It was late at night on September 13th 2001, and I was trudging through debris at Ground Zero with my friend Michelle, trying to deliver light bulbs to a Salvation Army station on Vesey Street. The city was covered with ash and it was hard to know where we were going. Everything felt dark and urgent. And, so, so sad.
A storm started, and the wind kicked up. Under a tent filled with relief workers taking a break from the rain, we heard glass shattering around us and I served coffee to an exhausted firefighter, who said, "This is it. It's over. No one else is coming out alive."
Two days earlier, my then boyfriend and I brought cordless phones from our West Village apartment out to the street so people could call home (cell phones didn't work). On the West Side Highway, we met up with a group of Stuyvesant High School students who gave us their parent's numbers, and we spent hours calling worried moms and dads, telling them their kids were safe.
We brought food to families at Bellevue. We staged a relief center overnight at Chelsea Piers. We unloaded supply trucks. We volunteered for anything that could make us feel useful, though we knew there was nothing we could do. It was a compulsion.
The night of the storm was no different. Michelle and I were providing coffee and dry socks to relief workers long past our appointed shift, even as the rain pounded harder and the wind went wild. As I was sandbagging light stands, my boyfriend called and left a message: "They're reporting that other buildings might come down from the weather. Where the hell are you? Come home."
I've always been sort of careless about safety, having traveled and worked in some pretty dodgy places -- Bosnia, Peru, North Africa. In fact, I'm sort of a junkie for risk. But something in his voice... changed me a little.
Yesterday, I was reminded of a story of true 9/11 heroism. After the second plane struck the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor of the South Tower, a young equities trader named Welles Crowther located the only functional stairs, told people to stand up if they could, to help others if they were able, then he escorted them to firefighters seventeen floors below.
Once the first group was safe, he went back to the burning Sky Lobby to help more survivors. He worked to save people until the building collapsed. Six months after the attacks, Welles' body was founded next to those of uniformed firefighters.
I married that boyfriend a couple of years later and we now have a six-year-old daughter. My work has evolved. We've moved from New York to LA. Throughout, I've let the annual coverage of 9/11 drift past me. But this year, the 10th anniversary, it feels right to slow down, to explain a little bit about it to my daughter, to relive some of the details.
I've been thinking a lot about Welles Crowther. He was an amazing person. Selfless, resourceful, courageous. His parents must miss him so, so much.
And I've wondered if I could have done what he did. Would I have had the presence of mind? The leadership?
But another question pulls at me too... Would he have done things differently if he'd had a kid? Might he have been content to help the first group to the 61st floor, then continued down with them, and home to his family? Or would he have stayed to save every person he could? If he were my husband, or my father, what would I have wanted from him? Honestly, I don't know.
In the last six years I have mostly stopped volunteering for danger in large and small ways. I wear a bike helmet, go the speed limit and don't take jobs in dangerous places. Even when I'm tempted, I remind myself that, above all, my daughter deserves a mother. But I've never been tested. I've never had to make a tough call.
On that rainy night ten years ago, the man I was going to marry asked me to come home... and I did.