To my right, the remains of the the World Trade Center South Tower looked like ruins of the Roman Colosseum as I helped move rubble in a bucket brigade on Sept. 15, 2001.
“Yo, get some of those empty buckets!” a construction worker standing on top of a crushed fire truck shouted.
I was at the biggest crime scene in the world and for once I was on the inside of the crime scene tape. The area was filled with rescue workers and crime scene investigators in blue jackets with gold FBI letters on the back.
I was with three members of the Meriden, Connecticut, police SWAT team, who I covered while a reporter at the Record-Journal in Meriden. “He’s with us” they told National Guard members at checkpoints to get me in, which was technically true. The media was kept out of Ground Zero and much of the surrounding area, but somehow volunteers from the Church of Scientology were feeding Ziti dinners to rescue workers outside. Remember that the next time you hear the media is being kept away for their own safety.
Being a reporter means writing the first draft of history, and I knew this was the biggest story I would ever cover. But years of covering court cases have made me realize how unreliable eyewitness memories are, especially after 20 years. Is what’s in my 57-year-old mind now real or something I saw on television? Earlier this week, I had to check a pocket notebook I surreptitiously took notes in that day to confirm my memories.
It seemed as if every cop and firefighter in the country had converged on lower Manhattan. There were thousands of them, along with an alphabet soup of other agencies: the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Secret Service and the U.S. Marshals Service, to name a few.
Soldiers, some wearing gas masks, manned checkpoints, while military helicopters flew above us. Huge plumes of white smoke billowed up from the rubble from underground fires as firefighters hosed down the rubble. An upside down American flag, a national distress symbol, was on a crane removing rubble. We wore plastic construction helmets and surgical masks at times, but it was hard to breathe in the masks because it was hot.
One of the Meriden officers had a cousin who died in the South Tower — he worked on the 88th floor of the 110-story tower — and the team had come to New York to use their search-and-rescue training to save lives. But shortly after we arrived that morning, the rescue effort became a recovery operation.
Before that, people had been yearning for miracles. The last-ditch hopes of friends and relatives of the victims were spelled out in the toxic white dust that covered the buildings and streets as if it had snowed in September.
“Pray for Ritchie Allen,” said a message on a window at Rector and Washington streets. “Rockaway misses Ritchie Allen.”
“Capt. M. Egan FDNY, call Jerry Kane, (917) 337-4510,” another message said. “Your family loves you.”
Twenty years later, I put faces to the messages through the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Richard D. Allen, 31, was a former lifeguard and public school teacher before becoming a firefighter. Capt. Martin J. Egan Jr., 36, was a husband and father of two who lifted weights and ran marathons in his spare time.
There were other signs of the scene’s grim reality. Fire escapes were covered in paper by a makeshift morgue at Thames and Trinity streets. “Morgue, 3 blocks” was written in red paint on a wall with an arrow at Dey Street.
On a window, a message written in dust seemed to sum up the situation: “Wanted, Osama Bin Laden. Dead!”
With so many rescuers at the site, it became apparent to the Meriden SWAT officers after a few hours that there was little they could do. A few went to provide relief for other Meriden patrol officers who had arrived separately days earlier to voluntarily guard buildings.
The three officers I was with, including the officer whose cousin died, were planning to join them, but they decided to carry some cases of water to rescue workers. The area was filled with supplies that day, such as blankets and food and water. I keep a blanket from that day in the trunk of my car for emergencies.
I was born in New York but grew up in Connecticut, so I didn’t know my way around. I didn’t realize when we trudged through ankle-deep water in the basement of Stuyvesant High School carrying cases of water that we were walking onto a graveyard of 2,800 people in what became known as The Pile.
As we joined the bucket brigade, the line moving rubble stretched longer and longer. After 10 to 20 minutes, we realized we were just getting in the way. But it meant a lot to be there, especially for the officer whose cousin died.
On the way out, there were more reminders of the dead. Outside the National Guard 69th Regiment Center on Lexington Avenue, the walls were lined with photos of victims who were then considered missing. Their faces were illuminated by candles as people in tears stared at them. “Every face has a story,” one of the officers told me.
When 9/11 anniversaries occur, I think of that day, and the last few it’s been hard not to look back in anger over the disproportionate response. In the 20 years since the attacks, some 6,500 American military members were killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with at least 300,000 Afghans and Iraqis. Many of them were civilians who were just trying to get through another day, not unlike the 9/11 victims who included Americans of all races and economic backgrounds.
The understandable desire for revenge was evident on the day I was at ground zero and I shared in it — an idea that we are all Americans and all in it together. That idea seems naive in today’s political climate.
But there also was a lot of goodwill and there still is today in this country.