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More Stories from Ground Zero
Not New York
No one talks about the disaster in the disaster zone. There are no televisions or newspapers brought into the site and this creates a feeling of being in a separate land. Almost an alternate universe. At one point, Aimee looked down at her ruined pants and said that when she got to New York she was buying herself a new pair. It didn't occur to her that she was already in New York. When you look around, nothing is recognizable, yet so many things scream of the ordinary. There's the Starbucks, but wait. Now it's a storage facility. Good thing there was all that seating space that we could use to stack boxes. A floral shop becomes a makeshift bathroom. You start to look at the buildings in an entirely new way. It's survival vs. luxury.
I believe it was our second night out when we were given the opportunity to dig for bodies. Word spread like wildfire around the area that they were letting anyone dig. Earlier in the night, we had made the decision that that was not something that we wanted to participate in. Despite this, it was hard to avoid the harsh reality that the morgue was on the other side of the AmEx building. It wasn't often, but at least once a day you would see the men starting to take off their hats to let a fellow firefighter or league of rescueworkers pass with a cart full of victims.
I don't think that I will soon forget the moment in the dark, musty corridor that I had to step aside to let a firefighter pass who was carrying a half-filled bag in his arms. It hit home with Kevin when he saw a taped up sign pointing to the morgue on the outside of a building. Very chilling when you realize that just a week earlier that area had been filled with busy and happy people rushing to get their morning coffee.
A fellow volunteer, Jon, related this experience to us.
He was walking through a hallway with a firefighter, delivering supplies or performing some other task. There was a smell in the air, like an old, damp forest. It reminded him of when he and his family used to go camping, and it put a smile on his face. It was a good memory.
The firefighter turned to him and said, "The morgue must be nearby. I hate that smell."
It's incredible the difference in daily life that those two must have felt. "I hate that smell" was said in such a way that he probably smells it rather often.
I know the smell now. Since my time at Ground Zero I've walked by similar smells, and now it will always be associated with dead people. No one should be around death enough to be able to say "I hate that smell."
It happened too often for it to be ignored. We had an entire cafe full of socks and other clothing, all piled on top of one another. Some bags wet from the downpour of Thursday night, other bags torn open by rummaging rescue workers. But so many times throughout those days someone would come up to up and ask for an obscure item such as a black XXL sweatshirt and you would reach in and find it within moments. One particular example solidifies it for me. It was in the middle of the rain and chaos when a young black fireman walked up to me. He said that he really needed a small men's pair of briefs. It had to be briefs because of the way his gear fit and he would prefer them in a darker colour so that they could last longer.
I'd been working all night in the socks/underwear/clothing section and had only seen one package of men's small, which I'd given away about 30 minutes ago. I didn't have a lot of hope, but I told him I'd go look in the back anyway. I went into the jumble of socks, thinking I might find a lost pack of underwear there and reached my hand into a black garbage bag of loose socks. My hands touched something not-sock-like and out same a pair of men's small dark green briefs. They were the only pair in there. It may not seem like much if you weren't there, but to me that was an absolute miracle.
After so many days of exhaustion, you begin to alter your sense of humour. One of the funniest things we did that week was mess around with the hard hats. It seemed as though we could never have enough hard hats to go around. We started rationing them, but it was difficult to be at the table constantly watching who takes one. When we were at the table, we would question them about how much they really needed it. Were they going into the pit? If so, how far in? Would they be digging? Are they going underground? Outside or inside the buildings?
In a moment of quiet, I had written my name on a hard hat. I was going to use it later that night to appear a bit more official on the way to the chapel supply station. But a group of men walked by who needed them and so I gave mine up. I apologized to the man who had to take the one with my name on it, but then realized that the best way to make sure that only men who really needed the hats got them was to write women's names on all of them. This may seem like a mean thing to do and perhaps a bit insensitive, but it was extremely funny at the time. We grabbed a big black marker and wrote "Jane" on both sides of a white hard hat.
The next group of guys that walked up took a look at the hat and decided they didn't really need it but the next fireman who walked up said, "I don't care what it says, I just need a hard hat!" and he got the Jane hat. We may have felt slightly guilty, but it was such an excellent filter of real need vs. want and just so funny to see the men walking off with women's names on their hat that the guilt quickly faded.
I was working the drink stand when an FDNY golf cart (the main mode of transportation around there) pulled up in front and asked if I had any ice. Ice is a fairly valuable commodity around these parts, since they seem to think that one huge shipment every three days will do the same as one little shipment every day. Ice doesn't work like that.
I was rationing my ice for the Gatorade and Coke, and I probably had about six little bags left. "Well, I don't know," I told him, "we don't get ice very often. I can probably spare a couple of bags, though." We went through the bartering process--he wanted four, I only wanted to give up one or two--and he finally looked at the size of the bags and said that three should probably be enough.
"Yeah, that should be good enough for the body part."
"Here, take all six," I said.