September 12, 2014 by JImbo
I know I’m late on the whole “Remember 9-11” thing. I suppose it’s natural to recall where you were at traumatic moments in your life, and that of the country.
My grandparents remember where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor.
My parents know what they were doing when they heard about Kennedy getting shot.
Mine was September 11th.
I remember where I was.
At work in Downtown Rochester.
My boss and I were talking to our neighbor, a business owner down the street a block. He’d stopped in to chew the fat before starting prep for lunch at the restaurant.
As he was leaving, he made an offhand comment.
“So, ya hear anything about that plane that hit a building in New York City?”
I knew a bomber had hit the Empire State Building in 1942.
That was in bad weather I think. It was an accident. But, I knew planes hit tall things all the time. Accidents happen.
So, we turned on the radio.
A moment later, on live air the second plane hit the other tower.
It was no little plane.
It was an airliner.
My boss (a former Marine) and I looked at each other.
This wasn’t a coincidence.
The rest of the day was a blur of traffic jams and frantic phone calls as people freaked the hell out. We ran the Information Center for the city and people wanted information. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anything to tell them they couldn’t find out in the news on their own.
I think we got a TV from somewhere. I don’t remember where. It seemed to take forever to watch those buildings burn.
It didn’t look good. Nothing the FDNY had would reach that high on those buildings. Those fires would burn out… or the buildings wold burn down. That’s all there was to it.
Then they tumbled down one after the other, collapsing in moments into huge clouds of dust. Above the thick billowing cloud was a bright blue sky. Where two huge buildings had been was just empty air. Thousands of people… gone.
It took a little while to sink in. Words really couldn’t convey the enormity of it. It was just over. You knew from simple math that that many tons of concrete coming down… there weren’t going to be any survivors. Just not possible.
What to do now? People panicked. The streets were gridlocked. Everyone was rushing home frantically. We had a front row seat at the corner of the busiest corner in the city.
Rumors ran fast and wrong. Who attacked us? Where would they hit next?
Remember that back then we didn’t know who had done what. All we knew was something bad had happened and it wasn’t an accident. it was two or three days I think before we ever heard about Al Qaeda being involved.
Suddenly everyone was SURE that their office or their kids’ school or their home was the next target. It didn’t make sense, but fear rarely does. My boss and I tried to hold our people back until the insanity outside died down, but they had a right to get home.
It wasn’t like we’d get anything done that day anyway.
The call came in from my Guard unit. The Corporal didn’t ask a question. He made a statement.
“You saw the television.”
“Alright then. Get your shit ready.”
The memories that really stick with me came later though. It was all unreal on the radio or television. It didn’t really exist.
Then a dozen of us went down from my unit to help at Ground Zero.
THAT I remember vividly. I can’t forget that. Ever.
We worked the “Pile” around the clock with goggles, face masks and vapo rub.
You needed something to cover up the death smell.
It was everywhere. You got used to it after awhile, but it was weeks before it went away. Growing up in the country, you’re used to finding road kill roasting in the sun and dead animals in the woods.
This was the same, only it wasn’t animals… and it wasn’t one or two. It was thousands of bodies, pulverized and burning. The fire under the Pile burned for days… weeks. They just couldn’t get to it to put it out.
We had a supply depot set up on the tennis courts at the college around the corner and a rainbow coalition of vehicles. Red and white “Fire Dept” trucks. Yellow ones from the Dept of Transportation. Blue ones from the Water Dept. Green ones from the National Guard.
The supply team itself was just as varied. Army, Air Force, Cops, Port Authority, some guys who just showed up. In fact about the only ones not there were the firefighters. They were all on top of the pile itself, using jack hammers, sledgehammers, pry bars and their bare hands to dig.
We knew it was futile. I know deep down they did too, but what can you do? Gotta try I suppose.
Again, as I said it was better to be doing something. The moment you stopped your eyes were drawn to the big gaping hole in the skyline. The heavy, pungently sweet death pyre drifting out of the rubble. The shattered windows of the surrounding buildings. The emergency vehicles smashed flat by masonry.
I felt bad for the ambulance crews lined up by one of the parks. Battery Park maybe? I forget. It was by a plaza on the south side of the WTC complex.
A row of maybe a dozen ambulances sitting there, idling…waiting. Stacks of empty bodybags. Waiting for the wailing sirens of an emergency vehicle with a fresh load of body parts.
A finger. A toe. A piece of flesh the coroner would have to identify.
Didn’t matter. It got a body bag to itself. That might be all that was left of someone for their family to bury.
I was glad to be counting buckets and loading pallets on trucks. Living on free chicken mcnuggets and cheeseburgers. Breathing in the pulverized glass in the air.
It wasn’t all bad. We did have a nice meal on a cruise ship parked on the west side near that aircraft carrier that’s up there. They opened it up free for emergency services personnel. We tromped aboard in our dirty, dust-covered fatigues and left grime marks on every bit of expensive dinnerware we touched.
It was nice to get away for one night. Just for a few hours. The city was so… quiet. Apart from the blinding lights and constant thunder of jackhammers and engines from the Pile.
The firefighters never quit. They didn’t take any time off. Their brothers were still down there.
Residents of Manhattan came down and handed out cookies and home baked cakes. The officers ran around and yelled at us for taking them. “Terrorists could have poisoned them!” they said.
We laughed and ate them anyway. You don’t tell a teary eyed grandmother you won’t eat her poisoned cookies. Not after all this city had just been through.
Smile and take two cookies. Smile. Promise to find the bastards who did it.
It’s funny nobody thought to take pictures of that. Lots of pictures of rubble and death. Not one picture could I find of someone smiling or handing out cookies.
THAT is what I remember about 9-11.
I haven’t forgotten.
I can’t forget that.