I have investigated hundreds of homicides and worked many scenes but nothing has left the imprint on both my heart and brain as the experience at Ground Zero.
The work at Ground Zero and the recovery effort at Fresh Kills landfill was both physically and emotionally taxing. I arrived in the beginning of October for the recovery and identification effort. Each day we would debrief at the Treasury Building and then walk down to the site. Even the walk there was an experience I will never forget. I had on a uniform from the coroner’s office. New Yorkers of all classes and colors approached and thanked us; vendors offered free coffee, while others simply sat by the chain-linked fence embroidered with photos of the dead and missing.
As we approached Ground Zero we were met with the hush of human activity. There was plenty of noise from machinery, of course, but those working said very little. There were few gawkers and little trivial conversation; the task was too immense, too sacred, too painful. Most of the scene was dust and bended steel. Everything that had made up massive office complexes was rendered into a dust finer than sand.
As I passed by the back of the St. Paul Episcopal Church, I looked over at the old graveyard. The tombstones were covered with the grey dust almost up to the tops of the stones. Inside, church volunteers prayed, slept, drank water or just stared. Hundreds sat in a self-imposed silence, struggling to process the violence of such a horrendous act.
At the landfill there was an area for storing recovered fire trucks, police cars and private vehicles. As I walked through the twisted metal and burnt interiors of the fire trucks, one interior stood out. It was a ladder truck. As I looked in, I noticed all the gauges on the dash were melted away. The passenger seat was nothing but a skeleton of wire and springs. The driver’s seat was melted on the sides, revealing springs, but on the actual seating portion was a charred vinyl outline, on the seat and the back. I realized I was looking at the last moments of a fireman’s life. He sat there as a blast of heat and force most likely made him part of the surrounding dust.
There were hours of debriefing and crying. First responders had witnessed those choosing to leap to their death rather than suffer the fire. They described in great detail the body position of those descending to the ground. Many described how some just laid in the air with their arms over their chest, some in an almost cross-like posture, all resigned to their fate.
The images were so seared in their brain that they would describe details like their tie pattern, their shoe color or the expression on their face. Somehow many felt responsible. Many kept thinking: if only this or that could have been done. A traffic cop told me that he was one of the police directing others in the front of the towers and felt like he had ushered them to their deaths. That is one of the purposes of peer debriefing. The sooner you can articulate what you saw, the reason you did what you did, and express the pain that it caused, the sooner you can deal with what you had to confront.
September the 11th will never be the same, for any of us. Every year I feel what I felt each day as I passed by a large section of the tower wall. You know the image. It was all over TV. It reminded me of the ruin of some sacred building and I am sure others have noticed that resemblance. At night, with the lights exposing the monolith and the dust creating a fog-like appearance, one could not speak only whisper.
Money, status, politics, even selfhood didn’t matter. America was wounded, not only New York. In the same church I walked by, George Washington referred to the importance of understanding that we could not endure without the belief that it was Providence that had provided us all with this experience of freedom. He said we needed to understand that there are values and laws greater than man. He said we must hold on to this belief so that we can temper our freedom, for the larger freedom of all.
For a short time—regrettably a very short time—we returned to those values. We gave, we volunteered, we shared loss, and commonly grasped for a better tomorrow. We can always build another tower, but what we still need to build is a common spirit, a desire to serve beyond our own self-interest. We must once again find common values foundation. We must build walls of compassion, industry and stewardship with the tempered steel of resolve and endurance.
God Bless America