Tuesday, September 11, 2012

My Spring 2002 Visit to Ground Zero and What the Bell Told

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.


  1. And now, many of them are suffering and dying from the effects of what they inhaled there.

  2. Yes. And many of our brave Congressmen voted to deny them help. I seem to remember a righteous rant by Anthony Weiner as he railed against them, but of course, he was involved in no-sex sex scandal, so he had to go! *sigh*

  3. More on those treasonous obstructionists: the current VP nominee Paul Ryan went as far as to call the First Responders Bill (technically the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act) "a deeply flawed bill...another mandatory spending program".

    Republican Senator Coburn called it "an expensive new health care entitlement program".

    Texas Repbulican Lamar Smith said it "would create a huge slush fund open to abuse, fraud, and waste".

    This, from the same men who greenlighted spending TRILLIONS of tax dollas searching for "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. They must think we're all stupid, or that we have no collective memory.

    Rest of the article here.

    1. It is so gratifying when you think you know pretty much everything about your children, to find out that there's more. On this day, your story was a welcome glimpse into a part of this tragedy that most will never see. It left me wanting you to continue. Thank you, Mom <3

    2. i always thought that we should have taken our example from the british of ww2. those tough birds endured nearly three years of 9/11's. every night they were bombed mercilessly, every morning they got up, swept up, put out the fires, treated the wounded buried the dead, and then they went to work. they, in the best sense of the phrase, muddled through. they endured with an obstinant, stubborn resolve.

      rather than monuments to bullshit "patriotism" i thought instead that the trade center should have been rebuilt right away. those folks in new york weren't truly heroes (although the cops and firefighters performed magnificently, that's really their job isn't it?). they just went to work on a very bad day.

      their death, horrific and unjust, would have been better commemorated by people going back to work like those who died. pack your lunch, go to work, muddle through.

      the republicans took that day, turned it into a long running circus. bad theatre and worse decisions.

      for, a respite from all this, i invite you to visit my facebook page. i have yeats and o'carolan harp music up.

  4. @ Minstrel Boy: "Obstinant, stubborn resolve". Yes, I can attest to this. As a very young child, my mother was brushing and drying my long hair outside in the summer sunshine. I looked up and pointed to something in the sky. It was a "doodlebug", which was actually a V1 unmanned flying bomb. Its engine had cut out, which meant that it was ready to drop and explode. My mum quickly gathered me up and we sheltered under our staircase. After a short while and still finding ourselves upright, we went back outside to find that the V1 had restarted and actually fell a few miles away. My mother's only comment - good, she could now finish drying and brushing my hair.
    On a second occasion, we were in town when the air-raid sirens sounded. Everyone herded into a nearby underground bomb shelter. Shopping, strollers etc. had to be left outside in the street. I remember as if it were yesterday one lady saying that she had left a new ironing board outside and hoped we did not take a direct hit as that would be such a waste. Such was the wry humor of desperation.

  5. Minstrel Boy and Christine Newell,

    I've referenced the behavior of the Brits during the Blitz more times than I can count. All this talk in the US of "Terror!" "The Terrorists Are Everywhere!" "Somebody Save Us!" is nauseating. Pathetic and nauseating. People should be embarrassed.

    Yet they're not. They wear 9/11 like a badge of honor. They bring it up every chance they get. And not to honor the dead. But to justify all the slaughter this country is perpetrating abroad and all the ways our civil liberties are being ripped out from under us at home.

  6. Lisa, as we know, fear is so very handy and so easy to use. I think the fact that America is kind of isolated--shielded by two enormous oceans on either side--has fostered a kind of disproportionate sense of fairy-tale safety, so when something horrible like 911 *does* happen, it, too, takes on dimensions that are disproportionate and completely untethered from the dry reality of statistics and probability. That in turn means all you need do is breathe the T-word, and it evokes such an overreaction, people will do anything to make that horrible feeling go away, even if it requires magical thinking.