Ground Zero: A Journal
by Vincent Druding 99
Reprinted from the journal First Things
September 11 was to be my first day of work at a new job
in downtown Manhattan. Though New York was still very new to me, it was
immediately obvious that something was terribly wrong. As I climbed the
stairs of the subway just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, there
was a palpable feeling of panic in the air as people stared, horrified,
into the sky. I followed their gaze upward and I instantly understood.
Smoke and fire were gushing from a gaping hole in the smooth, silvery
surface of the right-hand tower.
I asked someone nearby if he knew what had happened, and he said it was
a bomb. Another man walked over and declared, No, it was a plane,
a plane flew right into the building... Then an enormous explosion
drowned out his words. Above our heads, an orange fireball swallowed the
top of the second tower, as clouds of paper filled the sky above us. Hundreds
of people began scattering. I ran across the street to the Municipal Building
and up to a shrieking woman who stammered through her sobs that she had
seen a large blue and white plane slam into the building. We stared
slack-jawed as sections of the buildings metallic facade fell in
chunks to the ground. It took a few moments until we realized that some
of those falling pieces were not metal at all, but rather human beings
leaping eighty or more stories to their deathsright before our eyes.
All I could think to do was make the sign of the cross.
As I stood there in disbelief, a man next to me with a massaging pager
said that the Pentagon had just been hit. I grabbed at his pager to read
it for myself. Then came the confusion and rumors on the street: The
Capitols been attacked! The State Department has been
bombed! The Supreme Court is in flames! Camp David
is burning! A plane is on its way to the White House!
During all this, the fire trucks had been racing past on their way to
the Towers. I must have seen twelve of them rush past our corner. In the
coming hours and days, I often wondered how many of the men on those trucks
died just minutes later.
Soon the NYPD asked us to evacuate the area. It was only a minute after
we began to walk uptown and away from the Towers that the sound of several
claps of thunder began to rip through the air just over my shoulder. I
turned around and saw with my own eyes a sight of pure horror, as the
left-hand tower began to collapse into a massive white cloud. Our walk
quickly became a run, and then a stampede.
Eventually, as we got farther away from the cataclysm, our pace slowed
back down. I caught my breath, trying to absorb what I had just witnessed,
when an olive-skinned man with a mustache and briefcase walking to my
right began to intone: You see what happens! All the Palestinians
want is a place to call home, a small piece of land. We continue to fund
the Israelis, we supply them with money and weapons, we support the persecution
of a people for decades, and you see what happens! It should not have
come to this. It didnt have to come to this! They have had enough,
and you see how they respondtheyve got our attention now.
Letting him push on without me, I paused with several hundred others at
the Manhattan Bridge to watch the lone burning tower. We had outrun the
smoke and dust unscathed, but now thousands of others followed behind
us. They were in groups of three or four, marching toward midtown, some
sprinkled with ash, many others caked with a dust that had hardened on
their skin as it mixed with sweat and traces of blood. They passed by
like ghostsgrayish-white figures carrying bags, suitcases, and purses.
Extras from the set of horror film, quietly walking home.
As I followed them uptown, a businessman from Atlanta who was in New York
on business told me that he couldnt get through to his wife on his
cell phone; he knew shed be scared as hell. I was on the 81st
floor, and we were probably the last to get out, but the firefighters
kept coming in, heading up as we headed down. They just kept filing up
Then, a sudden gasp from a group of Chinese men and women on the corner,
and we turned to watch the second tower follow the fate of the first.
After a few seconds, I continued my dazed trek to my apartment on 19th
IM NOT SURE WHY I WENT BACK. The morning of the twelfth I heard
a homily at Mass imploring Christians not to yield to the pain and evil
but to overcome adversity with faith. That message stuck with me.
The van of volunteers drove us through the smoking and dusty streets of
lower Manhattan, cluttered with countless thousands of sheets of paper;
all around us, cars and emergency vehicles looked like they were made
of papier-mâché. Fruit and bagel stands stood abandoned on
empty sidewalks, the apples and bananas sitting in undisturbed rows, coated
with a layer of pulverized concrete half an inch thick.
For someone raised in peaceful and prosperous America, Ground Zero itself
was astonishing to behold. In the center of the street south of the World
Trade Center was a crater 60 feet deep and 120 feet across. On each side
of the pit, the mangled remains of the towers themselves. They say that
each floor of each massive 110-story building was an acre in size. Spread
before me was 220 acres of pure destruction crammed into a 16-acre plaza.
Stringy steel rods cut like irregular staircase stepsthe skeleton
of the building facadesurrounded two six-story piles of debris.
Twisted red steel. Windows. Carpets. Toilets. Bits of copy machines, computers,
file cabinets, desk. And of course, hidden somewhere within the mountainous
piles, the mutilated remains of over 3,000 human beings. And then there
was the noxious smoke, streaming from a thousand cracks and fissures in
the piles from hundreds of hidden fires beneath them.
No one seemed to be in charge. Hundreds of firefighters crawled around
on the piles in small groups. Several pockets of 20 or 30 of them labored
with torches, shovels, wire cutters, jackhammers, electric saws, oxygen
canisters, hoses, dogs, and their bare hands. At the fringe of the pilenear
the Brooks Brothers store that had been transformed into a makeshift morguestood
several long lines of emergency workers who handed off buckets of debris,
one by one. Spontaneous order emerged from the chaos.
So, for example, a New York City fire captain in the pit who needed 40
welding tips phoned a friend in New Jersey who has a boat. His friend
calls the local union, and in an hour a couple boxes of welding tips are
loaded onto a ship, along with several boxes of food, clothes, medical
supplies, and 15 guys looking to lend a hand. An hour later the captain
docks the boat at the Cove, east of the American Express building directly
adjacent to the site. Ten minutes later, a motley group of construction
workers, police officers, volunteers, FBI agents, and National Guardsmen
arrive to unload the boxes and pass them down a 150-man work line. Linda
and Jackie, two nurses, organize the unloading at the end of the supply
line: Medical supplies here! Clothes, there! Construction supplies,
here! The captain radios that the welding tips are off the boat.
Twenty minutes later, a retired veteran named Rich makes his way into
the makeshift supply store on the second floor of the AMEX building, finds
the welding tips, and hauls them in a golf cart across the plaza to an
equally makeshift transfer station. Half an hour later, the captain who
ordered the welding tips from his friend in New Jersey not
more than two hours ago walks over to pick up his supplies.
Much of my time was spent directing materials around the site. The supply
triangle between the dock, the AMEX building, and the piles ran nonstop
for several days and nights. In the days following September 11, similar
operations were repeated throughout Lower Manhattan, as thousands of people
spontaneously found and contributed to the supply chain.
There was much goodness and bravery at the site, but there was also fear,
as frayed nerves frequently conspired to induce instantaneous panic. When
something shifted unexpectedly on one of the piles, for instance, a firefighter
would run, sending the team around him leaping from the huge mound, thereby
inspiring hundreds of workers in the quadrant of Ground Zero to scatter.
Within seconds several hundred workers would be running for their
lives down the nearest street tossing their tools, kicking up dust
behind them, tripping over live fire hoses.
Then, as people began to realize that it had been a false alarm, the explanations
would begin. The Millennium Building was gonna come down.
I smelled natural gas. There was a fire on the pile.
After twenty minutes or so, people would slowly creep back toward the
site. This cycle repeated itself several times in the first few days,
until a system of bells and bullhorns replaced leaping bodies as the official
PRESIDENT BUSH ARRIVED AT GROUND ZERO on Friday, September 14the
first day in my 24 years of living that I experienced genuine patriotism.
When word got out that the President might pay us a visit, eyebrows lifted
and smiles cracked on faces. As soon as he stepped out of his black Suburban,
the workers dropped their shovels and scurried around to welcome him.
Many of us stood on overturned buckets behind a few rows of people to
catch a glimpse, and those behind us stood on two or three buckets. Scores
of workers climbed on top of the trucks, cranes, and emergency vehicles
higher on the rubble, or stood on an overturned I-beam to catch a glimpse.
I thought to myself that this scene must be reminiscent of some bygone
time in Americas political history when a White House staff did
not plan every presidential visit weeks in advance. I thought of Lincoln
at Gettysburg, stepping out of a train to make a speech, and spontaneous
crowds of people, some climbing into trees or on walls, gathering around
to watch and listen. Here was our Commander-in Chief, faced with unprecedented
destruction on American soil, to rally men and women in hard hats at the
center of a wounded city, at the center of stunned nation.
As he passed in front of our section, his hand met mine, and he looked
me in the eye for more than a moment to hear me stammer what I believe
was something like, God bless, Mr. President, were behind
you. He was in no hurry to speak to us as a group, but rather took
his time meeting us individually. The crowd around the rubble was growing
fast, reaching at least 1,000. There was clearly an enthusiasm in the
air for the first time since September 11.
When the President finally grabbed a bullhorn and began to speak, it was
hard to hear him at first. Someone behind me shouted, We cant
But I can hear you! the President proclaimed loudly. And
the rest of the country hears you! And soon, the people that did this...are
going to hear from all of us!
At that moment, a shot of electricity surged through the crowd. Cheers
erupted and echoed off the surrounding buildings, each draped with a tattered
American flag. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! It went on and on.
Thenat the corner of West and Vesey streets in New York City, on
the edge of a mass grave, at the feet of the Commander-in-Chief of the
worlds mightiest nationI was overwhelmed with an unexpected
sense of fraternity and love of country. Not fifty feet away lay the remains
of 3,000 innocent people, and here, at their side, a band of their brothers
stood before their leader, united in an unconditional love of justice.
I really do think that is what it was.
ONE NIGHT AT 2 A.M. I was on my way through the rain to pick up supplies
in the AMEX building, which among other things was being used as a transfer
station for the bodies and parts of bodies we had recovered from the site.
From there, they were packed onto trucks to be taken to the morgue at
Bellevue Hospital. As I entered the atrium of the building I saw scores
of workers holding their hard hats over their chests. Fifty yards away
a dozen firefighters proceeded slowly in my direction carrying a body
bag. I removed my hard hat and stepped to the side. As they approached,
I could read their red, swollen eyes. Their uniforms were dark with mud
and soot. Raindrops dripped from everyones gear. A priest wearing
a raincoat, a hard hat, goggles, a respirator, and a headlamp came forward
with a book and oils. The men carrying their fallen friend cried quietly
as the priest rolled back the bag and anointed the body, administering
what appeared to be Last Rites. In the atrium, heads bowed and no one
moved. Time seemed to stop as profane space became as sacred as a shrine.
Eventually, the priest stepped away, and the firemen walked slowly forward,
out the doors and into the truck waiting outside. Without a word, we went
back out into the dark rain to work.
Before the rainstorm, nearly everything at Ground Zero was covered with
a layer of dust, which became the parchment for the messages of rescue
workers. On windows or walls, you could find short compositions: God
Bless America, Engine Company 6, Give us Justice,
Revenge is a bitch, We miss you Johnny, and the
like. But one message stood out. Written with a black marker on a flier
posted on a pillar of the AMEX building, RIP Fr. Mike. Father
Mike Judge, a Franciscan priest and Chaplain of the FDNY, died while praying
in the South Tower on September 11. In the days since September 11, working
around the clock with little-to-no-rest, I lost track of time. But this
message reminded me that it was Sunday.
Sunday was my fifth day working at Ground Zero. I was exhausted. After
making my rounds at the supply area, I walked up North End Avenue to the
support center at Stuyvesant high School. I had heard earlier in the day
that St. Patricks Cathedral was going to hold a 5:30 Mass, and I
felt the need to attend it. As I entered the building, I saw a man dressed
in a white habit walking slowly but deliberately down the hall. The tip
of his Roman collar peaked out of the robe. He looked and spoke like James
Earl Jones and his face was very serious. It occurred to me later that
he was probably a Franciscan and had likely just come from attending to
the dead at Ground Zero.
All around us, the volunteers buzzed back and forth, and police officers
and workers passed by. I asked the priest whether there would be an evening
Mass around the site, and he told me that the only one had been held at
9:00 that morning. I told him that I was hoping to attend the memorial
Mass at St, Patricks, which I instantly realized had started six
minutes earlier. He then said very deliberately, I can offer you
the Holy Eucharist. Would you like that? And then, with five days
of chaos in my head and my body fatigued, a nameless priest in a white
robe, almost invisible in the white hallway were it not for his dark complexion,
put his hand on my head, said a blessing, and placed the Body of Christ
in my mouth. My eyes remained closed for a long time.
Here, amid the nonstop movement and clutter of bodies and buildings, amid
the constant acrid smell of smoke and smog, amid the signs reading Warning,
high levels of asbestos here, amid the dozens of workers who seemed
always on the verge of breaking down in tears, amid the steady flow of
sobbing civilians who toured the place where their loved one lay entombed,
amid the constant sounds of machines, crashing metal, and sirens, amid
all of the destruction and deathhere was a pocket of peace. Here,
Christ was present, not only among us, but now, again, inside me. And
then this angel in the whirlwind sent me on my way and resumed his slow
but deliberate work through the horror, looking to dispense solace to
any and all who would accept it, passing through the tumult, almost as
though he were from another world.
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