9/11 Stories

Paolina Weber

I was a Volunteer with Families and Ground Zero Workers

Three weeks before the disaster I was supposed to go to the military as a Naval Intelligence officer candidate. What I realized however is that unfortunately I can be of more service as a civilian right here in New York City.

The day it happened I new I had to help. I went straight to Chelsea Piers. They called me in on Wednesday. To work Crisis Intervention. I helped in mental Health Unit in Pier 61. We had a small team and four rooms. The purpose was to debrief firefighters.

But we used it instead for family members and friends.

I was taking people in one by one, filling out missing person reports. These were then entered along with a photo into the FEMA computer list.

I dealt mainly with friends, as family members were still at home trying to cope. The reports were mostly of people at Cantor Fitzgerald and Windows on the World but also That real estate company on the 80 something floors and a firefighter last heard from at 9am by his chief from the lobby at WTC.

Personally I know of my best friends H.S. friend from Stuyvesant, who was 25 years old and only on her second day at work for Cantor Fitzgerald when this happened. She’s dead. And gratefully my friend Tapu, who worked two blocks away and was in her building when WTC1 collapsed.

Back to Volunteering, the reports were hard to do. We needed the name, age, height, weight description, but also records of dental history and broken bones and Xrays. The truth was grim, but I had to give hope. I broke down once in front of a person, but mainly in the bathroom.

The “clients” were disassociated often with what appeared “wired” energy, or else overly official in demeanor, “they were just trying to get info”. Honestly I was impressed they were present enough to cope in any way they could. So I would send them to see the survivor list at The New School and to file a missing person report on 27 Street.

Then when I was called in on Friday, it was to work in “decon”, decontamination. We had to get the S&R people to remove contaminated clothes. Then I’d try to engage in accounts of what they saw. But in a very very CHILL manner. If they were really in shock, we could get them to the hospital for emergency psych treatment. But this didn’t happen.

The guys had a the attitude of fix me up and get me back in. It was hard to get them to chill. Much more hard, to open up. A few did share feelings but otherwise shut down and exhausted. They told of gruesome stories like it was a matter of fact. One firefighter working in the Amex building, now a morgue, was labelling body parts into separate body bags. He told me of a foot of a fireman that was still with its boot on.

Everyone volunteering was completely professional there, albeit one guy who insisted we where gloves and a mask. Plus he talked too much about anthrax poisoning as a viable future situation. Not exactly what I wanted to hear just then.

Still I was able to focus on helping, just as I had been with the victims family. One after the other would come in and I would just pray to myself, God, let me be of service. It helped me stay grounded and be effective.

One kid came in. He was a reserve firefighter who had taken a commuter train from Connecticut after his last class that day in college. I think he was 19. He told me he hadn’t told his parents he was coming down.

When he first entered decon it was all about “where’s the bathroom, I’m fine”. But I followed him out, and we sat on the pedestrian step outside pier 60. I engaged in flirty small talk for about 20 minutes, noting that he kept coughing, burping and finally gagging. It was because of what he told me, after I had gotten him to warm up with my account of swimming a 7.8 mile race in the Hudson River last year and how gross it was. He had smelled the stench of digging and passing buckets in the front line for 24 hours. I thought he meant a smell that, by now, I was used to, the fuel-smoke smell that clogged all of lower Manhattan.

But just then the wind blew North. Suddenly my lungs were filled with it, like an entire Foulton Street fish market being cooked in an iron pot. The gruesome truth, however was that it was the burning smell of over six thousand dead bodies.

Heaven help us all.

Paolina Weber