From the United Nations to the Bucket Line

Tad was in New York on 9/11/01, and served as a “bucket brigade” volunteer at Ground Zero. 
These are his tales from that time. 
Versions of this essay have appeared in The Tidings (Southern California’s Catholic weekly newsletter), September 6, 2002 and in the Pasadena Star News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Whittier Daily News on Sunday, September 8, 2002

I’m a science fiction geek, and shows like “Farscape,” “The Outer Limits,” and “The (recently canceled) Invisible Man” on the Science Fiction Channel are high on my list of eccentric pleasures. But one Science Fiction Channel show I do not watch is “Crossing Over With John Edward.” Mr. Edward is a “medium” who claims he can “talk to the dead” – and that claim is heavily advertised. As I gazed out the window on a drizzly super shuttle ride from JFK to midtown Manhattan very late on the night of September 10th, 2001, it seemed that Mr. Edward’s piercing gaze adorned the side of every bus shelter, along with the show’s tag line: “What if you could talk to a lost loved one just one more time?”

It was a sentence I imagine haunted a great many New Yorkers during the subsequent 24 hours.

I had flown into New York from LAX to attend the UN’s annual non-governmental organizations conference. It was the first time in my career I had been invited to speak at the UN, and I was going to discuss emerging proposals for an all-volunteer UN Rapid Deployment Force – to put a stop to genocide when national governments are unwilling to risk their own forces to do so.

But with both jet lag and a long super shuttle voyage (I was the last of seven stops), I didn’t finally get to bed in my hotel until about 3 AM. So I slept through the attack. My wife Kitty Felde is host of “Talk of the City” every weekday at 1PM on KPCC 89.3 FM, Southern California Public Radio. Kitty called me about 10:30 AM, told me the news, and then put me right to work – dispatching me to be the station’s eyes and ears on the streets of New York.

I headed south on 2nd Avenue. The cross streets between 2nd and 1st Avenues were all blocked off – securing the United Nations building as tightly as possible. Busses or dump trucks, loaded with sand, simply sat parked in front of most of the 2nd Avenue intersections. Officer Andrews at the corner of 46th and 2nd was extraordinarily helpful – patiently answering inquiries from one citizen after another. “Can I get past this truck to park in my own garage?” (No.) “Is the Triboro Bridge open?” (No.) “Is there anywhere I can get gas?” (You might try the Texaco about 20 blocks south — if they’ll let you go down that far.)

Soon I had my first choked-up moment. Inexpensive, greasy little Italian restaurant, bright white neon lights inside, surrounded by pricier establishments dark and locked up tight. But here the owner had put up a big handwritten sign. “We refuse to give in to terrorism. We are open for business. God Bless America.”

Many people I talked to expressed their mourning not just for the people inside the buildings, but also for the buildings themselves. I’m hardly your quintessential bicoastal Angeleno – this was my first trip to New York in over three years. But I’ve been there often enough to know that prior to 9/11/01, many New Yorkers cynically dismissed the Twin Towers as “boring,” “too tall,” “a blot on the skyline.” But not today. “Our beautiful landmarks are gone,” said one woman, tears streaming. “I’ve lost two dear friends,” said another.

Many people stood motionless, looking up — at American fighter planes streaking overhead. Few things conveyed a changed world as vividly as U.S. Air Force jets engaged in high alert air defense of Manhattan Island. As I spoke to one man he paused, waiting for the aircraft’s noise to subside, then looked at me and said: “Sort of like locking the barn door after the horse is stolen, huh?” He was angry. He wanted to talk politics. He reminded me that the unchallenged US Air Force had conducted massive air operations over Yugoslavia two years ago without suffering a single casualty. But the same US Air Force had failed utterly to defend American air space a few hours earlier. “Terrorists be warned,” he said, “you take out two 110-story buildings and the headquarters of the most powerful military force in the world, and we’ll be ready and waiting for you. After that.”

From everywhere the smoke column was present – big, gray, dynamic, constantly churning out new ruin, a great rising column of spark and ash.

I arrived as far south as I could go before they were stopping everyone – the corner of Broadway and Houston. Lined up there was a column of perhaps 30 or 40 empty dump trucks, all blue with “NYCHA” in big white letters. The New York City Housing Authority – a more elaborate operation than anything we possess in Los Angeles. Cops moved sawhorses from the center of Broadway, and the column moved slowly south into the dust, the smoke, and the debris, toward the scene of the great crime.

I headed over to the Jacob Javits Convention Center, which had been designated as the major staging area for rescue workers and supplies. The Salvation Army appeared to be handling much of the coordination. I was quickly put to work unloading trucks and vans laden with work gloves, flashlights, boots, shovels, buckets, goggles, hot food, “javaboxes” of hot coffee. Even here, a good 50 blocks north of where the fires still raged, there was a haze in the air, and most of the volunteers wore cheap shapeless white dust masks that came 25 to a box. Every 15 minutes or so we would see a flatbed truck proceed slowly north on the Westside Highway, carrying a gray ash-covered vehicle, smashed beyond recognition.

WTC rubble

I spent virtually all my time during the next several days simultaneously volunteering and making periodic payphone calls to talk with Kitty live on the air at KPCC. I told some of the other volunteers that I was visiting from Los Angeles. Everyone reacted to this with intense gratitude, like I was doing them some great favor, as if 9/11 was something that had happened to their community, not mine. They were astonished when I told them that the lines to give blood in LA were even longer than the lines in New York.

Rumors were rampant among the hundreds of volunteers. The USAF had actually shot down four other hijacked airliners on Tuesday. Another had crashed into the space needle in Seattle. JFK Airport had reopened on Wednesday, then immediately closed – four men had shown up for a Los Angeles-bound flight carrying box cutters, “ready to do the same thing all over again.” At news of this the next guy over in the hauling chain looked at me, and said so all could hear: “Hey California, if I were you, I’d drive back home.”

Thursday morning the UN conducted a rump session of its conference — condensing three days into three hours. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s wife Nane opened the proceedings. One of the speakers was a young woman named Katarina Nestorovic, there to talk about her efforts with the “Balkan Youth Union.” I immediately recalled that some 10,000 souls were similarly slaughtered in a single day by the forces of hate – on July 11, 1995, at a place called Srebrenica. She bravely began to discuss their work with young people traumatized by a decade of horrors in the former Yugoslavia. But after a moment she began to stammer. She could not go on. And then she said: “I’m here to talk about my work with Balkan youth, but I must say something about what happened here two days ago. And the only words that I can find are these: I know how you feel. I know how you feel.”

Perhaps after 9/11, I said to Kitty and her KPCC listeners later that afternoon, we can say to Katarina Nestorovic — and the millions of people around the world who have been victimized by some of the unspeakable atrocities of the post-Cold War world — we know how you feel. We know how you feel.

Thursday afternoon, on my way back over to the Javits Center, I walked by an FDNY firehouse between Third and Lex. The big garage door was open. Someone had made a big poster, with about a dozen firefighter photos on it, and the words: “We’re keeping the light on for you, fellas.” There were several dozen people milling around outside, speaking in hushed tones.

I started chatting with one firefighter, perhaps 30, who told me his name was Fred Zavilskas. And Fred was having a tough time. He had a wife and two young kids. So did his colleague Rob Parra – whose photo appeared on the poster. Fred and Rob had traded shifts a few days earlier so Rob could play in a softball game. That meant Rob was covering Fred’s shift when he headed down to the World Trade Center fire on the morning of September 11th.

Now god knows I’m not a counselor or a minister or any kind of a guru. But it just came to me what I had to say to this man. It’s really the only time that week I feel I said anything spiritually worthwhile. “Fred,” I said, “you’ve got to do three things to get yourself out of this quagmire. One, you’ve got to go see Rob Parra’s widow – if she does indeed turn out to be a widow – and you’ve got to make sure she knows about the traded shifts. Two, you’ve got to tell her that her family, and your family, are now one family. And three, you’ve got to promise her that you’re going to do twice as much good in the world as you were previously intending to do. You’ve got to do all the good that you were gonna do. And you’ve got to do all the good that Rob Parra was gonna do.”

Thursday night back at the Javits Center, as midnight approached, we were hit quite suddenly by a savage wind and rain. We’d already tied huge tarps to trucks and lampposts overhead, but now stood holding them above our heads to keep them from blowing away. Rain streamed down my sleeve. It was 63 hours since the attack. “Happy is the bride whom the sun shines upon,” said my mother’s friend Ruth Murphy at her funeral on a torrential June day in Chicago in 1979, “and happy are the dead whom the rain falls upon.”

I’m a lifelong Catholic, and on Sunday I went to Edward Cardinal Egan’s mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But it was standing room only outside in the street, with audio speakers set up all around. I spoke with three pretty female flight attendants, in uniform, who were clearly still focused on what had happened aboard those aircraft five days earlier. “Don’t worry,” I told them, pointing my finger in their faces, “it’s never going to happen again. We have to believe that all of this, somehow, is going to lead to better and brighter days. We have to live our lives in the hope that the worst part of the 21st Century is already behind us.”

In my scholarship and peace advocacy work I talk about cultivating an ethic of global citizenship, about broadening our national patriotism toward a planetary patriotism, about pledging our allegiance to humanity. The core notion underlying the UN Rapid Deployment Force proposal – the one I was in New York to speak about – is that citizens ought to be able, if they wish, to do something larger than “serve their country.” Citizens ought to be able to volunteer to serve humanity.

But I won’t soon forget the scene outside as Cardinal Egan’s mass came to an end. I stood on the corner of 51st and 5th, in a tightly packed crowd. St. Patrick’s Cathedral was to my left, Radio City Music Hall to my right. The Empire State Building – the tallest building in New York City – loomed 18 blocks to the south. Immediately behind that, the enduring smoke column from Ground Zero churned powerfully upward. And 5000 people in the street, most openly sobbing, sang together: “America, America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good, with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.”

Among the volunteers at the Javits Center much of the conversation centered on how to get ourselves down to “the site” (no one, here at least, was yet referring to it as “Ground Zero”). The “criteria” for deciding who got on the busses that headed down every few hours was amorphous, ill defined, and inconstant. Many of the gatekeepers seemed self-appointed, holding only the authority granted to them by bright orange vests they had somehow procured. But virtually everyone at the Javits Center wanted to figure out how to get on those busses and get themselves down there. Including me.

I’m a little bit ashamed, even still, of just how intensely I held this desire. I told myself that I’d be writing and speaking about 9/11 for many years to come, that my scholarship and peace advocacy could only be enhanced by firsthand experience. I told myself that I could well serve the KPCC listeners by calling Kitty from the pile itself. But the truth was more primal than that. It was a big, monumental, historic event – and I really wanted to participate in it. It was, I felt certain, a horrific, cataclysmic, apocalyptic spectacle – and I really wanted to see it.

By Saturday morning the bus-boarding decisionmaking process seemed to have firmed up a bit. They were only taking welders and ironworkers by then – and requiring both tools and union cards to prove it. This didn’t seem to hold out much hope for a desk dwelling academic who bears almost no resemblance to “The Rock.” But I gave it a shot.

I told the orange-vested woman that I’d been in both London and Jerusalem when bombs had gone off (albeit many miles from me). I explained that I’d received extensive first-aid training – and showed her the little CPR certification card I carry in my wallet. I talked, with only a little hyperbole, about the rubble-clearing activities after the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994 – “the greatest natural disaster,” I emphasized helpfully, though not quite sure I could confirm it was true, “in American history.” “All right, all right,” she said finally, ground down, “pipe down and get on.”

The bus full of welders, ironworkers, and me arrived shortly before noon – exactly 99 hours since the first plane hit the first tower. Gear was distributed, and we were directed to walk slowly and carefully through the shattered but still-standing World Financial Center building, trodding through water and ubiquitous gray concrete dust.

And then we climbed through a broken doorway, and there it was, as big as Dodger Stadium, the twisted and grotesque site of a political mass murder. I thought about my 104-year-old grandmother, who entered comptometer school at this very Church Street location after graduating from high school in 1915. Years later she had gone to work in the North Tower on the day it opened in 1972, and remained there until her retirement in 1980. (She revealed then to her employer that she had lied about her age, and was not as he thought 73, but 83.) I looked up at the elegant Woolworth Building – the tallest building in New York before the Empire State Building was built – and thought about my parents, both dead, who had met there almost exactly 50 years earlier.

Now I had packed mostly suits for this trip, not rugged work gear. But I had brought along a pair of Bermuda shorts, a couple of T-shirts, casual hiking shoes, and a long pair of knee socks which make me look a bit like an 18th-century Swiss yodeler. And that’s what I was wearing now, along with kneepads, gloves, goggles, and a heavy-duty respirator mask (nothing like the cheap things we’d been wearing at the Javits Center). I moved in between two sturdy-looking fellows with sharp Brooklyn accents. One was wearing firefighter boots, rubber pants, fire helmet, and a tight FDNY polo shirt. Another — an unlit cigar in his mouth – wore a weathered police helmet that said “NYPD Arson and Explosion Squad.” They looked me over. I hesitated. Finally FDNY says: “You know, there’s not a lotta guys who could pull off an outfit like that.” I got in the bucket line.masks

It took me awhile to figure out the point to the operation. The bucket lines actually existed in pairs – one passing 20-30 pound loaded buckets back, and another passing empty buckets forward. “Hey, check out Ladder 15 over there,” joked one firefighter. “They got the whole truck hauling empties.” Had there been no people in the Twin Towers, the authorities presumably could have cleared the whole thing away with steam shovels and bulldozers in a couple of weeks. But we, of course, were searching slowly and carefully for bodies, body parts, and on this day still very much for living survivors.

Everything underneath us was sharp and jagged – at one point it took me a good 15 minutes just to get my footing. A couple of times an FDNY captain came over and made us shift the entire bucket line, because the rubble beneath our feet was getting too hot for our safety.

Eventually I had to pee. Although I’m sure that before long someone thought to bring in porta-potties, I didn’t see any on this day. “See that doorway over there, guy?” said an ironworker near me on the line, pointing to a door into the shattered World Financial Center building. “If I were you, I’d just go in there and find an empty office.”

At several points I noticed papers underneath us as we worked. I thought long and hard before even bending down to pick one up. I was there to work, to help, to participate – not to hunt for souvenirs. But they were just laying there in the mud and the dust, people were walking all over them, they were clearly bound for the dump trucks – and in my view they were historical artifacts. So although to this day I’m still not certain it was the right thing to do, I picked up several and stuffed them into my pockets.

“Gail, I have attached the pages from the register as requested, but not a copy of the EO2 report ?” says a fax on Brown and Wood stationery, burned around the edges, and smelling – like everything – of ground up concrete dust. “Important Message While You Were Out,” says the pink telephone message form. “For: Craig, From: Cindy, Re: worker’s comp policy – one additional added on due to 3/96 UCT6 Report.” “Get Met,” says Snoopy on a singed computer mouse pad, “It Pays.” I suspect I won’t be the only soul, god willing, who pulls these yellowed relics out of a drawer to share with some children on 09/11/51.

I spent about 18 hours at the site, from noon Saturday to 6 AM on Sunday, putting in three long bucket line shifts. About halfway through I borrowed a cell phone and talked to Kitty and her KPCC listeners again – about dust, about fire, about life and death. It was at that point I noticed that I had not yet seen a single journalist at the site. No radio reporters carrying microphones. No print reporters carrying note pads. No TV cameras in sight.

After midnight I got back in line again. Requests got shouted down from the very front toward the back of the line. “Torch! Torch. Torch.” 90 seconds later we passed a welder’s torch up. “Gasoline!” “Burning Gloves!”

“Sauzol!” I had never heard this word before. What could it be? A special kind of diamond drill? An exotic brand of Puerto Rican tequila? Then I heard the word again. “Saws All!” – a hard metal saw that apparently can cut through anything. We passed it up. A few minutes went by. “Saws All Batteries!” Hey – everybody was trying their best.

Then a call for something different. “Dog!” “K-9!” “Dog!” The dog and her handler slowly made their way up the mountain of rubble and steel. She was wearing rugged doggie boots, but even still, it was an arduous climb. At two points, they simply came to a dead stop, and the handler lifted the dog up above a massive steel girder, handing her into strong waiting hands. We continued conveying.

Then came the next call. “Bodybag! Bodybag. Bodybag.” I’d never seen one before. It was folded tightly, sort of like a heavy-duty rubber flag. We passed it up.

Now there were probably 1000 women and men at the site itself, and 20 or 30 bucket lines such as my own. There were bulldozers, cranes, power tools, lots of noise. Then the next call came. “Quiet! Quiet. Quiet.” The machinery stopped. The women and men stopped. The noise stopped.

And we all stood there silently. And we watched a team of coroners slowly work their way back down the massive pile, carrying the remains of a 33-year old woman who had been minding her own business at 8:45 AM on 9/11/01, who’d had a fabulously fun day of bicycling with her two teenage nieces just two days earlier at the New Jersey shore, who’d had five dates – no, six – with a new guy who worked up on Central Park South and was wondering if she should bring up the “exclusivity” question, whose mother had died 5 years earlier and whose father had still not pulled out of his funk, who’d been reading Isaac Asimov’s “Prelude to Foundation” on the subway an hour earlier and had almost gotten through the entire 7-volume masterpiece, who’d never heard of Osama bin Laden — let alone her murderer, Mohammed Atta — and who, if you’d asked her at that moment if there was anyone anywhere on Planet Earth that merited her “hatred,” would likely have replied: “Gee – I dunno. Nobody comes to mind.”


Posted in Preventing Terrorism