The day after Pearl Harbor, December 8, 1941, every able bodied man and woman joined the war effort... and so it was on September 12, 2001. I came home from that first day and wrote this email to my friends and family.
6am, Wednesday, September 12, 2001
Chelsea Piers Basketball Court
The Westside Highway and 23rd Street
New York City
"Let us put aside our grief and anger and come together".......
Heads bowed, standing in the middle of a basketball court of Chelsea Piers where my son has played so many times, Firefighters, Police, Doctors, Nurses in blue scrubs, EMS, Construction and Iron Workers, Search and Rescue, Priests, Rabbis, Monks and Mental Health Counselors, and civilian volunteers, standing shoulder to shoulder as this prayer drifted through the microphone over the silent crowd. A familiar calm and serenity engulfed me, momentarily blotting out the insanity of the past 24 hours.
I am here to bear witness to the privilege it is to be a human being in the finest city in the world!
The frustration echoed by millions of New Yorkers. Trying (in vain... sorry), to donate my O Negative blood the previous day, running on foot, jumping into cars of complete strangers taking me three blocks , jumping out and into a police squad car dropping me cross town at St Vincent's Hospital where lines of hundreds of people snaked around the blocks, behind signs on paper cartons with "A", "0-", "AB+" scrawled in magic marker, waiting for 2 or 3 hours, hearing stories of "I saw the plane hit," "the plane woke me up" and the most horrifying of all "I saw people jumping from the high floors of the World Trade Center, I will never get that image out of my head, it was the saddest thing I have ever seen." All New Yorkers united in a desperate effort to do something, ANYTHING to help.
It was now 11 a.m. on Tuesday and I was astounded at the ordinary people had just taken on these jobs, as if they had always done them, passing out bottled water to people in the lines, boxes of apples and oranges, bagels, directing traffic, loading people to be bused to Columbia Presbyterian and others. And ever present. South, where the Twin Towers had dominated the skyline for 30 years and they were just GONE. That once familiar skyline clogged with billows of grey black smoke.
The greatest lesson I learned: PLEASE keep your blood donor card with you at all times! At midnight, I was told by a cop at Cabrini Hospital if I had my card saying I was O-, I could have gone right in because O Negative is one of the rarest blood types because designates you as a Universal Donor, which means anyone can receive it. But at that point, all the hospitals had run out of bags anyway.
As I cried on my way home, exhausted, frustrated and angry. I was unaware of the great gift I was about to receive.
The next morning, Wednesday, I got up at 4 a.m. and because the city was completely closed down except for the cop guarding my local precinct, I enlisted my son Grant's scooter and retraced my steps to NYU, Beth Israel and Cabrini Hospitals. It was an eerie journey, empty streets, crisp, cool, perfect morning And here was this 57-year-old woman with a Prada backpack on a Razor scooter! It was quite a sight. I was praying and laughing to myself and what would have been a perfect irony of me winding up IN the hospital!
And once again I was turned away, later we were to find that these was no blood needed because there were so few survivors, like the doctors just waiting outside the hospitals, waiting for victims... who never came. When I got home I saw a news report that Chelsea Piers Sports Complex had been turned into a Triage and Volunteer center where rescue workers were being dispatched and fed. AND they were accepting type O- so, I grabbed my scooter and off I went.
Once at Pier 16, I was greeted by a handful of weary masking tape badges with their names and the word "Vollys" and what their specialty was. " EMS," "Medical," "Non Med," "Search and Rescue," "Chaplain" and so many others I can't remember. Most of whom hadn't slept for 20 hours. A dazed doctor was wandering aimlessly. She was wearing an enormous gold cross, stethoscope, blue scrubs and surgical mask. She had a piece of masking tape with her name, "Elizabeth," I went up to her and she reached our her hand to me and started crying, "We just couldn't do anything, we couldn't get close to the site at all, I couldn't DO anything, I guess I'll go back to St Vincents." I threw my arms around her and we both sobbed.
"Thad" was wearing scrubs and red baseball cap with a perfectly rounded brim. This detail particularly amazed me for some reason, I could never get MY baseball caps to do that! Someone whispered in reverence, "He was in charge of volunteers at Oklahoma City", and he appeared to be in charge here. Tall, charming and Southern, it was disclosed later when I asked my what his day job was, "I'm an interior designer." "Y'all, put your names on that list and what you can contribute and when we need you we'll ask for your help. Be patient." And he apologized for not having slept in the past 20 hours.
Before I could recover from the news they were NOT taking blood at this location, I was given two pieces of masking tape, one said, "Sandi" and the other, "Volly" for volunteer and thus I was enlisted into an army of noble and splendid strangers, completely democratic with no hierarchy, just whatever job needed doing, to do it with their whole hearts without question. with whom I would spend the next 13 hours who would change my life forever. I remarked at one point doing the day, "I'm performing unselfish acts of which I am not capable!" There were no egos in that room yesterday. Only a single purpose.
The sequence of events were so amazing and overwhelming I am only going to list them to the best of my ability. I want to thank "DJ" from the bottom of my heart for "randomly" grabbing me and asking me to stand at the door to greet people. Drafting me into this inspired army. He instantly told me how to direct grieving family members looking for their loved ones to counselors and the clergy. Medical personnel to sign up at that table, search and rescue over there. Mental health assistance over there. "ALL rescuers coming from the site must be debriefed." "If there is a 'critical incident', immediately contact a health professional." There were many of these "critical incidents" during the day when people realized they would never see their loved ones again. Still the hardest thing for me to comprehend is saying good-bye in the morning and that was it....
Without my conscious knowledge, I was handed a roll of masking tape and a magic marker and as if the passing of the baton, I became instantly "credible" and people thought I actually knew something and before I knew it, people we asking ME questions and directions, "where's Kevin, the guy from FEMA?" "Have you seen the woman from the Red Cross?" "We need extension chords from Chelsea Piers to charge cellphone batteries and plug in the TV's to watch CNN" Hundreds of questions for the next 13 hours. As the day progressed and the numbers of volunteers grew to hundreds it was controlled pandemonium. Very organized and peaceful and purposeful and there was, ironically, no one in charge. Which may be why it worked so well. We were all workers among workers.
I would ask if I could help everyone who came through those hollowed portals. People would enter, dazed, with photographs of their loved ones. Distinguishing descriptions, height, weight, scars, tattoos. "My brother was on the 101st floor of Tower One and I haven't heard from him." The first time this happened I put my arm around the man and escorted him to a table in the back with volunteers with lists of people that they would add the information to with names and phone numbers, I would introduce them by name, and then make my way back through the piles of firefighters in full gear sprawled, resting, exhausted on the floor, to the door sobbing, tears rolling down my face. Not self-consciously at all, but the emotion in that room was experienced and understood by every soul in there.
Perhaps it's because I used to be a telephone operator, or perhaps cause I'm producer, before I knew it, I had called Verizon and within and hour, hundreds of cell phones were delivered with batteries and chargers. We set up a little table when folks got phones, charged them and made them able to communicate with each other down on the pile. I have to say, of all the jobs I've had, that was one of the most gratifying..."Cell Queen."
And then a joyous thing would happen like a man who was a 'caver' who wanted to volunteer to do anything. The guy from the prestigious Union Square Cafe who wanted to know what kind of food to make. After jokingly asking him for reservations, I suggested sandwiches might be a good choice over something their saucier might whip up, for which they are so famous. There were perhaps 50 anxious and gracious volunteers on the food table which stretched across the width of the room overflowing with bounty. Diminutive women with Search and Rescue gear with black magic marker symbols on their arms, legs, even foreheads. When I asked what their significance was, one said, "N.D.A." meant "No known Drug Allergy" and then there was her blood type, "A+" and her name and her outfit or company. It was in case they got buried, they would be easily identified. There would be a joyous event which was followed by another sad one and so it went for 13 hours. Alternately crying and laughing. Hugs and breakdowns. A rollercoaster of every human emotion. I would just walk up to someone serving food, I mean the SAME people were at those posts all day long. This great guy Larry (I wish I'd gotten his last name) -- I will never see him again. He was sitting on the floor with me in the early morning and all day I would bump into him and crack jokes. I have never seen such a hard worker in my life. The counselor who was in charge of all the clergy and grief counselors who said he USED to be a counselor but now he produced "Bad TV'." I said, 'You mean, like Survivor or something?' and he said, "Worse, Shipmates". I said, "Didn't you do that backwards? Aren't you supposed to do the empty meaningless corporate thing and THEN become a counselor?" He laughed.
The young doctors, exhausted, wiped out sitting on the floor. "Where are you guys from?" "Dr Sal from Hackensack," he had been to 'ground zero' twice and was going back for a third time, said how frustrating it was because there was nothing they could do, mostly eye washes because the air was so polluted with the disintegrated buildings and waste. I made an off-color joke (which I will tell certain friends when we speak) which instantly defused their fatigue and we all laughed hysterically. The biggest frustration of the doctors in the state of the art, makeshift Triage and Trauma theater was that there were NO patients. Not one came in all day. I noticed at all the hospitals I spent the previous day at, there were no sounds of sirens. It was very odd and we surmised that was because all the survivors who could be helped had already been treated. And the rest were deceased. At all the hospitals there were 30 or 40 physicians just The room itself looked like a set from XFiles. Black walls, low ceilings with giant yellow air conditioning ducts, lights and 50 to 100 gurneys, doctors in blue scrubs, it was like a science fiction movie.
You could identify those who came from 'ground zero' by unmistakable chalk dust on their shoes. And then there was the smell. Each time a new wave of 'heroes' came through the door , I could smell them first, the acrid odor of smoke... mixed in with something else, an unfamiliar scent. Later in the afternoon, they came in with the odor which at first I thought smelled of garbage and then the horror of these days pierced my heart when I realized that is was something much worse.
For me, one of the most moving things happened when a search and rescue guy came up to me and asked if I knew where he could make a phone call. I said, 'sure, use mine'. I overheard him say he'd been back and forth several times to "the site." There seemed to be 3 or 4 hours rest between. He said that mostly there were no people at all, there were body parts but I heard him say, "but I did find 3 people" when I asked if they were alive he said, "Yeah, they were at a Path entrance and a slab of cement had fallen over the entrance and trapped them but they were perfectly ok."
The firefighters, the bravest of them all who have lost perhaps 300 of their brotherhood. This morning, one of the first to fall, Father Mikal Judge, the chaplain and spiritual leader of the fire department, was remembered in a prayer which he used to say.
"Lord, take me where you want me to go. Let me meet who you want me to meet. Tell me what you want me to say and keep me out of your way."
Those words stayed with me as well as the supreme sacrifices made that day, the sudden, violent horror of the day we would never forget, but too, there was this, the finest of humanity, selfless service, unconditional love for total strangers. This is what I will always keep in my heart.