My World Trade Center Story
by Gayle Kirschenbaum
It has been nine days since the day our lives changed forever, the day terrorists attacked America. I live in the West Village in New York City, right on the river just about 30 blocks north of the World Trade Center.
I was preparing for an 11:00 a.m. pitch meeting with an executive at Lifetime television. I rolled right out of bed to my desk to finish writing a treatment for a TV reality series. I went to sleep exhausted the night before and felt I would be more refreshed in the morning with new ideas. Sure enough, I had a brainstorm, and now was typing away non-stop. While lost in my thoughts, the phone rang and startled me. I looked up. It was ten to nine and it was my mother calling from Boca Raton, Florida.
"Gayle, a plane just flew into the World Trade Center. Go down to the river." I immediately turned on the television and saw flames coming out of the Tower. How could a plane accidentally fly into the World Trade Center? It didn't make sense. I informed my mother I had to get dressed and would head out to the river with Chelsea, my 12 pound Shih Tzu, who hadn't gone for her morning walk yet. I hung up the phone and just as I was turning away from the television to go get dressed I saw a second plane hit the World Trade Center. There was now no question: it was a terrorist attack. Over the last few years I have become more acquainted with terrorism. I have an old friend, Steven Emerson; someone I grew up with; who is an expert on Middle Eastern terrorism. We reconnected some years ago during the Persian Gulf War when I saw him reporting on National Security for CNN. He&'s back on TV again now, reporting on the threats of biological and chemical warfare. Inspired by Emerson's life I had an idea for a TV series, but every time I began to write it I stopped myself. How could I come up with stories which reveal the mind and evil doings of terrorists? What about all the copy cats out there? Wouldn't airing such a show be irresponsible? More years passed and I met a producer who encouraged me to write it, and I did. I picked my friend's brain and did additional research and wrote "OST22" (Operation Stop Terrorism). Never did I imagine we'd live through a horrific episode staged by real people, not actors. And never did I imagine it would be happening in my own city.
It was now a few minutes after nine and I headed down to the river with Chelsea. Ambulances, fire trucks, rescue vehicles were racing downtown on the Westside Highway. Alongside of it is a bike and pedestrian path. Men and women in business attire were rushing north. Several were talking on their cell phones, some were talking amongst themselves and others were silent, looking stunned. None were looking back.
I wondered where they were when the planes hit, what they had seen and how they were doing. I kept walking south towards the burning Twin Towers. I remembered when they were built and how proud we all felt. The tallest buildings in the world, at that time, were right here in New York. They were a landmark, an icon, a symbol of America, a symbol of our might. If you were lost all you had to do was look up and spot the Towers and you'd get your bearings. Now they were dying a painful death. All I could think about was their inevitable collapse and the additional lives about to be lost, the lives of all those rescue workers who just passed me on the Westside Highway, who were probably in the Towers helping others. I expressed my concern to the man standing next to me. "There are sprinklers in the building. They won't collapse," he tried to reassure me, but I was not convinced. Then another man said his father helped build the Towers and there is no way they would collapse. I recognized a couple standing behind me, my neighbors. She was listening to the radio with headsets. Suddenly she exclaimed, "A plane went into the Pentagon!" It couldn't be! They were attacking various targets now. Authorities announced that all the airports and entrances in and out of America were closed, but we were still not protected. They couldn't close the roof over America. After all, America is not the movie set of "The Truman Show," but lower Manhattan now looked like the movie set of "Die Hard III." I started hearing that people were jumping out of the buildings. From where I stood it was impossible to see such detail without binoculars or a zoom lens. Perhaps I was saved from seeing such a horrific site. Only later in the newspaper did I see it with my own eyes. Those poor people.
I decided to take Chelsea home and get my bike, walkman and camera. I gave Chelsea a kiss and hugged her tightly. I was concerned for a moment. What if my building was hit and I couldn't get to her? I couldn't imagine not being able to rescue her. When I returned to the river it was nearly 10:00 a.m. I looked at the Twin Towers burning, and the influx of Wall Street folks continued. I went with my camera over to a few young men dressed in suits with their ties and collars opened, holding their jackets. It was a hot, sunny day. They decided to rest and have a cold drink. I asked if they had seen anyone jumping out of the windows. One of them had, but he told me he couldn't talk about it.
I asked others, "Are people still trapped inside?" They looked at me and shook their heads not knowing and continued on.
There was a loud sound coming from the sky right above us. A familiar sound which under normal circumstances wouldn't have been alarming. We all looked up: it was a jet, and fear ran through all of us. Were we going to be hit again? Relief soon came when someone called out that it was the Air Force, an F-16. Our American boys were here to help us.
"The top is coming down!" someone screamed. The top of one of the Towers crumbled to dust. It was Tower 2, the second one hit. It happened so quickly and seemed so unreal. "All those rescue workers are gone along with anyone else who didn't get out," I thought to myself. So many innocent people just died; hundreds, thousands? I just couldn't imagine what the number of fatalities would turn out to be. I felt more and more inclined to get there as soon as possible, to do whatever I could.
I continued walking. I was now by Houston Street where there is a large parking garage. There are several vending machines at the entrance and people were putting in their dollars in hope of getting a cold beverage. It was already sold out. I wish I had bottles of water to hand out.
I continued. But now the people were no longer walking but running. I questioned why. "Don't walk that way! Turn around. There is a gas leak. They're afraid there will be an explosion," a man said to me. I hesitated for a moment but then continued towards Ground Zero. By now both Towers had collapsed. The skyline of New York had changed forever. I went as far as I could. The police had put up a barricade.
Three fireman passed me. They were dragging their feet, like defeated soldiers wearing their heavy jackets and hats. One was not wearing pants, only his underwear. I was desperate to help. "Can I get you something? I've got my bike." One of them shook his head and responded. He could barely speak, "We just lost a lot of our men." They continued on. I went over to the police and asked if they knew where I could volunteer. They didn't.
Now the face of the people changed, and it was students from Stuyvesant. They had just been evacuated. After they passed I saw moms rushing down on their bikes, not knowing their children were no longer there. "Where are they?!" the panicked parents asked. The police didn't know. They only knew the kids had walked north. So many questions and no answers.
I heard that Chelsea Piers was being set up as a triage area and decided to head that way. Chelsea Piers is a pier and sporting complex around 20-24th Street. All who remained on the path now were those who came out to see, but there was one man who obviously was a Wall Streeter wearing a navy blue suit walking slowly with a slight limp. There was debris on his feet and he looked like he was a thousand miles away. In an odd way, I hesitated going over to him. I didn't want to intrude.
"He must be thirsty," I thought. "Do you need water or food, a phone, a place to stay?" He said he was fine and that he just had to get home to New Jersey. "We were the last people to get out." He worked for Met Life Insurance and they were on the 89th floor; right under the crash of the first plane. The ceilings began collapsing and he was wrangling up the people and walking down the stairs. I knew the NY Waterway was running ferries to New Jersey and told him he just had to keep walking north. I gave him my business card and told him that he could call me if he needed anything or a place to stay. A few days later my mother asked if I knew anyone from Met Life. I told her about the man I had helped, and she said her friend had called because she heard him mention my name on the news. I'd like to find him.
I headed to Chelsea Piers. There were ambulances lined up outside, one behind the other like a taxi stand. Doctors and nurses wearing green scrubs were walking towards the pier. I recognized one of the doctors; we went to high school together. I asked one of the officers if he knew where I could volunteer and was told to go over to where a guy holding a pad was speaking. There were about 40 people listening to his speech. He was training volunteers to be PADs; Patient Administrators. (Can't remember what the "D" stands for.) I felt like it was war. The space was already being converted into a hospital. There were stretchers next to one another with IVs set to go, lined with doctors and nurses. "You must get their name, date of birth, social security number, medical history, allergies, what's wrong with them, what was done to them already. Write it all down. Twice. Leave one on them; tuck it into their clothing so it doesn't fall off and the doctor can read it. I must have the other one. If they don't want to talk, tell them it's for their family. Family; is the key word here. Tell them you are going to contact their family."
Pads of paper were being given out along with masks and rubber gloves. "How often do we change our gloves?" someone asked. "It depends on how much blood you can handle" he responded. I took a deep breath. There has been more than one time when I fainted after pricking my finger. I wondered if I would overcome this fear.
"You can go to the Black and Red. Black is dead and Red is expected to die. If you think you can handle that then go over there. But if you can't, don't worry about it. Look in their pockets, find their wallets and get their information. Always wear your gloves. They could be diabetic or have some rare disease. You must protect yourself."
I thought for a moment that I might be better off working with the bodies. My family had a funeral home, so seeing dead people wasn't a big deal for me. Then I realized these bodies would probably not look like the bodies I had seen at the funeral home, the ones already embalmed.
All the volunteers (we marked ourselves with masking tape on our shirts PAD; VOLLY) queued up holding our pads and pens ready for the barrage of injured. I asked one EMT if he knew when they would start arriving. He said they just dispatched an ambulance but didn't know when they'd return. We were ready to deal with whatever we saw, do whatever it took to help our brothers and sisters. They were our heroes, our survivors. We waited and waited; three hours passed and still no one arrived. It was now 8:00 p.m. and we were told we could go home and get some rest and return in five or six hours.
I made it home in less than ten minutes. Chelsea was as eager to see me as I was to see her. Ground Zero was smoking and there was constant news of rescue workers getting injured and other buildings about to collapse.
I decided to head over to St. Vincent's Hospital which is just a few blocks away. If they weren't bringing survivors to Chelsea Piers, maybe they were bringing them to the hospital. There were police barricades around the hospital with news crews everywhere. Several stretchers with doctors stood lined up outside ready to meet the ambulances. I stood among others behind the barricades across the street and watched. Chelsea was in my arms and offered comfort to those around us. To think that just three days before we were in the paper for the film we are making. It seemed so irrelevant now.
An hour later one ambulance arrived with an injured fireman who was put into a wheelchair. No one else came.
We were all in shock, sharing our stories and thoughts. Some people were in NY for business, coming from other parts of the country and world. There were medical and fashion conferences going on. One person from Portland, Oregon told me his mother wanted him to get out of NY immediately.
The next bit of activity came when Governor Pataki walked out of the hospital with his entourage. He walked directly over to us and started shaking our hands. The crowd applauded and called out, "Thank you, Governor, thank you for being here!" He shook my hand and petted Chelsea with his other hand.
I stood there until 11:00 p.m. It was hard to leave. Was it just my inquiring mind which wouldn't let me go, or my desire to help and frustration that I wasn't able to help?
There were several messages from friends and relatives on my voicemail from all over the world. I got my mother on the phone and she was frantic. She couldn't get through, the circuits were busy and now she was blaming herself for sending me to the river in the morning. She said, "Knowing you, I thought you were at Ground Zero and dead because I didn't hear anything." I had my cell phone on me but had no service. Sprint. I will have to change my carrier. I watched so many others on their phones with no problem. Mom was right: I would have been at Ground Zero if I could have gotten through.
I decided to rest and head back to Chelsea Piers in the morning. It was Wednesday, September 12th. After making several calls to inform my loved ones that I was okay, I headed to the Piers. There were now hundreds of people, all there to help. Volunteers were being turned away. I got in because I wore my shirt from the day before which had my "Volly" marking on it. And I carried my gloves and mask just in case. Once in, there were new faces, new volunteers, people I didn't see the day before. I bumped into someone I recognized and learned she stayed until 1:00 a.m. but there were just a couple of injured rescue workers who came through.
There was no longer a need for PADs. There were no patients to care for. I helped with organizing the clothing donations. There was so much clothing coming through, some were small bags from individuals giving all they could, and then cartons after cartons filled with brand new shirts, pants, socks, jackets. It was another hot, sunny day. Someone was calling out "You need to drink water." And bottled water was being passed out. There was donated food everywhere.
I found myself back inside. It was a relief to get out of the heat. Before I knew it, I had a pad in my hand. This time I was taking the names of the volunteers for "Search and Rescue." There were hundreds of people who came from all over. I indicated what languages they spoke and what skills they had. There were some who came with equipment, heavy equipment like cranes and wanted to know where they could park it. Some had done rescue in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Columbia. "My town was buried," one young man said. The line was so huge and they all stood patiently waiting for me to put them on this list and eager for me to tack a piece of masking tape on them with a number.
I was told to set up six hour shifts. I had people who were willing to come back at 5:00 a.m. Others said they were from out of town and had nowhere to go, so they would just stay there and would be available for any shift. Many were from various unions: carpentry, electrical, construction. They came with friends, co-workers, and alone. There were women, like myself, with no particular skills or strength, who were signing up. I was handling the Non-experienced Search and Rescue — which most people fell into; even though most of the men had several skills such as caving, construction, and demolition. The experienced Search and Rescue were only those who were certified. There were EMTs and nurses and counselors who were putting their names on as many lists as possible in order to help as soon as possible.
I couldn't stop. I sat for hours gathering the data, making announcements as they were passed on to me, trying to organize as best I could with the little information I had. Man was at his best, and I was so proud to be there and witness the comradeship.
A couple was brought over to me. Their three pound Chihuahua was stranded in the apartment which is directly across from the World Trade Center. "He is in a cage. He has no water or food. The Red Cross turned us away and so did the police. They said he was just a dog and they were trying to save humans." They were hoping I could pass their keys over to the next search and rescue team which went out. But the group I was organizing wasn't going anywhere, at least not soon. The army had been called in and the need for inexperienced search and rescue people was diminishing. I found someone to relieve me and went looking for help. I recognized a volunteer and explained the problem. He thought for a second and said he would take care of it; he would hitch a ride. The young woman passed him her keys, her business card and her lease so he could get into her building. It was around noon.
I returned to my task. By nine o'clock he hadn't returned and the couple were concerned. The husband began to think he was robbed. I began to worry that something happened to the volunteer. I had to leave to care for Chelsea. I gave them my number and told them to call me with an update. The following day they left a message saying he returned at midnight with their dog. They were so grateful and wanted to introduce me to him. I hope to meet the little one soon.
A FEMA representative spoke and informed us they were closing Chelsea Piers as a triage and asked all volunteers except for counselors to leave. They were setting up shop at Jacob Javitz Center the next day, but they made it clear there were too many volunteers. I was concerned about those who I sent home and told to return at 5 in the morning; I was informed they would be redirected.
News came that 7 World Trade Center had collapsed. More smoke. It seemed to never end. Now it was blowing north and for the first time it was pretty bad where I live.
By Thursday the winds were still blowing north. I headed out on my bike. I was only able to get down to Houston Street, so I went to Union Square and saw the memorial and observed the fliers of loved ones posted everywhere. Ray's Pizza on 6th Avenue had a wall devoted to their postings. I went by the Armory where people stood in line to fill out a missing persons report. It was hard to get back into work, to concentrate on anything else.
The city was divided. Anything below 14th Street was cut off from non-residents. The streets were empty except for emergency vehicles. Sirens continued on and off. People walked the streets with sullen looks. No one smiled. Some people were still posting signs of their lost ones, others were reading them.
Friday arrived. I was invited to the country for the weekend. My first instinct was to stay and see if I could help. I knew that volunteers were being turned away, so I decided to go. I had to meet my friend in midtown. This was the first time I went out of my area. I was shocked. Life seemed untouched. I then realized I was living in the war zone. I spent the weekend in paradise. In the mountains, in a house on top of a hill surrounded by a sprawling lawn, meadows and woods with a view other mountains. It seemed surreal to me. I tried to get some work done but couldn't concentrate. There was no TV so we bought a newspaper. It was the first time I had read the paper in full since the disaster. I had time now to think and to feel the great loss we have suffered. I cried. It was the first time. I cried for all the brave souls who have perished, for their loved ones who are suffering and for our democracy and society which has been so violently attacked. And then I cried with joy seeing the strength of our fellow man and the bond between us whether rich, poor, black, or white.
Even now, people still stand by the river with signs of thanks cheering the workers who shuttle back and forth to Ground Zero. Altars are still everywhere: outside the Fire Stations, by the river. One which deeply touched me was filled with dozens of fresh flowers, roses, a wreath, candles and color photographs of a beautiful young couple. It was hard not to cry.
The faces of the missing on the fliers are beginning to fade and become just patches of color from the rains we've had. But they will never be forgotten.
A new way of life has begun. Life filled with caution, fear and unity. I thank all of you for your concern, and feel forever grateful to have been so close and been able to help out even a bit.