Band of Volunteers

4:22 pm 9-11 Anthology Chapters

The following story appeared on page one of the Knight-Ridder newspaper Times Leader and as a chapter in 09/11 8:48 AM, Documenting America’s Greatest Tragedy, which was a finalist in the 2002 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Portions of this article were also included in 09/11 8:48 AM, a one-act play directed by veteran actor and director Murray Woodfield, adapted from the personal testimonies of seven writers, including Dawn Shurmaitis. The play was performed in London at the Old Vic Theatre benefiting New York Firefighters 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund.

BAND OF VOLUNTEERS REMAINS STEADFAST TO THE TASK AT HAND

BYLINE: DAWN SHURMAITIS

LENGTH: 1605 words

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – We’re packed shoulder to shoulder in a line hundreds of people long – students, teens, suburban women in good clothes and impractical shoes – lifting and passing 85-pound bags of fast-melting ice, 50-pound bags of Alpo for body-sniffing dogs, cases of steel-tipped construction boots, socks, aspirin, toothpaste, flashlights, bottled water and Gatorade.

We’re a ragged, determined army of volunteers feeding supplies to civilian soldiers waging war on “the amputation of our skyline.”

We started work in Jersey City a couple of hours after dawn, clothed in T-shirts and jeans soon gritty with soot from still-burning buildings across the Hudson at “Ground Zero.” We know we are dusty with minute fragments of former lives of friends, family and colleagues who worked just a few days before at the World Trade Center. We wipe sweaty faces, stretch fatigued arms toward each other, load, twist and turn, load, twist and turn.

A boat from Ken’s Marine in Bayonne pulls up to the dock at Jersey City’s Colgate Center, where just 24 hours ago a different kind of line formed to board ferries bound for Manhattan, a line of suits and ties, carrying briefcases, headed to another ordinary day on the job, a day blown apart by terrorists.

A Jersey City police officer directs 12 of us onto the boat, across a dock heaving from the waves of the constant flow of water traffic, tug boats and ferries making ceaseless, 10-minute trips across the Hudson to a surreal scene: the smoldering concrete carcasses of a long-familiar skyline. We introduce ourselves on the trip over. “Where you from?” “How long have you been here?” and the question everyone is now asking: “Where were you when the planes hit?”

I work alongside Salman, a 24-year-old Pakistani computer technician who worked at World Trade. “I lost two,” he tells me, as casually as if he’s telling me he lost front teeth. The officer who’s manning the crew says, “I lost four.” He pauses, chokes up and wipes his eyes, making as if he’s just tidying his dripping brow. “Don’t give up hope,” we tell him. “They’re finding people alive in there every day.” He shrugs, sad and certain in his grief.

Everyone has a story. A retired cop whose wife is still on the force said she went into the flames with two captains and a lieutenant, after the planes hit and before the buildings fell. She was the only one who made it out. “She went into work this morning and saw the three empty desks. She’s with the grief counselors now,” he says. A man on the boat tells him: “Anybody with a turban, they should round them up, and bang! – right between the eyes.” Salman stands a few feet away, sharing coffee and a cigarette with another volunteer as the boat draws near the epicenter, which is cloaked in a choking debris cloud large enough to be seen from space. Salman is dark-skinned and speaks with a heavy accent – a fresh target for Americans’ newfound hatred. He turns to me and points to the shattered city. “What people don’t realize is that many, many Muslims were killed in there. They’re Americans, too. Like me.” Off to the side, another volunteer mutters: “We have to learn to hate as much as the Muslims do. From now on, it’s the only way we’ll be safe.”

The trip over, the tugboat eases into a marina where 65-foot yachts – executive party boats – berthed just the day before. We dock below the Winter Garden atrium, a long-familiar glass entree for commuters bound for the twin towers. Miraculously, part of it still stands. But inside, under the now-blackened glass, the giant palm trees are near buried by rubble and shredded office paper – the stuff of former lives. Behind it, we see the twisted steel shards of what was once World Trade Center One. “It looks like Berlin,” someone says.

We’ve watched the images on TV and from the Jersey shoreline for two days. But now, it is up close and horribly surreal, as if we’d stepped into a scene from a Jerry Bruckheimer film. We hear the whop-whop of the helicopter blades and the urgent whine of the saws slicing concrete and steel. We see a pair of German shepherds, tongues hanging, straining against their leashes. In the water, dead bloated rats bob in our wake.

“Oh,” a volunteer says, turning suddenly away. “I saw something back there. It was charred. And black. I looked to see if there was something – a ring, maybe a bracelet. But there was nothing.”

As the boat from Jersey City comes to rest against the pilings, the volunteers on the New York side line up. Their arms reach down as ours reach up to pass and pull crates of milk, orange juice, batteries and flashlights, hot burgers and fries, tarps for the coming rain, hand trucks, even cherry pies. The “hard hats” have worked around the clock since Tuesday, clearing rubble from what looks like a winter wonderland, a wonderland ghost town.

“I found a spine. Just a spine. There were maybe some ligaments,” Brian O’Neill tells me. Like many of the volunteers working the New York side he’s a union man, from a New Jersey local. Plumbers. Crane operators. Welders. Forklift operators. They didn’t even wait for the call. They just came. What they saw, they said, will stay with them the rest of their lives. “When you’re over here, you don’t feel like you’re home,” says Mike Smith, who’s from Woodbridge, N.J. “You feel like you’re in Bosnia.”

New Jersey plumber Eddie Torres passed Tuesday into Wednesday digging, looking, hoping. “It’s such a slow process,” he says. “There’s so much debris. But we gotta get rid of it and we gotta do it by hand. We’re working in water up to our knees, we’re breathing the dust, smelling the fire. Those firemen and those cops – they’re exhausted. But nobody’s complaining. This one comes from the heart. I saw those buildings go up,” says Torres, who’s 40. “I couldn’t just watch from here after they came down.”

The later the hour, the greater the number of fresh volunteers flood the New Jersey waterfront to help load supplies bound for Manhattan. “I’ll step in for you. Go take a water break,” the new volunteers offer the veterans. Only a few break away. “Heads up! Boxes coming!” is the continual call down the line. The boxes come and they come and they come. Turn, twist, pass. Turn, twist, pass. New Jersey to New York and back again.

As firefighters from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut pass the line, a woman reaches out to pat their shoulders. “Good luck and God bless,” she says. From far down the line a cheer goes up. Like a wave, it moves down to the dock. “They found six people alive! Three of them were firefighters!” someone with a radio yells. On the boat, two officers throw their arms around each other, tense faces finally broken by smiles.

At 2 p.m., all the police radios cackle with urgent news. “Everybody off the docks!” someone yells. We look across the river to read the smoke from the still burning epicenter. When it’s white, we know it’s only dust from bulldozing debris. When it’s black, we know there’s a fresh fire, or another building fallen to the terrorists. This time, the smoke is billowing black. The Jersey City police order everyone off the boats and far behind the yellow caution tape lining the waterfront. “All the boats are going back empty. They’re going to come back with casualties,” an officer says.

On the shoreline, the EMTs dive for bandages and IV lines, laying blankets on the only clear patch of shaded grass. “We got a cardiac arrest,” an officer screams. Suddenly, the line splits open and the first stretcher comes through, carrying a soot-covered firefighter, face framed by an oxygen mask. “Call my family,” he tells the nurses. “Let them know I’m all right.” After he’s revived and is lying in the shade pouring down water, a counselor cautiously approaches. “Do you need to talk about what you saw over there? I’m here for you.”

At 7 p.m., the setting sun splashes the buildings across the Hudson with an eerie red light. From this side of the disaster, it looks like they are on fire. Again. We look at our forearms – they are covered by bruises from the bang of the boxes. “That’s it for tonight, people,” a cop calls out. “Come back for more tomorrow.” As we prepare to leave, we’re told: “Go see Lt. Brian McDonough. Tell him you earned a red-light courtesy card today.”

“Thank God,” a volunteer says, “I run red lights all the time in Jersey City. Can he help me out with speeding tickets, too?”

On the three-block walk back home I pass Jersey City policeman Peter Midgley, who’s on his way back to Ground Zero for another all-night shift. “We’re getting a lot of support from the community. I can’t tell you how many times people have passed by and given me food and coffee, told me to keep up the good work. It gives me hope.”

Finally, I reach my front stoop. There’s my door, and my pot of pink impatiens. I have mail. There’s my newspaper. The comforting realities of daily life. I’m about to turn the key when my neighbor arrives. Until now, we’ve never even said hello. “How are you doing?” I ask. “Everyone all right?” “Ahh, we have trouble.” It’s his nephew. Tuesday, he was behind his desk on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center. They’ve been to the Red Cross and all the hospitals. They’ve also been to the morgue. Nothing. MIA. “I was in the Mekong Delta,” he says, “and I never wanted to experience anything like that again.”

He heads off, to keep searching. I pull out my key. The impatiens need water, I think. Maybe tomorrow.

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