When Lili opened her home to the rescue workers digging through the rubble, she learned about fearlessness and strength and courage.
I do not know what the entirety of a good man is, but I know a good deed and recognize a man answering the hero’s calling with selfless service. On September 11, 2001 and in the weeks thereafter, there were many good deeds. This is just a fraction of the good deeds that I, a Manhattanite, was honored to witness.
As soon as the news broke that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, I tried to call my boyfriend Jarod, who worked a block from the World Trade Center. No answer. I began to panic; just then, two neighborhood friends came to my apartment to see the smoking towers from my roof garden. On rooftops and patios all around us, many people had gathered to watch this the unfolding horror. This was different from a friend in personal distress. What we were watching transcended everyday traumas, as debilitating as those can be. We could see that all of New York City was in grave danger. The television news let us know that the rest of the country was experiencing an unprecedented crisis.
Jarod called just after the second plane hit as he was looking out the office window. After many shocked expletives, he breathlessly told me his entire chest felt like it imploded from the plane’s impact on the building. He described the sight of flames spewing from all sides of the towers. He said he had to go, because his building was being evacuated and mid-sentence, the connection dropped.
All my friends and I could do was hold each other’s hands. Silently, I was praying that all in the buildings escaped safely. The first plane hit at 8:43 a.m. so most people were not in their offices yet, right? It was frightful to see the glowing red fireballs near the centers of the buildings.
“Who could have done this?” we repeated, incredulous. “Why?”
“These buildings are going to explode,” I kept saying.
“No, they are built stronger than that,” my architect friend argued.
“No, I don’t think they’ll be able to withstand the fire…” I drifted off with the most awful foreboding I’ve ever experienced.
“Don’t worry, Lili. I’m sure the firemen are on it” my friend attempted to reassure me.
And then it happened. The first tower collapsed, imploding onto itself.
“Oh my God!” we gasped in unison with the collective of patio and rooftop observers.
Reflexively, I grabbed my friends’ hands and pulled the entire group down to our knees. I began to pray. I had never done that before, but that is the way it happened that morning. We had no way of knowing the exact number, but we were certain that innocent people were being crushed, burned and buried alive as the building completely collapsed onto its foundation.
I prayed out loud for their souls to be lifted out of that inferno. From somewhere deep inside us, our crying intertwined with the words of prayer as grief became palpably collective. My friends and I clutched each other’s hands, terrified, like death-bound passengers going down on a sinking ship. We had no idea what any of this meant, but we did know that life had turned an unknown corner, that meaning from hereafter would be forever altered by this event.
I went into some “zone” familiar to anyone who grew up around chaos: disassociation. A sickly combination of numbness and adrenaline swirled woozily together, resulting in a jittery overdrive feeling. I was searching for a way, any way at all, to channel that intolerable feeling of anxiety chasing you out of your own skin. Our attempts at prayer dissolved into New York City’s collective dissociation, now pulling us away as surely as the ashes were falling heavily onto every surface.
The second tower collapsed. We heard screaming, wailing through the pasty dust settling over all Manhattan.
The television news reported that that many thousands of people were feared dead in the collapse of the towers and that tens of thousands were missing. The images accompanying the reports were of scene after scene of crying and screaming people, running in the streets, blood covering them, dust covering them, images of utter pandemonium.
The ringing phone jarred me out of the mesmerizing haze of television images and commentary. Jarod’s out-of-state and very concerned family members wanted to know if he was all right. I did not know if he was okay. I did not know if he had actually evacuated and I could not tell them what they so fervently wanted to hear. All I knew was that he had left for work that morning that was a block away from the World Trade Center, that he had called and that call dropped.
I assured his family that he would call them as soon as he could, unable to reveal our phone call’s entirety through phone wires that transmitted more anxiety than information.
An hour later, Jarod arrived at my door, covered from head to toe in an eerie grayish-white powder; even his eyelashes and eyebrows were coated with pasty, almost waxy, white dust. I gasped as he leaned towards me for a hug, and then he broke into a muffled sob.
It was minutes before he spoke; we remained embraced and sobbing together, mingling tears and dust and terror. He told me that on his way to the elevator bank, he saw terrified workers hiding beneath their desks—too paralyzed by fear to evacuate. He had carried those that he could to the elevator, one woman clutching her Bible the entire time.
When he got downstairs, he noticed a tense crowd in the lobby. The police had closed the outer steel grates down in front of their all-glass lobby, sequestering hundreds in the small lobby. A loud explosion that shook their building instantly halted those who panicked and tried to escape. The power went out, creating semi-darkness and greater chaos.
Just two minutes later, a loud rumbling reverberated through the darkness, quieting all in the lobby. Clouds of debris, small stones and incinerated materials forcefully ripped through every street in lower Manhattan, past the glass front doors of Jarod’s over-packed lobby, almost shattering the glass panels. Angry, gray tornadoes of dust and debris pelted their glass doors and raced past them for twenty minutes — a thousand demons rushing past them on their way to hell.
Then, just as suddenly as it came, it was over; that silence that just filled one with dread. For the next half hour, he was pressed up against others in the semi-darkness. Quite a few started to panic, pushing each other to find a way out. However, none as much as the woman next to him who started screaming as she went into labor.
“My baby! Oh my God, my baby! I’m gonna lose my baby!” she started screaming as she grabbed onto Jarod’s sleeve.
He instinctively pushed away the people around them, trying to clear a space when there was none, trying to make room for her to lie down. Hysteria took her over as he tried to calm her by telling her that if she wanted her baby to be okay, she needed to get quiet and just try to breathe with him. And so they breathed, and those closest to their little makeshift birthing space breathed with them in unison, taking deep, exaggerated breaths. Solidarity.
I had watched Jarod respond before in emergencies in the seven years we had been together. He was a pilot and an underwater search and rescue diver; these trained him to have a cool head and the ability to act skillfully whenever chaos ensued. Lucky for the woman, he was next to her in that desperate time of need. Good man, that Jarod.
Just as they feared her water would break, sunlight re-entered the lobby as the police raised the gates outside to let everybody out. Jarod scooped the pregnant woman up and out with the crowd, carried her through the Armageddon outside, until he was able to find a patrol car that could take her to the hospital.
Passing her off to a policeman, he sat down on the dust-covered curb, stunned. Manhattan had morphed into a bleak, post-Apocalyptic lunar grayness. He began his stunned migration, shuffling slowly uptown alongside thousands of other dust-covered trauma survivors. Fortunately, he made it safely home, a hero who’d done many good deeds when called upon.
When he took off his work clothes, sending the dust airborne, I wondered just how many burnt souls had intermingled with the debris that landed on his suit as dust, becoming a part of everything they settled onto.
“We should go give blood,” I said, desperate for a way to ease the anxiety ricocheting mercilessly around inside after he had showered and changed. So we walked to a neighborhood hospital but there were long lines of people who had the same idea, and eventually we were turned away.
The chaos of noise and confusion outside jangled my nerves so badly I let Jarod return home alone to call his family and I stepped into the back of an Anglican Church. The pastor was preaching above the sobbing sounds. When I entered the main portion of the church, it was nearly full, with all kneeling and heads bent in a combination of grief and prayer.
I slipped into a back pew next to a man of about 30 who was praying silently for a few minutes and then beginning to cry openly. I laid my hand on his back.
“Who?” the only word that escaped my terror-tightened throat.
“My 23 year-old sister, 98th floor, Tower One.”
“Her name?” I asked, though dread forced it’s way into my head.
“Irene…” he managed, before sobs convulsed his enormous body.
A heroic man was praying for his sister. It was then I remembered to call my parents in Long Island. I lit a candle and slipped out to the street. Outside, police, fire and ambulance sirens made a mighty cacophony, all headed downtown to the towers, but the sounds were not seeming to come from or go to anywhere in particular. People were crying openly in the street.
Amidst this scene of utter madness, I was able to get through to my parents and tell them that I was okay and that I loved them. When my father heard my voice, he cried harder than I’ve heard a man cry before.
“I wish I could come and get you but I can’t. They’ve just announced the closing of all the tunnels, bridges and mass transportation into or out of the city.”
“I’ll be alright, Dad, you just take care of yourself and Mom, okay? We’ll see each other soon, I promise.”
“I will, honey, call me soon, okay?”
F-16’s were crisscrossing the sky like angry hornets, coursing back and forth at ungodly speeds, ripping the sky apart like it was a tattered old bed sheet.
Was this what my parents lived through as children growing up in Europe during World War ll? Nothing made any sense any more. I scan people’s faces for clues, for answers to a question I could not formulate. Why? Why? Why?
There were no answers. Others were scanning my face looking for answers. I returned home and I turn the news back on and when I notice again, it’s nightfall. Jarod was able to fall asleep.
I pray: Please wrap your arms around me, help me sleep.
For a few fitful hours I went somewhere—did I sleep? When I awoke, the TV was still on, replaying endless video loops of the towers collapsing: the ticker tape at the bottom of the screen saying over 3000 people were missing and feared dead, then footage of scores of firemen dousing a huge smoking mountain of what was once our World Trade Center. Over 300 firemen died today.
Help their loved ones through this night.
I closed the windows as a burning smell filled the apartment. Looking back down at the TV screen, I see footage shot from a helicopter, confirming that the sky was indeed filling with acrid smoke from the site, like a black veil of sorrow draping itself across our once-recognizable city.
How could you let this happen?
I couldn’t sleep, replaying the images of the day over and over. I must have drifted off because when I came to, the weight of realizing the images still flickering on the TV weren’t a dream after all. Paraylsis. As the first light filtered in through the blinds, we had to face this helplessness, this pain, this uncertainty about what had actually happened, all over again.
The television showed footage of hundreds of people, walking around downtown, holding posters with photos of their missing loved ones. Union Square Park? I brushed my teeth and ran down Park Avenue to Union Square to see this myself and as I approached, I saw the placard-carriers everywhere.
Walking into the Park, I saw the families and friends, wearing or hanging the posters of their loved ones, all along the wrought iron fences, a mile of photos strung like pearls on a string. Their desperation is unspeakable. My solar plexus feels kicked in by a boot. I look at the faces on their poster boards, the faces of sisters and mothers, dads and young bucks. I hate this feeling of powerlessness, rendering us impotent, and unable to help them.
As soon as the victims were dug out, as soon as their amnesia lifted from the shock of the towers falling, as soon as someone recognized them walking around like zombies and returned them home again, the despair of their loved ones would lift. Yes, all these beautiful, shining faces in the photos, most only in their twenties and thirties, of course they’d be found and returned. They were just temporarily MIA, like a giant cache of gems that’d been misplaced, that’s all. But very soon all these fear-stricken loved ones carrying the posters would be reunited with them, hugging and delirious with relief.
I overheard someone say there was a big volunteer roundup over at the Convention Center. I found a lone bus and headed to the Convention Center. The driver waved me through the turnstile, exempting me from paying…he looked as checked out as I felt.
“Thanks” I said and noticed the bus was empty save for two or three people. One was an old black lady, weeping unabashedly like a child. I tried to smile a little but she never looked up.
How could you let this happen?
The bus pulled over at the Convention Center, and let me out into a hive of people buzzing around and forming lines and groups. After some time, I found myself face-to face with a woman and a clipboard who was apparently trying to organize something.
“What can you do? What are you good at? What services can you offer?” asked the makeshift sign over her head.
I noticed men of every age, leaning, sitting, standing, laying and sleeping on the huge sidewalks surrounding the Center. Most of them had tools with them, in five-gallon buckets or hanging off belts. Almost all had shovels, crowbars and some had hardhats they were using as pillows on the hard concrete sidewalk.
“Who are these people and what are they doing here?”
“Oh, they’ve come from all over, they want to help with the digging at Ground Zero. They go in shifts, when another crew comes back”.
“Where will they sleep?”
“Most of them don’t want to, but….those that do, will have to sleep here. I guess. Where would we put them all?”
“Well, what about inside the Convention Center? It’s huge in there!” I countered.
“No, it’s a liability issue, I’m afraid,” and she turned to respond to one of the many who were trying to get her attention.
That’s insane, I thought. Sleep on the sidewalk when they’ve just been digging at Ground Zero all day? Come again?
I watched as a truck pulled over and out jumped a dozen men, just like those on the sidewalk, only these men were filthy, exhausted and looked downtrodden.
I watched as they lay their tools down, and plopped onto the sidewalk in a fatigued heap. A foreman called for a new batch of men and was rushed by men almost fighting each other for the chance to get a work at Ground Zero, “the pit.” Off they went while the ones just back laid down on their hardhats and tried to sleep.
“Excuse me,” I called to the lady with the clipboard.
“Excuse me, I can put up workers at my place.”
“Wonderful! Are you nearby?”
“How many do you have room for?”
“Maybe twelve, let me go get some supplies and I’ll be back .”
“Wonderful…thank you so much!”
A young man overheard us and ran alongside me as I started my quick walk back home.
“Mind if I help you? I’ve been in line all day and I’m losing my mind waiting for some way to help.”
“Sure, if you don’t mind shopping with me. You can help me carry, ok?”
“You got it! Hey, my name is Bryce. Nice to meet you,” and this man so handsome my breath rushed out of my lungs, extended his hand to me.
“Hey Bryce, I’m Lili” and together, we went to K-Mart and bought a pile of blankets, pillows and sheets and towels. We loaded ourselves up like pack mules and carried everything over to my apartment.
He helped me set up makeshift beds in the living room and made a sign to post in the elevator of my building, asking tenants to donate new toiletries for men. I trusted my neighbors to donate generously and they did not disappoint me.
Bryce and I returned to the Convention Center and found Clipboard Lady and told her we were ready. She said she’d put the word out. A young Hispanic girl of about 24, Carmen, overheard us and asked if we needed a cook.
“Really? Sure!” I said, and as the three of us walked back to my place. I felt so blessed to have found these two angels. We laughed for the first time since the planes hit, now almost two days ago and it felt like a healing balm.
Carmen, Bryce and I went food and supply shopping, an unlikely trio if ever there was one. Once home, we unpacked everything, Carmen disappeared into the kitchen and Bryce and I began making makeshift beds about the apartment.
Soon enough, my doorman announced: “There’s a van with five men here.” A minute later, we opened the door to three workers who’d just come from Ground Zero.
One by one, they respectfully removed their hardhats and shook my hand, each introducing themselves and thanking me.
“No rest for you guys before you eat a dinner of arroz con pollo!” shouted Carmen from my kitchen. Delicious aromas filled the space and the men washed up before I seated them. Bryce helped with simply everything.
When all the men were seated, I sat, too and motioned for us to hold hands. “Thank you” was all I could manage before I choked up, overcome by the goodness of these men who had slaved in the pit of hell downtown for a chance to rescue the missing people still thought to be trapped in the rubble.
As they ate, I asked them where they were from. I was astounded at the answers—
Two were steelworkers, about 25, 26, who drove in from Pennsylvania seven hours away. But the bridges into Manhattan were closed so they walked across them with their tools and shovels and didn’t stop walking until they got to the Center.
“What? But what about your jobs?
“We told our boss we were leaving to help NYC—he gave us his blessing, told us to take as long as we needed. Said he was proud of us.”
Heroic employees; good man, their boss.
The quiet older man sitting next to the two steelworkers was from North Carolina, and said he owned a bar. His journey entailed jumping on his motorcycle and not stopping till he got to the Brooklyn Bridge 13 hours later. He locked up his bike and walked across with nothing but a backpack filled with tools.
“I was done torn up, watching what happened to y’all on TV. I had to help. Ain’t no point in servin’ booze to the locals when the rest of your country’s hurtin’.”
His simple words melted my heart and I felt unworthy to share my table with him. Breathe, Lili, breathe…. Bryce introduced himself as a fashion model who couldn’t imagine being paid to stand around looking good and being photographed while the whole city was in turmoil.
The food was gone in less than ten minutes and I asked Carmen to come out and let us thank her, but she yelled back she was too busy. I ducked my head into the kitchen and saw she’d turned every inch of counter space into an assembly line and was filling baking dishes with lasagna.
“Carmen! What’s all this?”
“I want to make sure the men have lunch tomorrow since I can’t return till 4 p.m. tomorrow. I have to take my father to the Doctor.”
“You’re coming back again?” I asked, incredulous at both how industrious she was in such a short amount of time, but also that she intended to return.
“Yeah! What, you’re gonna do everything?”, she asked.
Turns out that Carmen was the sole earner in her family, her husband was unemployed and her child was only five years old. Her elderly father and mother lived with her. In addition to cooking, cleaning and laundry, she worked a full-time job, too.
I hugged her goodnight after she put the five lasagnas into the fridge.
“No biggie,” she smiled and said, “Looking forward to tomorrow!”
Where did these angels come from who wanted to give so much of themselves when clearly they had very busy lives back home?
Why did you allow me to find them?
All the men tucked in for a few hours, and I went into my own room for a good cry. I barely slept, feeling responsible for the fact that there were three men in my place, and what if someone needed something?
By dawn, I got up to make them coffee but noticed all three of them had made their beds and left already. I turned on the TV to see if they’ve finally found survivors, but tragically, they haven’t. It’s day three and the country is rooting hard for the workers who are pulling all-nighters to find the missing.
My cell phone is still dead and I can’t reach my best friend by landline; it just rings and rings at her place. I need to go check on her, make sure she’s ok since she lives not far from Ground Zero. As I dress my tired body and realize there’s not enough under-eye concealer makeup on the planet to cover these dark circles, the doorman downstairs rings up.
Two more men have arrived, needing a place to stay. They’re brothers, one is 19, the other 20. They had gotten a ride from a truck-stop in Indiana where they live, and gotten all the way to New Jersey. From there, they hitchhiked the rest of the way. They were clearly exhausted and ask to sleep for a few hours before heading to the Volunteer center.
I set them up and notice they were wearing Fire Dept. T-shirts from an Indiana firehouse.
“Cool shirts,” I smiled.
“Our oldest brother’s a fireman there. I’m in training to become one and my little brother here will be, too.”
“That’s so awesome that you came all the way here. Thank you…” and again my eyes filled up again with tears as I hugged them. That was happening a lot but there’s no way I can understand these acts of selflessness.
“There was no way to not come,” the younger one said, as they piled their few tools into a corner of the bedroom they would share; it’s hard not to notice there deliriously tired. Everyone was.
As I head out for the day, the posters with the photos of the missing people have taken over the park, now covering every available surface. A sea of photos with smiling faces and everyone prays they aren’t dead. It would be unthinkable.
Young students are gathered in a circle, someone strums a guitar, another’s got a harmonica…they’re singing Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, and as the sweet notes find my ears, I feel myself giving in to tears. I let it be okay.
It has to be, how else can one be, surrounded with thousands of photos of the missing, all of these smiles captured in a happier time in their mostly-young lives; at a birthday party, a beach scene, a graduation. Besieged by grief at seeing their loved ones handing flyers out on every walk path, the smiling faces color-Xeroxed onto them, I cry openly for the first time since it happened.
How could you let this happen to them?