In my former life, I was a daily news reporter. Specifically, I was a crime reporter and later, an assignment editor for a newspaper. For that job, I saw any number of chilling scenes of death that I’d rather forget. On the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a photographer and I were assigned to travel to New York to cover the aftermath, activities to recover bodies and possible rescue of victims.
I did what officials told journalists to do and wrote my Social Security number and name in permanent marker on my skin, in case there was another attack and they needed to identify my body.
Working around Ground Zero felt like it probably feels being on another planet. For the time I worked there, it was the absolute center of the universe. The scenes playing out were so completely out of step with what we all consider to be daily life that I wasn’t sure how life would get back on track for anyone.
I remember the ash in my hair, the ash that hung in the air for days after it happened. I remember looking from my hotel room into the pit of where the World Trade Center towers used to stand and seeing the glow of the fires. I saw military jets and heard their engines screaming between the high-rise buildings, looking out for the next airborne terrorist.
I spent a great deal of time with firefighters, rescue workers and volunteers. At one point, we were embedded with a Red Cross unit. And I learned a few things:
People are awesome. When the chips are down, we come together in ways that seem hard to believe at any other time.
People want to help. Walking through a line of volunteers outside the convention center that was the staging ground for rescue workers, I asked if anyone was from Ohio. A man jumped out of line and said, “backhoe.” He spoke little English, it was loud outside the center and he confused the word “Ohio” with the machine he was an expert in operating. He just wanted to help and his eagerness was palpable. I’ll never forget that.
People are natural problem-solvers. Workers moved thousands of vehicles crushed by the falling Twin Towers and stored them on the streets in lower Manhattan. Space is at a premium there and somehow, they made it work and quickly. They stacked vehicles wherever they could find room. Sometimes, there were two vehicles stacked on each other. And everything was covered in ash.
People don’t give up. I remember rescue workers and firefighters who practically had to be dragged away from the pile of rubble and ordered to go rest. They simply would not give up until they were tired enough to fall over. We walked into the convention center one night to see thousands of people sleeping against the walls while they got a few precious moments of shut-eye before returning to the pile.
People overcome their fears. A week after the 9/11 attacks, letters with deadly anthrax spores were mailed to members of the media and Congress. The anthrax killed five people and injured scores of other people. One of those offices was that of the company I worked for. Shortly after this happened, several of my colleagues traveled from our Washington, D.C, bureau to our offices in Ohio. I recall noticing one of my colleagues seemed a bit out of sorts. One remarked how he felt “achy.” I asked why? One of my colleagues responded, “It’s the Cipro,” an antibiotic prescribed for a wide variety of diseases, including anthrax. Despite this, they all got on a plane and kept working.
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