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'I Was at Ground Zero - First Person Report'

Ten years ago today, I was desperately yanking hunks of concrete from the remnants of the World Trade Center. But no one was left to save.
By Hana Levi Julian, LCSW-R
First Publish: 9/11/2011, 3:04 PM

Yellow hard hat from Ground Zero
Yellow hard hat from Ground Zero
HLJ

"Can you handle it if I send you the link to the new video clip of Ground Zero?"

My colleague wasn't being kind last Thursday night. He simply knows the truth. Ten years ago today, I was one of the people working "the pile" -- desperately yanking hunks on concrete off the smoking ruins on September 11, 2001, praying there would be someone under there left to save.

But there wasn't.

The video is a short clip shot by someone who was down there with us, but as I remarked to Tzvi, the video ensured that viewers can see what's going on even more than I could from my vantage point on that tragic day.

That wasn't the case on 9/11, or in the days that followed. Still, the clip showed enough of what was happening to bring it all back -- and sure enough, even a faint odor came drifting over me Thursday night as I watched.

I am not a Holocaust survivor. But I am a psychotherapist who has treated many who emerged from the fires of that hell.

On that day, I was driving to the clinic where I was one of a dozen therapists, in fact, when I first heard a radio announcer say in a stunned voice that a plane had flown"right into one of the Twin Towers!"

I knew immediately what was happening. Anyone who has ever lived in Israel could not have missed it, of course, and I had lived here five years, much of that time in Kiryat Arba. Commuting on the old Route 60, past "Palestinian refugee camps" and their daily diet of rock-throwing and tire burning, one learned to understand the underpinnings of hate.

After Al Qaeda's first attack on the World Trade Center in the early 1990s, I knew they would be back to finish the job. It was just too juicy a target, and too few Americans understood how to protect their interests -- or even that they needed to.

When I reached the clinic, I found everyone glued to a small portable television that someone had brought in. The awful truth began to unfold, and so did my path for the next several weeks. None of my patients showed up that day -- in fact, the clinic closed early for security reasons -- and I headed for the office of an old friend from the volunteer firefighters' squad, with the vision of Lena (name changed), an elderly Holocaust survivor I was working with, in my mind.  

Today I too have experienced a small portion of what she went through, the unmistakeable stink of roasted human flesh that rose from the crematoria. It rose from the pit of what was once the Twin Towers along with thick, greasy charcoal smoke that day, and the day after and for days after that.

To reach Ground Zero wasn't simple. The streets were dead. The bridges were closed. My car had a red emergency light on it and I had a special ID, so I was able to move through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but most other people could not. 

Tons of white and grey confetti --shreds of documents -- were flying through the skies. Some landed in our own Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park, in fact, where parents were frantically arriving at schools to bring their children home, to safety, they were hoping. The kids were playing with the scraps of paper flying down from the skies, not yet understanding the reason for the game.

A friend and communications expert, David Blitman, provided photographs of a young woman who worked on the 105th floor, whose parents were desperate to find her. Yes, she had gone to work that day. No, they had not "yet" heard from her. The planes had struck at least four hours earlier. Perhaps someone has seen her wandering around?

We had to park many blocks away, and then find our way in through the maze. The streets were not streets any more. Piles of grey ash and other debris had transformed the city into a B-grade Japanese horror movie. As we came closer to Ground Zero, the remnants of what had once been the World Trade Center looked like the worst monster's root canal I had ever seen.

One of the walls was already plastered with posters bearing photos of the missing, like ours. Heartbreaking. But it was the overwhelming smell that permeated everything, that for me will always symbolize the terrorist attack on 9/11.

That, and the image of a group of dead firefighters later discovered trapped underneath a staircase.

Upon arrival, we were handed yellow hard hats and face masks. "Make sure you wear it," we were warned. I didn't have to be told why. In my early 20s I had been a firefighter in Baltimore County, the other reason I had made it my business to race from Brooklyn across the bridge to Manhattan, this time ostensibly as a "fire chaplain." 

No matter. I was there to help, and frankly no one knew or cared what I was. I was an extra pair of hands and there were precious few available to do what needed to be done in that mammoth task.

We thought then that we still could save a few, if only we could get to them in time, dropping strings in through cracks with lights, trying numbers with cell phones, tapping areas with hammers. We were wrong.

In between heaving concrete, it was my job to make sure that guys kept their masks on -- or put them on in the first place. And to get them off the pile if I thought they had passed the point of endurance. Some of the firefighters had been at it for far too long. Some had medical problems: high blood pressure, diabetes, thyroid problems, you name it. Some were dehydrating. Others had scratched corneas. A few were suffering from smoke inhalation. Many were just plain exhausted.

Not one was willing to give up or get down. That's where being female and pretending to look a bit tired helped a great deal.

"Hey, can you come over for a sec?" I would call out to a guy who looked like he was going to collapse, or who was not wearing a mask, or who was hunched in a corner. I would stand off the pile, and far enough away so that he was forced to get down, and come over to me, closer to the stabilized building nearby. Usually, he would call back, asking first what was wrong. But I would smile and just ask again, until he gave up and came over. They were always unfailingly polite to a lady in a skirt and jacket, wearing sneakers. 

"Can I help you?" he'd say, walking over. "Yes," I'd reply. "Where's your mask?" This question was always met with a confused look. By then, my victim was too wiped out to know or care about a face mask. 

"Put it ON," I would chide sternly. "I don't have to tell you what we're breathing here."  Chastened, my guy would fumble for his mask and put the thing on, and then go back to the pile -- if that was all I was after. If I thought he was medically unable, I didn't bother with the mask. I simply told the guy I needed to talk to him "in private" and hauled him over to the makeshift triage clinic that had been set up in the shadow of 100 Liberty Plaza, sneakily handing him over to medical personnel. Usually he would be arguing with the nurse when I ran out.

That entire clinic and those of us on the pile -- like mice -- would periodically have to make a run for it when the alarm would be sounded if engineers thought any nearby building was ready to collapse -- and there were a number of them that did. Several were swaying while I was down there, although none collapsed while I was around. A number of them were later demolished because they were too badly damaged to save.

Many of the guys were swaying like that on the pile. I would see them when I arrived, and I would still see them when I left.

Meanwhile, counseling organizations were trying to figure out how to help those who were left behind. Firefighters and police officers refused to see anyone; going to a counselor meant an automatic ticket out of work, and that meant disability. No way. They didn't trust the "anonymous" deal. They knew better. There is no such thing as "anonymous" when it comes to government-funded counseling. Anyone involved in government knows better. I knew perfectly well they wouldn't touch it.

I did what I could with the first responders on the pile at the time, and with the few that I saw at headquarters in Brooklyn during meetings there. I was also asked to participate as a chaplain in a few interfaith services at headquarters for the families of those who were killed in the line of duty, having been a firefighter myself, and having been recommended by someone else. It was a little weird, but as the wife of a rabbi, a "rebbetzin," I went, figuring it was the least I could do, and discovered it afforded me at least an opportunity to provide a little trauma and grief counseling, where otherwise I might not have been able to do so.

When the federal government finally pulled itself together a couple of weeks later, and barred anyone local from entering Ground Zero, I was finally able to "stand down" and get counseling for my own trauma.

I had used the same outfit throughout my service at the site -- knowing I would never be able to wear those clothes for anything again -- but found that even after laundering them, I was also unable to throw them away, or give them away. I still have them; the dilemma remains.

My yellow hard hat has hung on the wall of every home I have ever lived in since that day, as a reminder to all of us of what is possible, and as the history of the past. My children were very young when Islamist terrorists tried to destroy American democracy.

I also had to ask a formal shaila (Jewish legal query) about what to do with my sneakers. They had tread on... well, they had been where no
one and nothing should ever have to be. It was a problem. It was decided that they should be given to the Chevra Kadisha -- the Jewish burial society, to be buried properly with someone at the first opportunity.

I don't have to ask what to do with my memories.