Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Inside Ground Zero, Part 3

After we were there a few days, we were tasked by FEMA to provide administrative support to FDNY, consisting of teams of two, 24 hours a day, at each of the four sectors. The administrative team developed and maintained a database of the recoveries. FDNY had maintained a good log from the start, but each sector was keeping its own log, handwritten in a ledger book. It took a few days to get in enough people to meet the new staffing requirement, so I took a shift at Liberty Sector, and one at Church Sector, logging finds. Some of the people doing this really bonded with the firefighters, but I had a very difficult time with this duty. The reports we were logging in were graphic and disturbing. I felt strange logging items with names on them, like credit cards and driver’s licenses, knowing that I was among the first to know that something associated with a missing person had been found. The entire fire department was in such visible pain, and I never knew what to do or say. Church Sector was particularly bad- it was located at Engine 10/Ladder 10, the closest FDNY firehouse to the World Trade Center, just across Liberty Street from the South Tower. It was rewarding in a way, too, though; I felt like I was actually doing something to help. I didn’t always feel that way while I was writing planning reports. I was relieved when enough people arrived that I didn’t have to go back. After that, I worked mostly in our own “office” at West and Vesey, at the northwest corner of the site, except when I made my daily rounds to check on the staff and supplies.

I disliked walking around the perimeter of the pile, but it was compelling. The smell was terrible, especially on the east side of the site where the Church and Vesey Sectors were. The smell was a thick combination of decay, ash, smoke, burning chemicals, jet fuel and concrete that I will never forget. At the end of the day, it clung to clothes and felt like a coating on the skin. I was drawn to watch the work going on because the constant activity was amazing; the site changed daily. It reminded me of an anthill; every ant intent on doing his or her job, oblivious to everything else going on. Consolidated Edison fixing power lines; Verizon fixing phone lines and vaults; USAR teams and FDNY searching voids; construction companies clearing and moving debris; engineers assessing buildings; NYPD securing the site; volunteers proving food, cots, showers, phones, counseling and massages; and the endless list goes on.

Another difficult experience was seeing family members of the dead and missing come through the site. They were brought in groups of fifty or so, and there was no mistaking them. Many appeared broken, devastated and raw. Seeing their faces when they looked on the still-smoking pile was unbearable, and I had to turn my head and look the other way. I tried to avoid them as much as possible.

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