Photos of New York City supplied by Burt Zweigenhaft
I have been helping with the rescue efforts at World Trade Center Ground Zero, digging shoulder to shoulder with individuals from all over the country, most of whom I have come to know only as "Brother." Yesterday, Ground Zero was renamed "Ground Hero." I don't know exactly how this name change came to be. In some silent way it just happened; no news or marketing entity can take the packaging credit here. Another striking phrase used was "Brother," or "Brothers." These words were used to greet, support or just reaffirm that we were all here together. The words "Ground Hero," which were uttered brother to brother up and down the bucket-brigade lines, produced only a solemn smile, as everyone knew this was the appropriate name. During the days, very few words were exchanged over the cries of "Torch!" "Saw blades!" "Battery packs!" "Send in the dog!" and, most telling of all, "Body bag."
I answered my brother-in-law Patrick Hawkins's call to help out on the day following the attack. I think he asked me for help for two reasons: First, the fire department was so overwhelmed and decimated by the loss of more than 350 men that they really needed help. But secondly, I think he needed the emotional support. Maybe someday we will talk about why he asked me to be there with him.
When I first arrived in lower Manhattan with Patrick, a New York City Fire Department chief, we both started up Broadway toward the World Trade Center. My heart was in my stomach (or maybe the other way around) and my mind was frozen, as the visuals relayed by my eyes to my brain just didn't register, as we continued to approach Ground Zero. We were not speaking to each other during our approach; we both were trying to prepare ourselves for the challenge ahead.
As we walked, it dawned on me that although Patrick was a seasoned and decorated 22-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, he was walking as slowly and deliberately as my pace required in order to allow me to move forward, emotionally. We were still a good nine blocks from the Trade Center when we began to encounter the dust. At first, this was only a dusting; then we passed the famous Wall Street Bull, covered with debris and buried in three inches of dust that was coming up over the tips of our boots.
By three blocks from the Trade Center, the dust was up to six inches deep. Here we started seeing blown-out windows and heavier chunks of debris. Window ledges and canopies were covered with enormous quantities of shredded paper, bits of debris and dust. I saw clothes and shoes entangled in the shredded mess on a fire escape. This was a telltale sign that what I was about to see would be beyond my comprehension. We proceeded closer to Ground Zero—I could hear Patrick and myself mumbling incoherently, "Oh, my God," as we just could not believe our eyes. Then we rounded the corner of West Street and worked our way across the face of a completely blown-out building.
Then we came upon the surreal: Before our eyes stood the skin of the South Tower, still straining to stand tall, rising maybe 15 stories into the heavens, surrounded by billows of smoke, presiding over mountains of unrecognizable rubble. Stopping to try to get control of our hearts, we ventured closer to the rescue scene. Stopping again as we climbed over the wreckage five feet deep covering West Street, we found ourselves standing in the middle of the destruction. For 10 square blocks, everywhere you looked was total destruction. Patrick and I stood there surrounded by other rescue workers who were arriving. As I looked at their faces, most had tears and appeared dazed; no one was talking. Each of us in our own way tried to find some way to accept the scene our eyes were seeing, but our minds could not comprehend. Most of us just stood there coming to terms with our emotions.
Then Patrick said, "Brothers, let's move in and help our brothers." He led the way as we descended into the pile to help. Patrick told me he wanted to relieve the chief, whom he knew was on the top of the largest mountain of debris. Patrick surmised that his chief had been up there for a long time, but no one knew exactly how long (it was probably more than 20 hours). In order to relieve him, we had to scale the mountain through smoking rubble and twisted steel.
Patrick said that he just had to follow his instincts at that moment, since the Fire Department chain of command was totally overwhelmed from the loss of men and equipment and by the enormous area of devastation; he referred to the chain of command at that point as "organized chaos." The mountain was a smoking, glowing pile of twisted steel, rubble and debris towering some 10 or 15 floors in height. The group he assembled trekked over what had been the Twin Towers Courtyard. Now it was a debris field at least 10 to 15 feet deep. As we carefully balanced and stepped on the sturdiest of the twisted steel girders, we passed by other groups of rescuers digging around fire trucks and emergency vehicles under the steel. These trucks were completely crushed down to their tires and were no longer distinguishable by their fire-engine red color. Every vehicle had been crushed, burned and melted into a form that even the firefighters could not recognize.
Although I found I could initially put aside my fear and follow Patrick into the piles, once he started to ascend the smoldering mountain I told him, "I can't follow—Patrick, this is really beyond my bounds." Fear was starting to overtake my numbed mind. He hugged me and said he understood my limits—even his experiences over a long firefighting career hadn't prepared him for this.
Before Patrick continued on up the mountain, he left me with a group of fire and police personnel working in the middle of what remained of Towers One and Two. I was teamed up to work with a group of men, most of whom I never even knew by their first names, despite working side by side over three days. Some were New York City firefighters, others were construction laborers, others New York City police; some were from far-away fire-rescue units in Pennsylvania, California, Florida, Virginia, Michigan, Texas and even France and England.
Then there was Eddie (the only man I knew by name), a "sandhog," or tunnel digger, from Boston. Most of the rescuers responded to help on their own accord. Some drove over several days to New York City to answer the call. Although we all came from our different lives—and certainly we didn't know much about each other besides that we were there to help—we immediately began referring to each other as "Brother." At first, I didn't comprehend why they were calling me Brother, as I thought the term was reserved for firefighters. Over the ensuing hours and days, I came to understand why they were calling me Brother from the first second I joined their crew; for anyone who comes to the aid of others is a brother. I understood that we were all there to help one another—at the end of the day that was the only reason we were all there.
Together we climbed down into, under and through the massive piles of debris looking for our brothers and sisters using torches, Sawzalls, bolt-cutters and our hands to dig rescue paths. Our hopes were high and our energy enduring. Pail after pail of rubble (actually pulverized dust) and piece after piece of some unidentifiable miniaturized mass of twisted matter were passed down the bucket lines.
Gradually I overcame my fears as my fellow rescuers forged on. By the end of that first day, I was doing things and taking risks I never would have thought I would have the courage to manage. We all overcame our fears. Each of us knew the stakes, and we had to be there for each other.
I can only tell you, the devastation was unimaginable. Going in, we were concerned about broken glass, and we warned each other to watch out for the sharp shards of glass we expected to encounter in the piles. Soon we realized there was not one piece of glass. Not even one recognizable shard of glass was present. This was just unbelievable given the amount of glass in these buildings. I know it's hard to imagine, but everything was simply pulverized to dust. I found nothing—not even a victim—that was intact, or in a recognizable form. Dust and parts were all that was left. Just think: There had to be 200,000 or 300,000 chairs in these towers, and I didn't see one over those days. Nothing survived.
Perhaps the most hurt and sorrow we felt was when we heard the words "Shut down!" passed loudly along over the noise of the rescue effort from brother to brother in the pile. The entire rescue operation would grind to a halt momentarily.
Generators, saws, heavy equipment, torches and human hands would stop digging and shut down as the firefighters brought down the body bags. It was a sad and brutal reality that the body bags taken out from the piles were obviously filled with less than what one could believe could be an intact body. Such moments of silence helped thousands of rescuers pay their respects while standing at attention in tribute to our fallen brothers and sisters, both innocent victims and fallen rescuers. Boy, you could hear all our hearts just stop and drop as we all cried.
Now I am home. I don't intend to go back for some time, as I understand realistically there can be no survivors. But thousands of rescuers are keeping the vigil. They refuse to give up, or to lose respect for the right of the victims' families to find their loved ones. The people of New York City are so great, as they cheer on and offer support with food and their time throughout this ongoing struggle. We are a great country, and we are a great people. I never knew how many brothers and sisters I had.
I understand so much more today than I did before, as I know we all do. But I felt that it is my duty to tell my story, so that as a society we understand that a subhuman enemy has attacked our shores.
Ground Hero. Did it stand for the bravery of the rescuers who lost their lives? For the innocent victims and the victims' families who have to carry on? Or will it stand for the soldiers who will stand up and fight for future generations? Yes, Ground Hero is where it all started.
I felt that you needed to know firsthand how it all started. I felt that you needed to know firsthand how horrific the destruction has been.
People everywhere need to know what it is like to have been at Ground Hero. The pictures released in the media cannot communicate the sheer scope of the devastation. The destruction zone covers 10 square city blocks. Buildings are totally collapsed into the debris field, or are just blown-out and shattered skeletons. Pieces of the Towers are impaled on surrounding buildings, and countless tons of debris cover the surrounding roofs and streets of downtown.
Decent people have had our world changed as a result of these insane terrorists. Together we will beat back this insanity and see that our country and ideals prevail. Go to sleep tonight remembering that no matter what consequences we face as a people, we will overcome them together.
God bless America.