ARC Part II
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
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
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
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
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
To be Continued…
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