September 15, 2001
Hello, I have just gotten back from the piles that once were, the twin towers.
Today I met people from all over the world, K9 search and rescue teams from Austria, south America, Canada, Finland, Washington State, Italy... everywhere.
It goes like this, first the tall 200,000 lb. cranes pull the biggest stuff forward, the little 75,000 lb. cranes separate it, then the welders cut the all the steel, then small cranes load the steel into trucks, then the bobcats scrape the area. Then we move in. And I mean move in. There must have been 3,000 + people making chains of buckets, and debris. You name them, they were there, DEA, FBI, SECRET SERVICE, FEDERAL MARSHALS, and some other guys that everyone answered to, who the hell were they? My guess would be military brigadier generals in plain clothes.
I alternated between two piles, when one was doing cranes, the other was digging. So I kept busy the whole day.
I found some secret service stuff and gave it to them, and became their retrieval guy for all their sensitive documents, weapons, and hardware in that pile. They were in a 40-story building, on the 9th and 10th floor, that collapsed, and is still burning.
The other pile was the one that counted, tower # 1. We dig until we expose a void, searched the void, and if we find anything, we call for search and rescue... I do not want to go into what we saw... but I can say that I have no good news to report.
The workforce was incredible, cops, fireman, ironworkers, laborers, sergeants, detectives, lieutenants, workers as far as California... did they drive here?
No one got tired on the pile, there is no "tired" or hungry or hot, only speed and power... we needed both to have a chance.
I believe that no one survived if they were in their offices, elevator, or stairwell at the time of the fall... I got to see the fire dept., that was directly across for the trade center... they lost their entire company, I hope you never see the looks on those other fireman's faces... as I did. The military presence was huge, and the f14's, 15's and 16's were a sight... and made us all scared every time we herd them.
I explored when I had no pile to go to... all over... mostly burnt out buildings, fell into a hole filled with water up to my waist, and cut my hand and leg in the process, I really took a lot chances today... 40, and 100 ft drops were around every corner. I beams weighing thousands of pounds, loomed over our heads as we worked.
I pray that there are people alive in the lower levels... in the food courts... but after seeing what 850,000 tons of steel falling 1/4 mile can do, praying is all we have left.
September 19, 2001
A lot of friends of mine are asking me if I am OK, so to answer all of you I would say
Yea, IM OK just real sad, hard not to show emotion, overwhelmed at least once a day. My days are riddled with unimaginable ups and downs.
Today I made it into the lower levels, where the food courts and shops were, I expected to see a real chance of survivors... what I saw was the biggest reason why I was on the pile, disintegrate before my eyes... I cannot tell the guys on the upper level what is down there... and I find it hard to talk about.
In the subways there are places dedicated to the people missing, pictures, flowers, and candles. And half of NY looking at them, there is one at times square, I was there two days ago to move a train into a shuttle area, and let me tell you... when someone who is looking through the pictures finds someone they know, or love, five hundred people come to that person, just to touch them, hug them, hold them, cry with them, and everyone who walks by, is also deeply affected, as I am.
At dinnertime tonight I had 2, 5 or 6 yr. olds come to my door and ask me if I would buy anything from their Christmas catalog to benefit the people that were killed. Killed? I said, yes they both said, and then they took turns telling me about the terrorists, and where they live, and the Taliban, they knew everything about them, and further still, the countries where they are located.
I looked at the one girl and could see she has had a lot of surgery on her neck, and her size and shape told me that she has been through a lot herself, born with multiple defects.
I looked into these eyes and saw the reason why my wife is pissed at me, and why my kids shout daddy, and run to me, it's because I have not been around, I have been on the piles more than I have been at work, or home, I even took off from work to stay there, but I ran out of days off. I went into my house and brought out pictures of ground zero I received a few days ago.
They were in amazement, maybe I shouldn't have done it, but they knew so much.
Knowing my wife would by a ton of crap from this kids, I told them to come back when they see a big white van in the driveway, they said it's OK, they can wait.
So we sat there and looked through the pictures together, and the one girl asked me if that was I in the photograph. Yes, I replied, you were there? She asked Yes, I said, she paused and said you are one of that hero's aren't you? No, I said... yes you are she said, no I repeated... and she hugged my leg, demanding that I was. After a few moments of tears, she raised her head and told me her aunt is still missing, and she needs me to help find her...
I pledge to you all... I will not stop until the last brick is lifted and looked under, no matter what.
September 22, 2001
Well, just when you thought it could not get any worse, the twin towers foundation is also the seawall keeping the Hudson River from flooding into the substructure.
If we remove too much debris from the piles, or pump out too much water, it will unbalance the pressure needed to maintain the foundation, it is over seven stories deep.
If this seawall collapses, which it might, it will make the towers falling look small in comparison, you can kiss lower Manhattan good-bye.
I have been told it would kill all the rescue workers in the holes, flood all the subways up to Canal St., and all the tubes leading to Brooklyn, that is over ten subway stations.
It would kill all those people in the subway cars, and all the people in the stations if they cannot get out in time. Each train holds seven hundred people or more, and there are an incredible amount of trains in the area at any time. Also there is the possibility of five blocks in the area would be undermined. That means five blocks of buildings falling down, and the greatest possibility of this happening would be at rush hour, when the vibrations are at their peak. All the cranes, trucks, and claws all around are not helping matters.
We are looking at over ten times the damage of the towers falling, and yet we continue to work as if the danger does not exist.
They have rewritten the subway map twice so far, and for those of us who know NY City, that could mean NASDAQ, and THE STOCK EXCHANGE... my God.
The engineers we really need are dead; two were killed in the bomb blast in the basement of the towers a few years ago, and the others were killed in the towers falling. Transit has their entire engineering division working on it; FEMA has sent their best. There are engineers here from every part of the world, I have spoken with some of them and they say it is chancy.
Most have never been here before, and very few of them have any subway experience.
To gain access to the area in question we must go down the partially collapsed tunnel on the West side. No one is allowed in there, they are expecting it to totally collapse at any time.
'Hold on to your hats people, and wish us luck... we are going to need it.
September 24, 2001
Relax, everything is under control, the seawall is fine.
It was pretty cool watching and helping them test it with their fancy-smanchie equipment.
The job site has become so dangerous that only firemen and search and rescue teams can go in to cut steel. That blows, I am not a part of any team, IM a loner, so I walk around looking for some airplane stuff or anything else I can turn in.
If I see some firemen whom I know, I can help dig, and that feels good, but they are becoming fewer, and fewer.
My wife needs me to spend some time with her.
The pile is hot twisted steel, enough to build a freaking transcontinental railroad.
When people, like senators, come for the first time to see it, I go out of my way to catch their expressions, but it's the same, every time, no matter who it is.
I am finding that a lot of people on the subway had someone they knew there, they are easy to spot, but not easy to ignore.
I am starting to have nightmares, food hasn't tasted good, and I find it hard to laugh at anything for over a second.
This morning, in the subways, as I was on my way to zero, I was adjusting my mask, and it hit me hard... I will not lie, the smell of 6000 people, the navigating of unstable beams weighing tons, sliding around, not getting ran over by all of the claws, and cranes, the smoke, The noise, Being watched by everybody, it's not easy.
But to see the pain so many people are in, makes it the only choice to make.
I brought back my collapsible military shovel tonight, and used my finger to etch in 09-11-01 U S A in the dirt, on the face of it. When I got home, I put in by the front door of my next-door neighbor; he is a retired cop, and a Korean war veteran... and a hell of a guy.
I got a letter with my lunch today, from a miniature McDonalds they have set up, it reads: THANK YOU on the front with a picture of the flag, on an angle, and red firemen with a yellow hose.
Thank you for being so brave.
You tried to save millions of people
but riot all of them survived. You did a very good job. Love
Hand written on the back, in small letters, at the bottom is:
And somehow...my day was OK...someone far away, whom I will never know, never meet, made me feel better ... With their love ... in a letter.
I hope you have enjoyed my letters ...I think it has greatly helped me to write them. I will write one again in a few weeks.
As I am sure I will need some closure on this... please feel free to email me to let me know that I have not been talking to a wall... Thanks...
September 30, 2001
Hey Guys, the military has been beefed up big time, there must be at least 10 checkpoints on the way in, they have upgraded the access passes for the zone, it is literally impossible to get in, if you don't belong there.
It's also getting hard to get the taste of dead people out of my throat.
I have earned a new respect for the firemen that I am working with; these guys are tough as nails. We had one guy take his glove off and rest it on a piece of rebar, they told me they herd the skin sizzle before he screamed (I light my cigarettes on rebar from the pile) he was back on the pile in 15 minutes.
The operation is slow, but the equipment is new, so the operators can use the machines smoothly, that is real good for us, we work right next to them the whole time.
The secret service is looking for guns and documents, the Customs guys are looking for evidence files and boxes, the FBI is looking at everything, and everyone is looking for the black boxes... and then there are the firemen, and search and rescue, and me, and everyone in the zone knows what we are looking for. There are cameras mounted everywhere, and it is getting cold at night.
From the bloodstained I beams being slammed onto the trucks, to the search and rescue teams sifting through the smoldering debris with garden tools, it is the only place I want to be, the only place, I feel truly alive.
October 7, 2003
I just got back this morning; I think I pulled a stomach muscle.
They have one of those party cruisers boats all set up for dining, and sleeping, and chiropractors, massages, and vitamins.
They now have boot, hand, eye, face washing stations, showers, hot food and good company, the works, wish I could be one of the lucky ones who can stay.
Here's the thing; when the towers hit the first floor, they continued for seven more stories down. Those stories were heavier, thicker concrete and much bigger beams. The mass churned into itself downward pulverizing everything in its path, except two stairways, which are mostly collapsed and half buried, on the biggest freaking scale of destruction you can imagine, you have to see this with your own eyes... to large, to deep to believe, even with maps no kidding. We are working approximately twenty feet up from ground level, and bottom is eight stories below us, we are following the stairwells.
I am mostly finding things from the upper floors.
Even though the building while collapsing had an umbrella effect of debris, it actually was doing the opposite, and when the mass hit bottom, it had enough energy to throw and I mean throw the walls out in all directions. Some pieces of these walls still stand, we call them the potato chips, and they are now being given priority to come down.
It's been hard on everyone involved in the rescue effort.
We find a port authority cops sweater, or a baby's carriage, or a fireman's jacket, and nothing else, and when we do find something, we almost wish we hadn't.
It's been hard, so very hard... on everyone here... there are professional counselors and chaplains at the Salvation Army posts, which is a lot better than no one.
I think we have all made our rounds...no one on the pile is above this... and yet we have not slowed down for a second...I want to be surrounded by people like this for the rest of my life.
October 18, 2003
The conditions in the zone could not be worse, the rain, the colder nights, the hoses spraying everywhere, the mud, the noise is incredible, the smell, the lifting, digging, and the steam is overwhelming.
Good news is the core temperature is down to about 1,000 degrees. I can still light my ciggs on the rebar.
Work is still very slow, but now we have access to almost everywhere we want, still the battalion chiefs will not risk one life to go into the deep voids, that is very hard for the family firemen to take, you know who they are, you stay out of their way, and you dig, carefully, effectively, and quietly.
We have a big time shortage of one handed pick, and rake tools, the industrial ones. The average garden tool lasts for about two shifts.
Everyone is becoming very cool with the idea that I am on the pile with them, and that feels good.
I got kind of tired of showing my ID; it takes away all the camaraderie.
There is however a dignity I feel, when leaving the piles, covered in mud, exhausted beyond rational thought.
And the look of admiration in the eyes of the next shift makes me dam proud to be an American. I was born on Flag Day, at 8:05 am, the time that American children are giving the pledge of allegiance, cool huh.
I was given one of the homemade donated flags like the ones that are hanging on all the fences in the zone.
It is a four-foot, plain canvass, with bold strokes of red, white, and blue. It says TEAMWORK with three stars in the middle, between the words, and in tiny letters on the bottom it reads: A Cord Of Three strands Is Not Easily Broken. Ecclesiastes 4:12
I connect with this flag. Its alternative fate was to shred, and fall, in the high winds, and rain, like the others.
October 27, 2001
A few hours ago I looked at the stage being built for the ceremony, and the jumbotrons, between the half collapsed burnt out buildings.
And as they were testing the microphones, I said to myself, this is the last place on earth I would want to be, if I were them.
Tonight, after I got in the zone, they changed the requirements for access, again, even tougher this time.
I fear I will not make the cut, that in itself would be a crime to me, wish me luck.
They cut our night early to concentrate on knocking down the fires, for tomorrow's event, and it has become a little easier to walk away from the pile, for most of us.
We are now getting into the most difficult part of the operation, down we go, as the pile on top diminishes, the voids being exposed are too tempting not to go in.
We now have plenty of portable lighting, but it's still a crushed steel oven cave exploration. Outside it's forty degrees and biting wind.
Hand digging the hot concrete from the deeper voids, using bucket lines, is still the mainstay. We still do not have the right hand digging tools.
We now have more steel and debris over our heads that ever before.
Steam, incredible heat, and penetrating chemical smell await those whom would call themselves men.
You can't wear goggles or glasses of any sort, they fog up in seconds, everyone wears a mask, you can't breathe without one.
It is literally the closest thing to hell anyone could imagine.
Either you are completely covered in concrete dust and grime, drenched in sweat, or you are spotlessly clean.
This is daredevil shit people, I don't recommend it, but it needs to be done. Those who truly dare, take point.
November 4, 2001
I have been waiting almost a week to get the new access pass for the zone, and based on what I just saw happen at ground zero, my chances of getting back on the piles in the zone, just went to zero.
Are the experts right? Is it too dangerous?
These people need to see it from other people's hearts.
There are times when feelings are more important than anything, we call it respect. And this time the mayor is wrong.
Why can't they just let us continue, we are the experts on this job site.
Not some dam pencil neck geek with a slide ruler and a code book. Go ahead, argue that point.
Some agency says Twenty-five firemen maximum to keep it safe.
HELLO Those twenty-five men need support; round the clock efforts would be two groups of twelve.
It's not enough; these men will not stop round the clock efforts no matter what. Geez, It would be too hard on the human body.
And I know these men; they will do it, and kill themselves in the process.
Any bucket line you make, takes twenty people minimum, you need people to set up lighting, oh hell I'm not even going to go into it, trust me you need a network of support.
The deeper the void, the more men you need.
Dam I’M angry about this, who are these assholes that came up with that number. I am quite confident they have never been on the line, or would care to be. Who should be given the right to determine who is on the piles.
The relative firefighters and cops should be given full pay, and all access, regardless. They say that they are doing this out of a pure safety concern, BULLSHIT.
This is purely a financial decision, all business questions and answers are.
If given the choice, if it were your loved one down there, would you want them dug out by a firemen's hand, or chopped into pieces, and then raked out in a land fill in New Jersey? Well, it's your fellow Americans down there, and you should help in the decision.
Tonight, I was getting a pack of smokes at a gas station near my house, and was making polite conversation with the attendant until he started talking about "In His Country"
I yelled F--- YOU! THIS IS YOUR COUNTRY and left.
I am having a hard time with this. And I am not alone.
November 11, 2001
THANK GOD I am back on the piles, they have increased the number of firemen to 100 for now, and now even the firemen have to wear id tags, they are upgrading the access requirements again next week... the final cut... and my name is not on the list, I will leave it up to God, for I have no choice, I have exhausted all resources.
Building # 7 is totally cleaned up, right down to bottom of the concrete invert.
They are trying to get the other buildings down now, and the wrecking ball that just bounces off the steel buildings has been replaced with a huge super hard lead filled anvil, and they drop it by crane, vertically along the extremes of the structure, it works...but man is it loud, and the incredible sound of the steel girders crashing down really tests your nerves.
They still do not have the right hand digging tools... unbelievable... Luckily I bought one on the way in from Sears hardware just in case...
Work of immense speed has started on all the surrounding buildings, they are saving ones I thought for sure would have to come down, they have A building engineer's nightmare task ahead of themselves.
The soles of my shoes no longer melt, and I can no longer light my ciggs on the rebar. The voids below are deep, complex, tempting, and dangerous as all hell.
Before this is all over I anticipate at least one machine to fall into a collapsing void, so far there have been almost no injuries, these guys are good, no ... they are the best.
We found another hero last night, and for the first time, I got to be a member of the honor guard... the word RESPECT is alive and well again at ground zero.
November 18, 2001
Well, it finally happened, a seventy-ton grappler has fallen into a void, and the only thing you could see of it, was its bucket. All firemen, and engineers, gathered around to figure how to get the operator out, and how to find out if he is still alive without killing anyone else, the structural engineers said that there is no way the substructure will hold all the weight of the machine, due to its position on end, just then, the area started to shake, and the fifteen or so engineers at the side of the hole ran for their lives, and it's a dam good thing they did, the whole area collapsed down two stories in a horrific rumble... I watched the whole scene unfold from above, with the firemen, we all screamed like hell when we saw the earth start to disappear around them, it is surly by the grace of God no one was killed, then we learned that the operator was on a coffee break...holy shit ... how lucky can you get... I don't know how much more these guys can take...
I went to home depot and bought a ton of hand tools with my own money on the way in, I asked if I could get a discount, for the tools are going to ground zero, the district manager said a representative of home depot was at FEMA and all matters of tools should go through him, so I paid full price, then I called FEMA they said, the home depot rep had left weeks ago... the firemen said the tools I passed out were better than gold to them, that felt really good to hear...but I cannot afford to do it again... and we need about fifty more mattocks, and thirty more mason's hand hoes... dam this bullshit bureaucracy.
They are digging the slurry wall out, all around, to assess the damage to it, so far it looks ok, only a few cracks... The digging areas are now two, to four stories down, depending on where you are... The red cross is still the main supplier of food, drink, cots, and medical attention, I cannot curse the entire organization for the actions of its leader...these volunteers mean a lot to us. Buildings three and four are now down... The concrete I have been digging is without color, or strength, the intense heat has taken it away, and the melted steel is everywhere.
After digging all last night, I have concluded that out of the three thousand still missing, we will be lucky to find two to three hundred, the rest have either been burned into ashes, or pulverized into bone chips and mussel fragments.
Ground zero is still, by far, the hardest thing on this planet I have ever faced, it just seems to rip your soul out every time.
And I will not stop until the last brick is lifted, and looked under.
November 25, 2001
Well, as it turns out, I am not the only one pissed at the bureaucracy created at the world trade center... Home Depot also has expressed their discontent with the mechanism of equipment supply... and has come through for us big time, giving me all the tools I require... and I take them down to the zone personally... bypassing all the red tape.
For anything to typically get in the zone, it needs to be approved by the agency you work for, which is a mountain to climb in itself, then OEM gets involved, then the mayors office, then FEMA, the Javits center, pier 90, pier 92... it is almost endless... and if it makes it that far, the fire dept. then gets a chance to receive it, if they could use it... what a joke... well there is a new system in town, and I now run it... with the help of Home Depot.
There are one hundred and fifty firemen assigned to ground zero, and seventy-five are on site at all times... I type this letter with hands soiled by the several fireman whom were shaking it violently, in appreciation of my efforts, and results...they themselves cannot believe, that in the biggest city in the world, at the site of the biggest disaster known to man, they cannot get what they need...until now...because of me... I will now sleep better than anyone who will read this, guaranteed.
The fireman assigned to help me unload the tools from my car, was the same guy I buddied up with on the pile with the other night... his name is Eddie Miller, and I dare anyone to find someone with more guts, character, and determination, than he.
I thought that finding two to three hundred more people was a conservative number, and after coming up empty my last two times out, I think fifty, is more realistic. The anvil dropping to bring down the other buildings has become the norm, the grappler that fell into a void has been removed, and the work continues...
I don't know if they have anything planned for the firemen after this is all over, but I feel confident it could never be enough... I salute them, and can only pray that someday I have a fraction of what it takes to be like them, for running towards a burning building instead of away from it, is more than just a job.
November 29, 2001
They have drawn invisible lines in the debris, at ground zero.
The zone has been split into three parts, the NY cops, Port Authority cops, and the Firemen. It has been this way for weeks now, it was not newsworthy... Until now.
We found a P.A. hero tonight, and the lines got crossed, the firemen will always yield to another dept., especially when it is one of theirs... It is the only fair way to do it.
In the mix I was challenged by a supervising cop, and he said my credentials just won't do anymore...you read the papers, he said... I don't read the papers.
My training... my position... my experience on the pile... my intentions...
Meant nothing... and it is with heavy hands I type this.
Without the proper night rescue tag, no one gets in... hence... the final cut...
I told the cop, if he wants me to leave I will, no problem, but to please, spare me my dignity... For I am not a thief, or an impostor, just a qualified volunteer...he said we have no volunteers here, gave the order, and I was escorted off the property... that moment was as unreal for me, as the towers falling all over again.
I left with my tool, my light, and my pride intact... but to have my last image, be the worst, is one I would like to forget... but cant.
It is a virtual nightmare to get a night rescue tag, the Firemen themselves have had a hard time getting them.
If they really want to keep the lines in the debris fair, shouldn't the volunteers have a fraction of the work to be done? You would be amazed at the number of qualified volunteers that were thrown off the pile, a long time ago.
And I have the privilege to say I was one of, if not, the last...
It is the dream of every man, to have his character tested, and when I needed it, it was there for me, and I am proud of myself...
All of the things I have done, all the thoughts I have had, all the people I have met, all the combined experiences of thousands of incredible sights, and stories, of a war torn area, four city blocks wide, five blocks long, and six stories deep... are all mine.
It would be easy to stop right about now, but I made a promise, to myself... And that is the true meaning of character.
The most profound thought I will cherish is, of the first week, the incredible super human effort of thousands of people, from all walks of life, digging, lifting, prying, and crying. You needed to be there, to fully understand the scope of damage, and emotion. You didn't have to be a mind reader to know what everyone was thinking, and you were thinking it too... let us just find one... just one... alive...
And that confidence lasted over three weeks...but the fires, incredible smoke, impossible steel mountains, and the sheer heat, would deny us any success... We tried so hard... so very hard...too hard for words.
We all worked as a team... a very proud team... And they cannot take my memories.
Emergency Response Team Supervisor
Transit Authority New York City Subways
Jeffrey M. Johns
March 11, 2002
Last night I watched the taped 911 show, tonight emerging from the subways I saw the big beams of light, and like a huge magnet, I was drawn, and I knew it was time, time to go back, back to the future of New York, back to the birth place of my adulthood, back to ground zero.
There are more people than ever gathered around the site, all trying desperately to get a glimpse of what lies behind the green mesh, which was set up to keep them from seeing anything at all. The platform that was constructed for the general public to view the site does not give a great angle into the pit, nor does the small platform constructed for the family members to see in, located at the opposite end of the zone.
Getting into ground zero is the hardest it's ever been, contractors now rule all entrances, supplemented by the police, armed with bad attitudes, and iron fists. However, after showing all my expired military and authentic transit identification, and explaining my position, the guards reluctantly turned their backs, and whispered "I see nothing" and for that, I am thankful.
The bathtub is almost completely empty, the digging crews are six stories down, or on the bottom itself, and the railroad tracks are now exposed, hence the very bottom.
The firefighters are now using long handled rakes and forks to sift through the seemingly endless debris, they are split between those who work on flat ground, and those whom are still tearing away at the sides of what piles still remain. And those that are working the remaining piles, are using the one handed mattocks, just the site of those hand tools still in use, gives me an overwhelming feeling of pride, and calm reflection.
The "million dollar bridge" that was built for the trucks to remove the debris from the area, is as much a necessity as it is a testament to the ingenuity of modern man.
The memorial lights are incredible to see up close, and as I was taking a picture of them, a plane passed between them, I hope the picture comes out.
At the lights, I ran into the cigar guys, Joe and herb, they have been giving cigars out to whomever wants one, since September, it was nice to see them again, they broke the mold with those two.
I went into the huge Salvation Army tent to speak to someone in charge, and found Major Allen, this man should be sainted. His relaxed demeanor, and kind expressional honesty makes him well suited for no other job on the planet. We spoke about the idea of getting custom license plates for the volunteers, and he supports the idea one hundred percent.
I was not able to contact the bosses of Red Cross, there are only a few Red Cross volunteers there, but they liked the idea just the same. I haven't met anyone who opposes it yet. After eating a small meal in the tent, I picked up a post card on the way out, it reads:
Our nation is proud of you.
You are doing a great job.
We are keeping you in our prayers. We are proud to be American. There are angels among you.
Sincerely, Jenna Michel/Peter Drads /Kyle Kleler St. Joseph's School Bellevue Iowa.
A lot of work went into this card, lots of colors, angels, hearts, flags and crosses.
I estimate that there is approximately two months worth of excavation left, and for some reason the work being performed on the surrounding buildings has slowed way down, but not the firemen, they have not slowed down at all, my God...
The overall attitude of the workers is much better, and instead of looking at hundreds of grown men on the verge of tears at all times, I saw men with purpose, men with endless strength, men that I would be forever honored, to call my friends.
And for the first time, while driving home from ground zero, even I did not cry.
May 30, 2002
Today marked the end of the recovery effort at ground zero, and with a big ceremony planned, I knew it was time for me to say my final good-byes.
At the zone you needed a special yellow pass to get in, I did not have one, only the well connected or the family members did.
After circling the area for over an hour, asking all the police for entrance, I decided to approach the most decorated cop I could find. He only glanced at my credentials, but looked into my eyes, something no one had done, and said go ahead in.
There were about fifty huge television sets on stands set up along the walkway in front of the Ten Ten fire company. And lots of sound equipment for announcing the different stages of the ceremony.
This area was for the family members, and those who carried a lot of tissues.
There were police helicopters flying overhead in a V formation, but very few had their heads lifted high enough to see it.
I did not understand the significance of the bell sounding until it was explained to me. But the columns of slowly marching bag pipes yanked out every tear I could shed, and more.
It feels like only last week, that I was searching the voids, it has been over six months, my life is flashing by.
Looking directly at the family members pouring out with emotion was too much for me, and I was not crying for them, but with them, somehow, they are my family, and it is hard not to feel that I have failed them.
Many of the police, firemen, and emergency service unit members needed someone to hold them up, and try and keep them together, to no avail, everyone fell victim to the realism of the moment, and how powerless we are fight our own emotions over the catastrophic loss of life.
I had a chain link fence to grab on to, and I needed it, it was a difficult day for me, to say the least. The ceremony ended around eleven o'clock, but I stayed till three, talking to other workers whom were there from the start.
The stories we exchanged were straight from hell, a hell we all knew too well, and that admittedly haunts all of us all, daily.
Some of the conversations were dominated by hindsight, what if, if only, why this, why that, but the new building codes kept our imaginations of future disasters in check, and we did our best to shield ourselves from the overwhelming guilt of not trying hard enough. We all did our best, and deep down inside, we all know it.
I made my last rounds, said my last good-byes, and promised myself that I would try to enjoy life a little more.
Since 911 I have found that I hug my wife and kids a little tighter, a little longer, and with a lot more appreciation, I fear I have grown up, and I don't like the way it feels.
We get only one go around, we are all here for a very short time, we all die of something, and listening to the sobbing statement of "were not supposed to outlive our children" was more powerful than anything I have ever heard in my life, and it only compounded the pain I was in. 911 has changed who I am to the core of my existence, I have not written about the grisly details of the work I performed for a reason, the daily flashbacks that consume me are too intense to impose them onto anyone I care about.
I know it is all, a part of who I am, I can only hope that I am somehow a better person because of it. I have my doubts, anyone who was there, knows what I mean.
But it is time to say good-bye, something I never imagined, would be this hard.
I have seen the best, and the worst that mankind has to offer, up close and personal. It was an experience that has no words to its title, only numbers.
It is time for me to finish the chapter and close the book on this part of my life.
I would like to thank every one of my family and friends who talked to me when I called or wrote, my attempts to communicate were a lot more desperate then I led on.
I would like to say a special thanks to my Mom, my wife Penny, Rachel, Logan, Bob, Adam, Iris, Diana, Paul, Marc, Michael, Lmpitts, Leslie, Greg, Carole, Demos, Dave, Cabbie, Beverly, Ann, Steve, Bill, Unkie, Pat, Kristen, Mark, Val, Baymen, Terry, Jackie, and Kerri, and Gloria. All the people at Hofstra, A. O. S., U. S. G. A., D. M. V., Mjr's, and Crossnet.
You have enriched my life by being who you are, and doing what you do.
Through your e-mails, letters, or phone calls, or help you have provided, you have made it possible for me to carry on, and I thank you all.
When I needed you, you were there for me, and nothing is more important than that.
If a man is judged by the company he keeps, I shall live without fear, for you are all my friends, and I love you.
September 8, 2002
I have been chosen, to represent the city, as an honor guardsman.
At the Base of the ramp, at Ground Zero Sept 11th.
There will be four groups of us at a time, four groups, 30 min shifts, with 90 min of rest each. Fireman, policemen, transit, search and rescue, and sanitation.
To stand at attention, in uniform.
As family members descend the ramp towards us,
and touch ground for the first time.
This is the highest honor there is.
Nothing can compare to this.
Oh my God.
September 8, 2002, 4:00 pm
My boss "MS 11 Callandrella" called me at my desk and said "listen, Sept 11th at ground zero" I interrupted him and said yes I will be there at 6:00 am, he said "oh, you know?" Know what I replied, you don't know, do you? He asked. Know what? I responded. Listen, you have been chosen to be a part of the ceremony at the pit, on the anniversary, I could not respond, and it was silent. I finally got the power to speak and said oh my, I am set back, I don't know what to say, who is responsible for this?
The big shots downtown, mostly your General superintendent Cardiello, please thank him for me I asked, thank him yourself he replied, I am sending you a packet on what to wear and where to report, thanks man, is all I could say.
I made my way to the street level, and called my wife, She immediately said what's wrong, and fighting through my own tears, I told her. It was hard for me to believe, I was actually emotional out of happiness, that was a first for me. Grasping for air, leaking like a sieve, in physical pain, and realizing my luck, I was mentally empowered with a purpose beyond anything I have ever known. A gratification so rich, so deep, as if I had saved the world.
I was determined to get this right, no mistakes, no regrets, no second chances.
I practiced saluting and standing at attention each day, and with my neighbor for an hour or so, he is ex-military, and police, and could answer most of my questions, but no matter how long I practiced, my confidence was nil. So I sought the advice of everyone I knew to be military, with little resolve, until I received this e-mail:
No, it's not true your eyes should never move and not look at anyone.
Standing at rigid attention is reserved for short periods of time, especially for civilians who aren't used to it. Hopefully, the guy in charge knows that and most of the time you will probably be "at ease," feet spread apart and hands behind the back.
When at attention, heels are touching, toes spread at 45 degrees, hands slightly cupped facing your legs, with thumbs touching trousers seam. Head is level and still. Only looking straight ahead is during an inspection.
You have to be aware of your surroundings, look at everything, just keep the head still.
If approached by family, use your best judgment, smile without talking, they'll understand. Try not to get too wrapped up in it, it's hard, but try to stay a little detached.
Concentrate on the guys you're with or think about something that has nothing to do with the ceremony. Don't worry, if anyone thought you might slouch or fall apart, you wouldn't be there. Good Luck.
And suddenly, I had all the strength I needed, and more.
I arrived at the zone early, and it was difficult to move around due to the immense security all around. Telling the cops I was part of the honor guard did not help, this is New York, and no one believes anything anyone says, until they can prove it.
I finally got to the registration table and received my credentials, stood in line, and descended into the pit.
I kept looking around for anyone with a familiar face, and it quickly reached desperate proportion, finally I gave up, and sat down inside the main staging tent. Just then, a search and rescue guy with his dog sat down next to me. And I remembered him, his name was Lee Prestiss, and his dog's name was lady, I think. Lee! I exclaimed, how you doing man? "I asked" he seemed disinterested, we worked the piles together for a few days together I said, and still he was disconnected. We all wore masks then, and that made it impossible to tell faces. Then I asked how his dog was, because the last time I saw them together "Lady " was urinating blood and we were very worried for her.
OH MY GOD he said, you really were with me on the piles weren't you? Of course, I said what do think I would make it up? (Laughing) he laughed with me and said many people come to him to talk about the piles, and say they were there with him, but no one ever offered proof except me. We sat and talked, he had put on a lot of weight, bought a house, got married, basically went on with his life, and it was good to hear.
When it was time for the first group to stand at attention, I hurried to the base of the ramp just in time for the first person (an elderly woman) to touch ground, and as I found my position shoulder to shoulder with the others, the order of salute was given, and military or not, in that moment we were all brothers, in salute, alone and yet together, at the base of the ramp, for the rest of our lives.
I found it difficult to stand there, even though it was not my turn to stand at all, I did anyway, most of us were on automatic.
When it was my turn to stand, I did so as best I could, the fierce wind and dust kept my eyes closed a lot, and I learned how to blow my eyes clean with my breath without moving, and when the dust was at its worst, I would close my eyes, and was cast into a place that no one should be. What I was listening to was almost unbearable. But I was one of the lucky ones, there was no place on earth I would have rather been, no higher calling, this was my place to be, in the history of my life.
Words cannot express the feelings I experienced as fifteen thousand family members descended the ramp and joined together at the circle of wreaths at the bottom.
The family members started collecting any stones they could find, and filled their red cross given water bottles with dirt from the site. They brought roses, and constructed small piles of earth to support the flowers, in mini circular sections of family memorials. They stood in family circles and cried, and prayed, in anger.
Standing there with the elite rescue and recovery workers, listening and watching, I could not help but feel for everyone there, a helplessness I have only felt once before. During the reading of names, between my shifts, I would go to the far end of the bathtub and find stones worthy of keepsake, and I would bring them to the circle, and look for someone digging to find one, and offer it. One particular stone I found was truly amazing, it had three or four different types of stones in it, and traces of burnt metal on its surface, I considered keeping it for myself, but this day was not for me. So I covered it, and returned to the circle, to find an elderly gentlemen digging hard with his hands, picking up small stones and casting them aside. I waited till he stood up, and offered the stone to him, gently uncovering it from my soaked handkerchief. He looked at me with eyes that have seen too much, and slowly took the stone from me with hands that have worked hard his whole life, but was unable to speak. He held the stone up with both hands, and then cradled it to his chest and bowed his head, when he finally looked up, I could see through his tears that I had found another friend, again he tried to speak, again he could not. I wanted to hug him more than life itself, but like him, I was unable to function properly, and as he slowly passed by, still cradling the stone, I felt a little better, and worse, in the same moment. The day belonged to emotion, and as the day wore on, our skin wore thin. And when it was time to go, some people refused, and were helped along, back up the ramp by their family. Then it was the honor guard's turn to leave the pit, and then like a fast moving train, we realized, this is the end. An end we all wanted, and feared, and like the end to any story of hope, we were sad, and stronger for it.
At the top of the ramp, about three hundred FBI agents assembled for a wreath laying ceremony, and the place was a buzz of the president arriving, but I had to leave. I promised the great people of Hofstra University that I would be there, at their memorial program, with my family. When we arrived, I could not believe my eyes, they had taken all the tools, respirators clothes, and postcards I donated, and put them on display behind glass. Above the display was the banner "Teamwork" that I had taken from the zone. Originally, I wanted to be buried with my tools and banner, but I was convinced that they should be used to help teach the next generations, not to make the same mistakes, as we did.
It felt really weird to see all my stuff on display, and just coming from the pit, gave it an even deeper meaning to me. Then I met the president of Hofstra, he reminded me of a hypnotist and was cool just the same. The historical director of Hofstra had turned my photographs of ground zero into panoramic posters, and were there for the taking. Professor Geri Solomon and Vickie Aspinwall were instrumental in making all of this happen. Maybe one day, I will be able to thank them enough, but for now, I am at their disposal.
There is one other person I would like to thank, Chris Von Deutschburg of Melbourne Australia. Through all of my World Trade Center experiences, Chris has shown himself to be a person of life, truth, honesty, and character. In a world so full of greed, he is a nice reminder not to abandon hope.
The work he has undertaken in preserving the events of the World Trade Center disaster is nothing short of amazing. His web site can be found at http://www.chrisjohn316.com
And I would invite all who surf the net to go there, for this man is more than just a guy with a large, cool web site that should not go unnoticed, he is someone who is more patriotic than most anyone I have ever met, he is someone who actually cares about others, he is, my friend.
Jeffrey M. Johns
September 7, 2003
As the Sept 11th date draws closer, I find myself thinking about my role in the 2002 anniversary over and over, and I cannot escape it, so therefore I am writing about it. My hope is to finally release its grip on me.
September 12, 2003
I expected the second anniversary to be that of lesser sorrow, emotion, and pain, and I could not have been more wrong.
As expected, the police had me walk zigzag through the streets, passing about twenty checkpoints to reach gate entrance number one. And once there, I found myself standing in line with the family members, as they waited for the names to be read, and descend into the pit. As I stood there, I saw a man standing alone in military uniform, and said to myself, today, no one should be alone.
The red cross was there to distribute bottles of water, tissues, and thornless roses to be placed into the two square reflecting pools, that were in remembrance of the two towers. As the names began to be read, I felt ashamed of myself, how dare I assume the position of a family member, and how would I feel if I were caught. Then I asked myself is there any other place I would rather be, and by far, I said, this was where I belong, for the pain of September Eleventh is not exclusive to those who lost someone, it is also still very hurtful to those who filled the buckets with body parts.
So I held a bouquet of flowers close to my chest, to hide the fact that I did not possess the special white ribbon needed to access the ramp. And as we started forward a woman tripped in front of me, and the apparent incident distracted security and allowed me to enter the ramp unnoticed. While walking down the ramp with the families, my guilt was immense, and I turned to the gentleman next to me and said, I don't know if I belong here, I am not a family member. What did you do? He asked, I was a rescue worker I answered, and he put his arm around me and said "we are all family today" and we continued down.
At the bottom, I slowly walked around trying to find absolution, but quickly found myself wanting to help someone, anyone, any way I could.
Watching the grieving families was as hard as it has ever been, for I was among them, and then I saw the guy in military uniform standing alone, in the corner.
I walked over to him and asked if he was ok, he said yeah, and I said well I'm not, and could use a friend right about now, we shook hands and hugged, and I could tell, he was anything but ok. We talked about the day, and he explained that he lost his brother, and this was the first time he got up the strength to come here.
We walked around together, talked, and said prayers whiles tossing flowers into the pools. We listened and watched the children play classical music for a while and then it was silent. As he was asking me what was going on, the bells began to ring, and I did not need to look at my watch, it is the time the first plane hit I said, and he was overcome. Every church bell in New York, I whispered, as I put my arm around him, and in that moment, I had filled my selfish need for being there. For my calling of the day, was to help others, just as it was two years ago, regardless of the outcome.
We stayed together, and with each ringing of the bells he became more uneasy, this was obviously a man of honor, and like me, he is someone who is unfamiliar with their own emotions. After the third bell sounding he wanted to leave, I asked him to stay a while and I would leave with him, he agreed, and we walked and talked, and slowly began leaving. About half way up the ramp I said I have a gift for you, and handed him a large stone I dug up from the far end of the site, how did you get this? He asked, I dug it up while you were in the restroom I said. He banged the rock on the metal railing, smiled and said this means a lot to me, you have a friend for life, we shook hands, and continued up the ramp together.
By the time we reached the Ten Ten fire house, he was tired and needed to rest, so we sat there smoking cigarettes and I explained the significance of where we were. After a while I looked at my watch and stood up at attention, It was time for the last ringing, signifying the last building falling. He sprung to his feet, and again, it was silent. The order of salute was given, and I had the honor of standing with a new friend, surrounded by fireman, in front of the Ten Ten firehouse in salute. We then exchanged phone numbers, said our good-byes, and I started my trek over again to the pit, for I was not done with this day just yet.
Shockingly I made it back to gate number one, and shook hands with Mayor Giuliani and told him "How excellent it was, to see him here today."
After making it back into the pit, and mulling around for a while, I found an eleven-year-old girl filling an empty Gatorade bottle up with earth from the site. She was using the cap from the bottle to dig with, I approached her, knelt down and asked her if she wanted some help. She said yes, so I sat there with her and we dug together filling the bottle. While sitting there, a bishop with large cloak knelt down, and offered some words of hope. He explained to her, that her uncle is not gone, but is here with her right now, and they will never be apart, for the physical world is just that, and many other unknown worlds exist together. And that every ounce of love that she feels for her uncle can be felt by him, every second of her life. This man was wise beyond wisdom, and understands the meaning of love, a rarity, and necessity, on this day, on this hallowed ground.
After the bottle was full, I asked if she wanted a big stone, her eyes lit up, and she said YES, I told her that I would be right back. I sneaked around a barricade and through a tent, and dug up the largest stone anyone could have found, I was worried that the stone was too heavy for her to carry, but quickly decided it was ok. When I returned I offered her the stone, she took it and ran with it to her mother who standing behind us about twenty feet away. She had been watching the whole time, and as I was leaving, she thanked me emphatically, through the flood of her tears, that stone, it meant so very much...
Just before leaving, I tossed a flower into the pool, and a man next to me asked to whom was that prayer for? I said it was for all the victims. I then turned to see who it was that asked, only to find that it was a priest, who worked at the morgue, and as a counselor. Counseling is what I needed most, so we talked for a while, and he explained that I have seen things that no one should, and that it is my own choice to let go or not. He said it must be a conscious decision to not let what I have seen control me anymore, and I agreed. I thanked him for the advice, and continued walking around, asking myself, to let go or not. Finally I made my way into a small tent, sat down and had a good cry.
I have decided to not put myself through any more, I have seen, and done enough, to respect myself, and I need to move on, and be free of the power of 911 that has consumed me. Although I will probably return each year to the site, I feel that for me, to continue being distraught is to continue letting the terrorists win.
By Jeffrey M. Johns
World Trade Center Volunteer