November 2, 2001
Nearly two months have passed and the fires are still burning. When the wind shifts, as it has for the
last couple of days, the air becomes heavy, eye-stinging, lung irritating and carries with it the stark
reality of what happened two blocks from where I now sit.
I am spending three weeks as a Red Cross Disaster Relief Mass Care volunteer, assigned to Respite
Center One within the heavily restricted combat zone. Here we provide meals and comfort to the
rescue workers, technicians, security personnel, etc. around the clock in the great tradition of the
Red Cross. Folks are here from all over the country pitching in.
We never know from day to day who our co-workers will be. Yesterday it was five office workers
from Orlando who were in town briefly on business for the Campus Crusade for Christ. They all
came in to help for one day on the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. They figured they could sleep on the
plane on the way home. They were here and wanted to help, and that was that.
We are surrounded by mail,posters, drawings from school kids all over the country. Hundreds,
thousands, tens of thousands, and it all gets read and rotated on a regular basis. Sit down for dinner,
and there's a stack of mail waiting for you. They've even separated the ones with return addresses so
that the exhausted police and firefighters can sit down and write a quick thank-you. Most of it is
incredibly moving. "Out of the mouths of babes." One youngster said he thought he knew what they
must feel like, because he had a cousin who died. Another, with handwriting that I would guess was
no more than fourth grade, simply enclosed a comforting verse from one of the Psalms.
Hopefully it will be the gravest event of their lifetimes, perhaps even more shocking and horror-filled
to them than it is for us adults who have longer memories. Yet, they all seem to have understood it,
grasped instinctively the terrible evil of it all, recognized the virtues of country and family and laying
down one's life for others.
I arrived Monday night. It was a pleasant night, so I walked the 18 blocks up 8th Avenue to my
hotel. Around 44th Street I was startled to come upon a full-size bronze statue of a fireman kneeling
in sorrow over a fire helmet. The statue was on a tow-trailer and had already become a shrine.
It seems this statue had been commissioned for some place in Missouri. By odd coincidence it was
delayed at Customs when it arrived in New York on September 9th. After the 11th, all agreed it
would stay in New York. Lacking a permanent location, it is simply parked in the street.
A few blocks further up there is a firehouse, covered with messages of encouragement from people
who now consider themselves New Yorkers even if they've never stepped foot here. And there
were the portraits of the fifteen men from that company who were killed on 9/11. Now they were
not just numbers, but flesh and blood: smiling, clowning, surrounded by friends and family.
"We are the dead," the poet said.
Short days ago we lived, felt dawn,
Saw sunset glow.
Loved and were loved. . .
And now they lie beneath the rubble where their colleagues have carried on their desperate search all
these weeks. Their friends wander over to our oasis, day after day, to catch a few hours sleep (each
with a teddy bear donated from who-knows-where), watch some television, get a massage or a hot
meal, play video games, anything to drive away the terrible reality they face on a daily basis. Some of
the Red Cross volunteers do nothing more than sit around a table and chat. A friendly smile can
cause amazing transformations.
It was a good week to be here. The three Yankee home games in the World Series gave them
something to cheer about. Even I got into the act, dressing up as a Yankee fan for Halloween.
None of us know how any of this will turn out. But for now, it is enough to know that in some small
way each of us can do something.
As for me, I was here less than an hour before I was promoted to Third Shift Dessert Coordinator.
Keep those cards, letters and cheesecakes coming.
And never forget.
November 4, 2001
Yesterday while waiting with some fellow Red Cross Volunteers for the shuttle bus that would take
us to our stations at Ground Zero I suddenly felt a hand on my back. I whipped around only to see
man walking briskly away from me down 42nd Street. I turned around and my companions were
"Get used to it," said one of the veterans who had been here a week longer. "That was a pat on the
back. It happens a lot."
Perhaps because of my exceptional skill with a bagel-cutting knife (less than a week ago, I didn't
even know there WAS such a thing), I have been invited to senior staff meetings. After about your
second day you're considered one of the old pros around here. Virtually the entire staff turns over
every three weeks, yet things seem to run very smoothly.
There was a lot of excitement here this week, first with the "gold strike" beneath the former North
Tower of the World Trade Center. The Brinks trucks were running around all night for a couple of
nights. Something over 200 million dollars worth was removed.
Then a couple of days ago the terrible confrontation between the firefighters and police, not far
outside our door here at Respite Center One. Emotions had been running high, naturally. Faced
with the awful dilemma of the sincere and worthy desire of recovering as many of the bodies as
possible and the reality of the continuing danger of the site and the risk of more casualties, the Mayor
has decided to cut back dramatically on the number of firefighters digging through the rubble for their
In the heat of the moment, things were said and done that has caused at least for now a dreadful
schism. Several firefighters were arrested after punching out several of the cops. For us, it's worse
than watching two of your children fighting, especially knowing all the while that the endless stress of
this work has caused otherwise reasonable people to act in uncharacteristic ways.
We Red Cross workers don't have that problem. We took a stress management class the other
"Tell us about some things that are causing you stress and how you deal with them."
"Well," said one of the workers, "Yesterday the bus driver kept lurching the bus around, starting and
stopping. He shook me up so much I could hardly think."
"And my husband," said another "he . . ."
"Wait a minute," I said. "Isn't anybody feeling any stress from that. . .that . . .," and I pointed to the
window and realized I didn't have the words to describe what had happened across the street. That,
Tragedy? A tragedy is when you give your dog a bowl of water and it turns out to be antifreeze.
Catastrophe? Not enough. Abomination? Too tame. How about:
That horror that lurks and dwells in the back of our minds even when back home but especially here
where we are facing it, surrounded by it, absorbed in it even while we go about our business
pretending it's not there. ("The jury is instructed to pay no attention to that Mastadon in the
Yet there it is, just the same.
Last night we made a supply run that took us directly through Ground Zero. Bill Wills, Alderman of
the 4th Ward of the city of Amsterdam, NY and a pretty articulate guy, could find no words to describe what he saw when he
returned from a trip there a few weeks ago. Neither can I.
For now, two large sections of the North Tower still stand, leaning up against a neighboring building.
The fires burn. One of the steel workers told us that some of the steel is still red hot, over 1200
degrees. One adjacent building still standing has a whole side blown off, and you can see offices and
file cabinets and desks and computer terminals all neatly in place. The area where the firefighters
used to gather is now largely empty. It is almost inconceivable that any more bodies will be
recovered in any recognizeable fashion.
Earlier in the day, passing through Grand Central Station, I passed one of the many memorial kiosks
that have sprung up everywhere where familes could post photos of their missing. I tried to read
them all, trying to make these strangers come alive at least in my heart, but there were so, so many
and it doesn't take long before your eyes just get too blurry to continue.
There was a single poster of the police officers who were killed, including one female, Moira Smith. Next to her picture was posted a long letter from a man who had met her on the way out of the World Trade
Center, telling of her coolness and bravery and how she had personally saved him by looking him
square in the eye and telling him firmly and authoritatively which way to go and to exit the building
promptly. She saved hundreds, maybe thousands of lives by doing her job in a professional manner.
It's likely she wouldn't have expected anyone's thanks. All in a day's work.
I continue to read the mail from the school kids from across the continent. Today one had written,
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil."
I have now driven a Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle through the valley of the shadow of
death that was once the World Trade Center, and I have seen the face of evil.
November 5, 2001
Whenever I take the subway from midtown to my Red Cross assignment at Respite Center One,
Ground Zero, I continue to be drawn to "New York's Wailing Wall" at Grand Central Station where
families of the missing from the World Trade Center have posted heart-breaking requests for any
information. Tonight I approached just as a young woman burst into tears.
"Oh my God! That's a girl I went to school with!"
And I quickly moved on.
My immediate supervisors, a husband and wife team from North Carolina, had Saturday
night/Sunday morning off. Being acclimated to the third shift, they made a late, late night of it in the
city that doesn't sleep.
Suzanne is a bouncy, friendly, delightful woman. When the night was petering out, a time "when the
street belongs to the cop and the janitor with the mop," as Frank Loesser would say, a hollow man
"I know why I'm out this late," he said, "but why are you?"
So she explained what we are doing, and then he told his story.
He is a former cop who had taken a job as private security and driver for an executive at the Cantor
Fitzgerald firm. He was in their World Trade Center office every day, except one. On September
11, they got a late start because they had to drive the executive's son to kindergarten. Virtually the
entire company went down with the tower.
Can you imagine? Everyone you work with gone at once? I thought of Robert E. Lee riding through
the field on the third day at Gettysburg and coming across one of his commanders wandering
"General Pickett!" he admonished, "You must tend to your Division!"
"Genaral Lee, I have no Division."
Suzanne stopped being bouncy when she told me the story. "I try to stay happy and forgot about all
that, but you can't." They go home tomorrow. The Red Cross wisely sets time limits for their
volunteers to prevent burn-out.
Today there was another memorial service for a firefighter at St. Patrick's. There is an altar in the
church converted to a victim shrine. It gets a lot of attention.
On Sundays in the midst of the muck and devastation, Catholic Mass is celebrated at Ground Zero,
beneath an unusual icon. Discovered in the rubble, standing erect, rescue workers found a perfectly
formed steel cross, and immediately rallied to it as a symbol of Hope. It stands at the front of the site
in solemn defiance of all that is surrounding it. Many look upon it as a miracle.
That is ridiculous, of course. This can be no more an act of God than the '69 Mets. Both towers and
the other destroyed structures had steel frames and doubtless thousands of such right-angle joints as
might form what looks to us to be a cross.
But symbols, which are all man-made, can nonetheless be powerful. What is the Liberty Bell other
than an old decrepit piece of junk, or the tattered flag of Fort McHenry that we spend millions to
preserve, or that Lady in the Harbor? But does not each in turn stir something in the soul to awaken
a patriot's heart?
For the Christian, the Cross is the ultimate symbol of triumph over Evil and Death. Secularly, when
used by the Red Cross it becomes a symbol of Hope and Healing. Our long tradition of burying the
dead under crosses goes beyond the principles of the Christian religion. True, there have been times
when the cross has been usurped for ignoble causes, but here at the Gates of Hell there can be no
doubt of its purpose.
Understandably, some will object to such a prominant display of religion in a public place.
But if, on a crisp autumn day when the pipes play "Amazing Grace" and the drum sounds the Dead
March, some widow or child or mom or dad glances up at that cross and thinks for but a moment, "I
am the Resurrection and the Life," who among us should say them nay?
November 11, 2001
"Thanks," said the President of the United States as he shook my hand and looked me square in the
eye after the international memorial service at Ground Zero on Sunday. Moments later Governor
Pataki and Mayor Giuliani came by as well. Rudy signed my hard-hat.
It's nice to feel appreciated, finishing up my second week as a Red Cross Disaster Relief volunteer at
Ground Zero in New York City.
It was not the first thanks I had gotten that day. The first was a general thanks to the relief workers
in a letter from a sixth grade girl in South Carolina. She had sent along a lucky penny to help us out,
so I sent one back to her.
Then there was the thanks received from a police sergeant. A couple of us had sat with him at a
dinner table in Respite Center One and listened.
"For the first couple of weeks, I just couldn't come down here," he said.
Stationed in the Bronx, on September 11 he was running an errand downtown. He saw the second
plane hit, saw the flaming jet fuel incinerating everything in its path, saw bodies hurtling through the
air, saw people jump, saw the whole thing come crumbling down.
"I hope you've worked through it," offered companion.
"Yeah, I'm o.k. with it now."
He is in charge of one of the security checkpoints. Says it's much better than duty at the Staten
Island landfill, where the remains of the World Trade Center are sifted for body parts. Piece by
piece, the rubble rides across a conveyor belt where workers using garden tools look for anything
that might contain the DNA of a former human being, tossing same into buckets for later more
So many stories. One of out regular volunteers is a 19 year old drama student with the singing voice
of an angel, who comes down here to work the midnight to eight shift then runs cheerfully off to
class. The school is in the upper west side of Manhattan. All phone service and public
transportation were halted on September 11. A young man she knew was unable to contact his
girlfriend, who was either in or near the World Trade Center. He borrowed a pair of roller blades
and glided five miles to search for her (he found her safe and sound.)
Before the Prsident arrived I attended Mass beneath the steel cross at Ground Zero. We threw
some scrap lumber down in the muck and laid some sheets of plywood over it and that was our
sanctuary. The heavy machinery shut down out of respect. OSHA regulations notwithstanding, we
uncovered our heads. At the remembrance section we were asked to call out the names of those
who had died. There were many. So many Irish firemen it almost sounded like a reading of the
Dublin white pages. The only hymn was "God Bless America", echoing unevenly off the burned out
hulk of the World Trade Center.
It was Veteran's Day, and for that we gave thanks as well.
After working the midnight to eight shift, I had just settled into my pillow when the phone rang.
"Are you watching television?" asked my wife. "Another plane went down."
I tried to focus and tuned in on the early confused reports but the unmistakeable rising smoke from
Queens on an otherwise brilliantly clear day.
I was awake.
The phone lines to Red Cross headquarters in Brooklyn were all tied up. I decided to try to get
there and see if I could help.
The Secret Service Agents guarding my floor were all pacing. Outside on 42nd street an emergency
traffic lane had been set up. Police were everywhere.
After determining the subways were still running, I dashed the three long blocks to Grand Central
Station ( not exactly ready for the AHS Cross-country team, but I did pretty good), jumped on the
train downtown and switched to the A-train to Brooklyn. Two young men stopped me to ask what I
knew. They both lived in the Rockaway section of Queens, where the plane went down. I knew
AT Headquarters they had me stand by. I wandered about the control room and was amzed at the
efficiency of the operation. They already had a command center set up at JFK airport, two
emergency response vehicles on the scene, accurate maps printed out of the crash site together with
specific directions for getting there. Six more fully-manned vehicles were at the command center.
One man on the telephone was clearly and professionally gathering information and repeating same.
When he hung up the phone he said very calmly, "Just so you are aware, they anticipate no
survivors." And then, he swallowed hard and looked away.
A lot of arm-chair quarterbacks have been criticizing the Red Cross lately. Personally, I have been
tremendously impressed by everything I've seen.
I was released and went back to my hotel.
November 19, 2001
Twenty-four hours a day a spot just outside the entrance to the Ground Zero work site is occupied
by a changing but dedicated bunch whose sole function is to cheer and wave when rescue and relief
workers enter or leave. Over at the morgue another group continuously recites Jewish prayers for
the dead, and will do so until all the thousands of body parts recovered receive a proper burial. It
seems eveyone wants to do something.
We have quite a mix of folks volunteering here at Respite Center One at Ground Zero in New York
City, where I am in my third and final week as a Red Cross volunteer. The core group on the midnight to 8 shift are three-weekers from around the country: North Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan, Indiana, Louisiana, California, Alaska, Washington State, even one from Canada.
Supplementing these are "local" volunteers, who are not necessarily from New York, who come in for a night or several or never leave. There are students and actors, lawyers, accountants, office workers, retired folks, etc. One night we had a lady cutting bagels who had been on As the World Turnsfor fourteen years. Many people stay all night and then leave to go to work. All are cheerful and wonderful.
This being a cosmopolitan city, there are occasional communication difficulties.
"Y'all know whut ah caint stan?" commented a spitfire from Nashville, "Et's these furren buhs
drav-vers. Thy tok so funny, somtams ah caint unnerstan a WURD thy sigh, y'all know whut ah
Yes, I think I do.
Then there's Vikki.
Vikki is a "local" volunteer from Yorkshire, England, very near my wife's ancestral village. She is a policewoman there and was so taken by the events here that she dropped everything and flew to
New York at her own expense and has been staying at the YWCA and coming in night after night to
volunteer. If that isn't enough, before she left home she obtained an ankle tatoo of the Stars and
Stripes intertwined with the Union Jack with the legend "God Bless America."
The other day she went shopping at a police uniform and paraphernalia store. Her speech betrayed
her to an off-duty police officer. "You're Vikki, aren't you?" he asked. Upon ascertaining his
honorable intentions, she permitted him to continue. "We've been looking for you. We heard all
about you and want to do something to say thanks."
So the NYPD PBA set her up in a nice hotel room in midtown Manhattan for the duration of her stay.
Things are winding down here for our operation, and with each passing day more of our national folks are going home. As one of the principal Emergency Response Vehicle operators, it generally falls upon me to take them on a final tour of the Ground Zero area. One of the last stops is a pair of impromptu memorials. One we call the "Teddy Bear Site", where friends and relatives of the September 11 victims have left flowers, messages, and hundreds of stuffed animals. Across the walkway, ironically near a permanent memorial to police killed in action in New York, is a site dedicated to the various police agency and fire department personnel lost on that fateful day.
Among the many messages is a letter written to FDNY Captain Thomas Farino:
I love you more than forever.
I am glad for two reasons. One reason is that I am happy God is making you happy.
Also my second reason is that you died in a very honorable way and the world thinks and is thankful that you saved people and you are a hero.
Thank you Dad.
In the last twenty-four hours the bodies of at least twelve firefighters have been removed from the rubble of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. This has coincided with the most spectacular Leonid meteor showers of our lifetime.
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
One cannot come to this place without being changed, and changed utterly.
November 24, 2001
"So you're a judge, are you?" inquired Vikki from Yorkshire after reading the article I had written
about her actvities as a Red Cross Volunteer in the Recorder. "That's funny. I had you pegged for a
It is my last day after nearly four weeks at Respite Center One at Ground Zero in New York City. In some ways it is the most difficult.
"Just what exactly is the circulation of the Recorder," she asked.
"I'm not sure precisely," says I, "but I do know that the combined circulation of the Recorder and the Reader's Digest is something over 22 million." She was impressed.
Mary and the younger two children have spent most of the week with me and together we have witnessed this great city returning to some normalcy: the Macy's parade, the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show, lines around the block waiting to get into the brand new Toys R Us, the two hour wait to get into the Empire State Building Observation Deck. Of course, we couldn't help but notice that at any given moment about three quarters of the crowd were facing south, pointing in the direction of what once was. We went at twilight, and saw the effect of the gazillion watts of light being turned on the site of the World Trade Center.
When Ronald Reagan was in the Army film office during the war, he came into possession of the footage of the U.S. Army liberating the Nazi death camps. He kept a copy for himself and showed this horror to his two sons on their respective twelth birthdays. He wanted them to learn the possibilities of evil, of man's inhumanity to man, and to make sure they would never forget.
On Wednesday I took my family for a long walk around the periphery of Ground Zero so they could see for themselves, showed them the police and fire memorials, and the Teddy Bears. We took our time, reading as many of the tributes as were still legible, soaking in the wedding pictures, the printed church services, the decaying flowers, the birthday gifts come too late, the thousands of goodbyes.
On Friday my oldest child, Anna, came down with her college roomate. They worked with me here at the Respite Center on my last night. I took them to the same places, and drove them through the valley of the shadow of death. That will be my last memory of this place.
Calvin Coolidge said that each of us should strive to live our lives in such a way that we become the
hero of our own life's story. I have seen plenty of people doing that down here. And it truly is a
great feeling to get notes from your kids addressed, "My Dad, the Hero".
But I'm no hero, and I know that. I'm only here to make a small down payment on an old debt.
My father was in the Normandy campaign in the Second World War, and his father and uncle in World War I. My great-great grandfather was in the Army of Northern Virginia and survived Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.
I'll never forget the day my older brother Jay came home from the Army and announced at the dining room table, jauntily, "Well, I nailed the plum assignment. I'm going to Vietnam." Our father's face beamed with pride, masking his fear; our mother's face full of fear, masking her pride. They were, of course, of a different and most remarkable generation.
But I fought the Battle of Albany State, supporting our troops without being one, waving the flag in
the face of protestors, insisting on taking exams when others demanded the university be shut down.
Mine was the last year for automatic student deferments. The draft lottery was instituted and I pulled a high, safe number. The war in Vietnam ended half way through my senior year and the draft
abolished for good about two weeks after I graduated.
By then there was nothing left to fight for. Morale in the military began a steady decline. Our people
were booed when they came home. Our fortitude was put in mothballs.
By the time pride had been restored, I had a young family and a career. The opportunity to serve had passed, and as the years flew by I advanced and became settled in my ways until one day I realized that I had become one of those gentlemen Shakespeare's Henry V speaks of who "think themselves accursed" and "hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speak that fought. . ."
That is why I am here, now, because it is all I could think to do.
Some final thoughts. It will be hard to imagine any problem arising that would not pale next to the
destruction I have seen here. I do not see myself wallowing in self-pity any time soon. Whatever I
have to face is as nothing now. This is one terrific country and its people magnificent. More and more I have become convinced of the simple truths expressed so well by Mr. Greenwood:
If tomorrow all the things were gone I’d worked for all my life,
And I had to start again with just my children and my wife,
I’d thank my lucky stars to be living here today,
‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom and they
can’t take that away!