In memoriam

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.

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36 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    John Dias said,

    That was powerful, Uccellina. I had no idea you went through that. Nowadays, 9/11 has been turned into the pretext for domestic and geopolitical decisions by political actors. It’s a punchline used for political gain. We see brief 5-second video clips with moving music and narration, and we hear pithy descriptions of “the horror” with the grimy details glossed over. I can’t tell you how valuable it is that first-hand experience is expressed even to its most minute detail. This yanks 9/11 from the realm of concepts and transforms it, bringing back the reality of that day. We need to remember the reality.

  2. 2

    writer2 said,

    Thanks for making those connections.

    Many things died that day, including a willingness to engage larger, more disturbing truths. Among the powerful ways in which the word irrevocably changed was that people in positions of domestic authority here gained a certain privilege to speak and to identify the forces out there and to remain unchallenged in how they designated enemies and friends. In the process we all became enemies as lying and distortion became perfectly acceptable public enterprises, with the press caving in and refusing to speak out for fear of seeming disloyal. So among the many good ways we can be true to 9/11 is to vote for Obama and put an end to seven years of public lying.

  3. 3

    kathy a. said,

    ((( uccellina )))) this is powerful. i am so sorry. xoxoxo

  4. 4

    Annika said,

    We really did take an opportunity for empathy and turn it into a giant pile of shit, didn’t we? Go America! Sigh.

  5. 5

    B said,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a little while now (friend of a friend) and enjoying your stories of what it’s like to be a new mother. But regarding this post, I had no idea that you were there on 9/11 and involved and in the midst of it all. Thank you for sharing your experiences on that day, it’s provided me a different kind of insight – I’m only sorry that you had to experience it first hand. And thank you for the good work that you for the world as an EMT.

  6. 6

    Madeleine said,

    Thank you.

  7. 7

    jennifer said,

    Way ahead of you on Obama. But thank you for everything you did that day.

  8. 8

    Gwen said,

    I love you and am proud to be your friend. I want the entire country to read this, and then do what you ask. 🙂

  9. 9

    Sara said,

    Thank you for this. Sometimes, it can be hard to reconnect with the immediacy of what happened that day.

  10. 10

    Sue said,

    (((uccellina))) Thank you. For this post. For what you did that day. For remembering it today with such grace.

  11. 11

    You know we had a family member who died there. Thank you for writing this, thank you for what you did on that day, and thank you for reminding us about the most important point we can take from it: that this is *everyday life* for people in wartime. And that is PRECISELY why we should do everything we can to stop and prevent war. The declared kind, and the undeclared kind. All of it.

  12. 12

    Liz said,

    Hugs and kisses. And yes, I’m voting for Barack Obama.

  13. 13

    redzils said,

    oh, Uccellina, wow.

    Thank you for sharing this, and for bringing a bit of light to this day.

  14. 14

    Michelle said,

    We had fallen out of contact before 2001, so you may not know that I was working on Broadway near Wall st that morning. My day started at 8:30 so my first clue was the office building shaking. But that’s not the point, I’m sure you don’t need anyone else’s story of that day. But there was one part I thought you would appreciate…

    I was wearing a pentacle necklace that day (the one I had at Vassar – the star inside the moon?) and I walked home east to Brooklyn facing the sun for about five hours. So for a week or so I walked around with a pentacle burned into my chest. It’s about the only memory of the day that makes me smile.

    *hugs* The outlying areas were bad enough and frightening enough that day. I have crazy respect for anyone who sees such a catastrophe and runs toward it.

  15. 15

    geckogrrl said,

    Wow.

    What a stirring account of your experience. I never knew this about you. I can’t even begin to imagine what you saw and went through.

    It really saddens me that our government retaliated in kind against people who weren’t even responsible for this catastrophe.

  16. 16

    luckybuzz said,

    This is a powerful post. Thank you.

  17. 18

    Lilli said,

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us in blogland. I must repeat the sentiment repeated often above…powerful. I am linking this entry on my little blog.

    Thank you.

  18. 20

    Natalie said,

    thank you for sharing your story. it is a powerful reminder of the day and our connection to one another.

  19. 21

    Julie said,

    Instead of blaming the United States for everything, why don’t you blame the terrorists? It is sad that you think 9/11 is OUR fault. The rest of the world uses the U.S. like an ATM machine in times of any natural disaster you can think of. It is people like you and the rest of you left wing moonbats who think that the U.S. is the Death Star. If we would just give in to economic mediocrity and an anti-freedom, anti-Constitutional form of government, all of the world’s problems would just go away….wouldn’t they?! You and your ilk disgust me.

  20. 22

    julie said,

    Okay, glad I check this blog frequently–post #21 was NOT me (I was at Silligirl’s wedding with you, and do post here sometimes). This Julie actually agrees that 9/11 and the subsequent military actions are our fault (for a variety of reasons). Gee, if we hadn’t declared war on “terror,” we’d have plenty of money lying around to take care of our own citizens (remember those poor, hungry, huddled masses?) and still have enough left over to help out the rest of the world’s disaster victims.

    To the other Julie: Not funny.

  21. 23

    Julie said,

    I guess blaming the terrorists who actually flew the planes into the WTC would be out of line. Blaming America for it sounds much more socially acceptable. We would not want to offend anyone would we? Here is a newsflash…the terrorist group responsible for 9/11 don’t hate you less because you are a liberal. In fact they hate you more because you are a woman. They hate gays, lesbians, blacks, whites, EVERYONE in the USA! They want us ALL dead, not just the conservatives. The fact that we did not have a deep sense of thought into the psyche of the modern day islamic lunatic, did not have ANYTHING to do with why we got hit on 9/11 and it certainly was NOT the fault of the United States! None of us deserved what happend that day. Enough with the blaming America for everything NONSENSE! Maybe if Clinton actually did something about it while we were getting hit repeatedly by the same people in th 90’s, the lunatics who hit us on 9/11 would have thought twice.

  22. 24

    julie said,

    Yeah, and maybe if the good ol’ USA wasn’t so intent on converting the rest of the world to democracy, we wouldn’t have done so much nation-building or arms supplying (Saddam, Castro, Afghanistan warlords…any of this ringing a bell for you?), which, gosh, _might_ have averted the whole mess. (Ever hear that old saw about those who don’t learn from the past being doomed to repeat it? We’re very slow learners apparently.) That’s the great thing about what if’s–you just never know for sure what could have happened if things had played out differently.

    And I’d think that by now, it’s pretty obvious that responding to the extremists with force just adds fuel to their fervor (especially when we do such a bang up job of preemptively invading sovereign nations just b/c we’re such knee-jerk reactionaries/bullies/manipulators, etc.).

  23. 25

    uccellina said,

    It’s the battle of the Julies! I should sell tickets.

    I’ve noticed that trolls rarely actually read the posts they’re trolling. Nowhere in this post did I “blame America” for what happened on 9/11. Acts of violence are always the responsibility of the perpetrators, whether on the individual or or state level. I was critiquing the nation’s response to 9/11. But trolls don’t care what you’re actually saying. They’re so intent on finding something to be upset about that they’ll make shit up if need be.

  24. 26

    Annika said,

    I’ll make popcorn!

  25. 27

    Mom said,

    Good response, U. I started trying to say something like that and it got way too complicated, so I stopped. As a member of the Vietnam generation, I remember only too well the “America, love it or leave it” response to protest. As if trying to direct your own country on a different path means that you hate it or its citizens. And as if that’s not the whole point of democracy.

  26. 28

    Julie said,

    So invading sovereign nations who did not previously attack us is bad? Let’s have a little history lesson. Who attacked us prior to WW1? Nobody. Who was President? Woodrow Wilson, Democrat. Who attacked us prior to WW2? Japan. Who do we invade? Germany. Who was president? FDR. Democrat. Who invaded us prior to the Korean war? Nobody. Who was president? Harry Truman. Democrat. Who attacked us prior to the Vietnam War? Nobody. Who was president? JFK. Democrat. So you see, the United States has a long history of invading countries that did not previously attack us. And the wars mentioned above were ALL given to us by DEMOCRAT presidents (when democrats actually had a set of balls). When Democrats do it, it was “the right thing to do.” When George Bush does it, liberals make it sound as though he invented it. Get over the 2000 election already! GORE LOST!! (Thank God!)

  27. 29

    uccellina said,

    Hey, Julie – You’re not addressing anything written in the original post, and you’re rapidly becoming tiresome. Get on track with the discussion, or get your own blog.

    Everyone else – Please do not feed or tease the trolls.

  28. 30

    Julie said,

    Liberal appeasement is tiresome. Liberals PERIOD, are tiresome. The original post addressed how the US citizens failed to feel empathy for for victims of terrorism in other countries after watching 3000 Americans murdered and two of our landmarks destroyed. After suffering through countelss attacks in the Clinton years, there was a huge portion of the population who had simply seen enough. The Clinton administration treated terrorists like a group of thugs who knocked off a liquor store instead of the organized band of murderers that they were and still are. Feeling sorry for the rest of the world was the last thing on many of our minds. Facing the enemy and the regimes funding their cause was a necessity. War sucks, it’s brutal and there is no “nice” way to fight one. Feeling sorry for the rest of the world took a backseat to feeling sorry for the victims in our own country. The United States has spent plenty in the form of money and human lives giving back to the rest of the world. I for one could care less what the rest of the world thinks. My empathy goes to United States citizens.

  29. 31

    uccellina said,

    Julie,

    Cookies for you! The original post DID address how the US failed to feel empathy for victims of war and violence in other countries. See? Reading’s not so hard after all. Now, if you could just work on keeping a civil tone, we might actually be able to have a discussion about how if we had felt some empathy for other people to begin with, we might not be in the crappy situation we’re in now (which I believe was the point non-troll-Julie was trying to make).

    Also, don’t try to claim some kind of moral superiority over me on this one. Don’t tell me about feeling sorry for the victims in our own country. I picked up their dismembered bodies. It didn’t stop me from being able to feel some kinship with other people in other nations.

    I really think you should get your own blog. You clearly have a lot to say, and I’d rather you said it there.

    (oof. I lose patience sometimes, I really do.)

  30. 32

    amy said,

    I’d say you kept your cool much better than I could have.

    I was all prepared to leave my comment without reading the previous comments, but wow – I’d have missed some lovely volleys.

    What I came to say is this: Thank you for sharing this part of you. Thank you for the work you did – not because it did anything for me or for someone I know, but because the work you did was invaluable to those who were doing the real work. I live(d) a long way away, and I felt powerless to do anything useful. I know you’re not looking for praise, but oftentimes those of us who were so far from being able to help in a concrete way have no outlet but to thank the people who did what we couldn’t.

    While I can’t honor your request to vote Obama, I will offer what I can: I’m sure as hell not voting McCain either. 🙂

    All my best,
    amy

  31. 33

    Diane Dawson said,

    I’m just watching while i eat my popcorn. And I’m not tossing ANY to the trolls. I mean squirrels

  32. 34

    uccellina said,

    Just so y’all know, Troll-Julie has a comment in the moderation queue which I will not approve. It includes this gem: “Was Adolf Hitler just a regular misunderstood guy who had a little murderous streak in him? I mean, the Jews should have had more empathy for him. It was their fault!”*

    I call Godwin’s Law!

    *9/18: Julie would like you all to know that she was being sarcastic. Because clearly you are all too liberal to figure that out.

  33. 35

    Nora said,

    thank god. that was annoying.

  34. 36

    MonkeyGurrl said,

    Christ. Sorry about the trolling taking away from the impact of your original post. Just so you know, my BFF was in NYC just last week (unwittingly in time for the 9/11 memorial), and, even as a die-hard, card carrying, conservative Republican, he and I were able to share the sentiment of what was lost that day and what still remains to be repaired.


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