Monday, September 8, 2008

Inside Ground Zero, Part 1 of 4

On September 11, 2001, at a little after 6 a.m., Pacific Standard Time, I was on my way to work when I heard the morning show host on KMPS 94.1 FM start talking about a plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York City. I immediately thought of a small, single engine plane, then of the B-25 that hit the Empire State Building in July of 1945. Naively, I though to myself, “I hope no one was hurt.” Then the radio host said that eyewitnesses reported that the plane was the size of a 737, and I thought, “They must be overreacting; that’s ridiculous.” I was bored of the topic already, and didn’t think it was any big deal. I wanted to hear some music, but the radio host kept talking. I turned the radio off and went to work. When I got to work in the Emergency Management Branch at the Seattle District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), the television was already on in the Emergency Operations Center and people were spilling out of its open doors.

I was busy that week, working on a presentation for Corps employees that encouraged them to volunteer for emergency duty. The Emergency Management Branch is a small office, with only eight employees, and it relies on volunteers from other offices to fill emergency missions. Corps emergency missions are most often associated with natural disasters- hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. I am on the Logistics Planning and Response Team (LPRT), and when deployed for a disaster response, we are responsible for tracking commodities and personnel, and for property accountability.

Five days later, I waited in a line of about 1500 people at the United counter at SeaTac Airport. The scene was chaotic, and the United employees were frazzled and short. One of the customer service agents was a family member of one of my good friends, and he didn’t recognize me. I was on my way to Ground Zero.

On the morning of September 17, I got my first glimpse of the ruined site. It was about 6 a.m., still dark, as my team traveled down West Street. We went through several checkpoints, staffed by NYPD or the National Guard. As we got closer, we could see the smoke rising from the site, backlit by the immense lights used to illuminate the site at night. Giant cranes were visible through the smoke. The van was completely silent, and I felt sick and apprehensive inside, like I do right at the top of that first slow climb of a monster roller coaster ride. The site, which we came to call “the compound” was blocked off and guarded on all sides. It would have been virtually impossible for anyone to get in through the series of checkpoints without the proper identification. A badge and photo identification were needed to get into the site, and an additional badge was needed to get into the center of the site where the search and rescue operation was going on. The required badges changed several times during the time I was there. I’ve read many accounts that say that the pictures and video didn’t adequately portray the reality, and that is absolutely true. The site was an immense, smoking, stinking ruin, and I could write for pages and not capture it. It was truly indescribable.

1 comment:

ann daggett said...

im clinging onto this one... you have me in suspense......