report from ground zero
when it's not just news, when it's personal - doing whatever it takes
by scott n. gaines
September 11, 2001. Supposed to be the first day of a long-deserved vacation from the NYPD. Sort of retirement training, if you will. That vacation started at 6 AM, when I normally would have reported for work, and it ended at 8:48 AM the same day.
I watched the opening minutes from home, hoping, praying, and believing that the High Rise Incident Plan so long practiced by the Fire and Police Departments of New York would work. And it did. Right up until the first tower collapsed. I turned to the phone and called work. "Get in here anyway you can, just get here. We're missing guys."
I called my wife to let her know. Hysteria doesn't come close to what she was going through, and now she had the opportunity to possibly watch me not come home on live TV. But in I went. I had to; friends of mine, guys I know well, were missing and presumed dead. Words that I never expected to hear.
I made it in just in time to find out that all of the Highway Patrol guys were accounted for. They were hurt, since they had responded to the World Trade Center on the initial impact, but they would live. Others that I know would not.
I got into a radio car and took another cop and an FBI Chaplain into Manhattan. The Long Island Expressway, never a joy when traffic was moving, was a nightmare. I made it through, though, even though there are some new dents on the sides of the radio car. We had bigger problems. The police department had started a general evacuation of the downtown area, and that's what I would be doing.
I escorted tour buses into the area around the collapse and encouraged people to get on. We would take them uptown to Lincoln Center, since someone thought that would be a safe enough area. I saw fear in New Yorkers' faces everywhere I looked. Indignation and sarcasm are the norm, but now it was just fear. The look on a young mother's face as she tried to hand her three children onto the bus for me to save. The fear of the young man who I ordered to give up his seat so this young mom could go with her kids. His relief when I just made him stand, and not get off the bus. The impression that I was directing people onto lifeboats came to me many times that day, and still lingers in my mind.
Later on we were pulled away from the buses and were standing by in the shadow of 7 World Trade Center. The sirens started blasting and the fire and police around the building started running, and so did I. Now I'm 46 and in no way a runner, but you drop 47 stories worth of building on me and off I go. Outran that one. Found some of the guys who were at 1 WTC and 2 WTC when they came down. Listening to reports of people jumping from the upper floors holding hands rather than burning. Not being able to see in the smoke and dust. Lots of praying. Knowing what they went through as we made our way back through the dust cloud from number 7 to see who we could help.
I noticed the volunteers almost immediately. People who could have stayed away, but didn't. Police departments and fire departments from the surrounding areas that sent units, unasked but desperately needed, to the scene. Strangers helping out. One woman who handed me an American Flag pin and told me it would bring me luck. I still wear it. Blackout conditions in the area, generator lights providing the only illumination. The smoke rising from the rubble, smoke that continues today, October 9. The smell of dust. Using respirator masks and hardhats to do a job that never required them before.
The next days were a blur of activity. I was sent to Shea Stadium in Queens to give me a break, and ended up at Ground Zero anyway. Escorting equipment in, bodies out, and trying to be useful. Keeping a personal motto of "Whatever it Takes" to get me through what I was doing. Having a chief ask me to open the trunk of my radio car, and then putting ten body bags into that trunk so I could transport the dead to the temporary morgue on Vesey Street. Discovering that body bags do not have handles, and they are not airtight. Having to preserve the "chain of evidence," since this was a crime scene. Having to watch the bags be opened. Hoping against all reason that what I saw in the bag was not an adult's arm and hand holding the hand of a small child. And that was the only thing in the bag. Trying like hell not to collapse right there. Managing that. Doing whatever else needed to be done.
When the President came after the attack I was part of the outer security perimeter, words that were hollow just days before, but now had new meaning. How do you defend against this? Explaining to my wife that I'm not wearing a bullet resistant vest during this, since they are shooting airplanes at us. Looking up when hearing jet engines over Manhattan, seeing F-15s and remarking, "Oh, it's OK, they're ours." Not realizing 'til later what I said and what it means.
Bringing food and supplies to those who need it. Taking a group of Lutheran Bishops on a tour of Ground Zero because I was asked if I would. Escorting Army and Air Force generals for the same reason. They needed to see it up close. They needed to experience it, indeed, to smell it. There is no disrespect for the dead to say this, but they are decomposing, and the smell is like nothing in the world. I smell it in my sleep. I can't wash myself enough times to be rid of it, even though no one else smells it when I get home. I do, and I will forever.
More bad news. Brian Hickey is among the missing, as is Firefighter Kerwin. Brian is a lifelong friend who went into the Fire Department when I went into the PD. He became, through hard work and a dream, the Captain of Rescue 4. He never came out of the building. Firefighter Kerwin is the uncle of my daughter's best friend. He also has not come home. There are others. Jerome Dominguez from Emergency Services, who was a Highway officer before transferring, is also amongst the missing. And presumed dead. Wartime casaulties. Intended victims. Victims of a first strike.
Watching on the news during my one hour at home before I get some sleep. Seeing people saying we should turn the other cheek, and that violence is not an answer to violence. Thinking that we turned the other cheek after the attacks in Africa, and on the USS Cole, and that bastard shot four airliners at us. Wanting to take these protesters down to Ground Zero and let them experience the reality. That's the problem. The television does not do the site justice. Everything is out of context. The Trade Center is down, the landmarks are all changed, and things are not as they should be.
Pieces of the exterior shell of the Towers point up to the sky like hands from under water reaching for help. Skeletal hands, and help that will not come. Mountains of rubble one hundred feet high in spots. Great gouges taken out of the surrounding buildings, as if a giant scooper was used. Piles of ambulances, fire trucks, police vehicles, and civilian vehicles piled on the side of West Street to get them out of the way. The smell. Always the smell of decomposed humans, burnt contents of buildings, and dust. All pervasive and noticable from virtually everywhere in New York City.
There is more. The volunteers waiting to help anyone they can. Armed soldiers patrolling the streets. Mountains of supplies. More contruction equipment than I ever dreamed existed. But they are all there, and they all go on.
Whatever it takes, we will go on.
Born in Brooklyn NY, escaped to Long Island. Military service in the USAF (they thought I'd be a great air traffic controller. they were wrong). Became a New York City cop in the 80s when it was still fun. Interested in science fiction and country music, go figure. Interested in almost everything and knowledgeable about almost nothing, but I keep trying.
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10.9.01 @ 11:46a
I'm making a comment on this one to get it to the home page. This should be read.
10.9.01 @ 11:58a
Wow. Scott: thanks a lot, you are a real hero. Be proud of yourself. You and your colleagues are one of the reasons this country can continue to keep its head up.
10.12.01 @ 10:22a
I'm amazed both by your strength in doing this and your strength in writing about it. Thanks, Scott.
10.12.01 @ 10:39a
10.12.01 @ 12:15p
Just when I think I can't cry anymore about all this... Thank you for being an example of bravery for all of us.
10.12.01 @ 12:21p
You've always been a true hero to me, never afaird to go that extra step. Knowing you and how you are, I also know how hard this was for you to write, thank you for writng this and sharing it with us. I am so very proud to be your sister.
10.12.01 @ 9:09p
Scott, your strength and courage and the strength and courage of people like you are inspiring. You make the world a better place.
10.12.01 @ 11:51p
God bless you and the other rescue workers for your courage and determination.
10.15.01 @ 10:56a
Without you and people like you our country would be solely in a state of shock, misery and unending fear. Because of the bravery you show, the strength you display, and the pride for our country you inspire, people are able to deal with these tragedies better. The good people in this world have not been broken by the evil ones - they have been made stronger. Thank you so much for all that you do each and ever day - both before September 11th and after.