Pittsboro, NC – I was invited to speak at the First Responders Memorial in Pittsboro this morning. Their board cancelled the event due to COVID concerns. I go every year and place something at the memorial. I will be attending anyway. This morning, my speech was a couple of index cards with bullet points to work from. I decided to expand that into what I probably would have gone through and present it here:
Many people who come to this Memorial were born in this century, or just before. To them, 9/11 was a lifetime ago and more of an abstract. For many others, it was yesterday and never goes away.
In light of this, you will forgive me for the moments when I break down a little and have trouble speaking.
I do not speak as a hero or a victim. I speak as a witness. I saw a lot, and from close range.
I was working on Long Island on that Tuesday. After the second plane struck, all work stopped. We watched the smoke in New York City from our roof. We got permission to run food into Ground Zero on Thursday – before that, the smoke was still too thick to travel the streets there.
There was a line of ambulances parked on Broadway, going North a long way uptown. They were all waiting for victims to be pulled out. It wasn’t until the following week that the ugly truth was realized: most of the people who worked below the impact line got out and almost all above that perished..
The smell of death was everywhere downtown, no matter which way the wind blew. I got used to it as a former mortician, it is unmistakable. Everybody was in shock, and the whole area moved in a surreal slow motion.
We gave out a lot of water that day. We had food, but very few were taking it. We learned quickly to give at least two bottles to everybody: one to drink and one to wash the grisly green-gray dust from the arms, hands and face. This was everywhere, too – a mixture of concrete, asbestos, computer plastic and dead bodies.
The collapsed towers, first responders called them “The Pile;” the remnants were ten stories high and were hot as hell- something that remained for months. They weren’t clearing anything yet, they were still in rescue mode and searching for people in the rubble. They were all given masks, but could not do the lifting for twelve hours at a clip with them on. Many have developed cancers and became more victims of the disaster.
I knew more than a few people who were very likely gone. I knew a few brokers at Cantor-Fitzgerald, near the top of one tower. The restaurant Windows on the World was on the top floor and tragically chose that Tuesday to hold an all-staff meeting.
New York is a big city, and Manhattan is it’s own character. In Manhattan, the world is run by well dressed, thin caffeine addicts. When you see a big guy there, they are part of the support mechanism- part of the trade world (plumbers, construction workers) or cops and firemen from the outer boroughs. The caffeine addicts run Manhattan. At Ground Zero, the world turned on it’s head: the big guys ran everything and the business people were left to stand behind the fences in frustration. They couldn’t leave, they weren’t working and would stare for hours in fascination at a world where they couldn’t do anything and paid homage to those who could.
When the long First Responder shifts were over and the shift change commenced, they would proceed to shelters still being built to feed them and give them a space to wind down. When this happened, it became a regular thing for the lined up business people to quietly applaud them, the men would keep walking with head down. One of them later told me, “That was touching, but I was just doing my job”.
We went back twice more and happily gave stuff away, but the lines of food trucks were getting like the line of ambulances. Everybody wanted to help and everybody wanted to give blood- the Red Cross had to stop accepting donations after a while.
The world sprouted flags, they were everywhere. “God bless America” was sung everywhere there was a group assembled. We were united as a nation in a way not seen since Pearl Harbor.
When the world was a younger place, I was a Freemason and Master of my Lodge. I worked with another Mason who was a WWII vet. He was in the habit of getting a rose for every year since Pearl and renting a helicopter to drop them on the Statue of Liberty every December 7. He is in his late 90s now, and other groups continue that tradition, including extra roses for the 9/11 victims. I am here to place twenty roses at the Memorial here in Pittsboro and will continue that as long as I live.
So where are we now? The events in Afghanistan bring this closer to mind, as does the twentieth anniversary. These things remind us that this is not a perfect world, and raise anew (as happened in 2001) that we have to be vigilant. As adults, we understand that parts of this world were shaved by a drunken barber and we can’t leave this world without doing something about it.
So, what can we do? I have my own answers for that, but in a more divided America than twenty years ago, we search for consensus.
Going forward, one of my solutions now is the same as it was then: kiss your children. Tell them what a wonderful world it is. Then work like hell to not be made a liar. I think that is a good place to begin.