MY STORY OF 9/11
So many others were hurt and impacted by the events of 9/11 far more than I was, this is just my little story in a book of millions. I can’t even imagine the sorrow of those who lost a loved one or a dear friend. Still, 9/11 was absolutely the worst day of my existence to this point. Like you, I feared for my family, our country and our way of life.
I called my son at least 20 times before I finally got through- I didn’t know what would happen, he doesn’t live far from Washington, D.C. And like many others, I didn’t think the attack was over after the 4 airliners crashed, I thought it was possibly just beginning. He had already seen television coverage of what had happened, so I had to “explain” this insanity to him as best I could. I told him I was sure he would be safe, but I had to be honest with him, and I had to tell him that if anything happened to me before we were able to see each other again, that wouldn’t stop me from loving him until the end of time.
That week, instead of doing what I love- playing and creating music, I spent over 100 hours with only 7 hours of sleep at a man-made gate to Hell, fueled by anger, adrenaline and caffeine, supplying some of the finest people I have ever come to know. In the middle of this surreal environment, I thought at times that perhaps I had finally lost my mind. But then, in our darkest hour, I watched hundreds, then thousands, then millions of good people respond to this despicable act. And so did God. And through the grief and pain, I found hope that Mankind will one day overcome hate, and go on to much better things…
I was staying at a hotel in Queens when the attacks happened. My fiancée, Michele, and I woke up to a phone call from my manager Al Sirowitz. His call was expected- we were going to be working in a recording studio that day. I felt great and was very eager to get to work on my music. I answered the phone. Instead of his normally upbeat personality, Al seemed very subdued. He had the worst of news. We turned on the TV and watched the 2nd jet slam into the south tower. Then we watched the Twin Towers burn from a hotel window.
In an instant, happiness and anticipation had been replaced by anguish and dread. Absolute terror, shock and rage would be an understatement. After getting control of my emotions to some extent, I set out to do the only thing I could do: volunteer to help. I am thankful that the good people who signed me to an artist development and recording deal also happen to run a successful company that has the personnel, expertise, resources, ability and credentials to respond instantly in a time of national emergency.
DOING WHAT I CAN
That first day and early Wednesday, I ferried Human Service Center’s crisis intervention counselors and emergency service workers to various hospitals and staging areas, using some down time (while waiting for a couple of counselors) to write a poem about the disaster with Human Service Center’s CEO Daniel Panitz, Sr., entitled “Evil Will Never Win” (see lyrics below). After bringing the counselors to the family of a fallen firefighter, I headed to the disaster center at Chelsea piers in Manhattan, where I was given my first mission to ground zero. I didn’t want to go there, I had to- my life was and is and will be about using my music and my energies to fight the same kind of twisted philosophies, ignorance and hatred that brought the towers down and killed so many innocent people.
I’ve loved those towers and what they stood for ever since I was a little kid, entranced by the sight of them as I rode with my family up The Garden State Parkway, traveling from Maryland to Upstate New York to visit relatives for Thanksgiving. My resolve to do whatever good I can has only deepened as a result of this evil.
A SLIGHT DETOUR
When I left Chelsea Piers loaded with 60 cases of gatorade, 50 cases of water and 25 grocery bags full of fresh fruit and a few US Marines in civilian clothes, I didn’t even realize that in the chaos of the moment, Roberta (the official who sent me to ground zero), a wonderful woman who seemed to be doing 10 things simultaneously, hadn’t given me any emergency tag or pass to go into the restricted area. When I arrived at the well-guarded checkpoint, shortly after being cheered by a large crowd waving American flags on West Side Highway, a police officer halted my van and asked me what did I think I was doing (I was the only civilian vehicle in a rather long procession of utility trucks, emergency, police and official vehicles). I told him I had been sent from Chelsea Piers to deliver cold drinks and fruit to firemen at ground zero. He asked for my pass- I told him I hadn’t been given one, and that I had assumed my vehicle description and mission had been radioed ahead and cleared (In your mind, picture this long-haired “dude” driving a beat up 1985 conversion van trying to explain to an understandably suspicious police officer why he was trying to get into the restricted area without a pass). He got on the radio for a moment, then ordered me to make a left.
I remember thinking “This is odd, all the other vehicles are going straight ahead.” I complied with his directive by turning left and heading down the block, when the van was suddenly swarmed by about 25 very serious looking FBI and ATF agents with handguns and automatic weapons drawn. These were some of the scariest looking guys I had ever seen, and they clearly meant business. One guy looked as though he’d been chiseled out of rock: I’m guessing around 6 foot 6 inches and 275 pounds of nothing but muscle.
The FBI Agent who was in charge ordered me to put my hands up and slowly step out of the vehicle. One by one, so were the others. They were taken to the back of the van while I was frisked against the driver’s side. Rapid-fire questions and commands filled the air, and I answered and complied as quickly as possible. Agents were talking on radios and conducting various fact gathering activities. I heard one of the Marines who came with me state emphatically that he had just met me and another say “I was just trying to help out, I didn’t know the guy was wanted!”
They searched the entire van, opened the hood and all doors, removed the cases of drinks and checked the underside. They had my license but were having trouble finding my registration, which was in a small plastic bag between the seats under a few bags of fruit. I was ordered to very slowly go inside the vehicle and retrieve my registration. While the agent in charge held my left hand and kept his gun pointed at my side, I leaned inside the van and reached between the seats, fumbling under the bags of fruit. I looked up and noticed an M-16 rifle pointed at my head through the passenger side window, just in case I were to try anything stupid.
These guys were at war, and they seemed to be on such high a state of hair-trigger alertness that If I had suddenly grabbed an apple and yelled “Praise Allah!,” I probably would have had more holes in me than a Swiss cheese. I noticed the line of fire was carefully coordinated so that the agents couldn’t have accidentally shot each other if the need for deadly force became necessary. When my hand found the bag, I announced this fact and was ordered to place it on the ground and get back against the vehicle.
They checked my registration and tags. The Special Agent in charge asked me, “You’ve got a Tennessee license, Florida tags, you’re living on Long Island, you’ve got a parking pass for a hotel in the city and you’re trying to get into ground zero- What’s wrong with this picture?” I truthfully explained to him my situation as a “financially challenged” musician who’s rambled all over the country playing music, and that I came to New York to pursue a songwriting career, had been in the city to play a gig when the attack happened, and felt it was my duty to help the firefighters in any way possible. He accepted my answer with a puzzled look and got back on the radio. He then told me that my name, social security number, license number and tag number was in the process of being searched for matches in every law enforcement database in the universe. The whole thing lasted what I believe to be around twenty minutes.
After completing the search and clearing everyone of any criminal activity or warrants, the Special Agent in charge became as friendly as he had been intimidating. He said he was sorry if they had scared any of us. He told me there was a citywide alert to be on the lookout for a suspicious van with Florida tags, tied with several threats to blow bridges and tunnels or detonate a bomb at ground zero. He stated that they had no choice under the circumstances but to detain us and investigate whether or not we posed a threat. Made perfect sense to me. I told him that I was very proud of the job they were doing, and hadn’t the slightest problem with the way they conducted themselves.
They quickly sent us on our way to the disaster site, as they went on about their business of protecting America without hesitation. If those agents had encountered a terrorist with a bomb that day, I feel confident they would have neutralized the scum. I wasn’t angry with those guys, I was proud of them, and prouder to be an American Citizen. They conducted their investigation of me and my van with the highest degree of professionalism.
They successfully balanced my rights with society’s rights. They brought honor to their agencies and to their country. I salute them and will never forget why them and their colleagues are so important to the preservation of our way of life.
WHEN COLD WAS MORE PRECIOUS THAN GOLD
After my interesting encounter with federal law enforcement agents, I didn’t have any further difficulties getting into the restricted area. I guess they recognized me- I was just waved through or they’d ask me for a gatorade. I made 3 more trips to ground zero from Chelsea Piers that day and into the early morning hours, loading up with ice and beverages and food, becoming a “rolling canteen” for officers and national guard troops who’d been stationed at street corners throughout lower Manhattan for God knows how many hours. Most of the firefighters, officers and troops I came in contact with were very thirsty, to say the least. A few places where I stopped did have drinks that weren’t cold, so they were pretty glad to see me and my stocked coolers.
FREE CDS AT 1 AM
I was dropping a large load of ice and cold drinks at The Municipal building in lower Manhattan, when one of the guys helping me unload noticed my guitar amplifier sitting in the van. He asked me what kind of music I played, so I asked him if he wanted a CD. Then another guy wanted one, and another… I had a box of 50 CDs that I’d planned to give away at my now canceled gig at CBGB’s Gallery on the lower East Side. My attitude was, “Well, I came to this city with full intention to give these CDs to away, to Hell with the terrorists, If these guys want my music, they got it.” 50 CDs were gone in less than a minute.
A GRASS ROOTS SUPPLY CAMPAIGN
I am thankful that Dan Panitz, Sr. of Human Servive Centers had enough faith in my initial intelligence reports to deputize me, as well as his son Damian and one of his security guards, Robert Rodriguez, and move swiftly to secure large quantities of donated products: saline, inhalers, nebulizers, benadryl, medical tape, bandages, flashlights, food, water and gatorade, as well as some important things that were notably absent at ground zero in the early stages of the rescue effort, like visine, contact lens wash, energy bars, ice and several kinds of over the counter medications.
I am proud of the fact that I brought in these needed items in all the pain, confusion and chaos of the first few days, setting up temporary pharmacies and convenience stores at the foot of the wreckage, supplying triage centers, placing items in the hands of the people who needed them immediately (with the help of the administration and staff of Human Service Centers, Inc., with the generous donations of CVS, Walgreens, Duane Reade, Home Depot, Elmhurst Drugs, the folks at Chelsea Piers and others- and with the blessing and cooperation of The Mayor’s office and F.E.M.A.), complimenting larger, more complex supply efforts until safe warehouse space could be found and mass distribution of supplies could become fully efficient.
Seeing true heroes in action with my own eyes was unbelievable. I was in awe, and it was an honor and a privilege to be one of the people who served them. I don’t know why, but something told me that me and my van could make a difference, and though it was just a small difference, I believe it made things a bit easier for a few people. I am also very proud of Michele, she was absolutely terrified and did not want me to go to ground zero, yet she found the strength to help out, gathering supplies for me to deliver.
CAN’T WASH AWAY THE PAIN
I saw some things at ground zero that will never leave me. I saw the results of hatred, I smelled and walked in a mass grave of mass murder. I saw things that I’ve written songs and lyrics about for the last five years, and feared would happen, become a reality and a recurring nightmare. The first time I had a chance to take a shower, early Thursday morning before dawn, it occurred to me in the most horrifying way that not only was I washing away asbestos, dirt, chemicals and sweat, I was also washing away the ashes of incinerated human beings who once lived, loved and breathed just like me, and have families who love and miss them dearly. The equivalent of 15 showers at 4 am one morning, and I couldn’t wash away the smell of death.
This was devastating. It’s still devastating.
ONE LIBERTY PLAZA
On Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, and again on Thursday night, I was working across the street from where Tower 2 once stood- at One Liberty Plaza, a monolithic fifty story skyscraper that was, at that time, believed to have sustained significant damage to its foundation. On one occasion when the area was evacuated, I was handing out stuff to a company of weary firemen who were taking a much deserved break when a horrifyingly loud crack got our undivided attention. Seconds later, I heard a voice through a bullhorn screaming “Go, Go, Go, Go, Go, Go!!!” and so began a major “run for your lives” scenario. It looked just like you would think it to look- total chaos. I abandoned my van, which was parked at the building’s side entrance.
When I got a “safe” distance, I caught my breath, praying that everyone had made it out of the area O.K.. I heard all kinds of stuff- some said the building’s collapse was imminent, the street was in danger of caving in, the building had shifted, etc. We later found out that One Liberty Plaza was structurally sound, just a lot of broken windows. And the loud crack was just a nearby crane winning a fight with a huge steel beam. Even though the building didn’t fall, the whole experience was so powerful, I still have vivid dreams where I’m watching One Liberty Plaza toppling over into other buildings like a giant domino.
A ROUGH THREE MONTHS
I’ve dealt with this tragedy through my music, and by talking to others about what I went through and what they went through, but I also held many things inside for so long and tried to “move on” before I was ready. I only recently “saw” what this strategy was doing to me inside and out. I thought I’d be strong enough to just keep going and stay busy, but just before the holidays I had a minor physical and emotional breakdown, so I am taking this opportunity to tell my story in a continuing effort to respond to my anger and sadness in a positive and healing way. Also, I’m too busy these days to feel this bad- I have had two colds, lingering sinusitis, and a bad case of bronchitis, which I finally got over with the help of Biaxin.
I’ve never been so sick or felt so tired over a three month span. Flying back and forth between New York and Florida, trying to write and record a new 14 song album didn’t allow me to have much time to recharge, and I just couldn’t seem to shake it off. I’m very lucky though- my chest x-ray showed nothing major, and I’ve been given a complete physical and blood analysis. Everything came out fine, just irritated lungs, an overworked immune system and mental exhaustion. I wonder- If I’ve felt this bad, what about the guys who’ve been there for months? I pray for them.
In the hijacker’s cowardly actions born of a mindless, idiotic allegiance to a living demon’s warped, convenient and self-defeating ideology, we witnessed the lowest depths of evil, the very worst of Mankind. Within the wreckage they caused, I witnessed the very best of Mankind. I also experienced what I’m convinced were some powerful signs from God, which Dan, Sr. and I recently wrote a song about, entitled “I Believe.” (The Lyrics are posted at this web site)
One of these signs was a black and white picture of a statue. The untitled photo had a Mother Mary and baby Jesus look to it, and I saw every mother and infant who ever lived. In contrast to the nightmare surrounding me, this beautiful image very powerfully represented human innocence and unconditional love. I found it as I walked alone, crying in the darkness through a graveyard of crushed police and rescue vehicles, some with their headlights and radios still on. It was just before midnight on the 12th, and having been separated from my vehicle as a result of the earlier evacuation, I was just wandering through the streets around ground zero for a couple of hours, praying and taking in every facet of this crime, getting a graphic and firsthand taste of the fruits of evil so I can be a witness for those who weren’t there to see it up close. So I can describe, to my son and anyone willing to listen, my eyewitness accounting of the depths of depravity and ignorance some humans are willing to dive down to.
I looked up into the night and asked God to somehow let me know that he was with me at this valley of the shadow of death, and that he still cared about this world he created. I thought about the Holocaust and about big and small acts of evil and indifference throughout history, and wondered if God had given up on this world somewhere along the way. Not 5 minutes later, as I turned a street corner, something caught my eye. It was the photo- completely untouched in a pile of ash and burnt papers and lit up by a beam of light from one of the huge lights set up over the disaster site. I picked it up and felt the presence of thousands of souls… and God.
Not a vengeful God, not an intolerant God… simply a loving spiritual force beyond full comprehension who created us with the free will to choose a path of good or evil in this life. It was one of the most incredible moments in all my life. Right up there with the time I first laid eyes on my son. The photo is now in the hands of the folks in charge of the World Trade Center Memorial, in case they wish to attempt to locate its owner or find a home for it.
The signs I saw have given me strength to get through the extreme sadness and anger I am still dealing with, as I know many of you are, too. May God Bless those lost on 9/11, and their loved ones, and our troops… I dedicate this story to them.
PEACE, And God Bless America.
Todd Shea, January 5, 2002