Incredibly Close: The recovery ramp from the ashes of the WTC
(neither journalists nor volunteers were permitted beyond this point).
It has been over a decade since I took the photos I'm sharing today.
I awoke this morning and thought, It's time.
Since my family first immigrated to the States, landing in Florida in the mid-1970's as I was set to enter the tenth grade, I've always felt a strong connection to New York City. I would first travel there as a college student (during the period when my parents lived in Westchester County and my father worked in Manhattan). I would return on countless occasions: to visit friends; to briefly pursue a dream of acting (a short-lived dream indeed); to visit various in-laws (my husband, whom I met in St. Petersburg, was born in New York City at a hospital that has since undergone various transformations, including a stint as a psychiatric hospital, and you can make of that what you will); and in the spring of 2002, to attend the BookExpo at the Javits Center put on by the ABA (the American Booksellers Association), at the invitation of our dear friend, the author Amy Tan. Amy had encouraged me to bring along the galleys of Virtual Vintage, the book Random House would publish that fall and which I'd recently co-written with artist and fellow vintage maven Linda Lindroth.
The day I arrived, Amy offered me an invitation: Did I want to accompany her and Lou (husband Lou DeMattei) that night on an excursion to the off-limits depths of Ground Zero? We would be helping Amy's friend, the artist Rhonda Roland Shearer, with a most excellent project. Rhonda had learned that firefighters (the FDNY's men who were working around the clock to recover the remains of the thousands of people killed on September 11th) were burning through their work-gear--boots, protective anoraks, safety equipment, and so forth--faster than the city could or would keep up with replacements. So Rhonda founded WTC Ground Zero Relief and got busy, contacting companies to provide the gear, storing it all in her studio space, and setting up shop in one of the site trailers right in the middle of the recovery. Her friends--tonight it would be us--helped by manning the table where firefighters spelled out their names (to be embroidered on the anoraks by Rhonda's seamstress) and gave their boot-size (so as to be fitted with a new pair).
In my medium-long life, I've been fortunate to be part of some truly extraordinary scenes, to have met and conversed with (and committed to permanent memory) the kind of characters--the kind of protagonists--one might invent had they not, by their real, flesh-and-blood presence, preemptively rendered such invention completely superfluous. This was one such scene.
These characters, these brave, quiet gentlemen, worked on as we took down names and distributed boots and gear. They had a system for notifying one another when someone had found something--a sooty watch, perhaps, or else a portion of femur--and it involved the ringing of an old-fashioned wall-mounted electric bell, not unlike the ones I remembered from my high school days in Miami.
It rang once that evening, while Amy and Lou and I were there with Rhonda. I'll never forget that moment. Ever.
But I had brought along a camera, and I did have children whom I wanted to show this to one day. So--quietly, timidly--I took the handful of photos you're seeing in this post (click on any one to significantly enlarge).
Rhonda Roland Shearer, right, and members of the recovery team.
Some of the FDNY who were on duty that night. They were so polite and funny; many were impressed that I could spell the most complicated Italian names!
A wider view of the ramp. Note the many banners and American flags.
A solemn reminder to all, and a glimpse of the emotional trauma that recovery personnel were, understandably, suffering.