Heart of Darkness

4:24 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.

September 15, 2001 Saturday

UP FRONT AT NEW YORK’S HEART OF DARKNESS

BYLINE: DAWN SHURMAITIS

LENGTH: 1467 words

Hard-hat volunteer Eric Woelfel runs down the ramp to the ferry that will take him and dozens of other construction workers from Jersey City, N.J. to Ground Zero. “My heart is in my throat,” he says as the boat makes its way across a choppy Hudson to New York City. “But I couldn’t just sit home and watch it on TV. I had to come. To help.”

Help is all the volunteers want to give. But as soon as Woelfel’s boat leaves the Colgate pier shortly after 7:30 a.m. word reaches the tent where dozens more union workers are lined up, ready to do their part for their country.

“They just told everybody to go home. It’s a money job now,” says a disgusted union official who’s been shuffling union volunteers from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland and all points East to the site of the World Trade Center disaster.

The union man, wet and weary from three days and nights of coordinating relief efforts from Jersey City, immediately gets on his cell phone. What he learns earns a collective groan from the crew. “The job’s been contracted out, over in New York. They’re telling me not to send anyone else over.”

Woelfel, a construction manager from Bear Creek Township, made the first boat Friday morning. He drove in the night before and bunked with friends in Jersey City. When his boat docks at the marina where executive yachts parked until Tuesday morning, he and the rest of the crew get their first look at the devastation. “It’s so eerie. It’s the twilight zone.”

Spackle bucket by spackle bucket, the volunteers who left behind jobs and family to lend their muscle to the relief effort carry rubble from what was once the World Trade Center. They call themselves the bucket brigade.

Crawling like ants up the rubble that is the epicenter of the disaster zone, the volunteers pass empty buckets up, fill them with bite-sized chunks of shattered concrete, and pass them down the line again. “We must have filled 400 buckets this morning alone,” Woelfel says.

Bracing himself against a cold wind that has blown since daybreak, crane operator Louie Mari struggles to fit his rain gear over his T-shirt and jeans. He has already put in 60 hours manning his “clamshell,” and his fingers just can’t seem to work anymore. “This machine is supposed to be used for construction, for building things not for this. We have to go piece by piece, careful like, because we’re still looking for bodies. It takes time.”

In front of him a team of firefighters creep alongside the mountain of debris. “This is us right here,” he says, gesturing to the remains of once-mighty twin towers. “Those towers, they represented unity. They can take the building down but they can’t take our hearts down.”

Inside a building marked Dow Jones, wet and weary firefighters and police officers maneuver over snaking fire hoses to collapse into office chairs where World Trade employees sat three days before. A lone, dust-covered palm tree stands in the corner.

John Dowden, a carpenter from New Jersey, has been working the line since 11 p.m. Thursday. What he saw, he says, will linger long after the last bucket is filled.

“I saw a hand sticking up out of the rubble. What caught my eye was his wedding ring. I’ll never forget the smell.”

He says his local alone has 60 men missing – they were remodeling floors at World Trade when the planes hit. “This city has become one,” he says, looking around at the men and women clad in the uniform of the volunteer: hard hats and rain gear, steel-toed boots and padded gloves, faced streaked with grit and determination. “No matter what color you are – and we got them all here today – it doesn’t matter,” he says, facing the Bell Atlantic building, which union ironworkers have topped with a huge American flag. “Today, I’m proud to be American.”

Everywhere, the volunteers have left their mark, scrawling messages in dust caked on the walls, some alongside handprints: “The Lord Be With Us All. God Bless You.” “It’s Time Now for all Good Men to Come to the Aid of Their Country.” “Wanted: Bin Laden. Dead” “We Are All One People.” “Unite.”

“Remember.” “Let Them Know We Were Here.” “For the Victims: RIP.”

Danger is everywhere. The men circumvent a 22-inch concrete column that shifted 6 inches from the impact. They leap over a small river of muddy gray water flowing past twisted steel girders. Ron Ardres rests against an overturned Ford, its alarm system still sounding.

Inside, a notebook sits on the seat. There are phone numbers for Bobby and Heather, phone calls that will probably never be made. Everyone has a reason for being there. “I helped build these buildings,” Ardres says. “I had to come.” His partner in rubble is New York Police Department detective Joe Sikorski. “I lost a fireman friend. We used to play ball together.”

The men talk about the hatred that’s blowing through the city like so much debris.

“They firebombed a grocery store in my neighborhood in Brooklyn last night,” says one. “The guy who ran it, he was the nicest guy. But I remember when I was growing up, just after World War II, there were some Russians who lived behind us and we hated them. At first. But then we started playing with them and it was all right.”

Ardres pulls on a facemask to guard against the acrid smell of burning plastic and prepares to rejoin the front line. “Let’s go back to work, boys.

What can we do?” he says to a line leader. “Just tell us what to do.”

Inside 200 Liberty St. and up a grand staircase now slick with muck, a set of computers and security monitors at the guard desk still blink commands.

There’s an empty chair and a coffee mug with a chubby Santa printed on the side. A notebook is open to a page marked “Evacuation Drills.” Under the desk a briefcase lies open. Inside, a hairbrush, calculator and unsharpened pencils. On the floor, an inter-office envelope with the name “Glen Braham” yet to be crossed out.

Outside, in the shadow of World Trade Two, there sits a lone sneaker. A calendar open to Sept. 11. A checkbook and pocketbook. An Italian cookbook. A cell phone and a flower pot. Two baby strollers, side by side. A photo album filled with pictures of a smiling Japanese man, his arms around what look like his mom and dad.

“That’s what really hit home for me,” Woelfel says. “That till Tuesday, that album was probably sitting on some guy’s desk. Now, it’s here. In this. I should probably take the pictures and give them to somebody. Maybe they’ll make it back to that poor guy’s family.”

A fresh fire crew from Levittown, N.Y., arrives on the scene. A fireman says: “We got one guy lost here. We gotta do something.” Fire Chief David Fisk calls over: “We didn’t lose anybody – not yet. Let’s go.”

Inside one of the few buildings still safe and standing, New Jersey resident Rob McGovern pulls on a fresh pair of dry socks, his hands shaking from the raw cold and steady drizzle that’s permeated the fourth day of rescue and relief operations. “I guess I’m about soaked through and chilled to the bone. But it pales in comparison. This saved me,” he says, gesturing to the warm clothes donated by stores and households across America. “Now I can go back to the front wave.”

Stores and restaurants that once served the 50,000 or more who came to World Trade Center every workday ring Ground Zero, where police and military personnel patrol, boarding up open doors and blown out windows, guarding against the casual looting that’s part of every disaster.

Inside a minimart a half a block from World Trade One, batches of still-fresh flowers stand in buckets, the same kind of ordinary spackle buckets now used to carry concrete. The salad bar is stocked with oriental noodles, potato salad and greens – the spoons in mid-dig. A Daily News newspaper for Tuesday, Sept. 11 waits by the door for a sale that will never come. The door to the ATM machine is open. Most of the store’s shelves remain stocked – but all of the cigarettes are gone. A firefighter taking a brief break to warm his hands points to the overhead security cameras. “I wonder what they recorded. I wonder if anyone will ever see it.”

When a volunteer exits the store, two uniformed officers dash over.

“What were you doing in that store?” they demand.

“I was just getting out of the rain,” the volunteer says.

“Where’s your ID?” they ask.

“I don’t have any. I just came over on the tugboat from Jersey City – I was bringing over a bag of burgers. I’m going back now. Honest.”

“You gotta come with us,” they say, leading her off to a police van parked on the corner of South End Avenue, where a fallen sign pointing toward the downed towers reads “Dead End.”

Dawn Shurmaitis, a former Harveys Lake resident and former Times Leader staff writer, is a freelance writer in New York City.

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