September 11 Digital Archive: XML Document
Story:My story is not so much about the day of September 11th, but my entire experience of that tradgedy.
I was at school on 9/11. Our high school in east central Missouri did not call off school, nor did it allow many of us to watch the news or listen to the radio. I did not find out the whole story until I arrived home about 4pm Central time. I was completely shocked.
Our family did what most families did the next few days. We went to our churches memorial and prayer service, we proudly put out our flag, and we constantly watched the television for new reports.
Our church is of the Southern Baptist denomination, and one of the only churches in the area that has many active members of the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. Our area was hit very hard in the floods of '93, '94, '95, '00 . . . I suppose you get the picture. We have responded locally and around the world. Our job most times is to provide food for victims and/or those who work in shelters or, in case of natural disasters, cleaning out homes and other buildings. Our reputation is superb, due to our insistence on cleanliness and correct sanitation. My dad, my mom, and I are all trained members of the Missouri Southern Baptist Disaster Relief.
When the rescue operations began at Ground Zero, the need for food became evident. The EPA tent was set up, the Salvation Army was called in, and the firefighters, police officers, construction crews, and many, many others who worked 12 or 16 hour shifts were provided with hot food, air-conditioning or heat, and a place to rest.
The Southern Baptists were called in by state to work week shifts.
Missouri was first called in November. Two members of our church, along with several other people from around the state requested to go, and they were approved. They worked for a week, bringing back heartbreaking stories and a description of what was going on. I had wanted to go very badly. I wanted to do what I could to help. But it wasn't time for me to go--I had a lot going at school, and frankly, my relationship with God was not what it needed to be. The other Disaster Relief member in my church who was close to my age, Tony, agreed with my assessment of why neither of us got to go?our spiritual walk. We resigned ourselves that we would not get another chance, but were determined to be ready for the next thing God wanted us to do.
I was on Christmas break. It was December 28, 2001 when I got a call. Jenny (one of the people who'd gone in November) asked me how old I was. I told her that I was 17?only four months away from 18. She informed me that I could go if my mom or dad agreed to go along, as the Salvation Army did not allow those under 18 without a parent along. My mom agreed to go. We left the 30th with a 15 man (and woman) team.
We drove to our headquarters in Marshall, MO where we got a quick briefing. We spent the night there and left early in the morning to catch a flight to LaGuardia from Kansas City. We went straight from the airport to the Salvation Army HQ, where we got another, more detailed briefing, complete with the does and don'ts, and what would be our job description. We also got IDs that would let us into the tent.
Because of the contamination near Ground Zero, we were not allowed to fix our own food. Instead, restaurants from all over the area provided food. We would either cook it or keep it heated, and keep the serving lines full. Mostly, the Salvation Army would actually serve the food, but occasionally we did.
We divided into three shifts with five people on each team. My mom, three others, Warren, Phyllis, and Bob, and I, got the 3-11 pm shift (the third watch, as I discovered when I got hooked on the TV show of the same name this year). Warren was our team leader. We would begin work at 3 o'clock on the 1st of January. We went to the tent to get oriented and relieve the Louisiana team (which, incidentally consisted of many people we had made good friends with in '93 when they'd come up to Missouri to help us clean and rebuild). After we saw how things worked at the tent, our team went back to the Cosmopolitan Hotel on W. Broadway, I believe, and went to bed. That was the first New Year's Eve that I hadn't stayed up at least until the ball dropped that I can remember. I actually totally forgot about it.
We went down to the tent to eat breakfast (as we did almost every day) where we found the first watch eating and the second working. We visited with the first watch, which included my friend, Tony. They looked very tired, as they'd been up the whole day before and began to work at midnight. They told us of the people they'd met and how it worked. We were under the direction of a professional chef and a supervisor from Whitson's Food Services, or something similar to that name. They worked in three shifts also that were staggered from ours by an hour. They also warned us of one of the Salvation Army volunteers, Desiree. We took acknowledged the warning, but did not give it much thought.
I don't remember too much about any particular day . . . just incidents. I honestly don't know how long this will be, especially since I will keep remembering as I write, I'm sure.
Our normal chef was a very tall African American man named Peter. He always wore a chef hat, except for once, and it took me a while to actually recognize him. He was an absolutely great guy, and acknowledged our expertise. Many other chefs considered us layman who knew nothing about serving food, but while they were experts, we were professionals. Serving 10,000 meals a day was common for us. Peter accepted that, and for his respect, we asked his advice on many things. Our team in particular liked to create our own dishes out of those that came in, and Peter would help us with that.
Our Whitson's supervisor was a man named Ross. He and I became very good friends and talked quite a bit. He'd been down here when the Towers had gone down, and it was a hard time for him. He did, however, maintain a cheerful attitude, and we liked teasing each other. He had a very strong New York accent (yes, New Yorkers, you do have an accent to us Missourians) and he and other native New Yorkers would tease us for our "y'all" while we attempted to figure out exactly how New Yorkers twist their faces to say carrots and water (we finally figured it out). When they accused us (teasingly of course) of being hicks, we just smiled smugly and told them to wait until Alabama relieved us. We told them that one of us would have to stay so they'd have a translator. I don't think they believed us until they showed up (no offense, southerners :)).
We also became acquainted with several Salvation Army workers. One of them, coincidentally, was Desiree. For some reason, the first watch had not so great relations with Desiree, but to us she was a godsend and a great person to work with. She kept the serving tables and the rest of the kitchen spotless. She worked constantly, playfully admonishing us when we made messes for her to clean up. She was a vital part of our team, and we enjoyed working with her.
Elijah Prophet (yes, his real name) was a small African-American man from (if I remember correctly) somewhere in Indiana or Ohio, or something. He had vowed to God that he would work for two years in New York, living in the YMCA. He cleaned dishes for us, almost before we got them dirty. He commented that our last name (Gladden) described us very well, that we were always cheerful and willing to give people a smile. I talked with him a lot, about God, about life, about why we were there. He was a sweet man, and one who loved people because they were God's creation. He had what one would consider an inglorious job, but every time he washed a dish, he did it for God, and he did it because he loved the people at Ground Zero.
Though we did try to maintain a cheerful demeanor for the crews, it was hard. Every once and a while, they would need someone out at the different comfort stations. Us three women on the team each went out at least once: my mom went three times, I went twice, and Phyllis went once. We went out, closer to Ground Zero and would restock the tents, make sure there was plenty of hot water, and sometimes just talk with the men. I remember talking with a construction worker who's cousin had died in one of the towers (the North, I believe). His construction crew was working on Staten Island and watched the whole thing. He was very close to his cousin, and cried when he told us this story.
We also spoke to one of the medical examiners. He began telling us stories. I remember wanting to just tell him to stop, but I didn't. I realized that because he was surrounded by this, this was normal to him. He didn't think that it wasn't normal to us. It was hard, watching him stare out into the Pit and unemotionally tell us these stories.
Another man, a police officer, I believe, told us how his wife had taken his kids and left him because he was never home. He was always here, or working elsewhere when he was rotated out. He told us a little about his kids and how much he missed them.
One thing I remember about being down at those sites was first of all, the air. It was almost gritty. We did not wear masks, as we were not right down in the Pit, but it was still dusty and harder to breathe. I also remember the lights and the sounds of the trucks. I still get the chills when I see and hear night construction. I also remember the silence when they brought bodies out. I remember the lines they formed. One of the first nights we were there, they found a pocket of thirteen. Many were firefighters. The rest of the night, the mood was subdued in the tent.
I also remember that people were tense and nervous about any sort of unusual incidents: accidents or possible terrorist attacks. It was still fairly early on and it would be just like bin Laden to attack an already suffering city. One night near the end, we were serving food. The tent was full of the low murmurs of people talking. Suddenly, there was a huge boom from the direction of the Pit. Everyone froze. All the firefighters, police officers, and OSHA got up and left the tent. We found out that a truck had turned a corner too sharply and hit something, causing his tire to blow out. When we found out, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, laughing a bit to blow of the tension.
I had heard about the rescue dogs, but had never seen one until they brought Nike into the tent. He was a large Golden Retriever and had his own little apartment in the back of the EPA tent. People would visit him, petting him and loving on him. He was exhausted and probably depressed, but he provided as much comfort to those who visited him as they tried to do for him. His trainer told us that many dogs did get depressed because they didn?t find very many people alive and none at that point. So they would hide from him and let him find them, so he would feel like he?d done his job. It was very heart-wrenching and echoed the frustrations and sorrow those rescue workers had in the Pit.
Sometimes when the line was slower and we weren?t very busy, I would go out to the tables and visit with the workers. They seemed to enjoy talking, though they were tired. At first, I, like the rest of the nation, thought that the only people who worked at the Pit were firefighters and police officers. I discovered that this was very untrue. Dock workers were there, keeping the walls from collapsing. If not for the dock workers, it is very possible that the entire south end of Manhattan could have just fallen off into the Bay. The construction workers operated the enormous cranes and machinery, invaluable to the work. OSHA was there, supervising and making sure we did not lose more of our men and women to the Pit. There were even people there from a phone company (I can?t remember which one) who were trying to get communications back up from Ground Zero. Medical examiners spent a great deal of time there, obviously and the work was hard. There are so many more kinds of people who worked there. Some I didn?t meet but knew about and some I talked to at great length. Many times we talked about their families, their children. Sometimes we talked about the work they did in the Pit, when they wanted to. Some needed to talk about it to be able to cope with it. Others didn?t want to talk at all. We respected that and were just there for them when they needed it. That is the main job of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. Food is important, but secondary. We listen and provide a shoulder to cry on if needed. We try to help people cope with a tragedy, whether that tragedy be a flood that wiped out their homes, a tornado that ripped apart a town, or a terrorist attack that unjustly took the lives of 2,792 people.
When we had arrived back, school had started for Tony and me. We were seniors at a large high school in mid-Missouri. People would ask us ?how was it?? like we?d been on a vacation. We struggled with what to say. There were no words to describe it. Painful. Interesting. Sad. Inspiring. Depressing. All of these words could illustrate a certain moment, but none were good answers for a one-word explanation. People were going around and about their lives, without the constant thought of the people lost and the people left at Ground Zero. It was how I?d been before I went and I understood it. But it didn?t make it any easier. Probably the event that most illustrated this was at our Superbowl party in 2002. Our church youth group gathered at our house for the celebrations. I remember seeing the Budweiser commercial where the Clydesdales honored the Twin Towers and tears coming to my eyes. The three of us: Mom, Tony, and I exchanged looks while everyone else was talking and being normal. It was almost as if we were in a separate world.
I wanted to go back. I felt such a connection with those down at the Pit, that I didn?t feel right back home. I had not been there very long, but I felt as if I?d known those I worked with for years. I longed to be down there in the trenches with them for as long as they needed me. If I could, I?ve stayed, like two twin college students my mom met and befriended. They came to help for a short while, and stayed for the duration. It?s hard to leave and impossible to forget.
I started this almost a year ago and stopped about half way through. On this second September 11 after that tragic Tuesday, I decided to finish it. I will probably have to add things as I remember them, but this is the essence of my experience at Ground Zero. I will always recall the times shared with the men and women who worked down there. I will remember the two cops from the 10th Precinct who talked for an hour with me my first day, making me feel welcome. I won?t forget the man from Ecuador who was working construction. I laugh every time I recall the walks from the serving line to the restroom, when the men would catch my eye and say ?Howyadoin??? in that inimitable accent. I won?t forget Ross, Peter, Elijah, Desiree, Alicia, Captain David, or Raheem. There are so many others that I think of all the time and wish I could see again. Some, I hope I will. But forever will I remember everyone from Ground Zero and honor those who lost their lives for being American.