Day At Ground Zero

It’s nearly 3am, but I just got home from volunteering with the American Red Cross at Ground Zero and I’m just a little too keyed up to sleep right away so I thought I’d take a second and share with you all my experiences and thoughts from today.

When I told my mother I was going to go up and work at Ground Zero on Saturday, her initial reaction was, “Well you’ll be an emotional wreck!” and I, in fact, nearly expected that I would be. Instead, the experience was the most rewarding thing I have ever done and probably more therapeutic than anything else.

I didn’t really know what to expect…not totally anyway. I knew I’d have a hard time going there…I’ve even been afraid of going and seeing the devastation and carnage up close. Not to mention having to see in person the area I used to spend every working day while I lived in NYC not being as I remember it. And it was hard…really really hard…but I think that being there and helping really made a difference. If I had just seen it and then had to walk away and cope with it all, I would have fallen apart. Being there and being part of the effort and feeling productive made such a difference!!

It was a long day… I was going up with a group from Merrill Lynch. We met at 12:30pm and headed up to the Red Cross station in Brooklyn. First we had paperwork to fill out and then we were given badges that would allow us “Full Access & Ground Zero”. Then the put us on a bus to take us down to the sites where we would be working.

They gave us an orientation on the bus that provided us with the ground rules. No cameras because the area is considered a Federal Crime Scene and so highly restricted. Hard hats had to be worn at all times outdoors or else we risked a $2,000-$10,000 fine. We were also instructed as to the sites. Respite Site #3 was our first stop, and then some of us went on to Respite #1. Our job was basically to volunteer for whatever area we felt we could be of the most help and to remember that we were working at RESPITE areas so besides whatever task we were given, we needed to do our best to make the rescue workers, the NYPD, and the FDNY feel like they were receiving some respite from the horrific work they were having to do in “The Pile” (the term they use for the WTC). We were told to smile as much as possible, and make them feel at “home”.

There wasn’t much to see on the way there, but as soon as we stepped off the bus, the stench in the air was enough to knock you over. I don’t even think there’s anything I can liken it to… Something in the vicinity of rotten eggs, but that doesn’t even quite do it justice. The air was thick with it. All shoes had to be hosed off before anyone could walk inside of any buildings so there were people manning the hoses on crude wooden walkways. And badges had to be inspected by military personnel upon entry.

My first stop was Respite #3. I had my shoes washed down and then was taken inside where they gave us a run-down of the facilities. Respite #3 was the Marriott hotel located just behind where the WTC used to be. The first floor was a reception area where everyone entering the building had to come through to show their badges and then sign-in, if necessary, with the Red Cross. The second floor was the dining area (in the elevator the title was simply “Food”). The third floor was the kitchen and also a relaxing area called “The Oasis” filled with Lazy-Boy chairs and a TV and some areas sectioned off for cots where the men could sleep on breaks between shifts. They even had a massage area, a chiropractor, first aid, computers with email access, and Sprint cell phones that the workers could use to call home (free of charge of course). The fourth floor had showers and “Logistics” which was fully stocked with clothing (jeans, shirts, vests, etc.).

My first hour was manning the service elevator. There were a couple of walkie-talkies on which people on the various floors would call for me to run them up and down to the different areas. After which them moved me to greet at the front door, so I opened the door for everyone coming in and leaving. It was amazing how much I got thanked by all the guys!! I wasn’t long there, however, before one of the Red Cross managers asked if I’d mind moving over and working at Respite #1 as they were short-staffed. I gladly went with a few other volunteers.

We had to take a van ride over to Respite #1 which took us directly through The Pile. Seeing the remains of what was once the World Trade Center was one of the most mind-blowing things I have ever EVER experienced. The devastation was absolutely immense. There really are no words, and…I know you all have heard this before, but television truly doesn’t even begin to convey the horror and enormity of what is there.

The Saint Joseph’s University Student Center houses Respite #1 literally a block from The Pile and has pretty much all the same amenities as Respite #3.

The restaurant area was set up with tables holding condiments and in the center of each table were about a dozen cards and pictures made my children across the country that had been sent in to wish all the workers well and thank them for their efforts. Some were really touching!! Every card with a name and address on it receives a response and some of the volunteers spent their time writing back to the children and then having various workers, policemen and firemen sign them before mailing them off. Cards and letters were also posted all over the walls and stacked everywhere…

I was stationed in the warehouse area where the food for the restaurant is delivered and unloaded so I spent a good deal of time outside looking down the street towards the WTC. My best view was of the World Financial Center where the Merrill Lynch offices are located and where I spent a lot of time when I was there (my office was actually at 100 Church Street, just around the corner). The men coming in from the work area looked so exhausted!! Some of my time was spent just leaning against the railing of the walkway where the hoses were and just smiling and saying hello as they’d line up to have their shoes washed. It was honestly all I could do to not hug each and every one of them and I wanted to so badly!! Please pray for them…they have a job I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and it must seem never-ending at times.

I worked from 4pm till midnight…a long shift, but I would’ve kept working if I could!!! Words will never be enough to give you all a real clear view of what those 9+ hours were like, but today was both one of the best and hardest days of my life. I plan to go back and volunteer more of my time…in fact, I can’t wait. I wish you all could do it. It has changed me forever.