This is by my friend and fellow author Leo Champion.
Stories from Lower Manhattan
These were written originally in May 2021 as emails to a couple of friends (the first two in a misguided attempt to encourage liberty advocate Ooana Trien, the second two to my managing editor Peggey Rowland just to get the words down) and collated from my Sent Mail folder a few days ago. I feel that, perhaps for obvious reasons, some of the stories of what happened down at Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 might warrant a wider audience (than the column Australian opinionist Piers Akerman wrote from them in today’s Sunday Telegraph, which can be found – behind a paywall – here.)
Before I got into writing/publishing I worked the usual long list of jobs ranging from construction labour to public relations executive, and when the planes hit on Tuesday morning I was actually on my first day at a new one, at the very bottom of the org chart (the guy I was replacing was being promoted to the mail room) in an accounting firm near the very top of Boston’s tallest building, the John Hancock Tower.
The stories, which (aside from removing the header information) I’m keeping in their original form complete with apologies for the poor writing, aren’t about what happened that day twenty years ago now. They’re about what happened immediately afterwards, for the most part.
On the evening of Friday September 15th 2001, I rode a bus down from Boston to see if I could help somehow. I only expected to be there for the weekend – I had a job to return to on Monday. (I ended up there for two weeks, and fired from the job.)
I’d been to NYC twice before, but, aside from a single subway ride from JFK during my first hour in the US, never beyond Midtown. But I knew the basic geography of Manhattan; your numbered streets really do help. It’s unusually considerate given the city’s usual tough-guy attitude.
From Sydney and from Boston, your city has a reputation for its swaggering big-shots and strutting wannabes; assholes and proud of it. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” and people had flocked from across the planet world for a hundred and fifty years to try their shot at making it. Send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses and we’ll make tycoons of ‘em or at least hustlers.
Evening of the 15th, as I got off my bus around ten or eleven pm… there was none of that. The World Trade Center had been several miles south of the Port Authority bus terminal in Times Square; wind had blown the dust clouds in a different direction, but not the impact. Shattered people, dead dark neon, strangers hugging, every vertical surface plastered with ‘Missing’ posters. O.Henry’s ‘Baghdad on the Hudson’ had been emotionally razed by Mongols.
After a few unhelpful enquiries around Port Authority – “is there anywhere volunteers might register?” – I figured that since the World Trade Center was near Manhattan’s southern tip, if I kept walking south I’d eventually run into a security perimiter around the area. The cops manning that perimiter would stop me, but they’d also know where to send me. Also it would spare me the expense of a subway token.
So I got walking.
Squadrons of empty yellow taxicabs zoomed up and down a Broadway of dimmed lights and shut-down theatres. The lights had gone out.
People hugged and sobbed, or walked with shellshocked vacancy in their eyes.
In a Chinatown park, hundreds of people were hugging and swaying as they sang “Lean On Me”.
Missing posters. Missing posters plastered everywhere in desperate hope that their partner, their parent, their brother, daughter, or son might be one of the miracles. Faces of the dead on every wall. MISSING, LOOKING FOR, HAVE YOU SEEN THEM, LAST SIGHTING TUESDAY 9/11.
Closed bars all along the Bowery as I walked south through the darkness.
Soot and grime – more than the usual for NYC – started to become apparent.
At Canal Street I ran into the perimeter I’d been looking for. The first people I spoke to were a couple of soldiers in desert camouflage, probably National Guard. They were bored and happy to talk, but they didn’t know anything.
“It’s pretty bad down there,” they said. One of them was puffing on a cigar.
“It’s really bad,” the other one agreed.
They sent me west to a command post manned by NYPD, a couple of blocks away on one of the avenues. Trucks were passing by in both directions, the northbound ones loaded with debris under tarpaulins. Amidst them were silent ambulances. The cops were attentive and had the information I was looking for:
“Yeah, volunteers register at the Javitz Centre.”
Leo: “Sorry, where’s that again?”
Cop: “Two blocks west of the Port Authority terminal.”
I couldn’t spare the buck seventy-five or whatever it was for a subway token, so I turned around and got walking again. The West Side Highway was dark, no traffic on the river, the lights across the Hudson faint and few. The trucks of rubble zoomed silently north past me, not much else except for ambulances carrying people on Missing posters.
Black 47 lyrics went through my head: “Been up and down this New York town / Lookin’ for a break, just a fair shake of it…”
The song’s about going mad (I think), but it was the city that had gone mad – or rather, the mad city had gone dead, which was worse.
After a few blocks it started getting to me. Every so-often there were shrines, had been in places since Chinatown. There were Missing posters, little messages, candles that had gone out – dead, like the rest of the city.
I couldn’t do anything about the rest of the city, but for my own sanity I took a right-turn into the main city, somewhere around what would have been Greenwich Village, and bought a cheap disposable cigarette lighter from the nearest little convenience store.
I couldn’t do anything about the rest of the city, but I could do something about those dead candles. As I passed the shrines I stopped to re-light them. A meaningless gesture, but… the shrines themselves were meaningful to someone, and it was action that was within my power to take. When it’s all you can do, you do the little things.
At Javitz they weren’t weeping, and they were doing a little more than lighting candles. The dark glass walls of the convention centre itself were an empty background, but the parking lot was full of floodlit activity – it was busier than Times Square had been. Trucks were being unloaded, their contents sorted into big piles under awnings; other trucks were being loaded, people in hard hats and reflective vests were shouting orders and clarifications. It was chilled water after a desert hike; it was fresh air after a mineshaft collapse.
There was work to be done here. I reported for duty.
Idiocy at Ground Zero
At the very tip of the spear the metal under your boots is so hot it’s painful. The air is vile and caustic, burning asbestos just one element, and you can’t see more than six or eight feet in any direction. It might have been midday or midnight – the two constants of the real world, time and money, were nonexistent all over Ground Zero, and on the Pile you couldn’t even tell which was which. Thick, billowing smoke everywhere, glowing green and yellow chem-lights every three to four feet marking the safe path, stuck in place with clamps because the heat melted the duct tape we’d tried earlier. You had to keep an eye on them, and a close eye on the ground between them, because the paths being cut into the Pile were only a couple of feet wide at times.
I was carrying a bucket in each hand, buckets that ten minutes ago had been full of ice and water bottles, and energy bars. Now the ice was halfway melted. They were helpful for balance as I picked my way forwards, sometimes stepping up or down two or three feet from when one stretch of clear girder gave way to a lower one, or stepped up. Often those meant turns, generally not sharp turns – the guys with the oxy torches were doing their best to make forwards progress across the tangled metal wreckage, and doing a pretty good job of it.
Did I mention it was noisy? You don’t associate the Pile with noise but it was deafening – a sort of rumbling, cracking, crunching ongoing groan from below, from the inferno all around. From here and there, direction hard to discern, came indistinct shouts.
Here and there, fewer now I was over the Pit itself, were people – FDNY, contractors coming back and forth, according to rumor some Feds looking for evidence. I offered my buckets to them, careful to alternate which buckets so that the weights in each hand would be constant. You did not want to lose your balance over the Pile.
The oxy torches were actinic dots through the billowing, rumbling smoke. Men in heavy long coats and welding masks were behind them, and I shouted to get their attention. When they turned their heads I offered them the buckets. Gloved hands pawed through, taking bottles, raising their masks and chugging lukewarm Evian. They took handfuls of what was left of the ice and splashed it across their faces, or down the necks of their aprons. Nodding, thumbs-up, gestures of thanks.
“Anything else you guys need?” I shouted to be heard above the roaring smoke.
“Oxy. New blades.” One guy had a metal-cutting circular saw.
I gave them a thumbs-up: “I’ll see what I can do.”
My unit had those things, but we weren’t supposed to deliver them. Problem was that the teams at the very front were only supposed to be there a couple of hours at a time, but they wouldn’t leave. In part it was because amidst the noise and the constant billowing darkness it was hard to tell the time, and part of it was duty. So the high-ups had decided to enforce shifts by limiting their resources, so that they’d have to go back. It didn’t always work – they loaded themselves up with dangerously ungainly backpacks of spare oxy cylinders, hung Makita packs of extra saw blades onto their belts. Duty above common sense. The reason they were only allowed to work short shifts was because it didn’t take long to lose focus in that environment, and on the Pile losing your focus could get you killed.
I wish I could claim credit for how it was duty that almost won me a Darwin Award. Instead it was disobedience, laziness, and stupidity.
The teams were advancing along lines of what I think were most-stable, and I’d been warned my first time that you did NOT want to go off the marked path. They weren’t parallel, but one time I had about half-full buckets and could see the nearest path, to my right as I headed back from the tip. It would have been forty or fifty yards (I think? Distance in that environment was hard to gauge) back to where they diverged, and the same distance forwards. By then the ice water would be more than lukewarm.
I just chain-smoked three cigarettes. I need a drink, which I am not going to have because there’s none in the house and at 9 pm Sunday night I’d have to walk to Lakemba and I can damn well write this sober.
I could see the marker lights from the next path about 8-10′ away. Feet, not yards. In places the girders had fallen like a lattice, and some of the ground in between was stable. It did not cross my mind that bottled water and ice were cheap, and since the guys I was going to didn’t know I was coming anyway (there was no regular schedule for our refreshments, just whenever someone felt inclined and had the time) they wouldn’t have cared if I had to go back and get new buckets.
So I scrutinised the ground, thinking that after a few days of this I could tell what was safe and what was not. This is what the statisticians call a biased data sample. About halfway through, about my height in distance, the girder under me suddenly dropped under my weight, bending sharply downwards. I may or or may not have screamed and I don’t remember the next moments well but I dropped the buckets and in some half-instant’s calculation followed the impulse to run forwards, throwing myself toward the glow-stick with arms reaching outwards as the ground below me disappeared. Red flames for a moment in the gap, dull orange flames where I would have fallen.
I did not have water to bring them.
I reported back. May have been a little shaken. Nobody noticed, I think. I got to work stuffing liners into hard-hats. I would have died an idiot’s death and my friends or family would never have known how I’d vanished.
A horrible thought arises now as I type this at 9:06 pm Sunday 23 May 2021: there WERE guys from our unit who just left, some of them without saying anything. Some people couldn’t take it, or they had other commitments (that’s why I eventually had to go). I said goodbye, not everyone did. Now I wonder if that *did* happen to someone. It could very easily have.
Sorry if this is too heavy. I wish I could say writing it is therapeutic, but no. I feel it’s necessary, though.
Sometimes we do the sucky necessary things, because we’re the ones who can do them and they have to be done.
People All Over My Boots: A Story of Ground Zero
Writing this to you rather than [the first recipient] because frankly, this kind of thing is not going to be remotely the fuck motivating or inspiring in any way whatsoever to someone who was fucking THERE AT THE TIME. Only in the context of the last story is this actually easy to write, but…
What the hell. Here’s what happened. More stream of consciousness from twenty years ago. All the details are correct as I remember them.
“Hey! Watch your motherfucking step!”
They were clearing the Pile like cones, slowly going forwards and expanding out from the base wherever it was safe. All those guys needed water and PowerBars.
I was standing in goo. Guck was nothing unusual there, no more than any other construction site. EMTs with their kits didn’t stand by every puddle, though. And this was more like gelatin.
This is how I learned that after two weeks of intense heat, some rain, and a whole lot of smoke, the human body jellifies.
I looked down, then up at the two EMTs; my eyes met one of them and he slowly nodded. I hadn’t stepped into something dangerous. I had stepped into SOMEONE.
“Oh man. Oh man. Oh man.” I long-stepped out of it. “I am so so fucking sorry.”
“It’s OK. They’re past noticing.” The EMTs had been getting ready to scrape the mess up. They were actually wearing their respirators, which was unusual there. The one who’d yelled at me had pushed his down off his mouth so he could.
I scrambled down the rubble past people, not giving a shit. I think I may have left a bucket behind. As soon as I was in a clear area, brown dust and dirt everywhere, I bent over and my stomach went into fits vomiting itself empty, then bile, then traces of bile.
There was goo all over my boots. Goo that two weeks earlier had been a person.
I pulled them off, took a rock, and scraped them dry. Wanted to throw them away, but – wasn’t going to run around there in just socks. I scraped, scoured, scourged those boots while my stomach made noises about dry-heaving. Then I went back to base.
Base was the mezzanine of the World Financial Centre, immediately next to the WTC. You got there by climbing a dead escalator past the front desk where we took requests and checked out such equipment as required ID cards for security on its return. Lieutenant Scully was there.
“Leo, what happened?”
“I’m fine.” Scully had had worse. I’ll tell you Scully’s story next.
“No you’re fucking not, what happened out there?”
“Just give me something to do, please. I’m fine.”
“You want an order?”
I nodded eagerly. “What needs to be done?”
“Go to that red cooler and drink at least four shots of what you find in there. Wash it down with your grapefruit juice*.”
* A few days earlier I’d asked the volunteers at the steak kitchen on one of the boats docked at the marina, if they had any grapefruit juice (they had orange and pineapple). I’d expected them to glance down at their ice boxes and either give me a bottle of it or shake their heads and think no more. They hadn’t had any, but one of them asked who I was with: “Technical Services,” because, well, I was. A few hours later someone came up to our mezzanine with a whole goddamn flat pallet, 24 or 30 or something, of bottles of grapefruit juice for “the Australian guy.”
What turned out to be in the red cooler was a bottle of Grey Goose. I turned around and looked at Scully.
“That’s an order. At least four shots, Leo. Now.”
Then I got back to work, helping one of the other guys sort out some tote boxes of flashlights that had just arrived from – not Yankee Stadium, but there was another place out in Brooklyn they’d been using as a logistical marshalling point alongside Javitz. We’d learned at Javitz that you didn’t want to pack flashlights and batteries together, because doing so involved taking the brand-new flashlights out of their protective plastic packaging, putting batteries in, and piling the flashlights unprotected into tote boxes that were then shipped across town. The people out in Brooklyn hadn’t gotten the word, so when the boxes arrived two thirds of the goddamn flashlights were broken in transit and we had to test each one to see which were trash (batteries removed for later use) and which could be issued. The sheer amount of well-intentioned logistical WASTE there, caused by shit-poor communications and people not thinking, was stupendous. I would say that at least half the donated supplies, possibly well over 90% in some categories, were wasted.
Writing that paragraph took my mind off the concept as much as an hour testing and unscrewing flashlights did at the time, although more vodka was involved.
Australian media likes to refer to its Olympic medalists as heroes. I never liked that, because while the focus and dedication it requires to run or swim fast, or jump well, is certainly to be admired – there’s not much personal risk (one could argue that investing your teenaged years and much of your twenties in grueling, intense training for a few chances at an Olympic medal is something of one), and nobody really benefits from your achievement.
I spent most of my time at Ground Zero as part of a unit called Technical Services. We were based on the mezzanine of the World Financial Centre, and our job was logistics. Everything from power tools to PowerBars went through us; we had a little stall on the outside of the building right next to where the Pile rose, a few collapsible tables with ice chests below where people could get their water, their gatorade, their PowerBars and candy.
The boss was one Lieutenant Mike Scully of the FDNY. He was a sandy-haired middle-aged guy; when you’re 20 everyone between about 30 and 55 looks middle-aged, but I figure he was somewhere around the middle of that range.
Scully had been based midtown, second in command of a three-vehicle ladder company, the morning of 9/11. A little under half of his guys were on shift, but it turns out that a lot of FDNY guys listen to the scanner even when they’re OFF shift. As the planes hit and they mounted up, guys started reporting in. As they deployed outside the World Trade Centre, more from the unit met them there. One of them was the company commander, a captain who’d lived out in Brooklyn.
Captain takes over.
Scully objected: It’s my shift.
Captain pulled rank: It’s my company. You stay downstairs.
Scully did as he was told; apparently the company’s second-in-command role is to stay with the vehicles and communicate as needed. The personal radios only carry so far.
Captain led the rest of the company, barring two guys in the other vehicles, upstairs. Radio contact was lost around the tenth floor. Towers fell. None of those men ever came back down.
Those guys knew what they were doing. They were volunteers both for the job of firefighter and to go upstairs.
Scully was a hero, although after some therapeutic alcohol he did emphatically say that he felt like a fucking coward and wished he’d decked his commander, broken the man’s jaw and thus kept him downstairs due to incapacitation.
I never liked hearing successful sportspeople referred to as heroes. Since 9/11 I’ve fucking hated it. Those guys for all the respect it takes to hit balls well, do not deserve to be mentioned in the same chapter as the FDNY.
Speaking of chapters, I’ve wondered at times where the FDNY fit into the Streetsverse. Elite shock troops with axes and flamethrowers have crossed my mind.
But nope. I am not going to insult the FDNY by putting them in any capacity into a fictional dystopia. The FDNY do not exist in the Streetsverse. The last of them retired a hundred years earlier.
Because while there are men like Lieutenant Scully and his captain, and the others I knew there – I knew Scully, but I have no reason to think his courage or his duty were exceptional for the organisation – the city will not fall into dystopia. They will not allow it, and no society capable of producing that level of virtue can really be considered a dystopia.
I am not going to cheapen them with fiction.
2 thoughts on “Remembrance Day: Twenty Years Later”
Thank you for sharing these remembrances. We need to hear/read more of these.
Thank you for stepping up and helping.
These are powerful.
“Because while there are men like Lieutenant Scully and his captain, and the others I knew there – I knew Scully, but I have no reason to think his courage or his duty were exceptional for the organisation – the city will not fall into dystopia. They will not allow it, and no society capable of producing that level of virtue can really be considered a dystopia.”
And that is why, despite the screaming incompetence and evil of the current federal government and bureaucracies, I know that we, the people, will pull ourselves out of this morass.
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