Alchemy Of Grief
I live in New York City. This is my home.
I work on Warren Street, two blocks away from the World Trade Center. On September 11, 2001, I was on my way to work when the attacks began. As the train pulled into Queensboro Plaza, passengers pressed against the windows in horror and disbelief at the sight of the North Tower of the World Trade Center on fire. Someone said, "I heard on the radio that a plane hit it." I looked for myself and remembered thinking, '‘Well, this must be some sort of accident.' and quickly making a mental checklist of my friends at WTC. 'Who was where? Tamika is still at AMEX right? Boris, I know works in building 7, Felicia and John are at Peace Corps– now that’s in the south tower – or wait, no, Amex is in the south tower and …Peace Corps is over by the North Tower or wait, maybe she's at AMEX -- did they move back to WFC across the street? Shit. Shit.’' I fumbled for my phone and then we were underground. Too late.
The train sped under the East River toward Lexington Station. We came to a stop. People poured out and more people poured in like everyday, like a normal day. Only now everyone was talking about what had just happened. At each stop someone would stick his or her head out of the train to ask a stranger on the platform for an update. No one knew anything and I knew that it was all speculation anyway and quietly reminded myself to keep my head screwed on straight. We continued. We made regular stops as if nothing was happening. I could see people getting more and more frustrated, louder, more animated. Something was terribly wrong. Those 25 minutes were filled with nervous conversation. My thinking was not that this was an attack but just some horrible accident. This is what I thought until I reached City Hall Station. By that time both towers had been attacked. It couldn't have been an attack. It just couldn't be something like that. I could hear people screaming, sirens and this terrible rumble. By the time I reached ground level and out of the station, the south tower had just collapsed and a pyroclastic looking cloud enveloped everything and everyone. People were running past me, running north.
I ran west, down Warren Street and to the corner of Warren and Chambers street to try to get into my office but was waved off by a police officer and told to run north. "Get the fuck outah here!”" He said, "Run north, go north!" And then he was gone, I couldn't see him anymore because of the debris cloud but I barely heard him yell into his radio that the tower had collapsed and the other one was on fire. He couldn't have been more than 5 feet away from me but the din and dust was too loud and too thick to describe.
People were screaming and running. I remember feeling angry but not panic and I quickly turned around and ran east across City Hall Park now I was completely covered in dust and debris but ran south down Nassau street where I saw a paramedic running back in the direction of my old office building at 1 Liberty. I was out of breath when I caught up to him. The sunlight was suddenly gone. “"Hey,"” I said "“I'’m Red Cross."” He looked me up and down quickly. "“You doin’ okay? You hurt?"” “"No,"” I said, "I’m okay. I'm fine. My name is Jax, I'’m Red Cross, first-aid."” He nodded to me and yelled to me over the chaos that was on his radio, “"Yeah! Let's go -- come with me!”" He pointed to a gentleman covered in gray soot and dust walking next to him, “"Meet Dave."” We nodded to each other, I waved. I found out later in the day that Dave was Navy and I’'m Marine Corps by birth, which was lucky for both of us as panicking was not an option.
It seemed like only two minutes later but it must have been more, that the air began to clear and the light was coming back when we finally reached the paramedic’s rig. "Sir." I called him sir. He probably wasn't an officer. In retrospect, I think I just needed a leader. "We've been attacked."”, someone said. "More people. Look. Look!" I heard from behind me. 'More people what?' I thought to myself. The answer came instantaneously as I followed everyone's gaze toward the North Tower. "They're jumping." "Jesus. God. Oh no." I heard myself say this out loud as if someone else said it. I couldn't turn away. I watched them jump. One. Then two together. God bless them. I don't know how many. It didn't make sense in the moment but I could not look away. You could hear them. But I remember thinking in that split second, 'Don't turn away, be their witness.' If they had the courage to jump, honoring them by remembering their bravery and sacrifice was not a choice but an obligation.
As it happened, I forgot this part of the day soon afterwards, no doubt as a way for my brain (decided unconsciously), to shield itself shield me. Nor have I shared it with anyone until now in this much detail. I couldn't, it wouldn't have come out right. I would have stumbled over my words if I tried to speak it or it might have made the listener uncomfortable, which I could not abide. I had seen so much hurt that day that it was not possible for me to misplace my compassion and hurt someone with a memory. I couldn't bring myself to cause harm to another. I had much more compassion for others than for myself. That took more time, a year in fact. I can't carry it alone, now you all who read this must remember with me. It wasn't until months later, at a friend's birthday party that the lost piece of memory came back. Ironically, that moment came during a celebration and luckily, thankfully and gratefully surrounded by friends. A safe place.
Then I heard this terrible rumble begin, all eyes went skyward again and people began to run. Over the din of chaos, dust and debris scattered everywhere, the air started to change, the pressure began to drop as the air was being sucked towards tower one like some sort of freakish mistral wind. Over the sick, chilling, repetitive sound of the FDNY high-pitch locator beacons, sirens and Dave’'s expletives I heard, “"Run!”" Nothing, absolutely nothing at all in my mind but that word, "RUN!"
Now east, out of the way and almost to the river, I stopped. My knees had started to shake and my heart was pounding from a flat out run and copious amounts of adrenalin. I found a trashcan and promptly threw up dust and the two cups of coffee I had earlier in the morning. Both towers were gone. 'Jesus Christ!' I screamed, half out of disbelief and half out of sheer anger at whomever had done this. I ducked into a deli and was quickly greeted with paper towels and someone shoved a bottle of water into my hand as apparently other people had seen me standing in the street. I thanked the man leaning over me who had now taken to wipe my face and give me a drink of water. Such kindness on such a day. Such a blessing.
But now, I turned back toward the door and saw Dave in the street and I immediately clicked into overdrive, furious as hell and deliberately dusted myself off and stormed back out into the street. "Red Cross! Yo!" David waved at me, "Let's go!" We began to head back to the ambulance. Debris everywhere and still falling. As we got closer, it got worse. Now half a block away from 1 Liberty; worse still. Paper, large pieces of metal, ankle deep dust and still falling and rocks coated the streets. The walls of the buildings lining the street now plastered with white. The mix of acrid and cloying smell of chalk once drywall or marble and smoke permeated the air. You could taste it. Now, shoes and more paper. Shoes. "David!" I pointed to a spot on the ground some feet away. "I know,” He said. It was someone's limb. There was no way to know by looking if it was an arm or a leg. There would be far too much of that throughout the day. In accounts of that day that followed in newspapers or on television or the Internet, people always spoke of the debris and the smell. They never said what was in the debris but now you know. It smelled like a battlefield. I read that Mayor Giuliani had said, '"Some of the information was too brutal. Some of the information, people just wouldn't be able to handle the full implications." He knew and he was right. But at the time, there was no time to process it or be horrified by it or even grieve it. There was only work.
We reached the ambulance and amazingly, incredibly it was still there and intact. And now men dressed in yellow and black seemed to appear from everywhere. A sea of them descended on the area. One fireman handed me a mask. A Port Authority officer gave me a vest with pockets for first aid supplies. I worked out of that ambulance for several hours. The word came later that triage stations were being organized at a high school nearby and at 1 Liberty. It didn't matter. Leastwise, that's what I felt at the time. I didn't think, I didn't muse, I didn't wonder. I just worked. Gauze bandages and bottles of water to clean people off, lacerations of every kind, from metal, falling concrete or from digging. O2 for firemen and police or wounded bystanders overcome by the smoke and dust The lower buildings closer to Church Street where Borders Book Store used to be, the HSBC Bank where I used to use the ATM before I would hop on the subway. All of this would all come down in the weeks to come. The benches facing Church Street where Tamika and I would have coffee in the morning and talk about life -- I couldn't see them anymore. Where was she? I hoped she had gotten out. But I couldn't think about that because someone tapped me on the shoulder, it was the EMT I had met earlier in the day. "You're outah here. Go get in."
I looked for David. He was sitting down taking a minute. Remembering that he was Navy, I tapped him, "Nearest flatop?" He looked up a little surprised then shook his head, "Dunno. Fuck if I wouldn't give anything to be on board one now." His face was so angry. It surprised more than frightened me. "Dave, please go get me a bigass CVN and blow anything away that even gets close the shelf. Will you do that for me?" He cracked a smile, "I'll get right on that, Skipper." Levity. Just a little bit. Navy-speak. I was suddenly grateful for having paid attention to the euphemisms that my brothers used to describe what I considered to be just a really big boat. 'Flattop' is a carrier. 'CVN' is a nuclear carrier. The 'shelf' was the continental shelf. I had just asked him to protect me and my country and that seemed to brighten him up a bit. All of his training as a naval officer, all that knowledge and experience and he was stuck with me wiping dirt out of people's eyes. His frustration was palpable. But as I said, he seemed to lighten a bit. Today, when I think of how helpless he must have felt, my eyes soften for him. But he wasn't helpless; he was right where he needed to be. He stuck close to me for the rest of the day. My Navy angel.
David and I were transferred to St. Vincent’'s Hospital and checked out. I was fine; David had a few cuts but nothing serious. Later again we were transferred by ambulance up to St. Luke’s on the West side to be posted for more work during the night. Coming uptown to St. Luke's was uncomplicated and quiet. We passed groups of people huddled around phone booths trying to get a call out of the city. People were huddled around automobiles listening to the radio for news.
When we got to St. Luke's, we sat in a large conference room and watched the rest of the day unfold on television neither of us saying barely a word. That was the first time that we had heard about the Pentagon. It was now near 5:00 p.m. The operations director at St. Luke'’s came out to talk to us about 6:00 p.m. to tell us, we thought, what and where our duty postings would be for that night but instead we were dismissed because they did not expect any more casualties. No survivors. That was it. I had held up that entire day but hearing everyone in the room of at least 100 doctors, nurses, security and staff start to sob at the same time. It was more than I could handle.
Time to go home. They said that the subways were running again, which was comforting. I could go home and start calling. I did. But it took two weeks before I spoke with Tamika. She was safe and had gotten out of the South tower with minutes to spare.
I signed out, turned in my vest and hugged David goodbye. 'See ya, Red Cross." I managed a grin and whispered, "Take care." I went home. I never knew David's last name. He never knew mine and I never saw our paramedic again, nor did I ever learn his name either. It was just as well really.
I live in New York City. This is my home.