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Last Updated: 09/11/2002
By Alex Marx


The Bright Side

I reported to duty for my first shift at the same Brooklyn ARC headquarters where I initially volunteered. It was Tuesday, October 16th and we were due in at 10 pm for the 12 am shift. More procedures and paperwork and to allow for travel time.

At this hour the place was fairly dark and had its own quiet hum. The reception area and the sign in area provided the only real illumination. Down the long spine of the building there was a fluorescent glow, probably from the emergency fixtures. It was in stark contrast to my earlier trip when the corridors were in constant motion.

All in all the ambiance was of gloom and reminded me of the stark and contrasting lighting of our first trip to Ground Zero on September 12th.

I signed in for my shift and chatted with the volunteer (LDV). I asked about the work at Respite 3 and what the difference was to Respite 1. She said that most people worked only once at R1 and requested transfers to R3. R1 apparently was preferred by the fire department over R3. And their mood certainly did not make it easy to stay a cheery LDV. Many volunteers didn’t return even if they signed up for multiple shifts. They were often shifting LDVs from R3 to R1 duty.

I also chatted briefly with a sort of geeky looking guy who turned out to be an EMS technician and an Orthodox Jew. As we chatted I could definitely get the sense that he was too wrapped up in being an EMT and not too wrapped up in being discreet. He chatted about how he was down at the WTC on 9-11 and that his ambulance had been destroyed. He then started listing some of the things he saw, which was causing obvious distress to all within earshot.

Generally he was pretty obnoxious and that’s a trait I generally reserve for myself, but generally in less trying situations.

I tried interrupting to move the topic along, but he obviously needed to unburden himself. I kept pushing the topic towards what our duties might be and how we would fare. After awhile it became obvious that we were on two different wavelengths, and I shifted to the reception area and picked up the Times. He picked up the conversation with the LDV and the last I really heard was him trying to move himself to R1.

There were about 15 or 20 of us scattered about the reception area. Some people chatted with familiarity; others read or sat silently and quietly. A few remained outside to smoke or, in contrast, put air in their lungs…

The clock on the wall obeyed Einstein and slowed the movement of its hands relative to our collective impatience, anticipation and concern. Finally around 11:30 they did a head count. And, as feared, there were a fair number of R1 recruits missing. I offered to switch, as did several others, but they didn’t want to gut R3 for R1.

We of R1 were directed out to a waiting bus, where we trod each carrying or wearing our Red Cross issue hard hat, safety glasses and mask. We were joined by a volunteer in the standard gray Red Cross vest. She wore a badge that identified her as a DSHR (Disaster Services Human Resources), sort of an über-volunteer. We piled into the bus, lit by the dim incandescent reading bulbs. We nodded and smiled at each other as we sat down but we didn’t seem to want to follow up with an introduction.

After a few minutes of being lost in thought, our DSHR boarded the bus and asked if every one of us was with the proper group, the R1 volunteers. We all were except the bus driver who insisted that this was the bus for R3. A minor discussion ensued wherein our leader went to check. We switched buses.

We headed out, towards the Brooklyn Bridge, which was just around the corner. We were stopped by State Troopers for an identity check, as the bridge was still not open to large vehicles. Our drivers Red Cross Id did the trick and we were across the empty bridge.

From the bridge, one normally has a commanding view of the New York Skyline. But now, we didn’t really want to look. I didn’t want to look. One couldn’t help but to notice the smoke still filling the space formally more solidly occupied. It was eerie, sad and spectacular. New York’s Skyline has been spectacular and unbeatable even before skyscrapers. And so it shall remain.

As we wound our way West and towards our destination our leader introduced herself. “My name is …”

And now my conscious and perhaps my lawyers need to issue a caveat here. I am going to have a problem with names here. One, because I don’t remember all of them (sorry!) and; two, because some of the people mentioned within won’t appreciate my views of them. Those I feel need that protection I will substitute names. To those I don’t remember or mix it up, I apologize and will make best effort to make it right. To those whose names I have forgotten, you are in good company, but I again apologize…

“Pat and I am the LDV coordinator.” She went on to reiterate the rules of our behavior as volunteers, a bit about what to expect, and a reminder to take breaks during our shift and don’t be afraid to reach out for help if we felt overwhelmed. Additionally, whenever we were outside of Respite 1, we were to wear our helmets, safety glasses and masks. There was still a lot of loose debris that flew off of buildings when the winds kicked up.

She asked if there were any questions, and I asked if we could, on subsequent shifts, go to the site directly without going out to Brooklyn first. She didn’t know but said she would check…

The one thing you noticed about Pat was her face was incredibly kind. Though she could be tough, as I would find out, she turned out to be one of those people with whom I bonded quickly and to whom I could turn for help and advice and support.

We rolled on. In normal times one could have continued West off the bridge and been at the WTC in a matter of minutes, now everything was blocked off. We turned north towards Canal Street and then headed West down Canal Street. My street.

In normal times, this street was a hell hole, a river of traffic and endless tourists shopping for tourist crap. The tourists died out by night fall, but the traffic was ceaseless as the street had become a major highway and trucking route between the Manhattan Bridge and the Holland Tunnel. It wasn’t always like that; it used to be fairly quiet. But as the city has revived and politics (it’s a long story) has taken over common sense, the street has become a beat-up and overused thoroughfare.

Right after 9/11 Canal Street had been the dividing line between the Ground Zero zone and everything North. As the restrictions eased the street was reopened except to commercial traffic but it was still the border to the Southern area. Only residents and other authorized people were allowed through.

The street was dark and quiet this night. It too had the eerie glow, the street lights highlighting their little conical zones, demarked by the darkness outside the umbra. No traffic joined us as we bounced and jolted through the endless potholes, steel plates and decrepit patches that have marked this street for years. We could have been a group of prisoners on our way to Devils Island in some B-grade movie…

We rolled right past my apartment building, its yellowish exterior glowing from the yellowish streetlights and its details washed in the shadows. It seemed larger than it is. I could see my American flag still hanging from the Fire Escape where I placed it so many weeks back. I wanted to point out my apartment to the group, but discretion got the better of me, and I kept silent.

We turned south at West Street, the old West Side Highway which ran by the western edge of the WTC and divided it from the World Financial Center to the west. This was the same artery that carried the initial wave of rescuers and supplies into Ground Zero. By the afternoon of the 12th, West Street was filled with heavy equipment, trucks full of supplies, assorted support vehicles and ambulances queued for runs they would never make. To the north lay help in all forms, to the south it was cut it two by the collapse of the north walkway and mounds of steel and concrete.

In the intervening weeks, West Street had taken on an organization of its own. Well guarded, its many entrances were patrolled and barricaded. Neat lines of dump trucks waiting for their turn to get loaded sat idling. Tents were set up in the median, to offer food and aid. Small impromptu shrines and memorials sprung up here and there, a few candles, a bouquet of flowers, some pictures.

Knowing the area as I do, I knew we were close and I suppose I felt a bit elated and a lot apprehensive. We were entering hallowed ground, off limits except to those involved in the rescue, recovery and rebuilding. And we were finally going to be able to contribute to that effort…

We passed two check points and turned into the bus parking area a block north of our destination; St. Johns College. This campus occupied a large, modern glass building 2 blocks north of the Trade Center. It used to be the College of Insurance but had recently changed hands and rumor had it that this was supposed to be its first semester. The building was undamaged by the collapse, although close, it was shielded by the surrounding buildings.

We donned our helmets, glasses and masks and filed off the bus. We were reminded that we would meet back here after our shift ended at 8am for the trip back to Brooklyn. We walked the final block in the center of this new world.

To the south, in the intense glow of hundreds of white work lights, cranes were swinging and bobbing. Smoke drifted and the air smelled that smell. The power had been restored to several of the damaged WFC buildings, and although still wounded, their crown of lights had been turned on.

There was a lot of traffic, trucks, “gators” or golf cart like vehicles, and people flowed in all directions. It was a human ant hill, all focused on one purpose, all contributing in small ways.

So much had changed since Layla and I made our self-appointed missions to offer assistance just 4 weeks prior. There were new street signs, temporary buildings, tents, and lots of the ubiquitous work lights, casting away the gloom in small patches. New cabling had been installed in special troughs that were built has extensions to the sidewalks and covered by a fence that lay at a horizontal angle as if a picket fence had blown over. Pipes lay down the sidewalk feeding water to buildings and fire hydrants. There were no traffic lights, but traffic flowed in an orderly pattern.

What hadn’t changed was the flow of truck carrying debris from the site, and empty trucks flowing in to cart away more. Nor could you discern a change in the energy, the determination, the commitment of everyone down there to get the job done. No matter what. No matter when. No matter how.

The area had become its own world, its own city within a city: New York, New York, NY.

We walked down the block. The street was in darkness, with the odd shadows of the work lights and the headlights of vehicles causing the ghosts of our shadows to race ahead of us. When we turned the corner and prepared to add our energy, determination and commitment. No matter what. No matter when. No matter how.

 To be Continued…


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All Portions Copyright © 2001, 2002 Alex Marx