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Report from Ground Zero

ISSUE:  Fall 2004

My alarm went off, and I lay in bed listening to the weather and news. It was September 11, 2001—an ordinary day, a workday, one of those early fall days that Minnesotans look back at longingly from winter’s chill. I went downstairs, switched on the radio in the kitchen, and sat down to breakfast with the newspaper. Shortly before eight, the newscaster said that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. The pilot must have had a heart attack, I thought, and finished eating. Then came the second report. A plane had flown into the other tower. This was more than an accident; this was deliberate. I turned on the television and went upstairs to wake my daughter. Whatever was going on, Rebecca would want to know about it—and I wanted her near me.

We watched until about 8:30, when I decided that I should get in to the office. I took a small battery-operated radio with me, pressing it to my ear as I walked. They reported a plane hitting the Pentagon. No one knew how many planes had been hijacked or what other targets might be. At the office, the atmosphere was subdued. Everyone knew about the attacks, as we were now calling them, and was listening to the radio. Someone turned on a television in a conference room and let us know we could go over there to watch the coverage. I watched for a while and then went back to my office. I heard someone say that a tower had collapsed. No, I thought, a building like that couldn’t fall. Maybe the top had caved in. I soon learned how wrong I was. By noon, I knew that the towers were gone. I wanted to be with my family, so, pleading a headache, I took a half day of sick time.

My husband was home by then. Mitch works in the St. Paul World Trade Center. Management felt the building could be a target and sent everyone home. We sat in the family room, together with Rebecca, none of us able to take our eyes from the television. Finally, Rebecca and I had to do something, so we went over to the Red Cross and joined the people waiting to give blood. The line moved slowly. Everyone was trading whatever information they had heard. One man arrived with the extra edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press with photos of the towers engulfed in smoke. Rebecca and I were among the last to be accepted that day before the center closed. They were overwhelmed.

It was primary-election day, so after we returned home, we decided to go vote. I had gone out to the backyard to wait for Mitch. The phone rang. He called me back in and said it was my sister-in-law.

I took the receiver. “Hello?”

Inez was crying. “Sally,” she said. “I have to tell you. Jerry was in New York. He was in the World Trade Center, and I haven’t heard from him.”

I buckled to the floor. She said my brother had left on Sunday from Anaheim and flown to New York for three days on business. She had talked to him the night before—he always called when he was away on business—but now she had been trying to reach his cell phone all day and gotten no answer.

The next few days are a blur. Planes were grounded, so I couldn’t go to New York to look for my brother. All I could do was wait. Inez and I exchanged calls throughout those days. Both of us were trying every number we could find where families were promised information and help. All we got were sympathy and admissions of helplessness. Inez knew that my brother was working on an audit for a reinsurance company that was a subsidiary of Guy Carpenter, part of Marsh and McLennan. They had offices in the North Tower on the 92nd to 96th floors. My brother’s company had rented a small office on the 78th floor of the North Tower. We didn’t know for sure where my brother would have been at the time of the attack. Had he been in the Marriott finishing breakfast? Did he have access to the Marsh offices before they opened for business? Did he stop in his company’s rented office to make some phone calls and check e-mail? After asking countless questions, we learned that Marsh had given him a conference room on the 94th floor in the northwest corner of the building. The plane went in at the 94th floor.

By the weekend it was clear. He was gone.

Inez and I scheduled the memorial service for the first Tuesday in October, carefully avoiding the anniversary of my father’s death. She asked me to speak at the service. I agreed, knowing that my brother would have done the same for me. My nephew, Bob, their only child, also would speak. My brother and sister-in-law had been in Anaheim for only a year and a half, but they had made many friends through their church, the neighborhood, and work. I talked about the brother I knew growing up, how the qualities that they respected in him were already there in the little boy who had been my playmate. Bob spoke of the man who had been his father and the role model he had been.

I returned home and went back to work. Work got done, but I don’t know how. In New York, where much of my focus was, the officials planned for a memorial service on October 26. Rebecca went to visit a friend in Cleveland, and the two of them decided to go to New York. On the Monday after, Rebecca went to Pier 94 to the Family Assistance Center. She must have phoned me at least four times that day to get information or to tell me how helpful people were being with the paperwork or what she had found that could be sent to Inez. Finally, she spoke of what we had been feeling. Over the last three weeks it had become clear that if you were not in New York, you couldn’t get help, and the rest of the country was starting to move on. She said I needed to come.

I arrived Friday evening and was met by Rebecca. The next day we went to the Family Assistance Center, but when we arrived, we were told that, beginning that day, the center would be closed on weekends. No one had told the families, and many were now arriving. The staff there shifted counselors from talking to people who had lost their jobs to working with families. We met with a woman who had spent many hours in recent weeks giving massages to workers at Ground Zero. I told her we wanted to go there. She said that the last tour had already left, but she would give me a nametag that identified me as a family member. We stayed at the center long enough to look over the message wall. We saw the teddy bears sent by the children from Oklahoma City, posters from people looking for lost family members and other loved ones. We searched for anyone who had been on the upper floors of the North Tower or who had worked for Marsh.

We got directions to Ground Zero and took the subway to the nearest stop. It was only when we stepped out of the station onto the sidewalk near Ground Zero that the enormity of being there hit me. We could see the jagged forms of the destroyed towers down the block and smell the acrid odor. Police and National Guardsmen barred our access to the site. Like all the other sightseers, we could get no closer. We moved down the sidewalk, past the vendors selling Trade Center memorabilia, the businesses closed and caked in gray dust, the signs of destruction everywhere. In some places there was no sidewalk at all, only boards over excavated areas where crews were busy trying to restore services. There were hundreds of posters asking for information about missing family and notices forbidding photography.

The crowd thinned out on the south side of the site, and we could move a little closer. I heard a young woman talking to a National Guardsman about wanting access to the site. He turned her away. I’m seldom comfortable putting myself forward, but I went over to her.

“Are you trying to get in?” I asked.

She hesitated, then said, “Yes, my husband and I.”

“We are, too. Do you know how to get down there?”

She paused again, then said, “Come with me.”

We followed the woman further around the south side. She told us she was a firefighter working in San Francisco but was from New York and had known several of the firefighters killed there. She said her friend had lost her whole crew. Along the way, she asked everyone questions; she knew how to talk to people in uniform, and she knew the right questions, how and what to ask. Finally, we were referred to the command center at the Marriott Hotel.

That was a jolt, to be in the place where my brother had been staying. Now it was a grimy and confusing amalgam of uniformed men and women. Someone there told my new friend about the viewing platform on the west side and how to get there. No one at the Family Assistance Center had mentioned this place for families to see Ground Zero. He pointed to my nametag and said that would get us in. We found the entrance to the platform; it was near the ruins of the Winter Garden, whose shattered framework had become familiar to me. The police at the entrance said yes, we could go up there, but we would have to wait until the visiting officials left; they were a UN delegation making a ceremonial visit. Once they left, we were motioned forward.

It was now dusk. The scene that greeted us as we walked down the street and up the steps and across the platform was beyond my imagination, beyond anything the filmed pictures could make real. The smoke, the smell, the glare of the lights, the sheer immensity of the area. Smoke poured from the site of the South Tower, where the fire still burned. Men moved about, loading trucks. A giant crane sat in the middle of everything, its operator taking instructions from another man some distance away. High up on the ruins of the North Tower a man used a torch to cut away at the steel frame. Most improbably, in the cab of the crane was a large philodendron. Someone must have felt a powerful urge to bring something green and living to this site. Everywhere there were flags, on the crane, on the buildings shrouded in mesh to keep debris from sifting off.

We were allowed to stay as long as we wanted. I soaked up the scene, imprinted it on my memory; no photography allowed. There were other visitors. Some policemen from Canada, then an official delegation of some sort. They wanted us to move aside, but I ignored them. Rebecca found out it was the delegation from Croatia. We stayed for about an hour. I scratched a farewell message amid the countless others on the railing surrounding the platform, left there by others like me. Our new friends from San Francisco said they would be leaving.

“Will you be all right?” she asked.

I told her, “Yes.” We all exchanged hugs, and I thanked her and her husband for their help. I never would have been able to visit the site if they had not agreed to reach out to a stranger. We left some time later, continuing to walk up the west side, and eventually found our way back to the hotel.

On Sunday we chose a place on the street and watched the Veterans Day parade. Because my brother had been in the army reserves, I felt close to the marching veterans. It was a tenuous link, but such ties were all I had now. We walked around Manhattan sightseeing, because walking felt good. Moving. Working off the stress. Late that evening, back at our hotel, the phone rang. It was Inez.

“They found Jerry,” she said. For an instant, I thought she might mean in a hospital somewhere, hurt but somehow alive, but before I could say anything, she said, “They recovered his remains.”

The police had just been by her house to tell her. They also said that there were some personal effects. She told them that we were in New York right now and granted permission for the personal effects to be turned over to us. She gave me the name of the detective and his phone number.

I was shaking so hard I could barely dial. The detective said he would make sure that he could get the things, then he would call me back. I waited, unable to think coherently. The phone rang again.

“I have the packet with me,” he said. “Would you like me to bring it over right now?”

“Yes, if you can.” It was about ten o’clock, but I couldn’t bear to wait.

“Do you want to meet me in the lobby or should I come up to your room?”

I thought a moment. I didn’t want an emotional scene in a public space. “The room, please.”

About half an hour later, he appeared at my door and handed me the packet.

“Don’t open the plastic envelopes inside the brown paper one,” he admonished. The plastic envelopes were labeled Biohazard. “Give this to the funeral director to be decontaminated. We don’t know what might be on these items. I’m sorry for your loss.” I thanked him for coming out on a Sunday night, and he left.

I phoned Inez to let her know I had the envelope. She asked if the ring she had given my brother for his fortieth birthday was one of the items. She had been thinking of the ring early that morning and thinking that it was the one thing that she would like to have of his. I had Rebecca check and, yes, the ring was in the plastic envelope. Then Inez asked if there was a silver dollar. She had phoned her son to let him know. Mom, he wanted to know, did they find the silver dollar Dad always carried? Rebecca looked carefully and, yes, the silver dollar was in the bag. There were also a pair of nail clippers—my brother was meticulous about his nails—and a couple of coins fused together. The night before we had stood at the scene of such immense destruction; how could this be everything? A ring, a silver dollar, nail clippers, a few melted coins—that was all that remained of my brother now.

Questions. They rolled through my mind, making sleep impossible. A month earlier we thought we knew as much as we ever would about my brother’s fate. The plane went in at the 94th floor and that was it. Now all our assumptions had to be reexamined. His remains had been recovered in the vicinity of the stairway to the North Tower, somewhere in the twenties. How had he gotten there? Had he been on his way out? Would he have made it if the tower had stood a few minutes longer? Was he helping someone and that slowed him down? It would be like him to stop and help. Or was he injured and that slowed him down? No answers. No one to ask. No way to find out what happened.

Morning came. We checked out of the hotel, and I waited for the limo to the airport. The concierge came over to tell me that a plane had crashed taking off from JFK. All planes were grounded and the airports closed. Everyone was thinking the same thing: another terrorist attack. I lost it. I couldn’t stay there, couldn’t go home. Even when the airports reopened, how would I get through airport security carrying an envelope labeled Biohazard? Rebecca got permission for us to return to our room, where she made a couple of calls. Then she decided. I would return with her on the bus to Cleveland; we would pick up her car and drive on to St. Paul. I started to dither with mindless questions. “Just give me your credit card and follow me,” she said. Gratefully, I did as I was told.

Inez set a date for a graveside service for the day after Thanksgiving, when all of us could be together. She decided she wanted my brother buried in Omaha, where we all grew up, and in the cemetery where her mother is buried. Then there were the arrangements with the New York authorities. She had to sign off on forms to have him cremated, to have the remains shipped to Omaha, and she had to decide if she wanted to be informed if any more remains were found. All of these questions she discussed with me and with her son. We chose not to be informed. We had gone through this twice; we wanted no more.

We drove to Omaha on Thanksgiving and met the family at the hotel. After dinner, I asked if they wanted to see the personal effects recovered from Ground Zero. Inez said yes, but Bob didn’t want to. For privacy, we went into the bathroom. I pulled out the plastic bag, and the acrid smell from Ground Zero wafted through the air. Soberly looking through the plastic, she examined the items. They were scarred but recognizable. She said she had talked to the staff at the mortuary, and if I would call them in the morning, someone would come and get them and take them for decontamination.

Friday was cool and drizzly. I made the phone call, and a soft-spoken woman from the mortuary came to the hotel lobby. I turned the envelope I had guarded so carefully over to her. My responsibility was over, and I felt some pangs of loss. At the cemetery, Inez huddled with us and said that there were reporters coming, but she did not want to give any interviews. We agreed. The burial ceremony was brief but moving. An army detachment from Fort Reilly had come. They presented Inez with a flag, played “Taps,” and fired a salute.

Over the next several months we tried to get more information about the last minutes of the World Trade Center. I searched the Internet. I bought and read Report from Ground Zero. We learned little that was new. I took out a subscription to the New York Times and read the “Portraits of Grief.” These families that I met through the brief biographies were becoming part of my family, but as the nation’s focus turned toward a fitting way to observe the passing of a year since the attack, I heard only New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania being mentioned. People seemed not to be aware that every part of this country had been touched by the attack. Every person lost on that day had friends and family in many parts of the United States and in several foreign countries. At the same time, people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania seemed unaware that people in countless other communities shared their loss because it was our personal loss as well.

Cleanup at Ground Zero went faster then anyone thought possible. As the final day neared, Rebecca announced that she was going to the closing ceremony. She took the bus and arrived the morning of the ceremony. Family members were allowed to line the ramp leading out of Ground Zero. She was part of the crowd that followed the last truck through the streets of Manhattan. Then that evening she caught the bus back home. Each family member had been given a lei, contributed by the people of Hawaii; she brought it home to me. She also brought a walking stick. “Here,” she said, “they thought we would need one of these on our walk.”

Over the Fourth of July a van sponsored by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey made a stop at the St. Paul Capitol as part of the Taste of Minnesota festival. We went and viewed the display of salvaged building pieces, office furniture, and rescue gear. At the end, as we were picking up some literature, the retired Port Authority man who was answering questions started talking to us. I told him I had lost my brother. The tenor of the conversation changed immediately. It was like talking to a family member instead of to a stranger. He knew what we had gone through; I knew how he felt, losing friends. We spoke the same language.

We—Mitch, Rebecca, Inez, Bob, and I—decided to attend the ceremony at Ground Zero on September 11, 2002. Marsh and McLennan made hotel reservations for us and invited family members to a lunch and presentation on the memorial they planned to build. They gave us nametags and a tag with the family name to put on the table so we could find other families. For the first time I could talk to the people who met with my brother on Monday, September 10. They could tell us about the office routine, about the project he was working on. One man who had worked with him on Monday and was supposed to spend the day with him on Tuesday explained that he had been delayed that day. His sister-in-law had car trouble, and he went to help her. That saved his life. He didn’t know why he was spared, but we felt it was to tell us about working on the project with my brother. He was conducting an audit, a task that challenged him to fit all the pieces together, and he probed until he got the information needed for a full report. The man said they chatted and laughed a little, but that my brother was serious about his work and asked tough questions.

Mitch, Rebecca, and I then took the subway to Lower Manhattan. We knew of the family viewing room at 1 Liberty Plaza. We applied at the desk in the building lobby and were given passes to the family room on the 19th floor. There, for the first time, Mitch could see Ground Zero. We simply stood and looked out the window at the scene. It was so changed from when I last saw it. All the wreckage was gone. Instead of seeing it in the gloom of a November evening, I was seeing it on a sun-bright afternoon. Gone were the crane and trucks. The skeleton of the Winter Garden had been replaced with brand new construction. The only building still shrouded in mesh was the Deutsch Bank building. The sidewalks were clear; you could walk the perimeter of the site with ease. We turned and looked at the room around us. All the walls were covered in messages from family members, expressions of loss or simply memories. Many had pictures of the lost loved one. We added our message to those on the wall.

After leaving, we walked around Ground Zero, unable to see much because of the fence. I wanted to visit the Winter Garden. I remembered that the palm trees had survived the attack, damaged but alive in the shattered frame. But the staff knew that the trees could not last through a New York winter. Filled with regret, they had cut the trees down, but the architects and staff had vowed to have the Winter Garden rebuilt and new trees in place by the first anniversary. Remarkably, the deadline was met. Only some finishing touches remained. Unfortunately for us, the grand reopening was a few days hence. We could only walk around the perimeter and peer in doorways. 
Finally a guard shooed us away.

The next day we met in the lobby of our hotel and started out. We bought bagels, coffee, and juice from a street vendor and ate on the subway. We wanted to get there early. At the entry point for those attending the day’s events a crowd was forming. There was an easy camaraderie. Who did you lose? was always the opening question. Where was he or she? North Tower? South Tower? What floor? Did you get a phone call? We introduced other family members with us. Then the hardest question. Were the remains recovered? We all had the same concerns, the same experiences, spoke the same language. We could talk about what had happened a year ago and how we had lived through it.

Then the gates opened and we began to move through. Inez had a letter from the mayor inviting us to the ceremony. She showed the letter, and we were admitted. Volunteers stood behind several tables, passing out bottles of water and packets of tissues. We walked along the north side of Ground Zero and turned south on West Street. We chose to stand in front of the speakers’ platform so we could see and hear. That was a good decision, as we soon learned. The wind began to come up. It whipped the words away from the speakers, blew the sheets of music off the stands. I remember no introductions being made. Some speakers I recognized; others I learned about only later from news reports. Mostly, I remember the bell being struck at the times the planes hit and the times the towers came down. I remember the names being read, sometimes through tears. You knew then that the person reading was a family member. We listened for my brother’s name. The young woman who read it had a clear, strong voice. She pronounced it correctly, and we could hear it clearly. A woman next to me passed me a tissue. I hadn’t realized I was crying.

When the last name had been read, we moved toward the entrance to the ramp that would take us down to Ground Zero. Along the way, there were baskets of roses. We each selected one and moved slowly down the ramp into a sea of people. Each family huddled in a spot of their choosing and created a small private memorial. We gathered rocks from the surface to mark a name or fasten a letter or poem or hold a bottle of water in which a rose stood upright. Many were crying. One man bent over and talked to his sweetheart about how much he missed her and would never forget her. Around us was a circle of aides, ready if anyone needed help. One mother fainted, and an aide rushed to her. We had brought no camera, but a stranger offered to photograph our little memorial and send us a copy of the picture. We said prayers over the spot. The wind continued to blow.

Our task completed, we returned up the ramp and, like many around us, went to the nearest hotel to clean off some of the dust. The hotel staff never expected so many to come in that day, but without complaint they let us in to use the facilities. We then walked around to the west side of the Winter Garden and found a quiet place to have lunch. At the end of the meal, the waitstaff brought out a plate of fresh, cut-up fruit. We realized that our ribbons and demeanor must have revealed where we had been, and this was the staff’s way of expressing their sympathy. It was a small gesture, but one I will remember for its kindness.

We had decided that we would return for President Bush’s visit that afternoon. The arrangements were the same as for the morning. Assemble at the gate, show your letter, and be admitted, but this time there was a security check. We followed the same route as in the morning and retraced our steps down the ramp. We could see immediately that all the private memorials had been cleaned up. The flowers and letters now were placed on a circular wooden form. We gathered in a circle around this sturdier memorial arrangement. After what seemed like a long wait, the president arrived with his entourage. They walked down the ramp, and the president placed a wreath at the entrance to the memorial circle. He did not speak, but he and the others began walking around the path between us and the flower circle. He paused and spoke to a few people. With him were Mrs. Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Andrew Card, Governor Pataki, and Rudy Giuliani.

Near us stood a woman, her brother, and his eight-year-old son. She urged her brother to take the little boy forward and get a picture with the president. “That little boy lost his mother,” she said; “he needs to have a picture that shows him that people don’t forget what he lost that day.” The father, obeying his sister’s insistent instructions, took the boy to the edge of the circle and nudged him forward. The little boy, not really knowing what was happening, reached out to the president, who gave him a hug. The father spoke. When they came back to us, the sister asked, “Did you get the picture?” “Yes,” her brother replied. Then she started weeping.

The president and the others moved on. As they did, we reached out and shook hands with Bush, Powell, Rice, and Giuliani. Family members at the beginning of the circle began to trickle out. We joined them and once again moved up the ramp. I turned to fix the image in my mind. There were the barren walls of the site, what I now knew was called the bathtub. High on the west wall was a large opening, almost like the entrance to a tunnel. The ground was bare except for the small crowd of people and the memorial circle of flowers. The aides still remained at attention. The wind had not let up even at this late hour. It was as though the unquiet spirits of that place could not be stilled. The Deutsch Bank building stood still shrouded in mesh, the American flag on its north wall torn from its mooring by the wind.


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