Last night I went with two companies of men from my fire department to volunteer in NYC. It was an experience that is difficult to finds words for but please let me try as writing to family and friends is my solace. We drove our cars to the Javitz convention center where volunteers were being coordinated and we were met there with an experience that I never expected and will never forget. I choked back tears when as we off loaded our gear and walked to the transport area, the civilians waiting in line to volunteer their services erupted in cheers, applause, and thank yous. Never let anyone tell you that New Yorker's don't have good and pure hearts. Last night they showed hearts filled with love as big as their city.
Again and again we were offered homemade sandwiches, fresh coffee, water, and other refreshments. One woman came up to us with a bag full of new socks and offered them to us and asked us to take some to the trade center. She told us that she heard clean, dry socks were needed there and that she immediately went out and bought all she could find. People were lined up on both sides of 34th street ready to volunteer to do whatever was asked of them whether it be to hand out bottles of water or put on a hard hat and dig in the rubble. Our crew then loaded in the back of a dump truck and headed down the westside highway. As we pulled away the crowd at the convention center again erupted in support. The love I saw at the convention center was and shall be strong enough to rebuild a crippled city.
The route downtown was also lined with New Yorkers who cheered, waved flags, held signs of support and offered water, food, even fresh clothing to take to workers at the scene. Even though I felt great inner pride for fire fighters everywhere I was reluctant to offer even a wave back to the people of New York as I felt personally I had done nothing to deserve their adulation and it was in fact the brothers and sisters of FDNY who were suffering and working the hardest for the city who needed their show of love.
It soon became clear to me that in their desperate hour the people of NYC needed a way to express their overwhelming appreciation for the sacrifices made by their NYC firefighters to any person who wore a fire fighter's gear NYC or otherwise, so I waved back to let them know their efforts were appreciated and that their sentiments would be carried to the scene where it was most needed. In order to complete the route to the trade center it was necessary to take a short boat ride. We boarded a small police boat at pier 25 and bobbing and tossing, made our way along the harbor side and were finally dropped off directly at the WTC pier. It was something like stepping off onto the landscape of another planet. It was night by this time and dark except for the emergency lighting which bathed the area in an eerie yellow glow. The buildings were windowless and dark and seemed as looming giants ready to rage for the pain that had been inflicted upon them. Every surface was covered in a choking dust which colored the entire landscape gray and lifeless. Paper and blowing debris was tossed to and fro. We walked closer to the site of impact and were met by an army of persons that moved hurriedly about in coveralls and jumpsuits their faces hidden behind goggles and breathing masks. Heavy machinery crept along like giant metal creatures backup buzzers sounding as workers moved them into position. The entire scene was other worldly and it was only the company of fellow firefighters that reminded me I was still on planet Earth. We wanderd for a few minutes in disorientation trying to find official direction for our energies.
After seeking commands we soon realized that any effort we were to make would be of our own resolve and direction. To get to ground zero and go to work it was necessay to pass through one of the outlying buildings. We trudged down a long, dark, water filled hallway which gave me the sense that we were passing into the bowels of some gastly underworld. We then exited through an outer doorway where we were met with hell on earth. My first instinct was to look up in awe. The skin of the remaining, surrounding buildings were torn and scarred from the force of the collapse and formed the walls of a canyon in which massive piles of rubble and twisted steel rose and sank like giant burial mounds for two full square blocks. Towering steel girders shot 20 and 30 feet into the night sky like grave markers reaching out to heaven. Spot fires smoldered in the evil wreckage as smoke and dust formed to cast a pale haze which diffused the bright pierce of emergency lighting. Portions of the outer skin of the towers still stood a hunderd feet high like steel curtins that were set up to keep out the life of the real world. In that haze shone the light of several hundred brave and caring hearts. They formed single file lines which had many origins within that hellish landscape and streched like the fingers of caring hands towards the outer perimeter of the disaster scene. Through those lines passed hundreds of five gallon buckets filled with debris.
Once reaching the end of the line they were emptied and returned to their origin where workers labored to the point of exhaustion on hands and knees digging and cutting into the piles to refill the buckets with handfuls and shovelfuls of broken concrete, paper, and steel everymindful that any item of potential personal significance should be set aside for identification purposes and even among the odor of death, continually hoping and praying to find a void holding survivors. We worked for several hours to provide aid in any way we could. Digging, cutting, handing off buckets. The physical and mental exhaustion of FDNY was clear and apparent. My heart could feel the pain and desperation in their souls. They had been digging for days for members of their family and it seemed like an endless job with little hope for life to be found.
When we finally decided to depart the scene our trip home to our firehouses where every member was present, accounted for, and ready for duty was filled with the heart wrenching thought that the brave men and women of FDNY would need to continue to search for days for hundreds of their own who had answered their final alarm.
Pray for them.