it. I didn’t. And when you come across a familiar landmark, it shocks you. You can’t imagine that this is really the same place. The ancient graveyard on Rector Street is littered with papers, files from the decimated office buildings, silent in the fluttering dust. When the ambulance I was riding in drove north to drop someone at Penn Station, I was honestly startled to see Astor Place, and Broadway. I couldn’t believe that I could go from the war zone to normalcy so quickly.
The most terrifying part of the day was when I was hanging out in the triage center, doing my EMT thing, and suddenly heard, “Go, go, go!” Turned to see people flooding off the wreckage of the Towers, into the building where I was. We all ran for the back of the building, but the door was blocked, so we jumped out the window. I didn’t know why I was running, but I had no choice – a flood of people carries you as surely as water. Out the window, and running down the street, blocks and blocks, jumping the debris piles and running. Finally we slowed. I turned around to see what I was running from; the tall building next to the triage center was swaying. Apparently some of its internal floors had collapsed, and they were afraid the whole building would go. We were pulled back for couple of hours, and while we were out two *different* buildings went down. I heard two popping sounds, and then someone said two buildings had just fallen. Pop. The other popping sounds we heard were from the guns of police officers trapped in the building. It’s still burning under there – the heat exploded their ammunition. At least, that’s what we think.
As for the work I did, well, there wasn’t much of it. I washed out firemen’s eyes (the dust is really awful – full of fiberglass, asbestos and concrete), taped up ankles, administered oxygen. I wish I could tell you I treated survivors. I didn’t. There weren’t any to treat while I was there – seven hours. Other than the abovementioned work, I moved bodies. And pieces of them. I’m not going to describe all of what I saw and did and thought. I know some of you don’t want to know, and the ones who do can ask me. But I’ve been in three morgues today, and it took a half-hour shower with scented soap to make me stop inhaling the stench of death.
*With the perspective of a few years and a lot of reading, I now doubt my original assertion that the heavy debris was a mile in diameter, and that the windows were shattered for six blocks around. When everything once familiar has been so dreadfully altered, your senses of space and direction get very confused.
Disjointed reflections and memories, from a disjointed time:
1. While I was writing this, the rest of you knew more about what was going on than I did. There was no TV down there, no news feed. All we had was rumor, and a lot of it. This building had gone down, that one was about to; a survivor had been found, no, they hadn’t; war had been declared, war was about to be declared. On site, we knew nothing but dust and fear and frustration.
2. A couple of days in, I saw a short man in black picking his way toward our triage center, followed by a cameraman. It turned out to be John Walsh. Did he ever do a show about it? Was I on TV? I have no idea.
3. When we finally had cell phone service again, I called my grandmother, who lived on the Lower East Side, to reassure her that I was all right. I had barely told her where I was when people started running, and I looked up to see a building swaying. “Oh, fuck, I gotta go, I GOTTA GO!” I yelled, and then hung up as I turned and ran. Then cell service cut out again, and I couldn’t call her back for about two hours. Boy, did I feel guilty.
4. I spent my time down there wishing I had clean socks even more than I wished I had an efficient dust mask.
There is so much more I could write about those few days. Maybe next year. Right now, I have something else to say:
I’m not looking for praise or sympathy. I didn’t come away from this experience a better or more noble person, just a more damaged one. I think that’s true for most of us. In my opinion, 9/11 was, more than anything, a failure of empathy on the part of the U.S. It was a failure of our citizenry to look around and say, My God, this is what people in Israel, in Palestine, in North Africa, in Chechnya, this is what they go through all the fucking time. Instead, we got angry, and supported our government in perpetrating similar atrocities in other countries.
So I guess what I’m saying is, if you want to thank me, vote for Barack Obama.