Everyone has a September 11th Story. This is mine. It is an exclusive excerpt, from Chapter Six of my book, Chasing Ghosts. This post was originally published September 11, 2006.
I had quit my job at JP Morgan on Friday, September 7. I was planning to spend the day sleeping in late, going to the dentist, and taking the train up to the Bronx to play some golf. I tried to ignore it, but the phone on my bedside would not stop ringing. I figured something must be wrong, and I finally picked it up. It was an ex-girlfriend in Miami.
"Paul, turn on the TV." she said, calm but urgent. As I saw the first tower smoking on CNN, I went numb and heard her say, "Paul. This is what you have always been waiting for."
I had always complained that mine was a generation without a cause. Not anymore.
I bounded the stairs in threes to the roof of our building on East 24th Street. As I slammed the rooftop door the first thing I saw was the cloudless soft blue sky. It was a gorgeous day--a perfect day. The next thing I saw was the smoke smudging the sky's flawless color. I heard the cacophony of sirens and people yelling from Third Avenue below. I ran to the street from the roof and over to Broadway, where I could get a clear look at the towers.
Breathless and focused, I stood among a crowd of stunned New Yorkers with mouths frozen open, eyes wide. They were hypnotized. It reminded me of the scenes in Godzilla when everyone in Tokyo franticly jumped out of their cars, dropped briefcases, filled the streets and stopped everything to collectively freeze and look back-- before running like hell as Godzilla crashed through the city.
Then the second plane hit. We were in awe. Petrified but unmoved. No one ran. No one panicked. They just stared and cried.
Game time. Back in my apartment a few minutes later, I pulled a crumpled BDU set from a duffle bag on my floor and moved quickly. Training kicked in as I assembled my webgear in fast forward. I called my dad and told him I was going and ran out the door into the smoke and sirens. I got downtown sometime after the second tower fell.
In all my days of military training, I never imagined I'd be called on to serve in my own city. Grotesque scenes were everywhere. So was the heroism. For days, I was working in "the pit" alongside everyday New Yorkers trying to save our own. I worked with three firemen, a Port Authority cop and a guy who looked like a steelworker. Very little small talk. Just cooperative commands, grunts and labored breathing. And the sounds of people trying to choke back rage, sorrow and awe. Looking across the vastness of the wreckage, I remembered the first time I took in the magnitude of the Grand Canyon as a child. Pictures just didn't do it justice. Sirens roared so constantly that I stopped hearing them. We were all covered in a uniquely 9/11 coat of fine powder that a few guys called "the dust." A gigantic plane engine sat calmly uninterrupted on a street corner like a bizarre piece of modern art. My eyes numbed from the constant sting of the dust, and they had developed a scalding red color--just like everyone else's. A combination of incinerated drywall, soot, and the dead--the dust blanketed everything in sight and covered the streets six inches deep like fine gray doomsday snow.
We were hunched and tired, and had just finished digging out the bloated body of a corpulent older woman in a black dress. A stocky older fireman in front of me stopped and gasped. "Oh god. Oh Jesus. It's another lady," he murmured, and started to sob. Over his shoulder I saw what he saw: a black pump on her right foot poking out from behind some concrete and re-bar. And my head started to spin. I felt lightheaded. But it cleared as I tried to focus on moving the twisted metal around her. As we cleared the bigger rubble to pull her out, we found her clutching a black purse. This was somebody's mother. Somebody's wife. And she was smashed so thoroughly that when we finally got her freed to lift her out, her body flopped like a giant rag doll over our outstretched arms. Her face was unrecognizable and almost seemed fake. I had never seen anything like this. The bones were gone. All of them. Lifting her body felt like holding a big bag of skin filled with water. I found myself guiltily amazed that the human body could withstand such trauma without tearing. Her body had almost no cuts or abrasions, and no blood. Just every single bone in her body broken.
Later that day, as the bucket-brigades snaked into the smoldering chasm, a young guardsman called to me, "Hey sir! What do I do with this?" holding up a red paint bucket.
His question baffled me. We had been passing buckets back and forth for hours along the lines. Full ones were passed to the rear to be dumped near the Burger King.
"Pass it back!" I told him shortly. "Same as the others."
But he insisted, "No, sir! What do I do with this?" And as I looked at his face for the first time, his eyes swelled and his hands shook. He leaned his young frightened face forward to show me the contents. Inside was the right stockinged leg of woman, severed below the knee, black heel still on the foot.
The long cold refrigerator trucks parked next to the stacks of body bags. I stood on the pile and heard a man scream on the bucket line behind me, and turned to see his left arm erupt with blood. The swirling winds and helicopter rotors overhead had blown shattered glass off of a building somewhere stories above us, and sent it raining down like bullets. Architects and engineers warned us that at least three other buildings could still come down at any time, and kill us all. Everything was totally unstable. The deafening sound of three horn blows from the trucks, a warning to all in the area that another building might be coming down any second. It was the signal to run like hell if you wanted to live. It seemed like a command from God himself, workers dropped their tools and gear and sprinted north, like they done so many times that week. Despite the incalculable risks, they always came right back.
I never in my life have seen human dedication like I did during those days. Amidst the unimaginable horror, the way we worked together was a thing of beauty. A pure and selfless human devotion to our fellow man. The firemen, especially, worked literally until exhaustion. They whispered, inquiring about the friends and brothers they feared were trapped under it all. And they knew every second was precious. They had to be ordered by superiors to eat and take breaks--and would still sneak back onto the pile minutes later.
By the second day, FEMA workers and fire departments from as far away as California and Oregon were on the scene. They led search dogs that wore booties on their feet like socks to protect them from cuts. The dogs worked tirelessly and were never once wrong. Sometimes it would take hours of work, and the movement of tons of wreckage, but the bodies were always in the spot where the dogs indicated.
After some especially difficult digging, we found an older woman's body stuck beneath a mammoth block of concrete the size of a small house. In her wallet she carried a New Jersey license and pictures of her grandchildren. The women were always so much harder to deal with. It just hurt more. Concrete and steel locked her into the pit. The lower half of the body was solidly trapped and immovable. We pulled and twisted in vain to try to free her. Men poked tirelessly with tools and yanked at different angles, but we couldn't get her out. We were locked in a gruesome game of tug-of-war with the wreckage.
We all knew how many people worked in the towers. There were thousands. And we had no idea whether or not another attack was on the way. F-14s roared, curving around the tip of Manhattan low enough for us to see the numbers on their tails. Terribly concerned about fires and secondary explosions, we had to move quickly. All day we worked at a frantic pace to find the living and recover the dead. There we so many more we needed to save and this one body was slowing us down terribly. We worried that if a fire started, and we didn't get at least part of her out, her family would never know.
Those were days without good options. Fireman and cops are a lot like soldiers. Many nowadays are soldiers. When faced with a decision under pressure, we are all trained to think about the "80 percent solution"--a decent plan executed now is always better than a perfect plan later. We had no more time to spend on this one body. Limited on tools, a fireman had an effective and grisly idea. And we all agreed to it. It was a collective decision, and any possible repercussions would not be pinned on him alone.
Burned in my mind forever were the tears that streamed down his face as he raised a shovel high above his head and drove it thudding into her bloated midsection. We had cut her body in half at the waist. Half a dozen men wept in mournful awe as the young fireman continued to labor, until he realized the shovel was not sharp enough to cut through her spine. A young doctor rushed up and fell to his knees. As he lifted the scalpel, he fell in a heap, crying uncontrollably. The exhausted fireman with the shovel dropped his tool and put his arms around the doctor, saying, "Doc, you have to do it, man. You're doing the right thing. It's the only way we can get her out. You can do it, Doc." He nodded, choked back his tears and cut through the last resilient parts of her spine with his hands. It was the most macabre and selfless act I had ever seen.