To My Family and Friends:
I’m sending this e-mail because we each cope in our own way. Mine is to keep my hands and head so busy that I don’t have time to think. Then, when I have to stop, I write. It’s been a devastating week for all of us. This makes it easier for me. I hope you each find your own way of making things easier. I hope all of your loved ones are safe and well.
Most of you know that even though I now work for the health system (Mount Sinai NYU Health) I used to work at NYUDH (“NYU Downtown Hospital” or “Beekman” for you old timers). It’s in the shadow of the World Trade Center and was ground zero the first time that the WTC exploded (who ever thought we’d be saying that?). During this horror, it is once again ground zero for victims and rescuers alike. The hospital doesn’t have the glamour or political clout of some of it’s larger siblings, and didn’t get the same kind of media coverage, but it is a true community hospital for Downtown New York - and a real staff family. A friend calls it “the little hospital that could” and it certainly proved itself again this week. I’ve been at NYUDH for most of this week and am hoping they’ll be so inundated with rescued victims that I’ll need to go back again soon.
I went to work late on Tuesday so that I could vote in the NY Primary and happened to see the second airplane hit the WTC from the LIRR. I went straight to NYUDH because I needed to be someplace that I could help and knew I’d drive myself crazy if I didn’t go there. I arrived shortly after the WTC collapse and got stuck in the subway tunnel under Ground Zero (something I didn’t realize until a week later). When they led us out to the corner of William and Fulton, it was like entering a war zone. I couldn’t even tell where we were and I’d been on that corner, literally, thousands of times. The police handed me a surgical mask and told me to run with the others. I showed them my ID and they pointed me to the Hospital. The scenes you saw on TV couldn’t begin to describe what it was like.
We worked wherever needed, in a hospital that was filled with smoke and ash. At first that meant helping with triage—calming patients and visitors; handing out surgical masks and water; giving scrubs, socks and t-shirts to victims; reuniting family members. Later it meant escorting police detectives as they interviewed witnesses; assisting security to ensure that only authorized people came into patient areas; dealing with the press; keeping track of admissions and discharges; helping people find transportation out of the city, etc. As the days went on, and the number of patients dwindled, there were other issues to deal with. Ash and soot coated the entire inside of the Hospital and needed to be cleaned. You could be standing next to a person and not even be able to identify their color. There was no air conditioning and we drank massive amounts of water to combat dehydration, upper respiratory problems and the heat. Communication with the outside world was almost nil once the phones, cell phones too, went out - no way to call families, get supplies, or even know what was happening outside our four walls (it wasn’t until I got home that first night that I found out that the WTC had actually collapsed). The technology infrastructure collapsed along with the WTC and the power went out. No electricity and only generator power to run the ER, OR, doctors offices, clinical areas, kitchen, offices, common rooms, etc. No faxes, no financial systems, no payroll systems, no registration system, no way to send or receive medical records, nothing (although, oddly enough I was able to get out on my office e-mail). Our cafeteria, which normally only serves breakfast and lunch to the staff, was suddenly providing meals all day long, for staff, visitors, rescuers, anyone who needed a warm meal and someplace to rest. We took turns serving the meals so that we could relieve the exhausted kitchen staff. Whatever was needed, whatever we could do to keep our hands busy and our minds blank, we did. We even brought food to the senior citizen complex across from the Hospital when the Red Cross couldn’t get through.
The commute has been the most surreal - finding a new route every day as the city opens and closes subway stations; walking block after block toward the devastation as the air gets darker and more rank; going through police and military checkpoints; trying to hitch rides with police and emergency crews to get into or out of “the zone”; seeing troops of National Guard walking where Wall Street “suits” should be, and volunteers handing out water and masks where street vendors used to hawk goods; walking on usually bustling streets and seeing everything closed and silent. You communicate with coworkers, volunteers and rescuers without saying a word, but are greeted with cheers and hugs from the strangers who line the outside perimeter of the zone. Emerging midtown several hours later, the sounds and sights of midtown are jarring after being downtown all day. The sunlight/moonlight and clear skies seem disrespectful, but the thunderstorms added insult to injury.
I used to joke that every company I worked for went out of business - but I always took pride in pointing out my former offices in the WTC, the AmEx Building and One Liberty Plaza to visitors. I never expected that they would disappear as well. What is that saying? “…there but for the grace of god go I…”? Who ever thought I’d have four days to walk around Lower Manhattan and not even be able to shop or go for Chinese food? Who ever thought that all of those pictures I took, when you guys made fun of me for looking like a tourist in my own city, would wind up being memorials? Who ever thought it would happen again?
I didn’t realize how much of my own comfort level lie in ritual. Everyone makes fun because I have a habit of “checking to make sure that the bay is still there” by driving down to the corner each and every time I go to or from my parents house in East Quogue. I never realized that I do the same thing at home—I check the WTC every day from both the LIRR platform and when I get in and out of the subway. One morning after the blast, a bunch of us were trying to find our way to the Hospital from one of the subway stations. We looked up to find South on our compass - the WTC - but there was nothing in the skyline.
Like you, certain images will be forever seared into my memory, some horrific, some heroic. I’m a die-hard New Yorker and am geocentric enough to think this city is the center of the world. I love living and working in what is truly the largest small town, but my foundation has been shaken along with that of lower Manhattan. I can’t seem to shower enough or wash my hair enough to get the smell and feel of that blast off of my skin. I hate to close my eyes; even the cats recognize that something has shifted. I’m exhausted and profoundly sad; yet I’m relieved that my own little corner of the world remained intact. I’m torn between being filled with faith and having none; for the first time I dread the coming High Holy Days. I’m just now catching up with the TV coverage and am relieved that I missed most of it before. I haven’t even begun to think about the who, why and how of this, or the political/social/economic repercussions - something I’d normally be obsessive about.
I still love this city. I wasn’t afraid to work and wander here before and I certainly won’t be now. I’ll continue to ride the subway, go to the theatre, buy stock, complain about my commute, moan about work, drive across the bridges and tunnels, go to the Hamptons on the weekends, … We’ll all return to normal soon and that is how it should be. Maybe tomorrow it will all make sense to me, but I stocked up on chocolate just in case. Tomorrow I’m off to my folks to make sure the bay is still there…
Happy New Year. It’s three months later and the city is still quiet and tense. Most of us have gone through the whole gamut of psychological responses: first I couldn’t sleep, now I sleep all the time; I cry much more easily and I really miss laughing and singing; I’ve noticed that strangers are more polite, but more prone to outbursts; people seem thick-skinned about the big stuff, yet thin-skinned about the minor things; almost everyone has an increased “startle response” to anything out of the ordinary; I’ve rediscovered chocolate milk and jigsaw puzzles. I still can’t bear to watch TV or read anything serious - but my romance novels are too frivolous to deal with - so I’m reading Harry Potter. Maybe I’m regressing.
What will I do if it happens again? Probably the same thing I did this time - find someplace I’m needed and stay busy. I think my elementary school teachers lied to me—climbing under my desk and holding a piece of paper in front of my face (so I’m not blinded by the nuclear flash) isn’t going to save me. Then again, I hear there are still biscuits left in the bomb-shelters!
The “War On Terror” goes on (I’ll spare whoever is reading this and not comment). Anthrax? Smallpox? Cooties? At work we get bio-terrorism alerts every day from the CDC and DOH - I don’t even read them anymore. There are lots of speeches (Bush has even learned how to pronounce multi-syllabic words), bomb threats, traffic, false alarms, evacuations, checkpoints, etc. The parking lot staff at the Hospital now checks packages and ID’s (they’re about as well trained as the baggage handlers at the airport). There are men in uniform everywhere - Fire, Police, Troopers, National Guard (and street vendors) in camouflage. Planes fall out of the sky. Terrorists make bombs out of their sneakers. Some days I feel like I’m living on the set of a “Naked Gun” movie.
I still can’t figure out north and south without the World Trade Center. I’ve been back to NYU Downtown Hospital and Ground Zero several times, hoping it would bring some closure. It didn’t. To me, it looks like any other construction site, but with more street vendors and tourists (patriotism and disaster are big business). I guess the real Ground Zero is still in my mind. I close my eyes and the smells, sights and sounds of the day are right there - the smoke so thick you couldn’t see the person next to you, even indoors; the people so covered in ash that you couldn’t tell who was white and who was black; the victims as they were brought in; the stinging eyes and raw throat; the sense of being in an apocalypse … But now, I also remember the concerts that were held on the WTC Plaza each day in the summer; the Hula Hoop Contest with Cousin Brucie; the Hospital Galas at the Winter Garden; the orchid shows and the readings; the Farmer’s Market on Tuesday and Thursday; great shopping; hoards of people running to and fro the subways and the path trains; lunch or dinner or drinks with friends.
I go out to East Quogue as often as possible to make sure my Bay is still there. It is. The sun and moon rise and set; the tides ebb and flow; fall turns to winter, then spring, then summer, then back to fall. Maybe I’m the only thing that’s changed, and for that I’m still grieving. (Strangely enough, however, I have no sense of physical vulnerability and am not afraid to fly, use tunnels, subways, etc.)
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that in many ways this was a good year too. My parents are healthy, my sister and brother are good, my nieces and nephews get better with age. My extended family even expanded this year with one cousins wedding and another cousins engagement. We had a 50th reunion of Beech Hills and Deepdale and I rediscovered my childhood and old neighbors. I’m back in touch (thanks to e-mail) with some very special old friends, cohorts and co-conspirators (you know who you are).