September 11, 2001: The day the earth stood still
At six foot four, Mark the football coach is an impressive tower of strength, but on that day, he collapsed to the floor, clutching my leg and screaming, wailing like a banshee. I held him in my arms, incoherent and inconsolable, and tears coursed down my cheek as the impact began to take hold. My phone began to ring incessantly but I let it go, not knowing what to say and unwilling to release my hold on Mark. Then he ran into the street howling and crumpled, as neighbors ran to his aid, shouting for help, calling 911, and the melee, from a distance, began.
Somehow, I reached a girlfriend, who lived and worked at what has become known as “ground zero.” Part of the first responders team, she couldn’t stay on the line, but quickly explained that the north tower had just collapsed as well, and that all communication was to be held by Nextel walkie-talkies from that point forward. “I saw it happen,” she said, “and without even knowing the details, a voice in my head told me: this can’t be fixed.
“It’s like being in a big-budget Hollywood disaster flick. Everywhere I look, people are vacant-eyed, walking away like zombies. There is smoke and ash everywhere; the city is crippled,” she said, before disengaging and preparing herself to help those afflicted by the tragedy—a struggle that would prove to last for years.
I called her again this morning. “As a first responder, I have studied this experience for 10 years,” she said, “and the system has not been fixed. There was nothing in place then to deal with a population that had been ‘vaporized’ and there still isn’t. Looking back, I just snapped. It happened in front of my face. If I was called upon to do it again, I couldn’t. I never signed on for this. I fulfilled my obligation to the best of my ability, but even that was not good enough. I’m still trying to get it out of my head, which is why I have left the city and relocated to the Catskills. But you can’t run from the horror; it’s always there.”