John D. Klim, Wayne, NJ FD
On 9/13 I went with two companies of men from the Wayne, NJ, fire department to volunteer in NYC. It was an experience that is difficult to finds words for, but please let me try, as writing to family and friends is my solace. We drove our cars to the Javitz convention center where volunteers were being coordinated. We were met there with an experience that I never expected and will never forget. People were lined up on both sides of 34th street ready to volunteer to do whatever was asked of them, whether it be to hand out bottles of water or put on a hard hat and dig in the rubble. I choked back tears when as we off loaded our gear and walked to the transport area. The civilians waiting in line to volunteer their services erupted in cheers, applause, and Thank Yous. Never let anyone tell you that New Yorkers don't have good and pure hearts. That night they showed hearts filled with love as big as their city. Again and again ordinary citizens walked up and offered homemade sandwiches, fresh coffee, water, and other refreshments. One woman came up to us with a bag full of new socks and offered them to us and asked us to take some to the trade center. She told us that she heard clean, dry socks were needed there and that she immediately went out and bought all she could find. When our crew eventually loaded in the back of a dump truck to head down the west side the crowd at the convention center again erupted in support.
The route downtown was also lined with New Yorkers who cheered, waved flags, held signs of support and offered water, food, even fresh clothing to take to workers at the scene. I was overwhelmed by a sense of great inner pride for firefighters everywhere, but at the same time was reluctant to offer even a wave back to the people of NYC, because I felt I personally hadn't done anything to deserve their adulation. I felt it was in fact our brothers and sisters of FDNY who were suffering the greatest and working the hardest for the city and who needed their show of love. I soon realized that in their dark hour the people of NYC needed a way to express their overwhelming appreciation for the sacrifices made by their NYC firefighters to any person who wore a NYC firefighter's gear or otherwise, so I waved back to let them know their efforts were appreciated and that their heartfelt outpouring of sentiment would be carried to the scene where it was most needed. The love displayed by the people of NYC that night was and shall be strong enough to rebuild a crippled city.
We soon learned that in order to complete the route to the trade center it was necessary to take a short boat ride. We unloaded from the truck and boarded a small police boat at Pier 25. Bobbing and tossing made our way along the harbor side. Anticipation and anxiety were palpable inboard. Some sat in quiet meditation as they stared into the skyline, others made nervous small talk, a few made last minute phone calls to loved ones. No one really knew what to expect from the next few hours and none had ever in their life considered the possibility of being where they were at that moment in history.
We were finally dropped off directly at the WTC pier. It was like stepping off onto the landscape of another planet. It was night by that time and dark except for the emergency lighting which bathed the waterfront area in an eerie yellow glow. The buildings were windowless and dark and seemed as looming giants ready to rage for the pain that had been inflicted upon them. As we walked further into the Trade complex every surface was covered in a choking dust which colored the entire landscape gray and lifeless. Paper and light debris danced to and fro like lost spirits on a directionless wind. Moving closer to the site of impact we were met by an army of persons that moved hurriedly about in coveralls and jumpsuits, their faces hidden behind goggles and breathing masks. Heavy machinery crept along like giant metal creatures, backup buzzers sounding as workers moved them into position. The entire scene was other worldly and it was only the company of fellow firefighters that reminded me I was still on planet Earth.
We wandered for a few minutes in disorientation trying to find official direction for our energies.
At one point a crush of panicked workers ran towards the pier when someone called out that one of the remaining buildings was about to collapse. The chaos soon subsided and our men regrouped. We committed to stay together no matter what might happen that night, and I suggested that if we had to run again not to look back because you wanted to focus ahead and not fall down. We heard that one person was trampled already that day and that workers were so fearful they even jumped into the river. Plus, if a building was coming down, you didn't want to see it coming for you! We talked a little more and committed to staying. We soon learned that to get to ground zero and go to work it was necessary to pass through one of the outlying buildings. We trudged down a long, dark, water-filled hallway which gave the sense that we were passing into the bowels of some ghastly underworld. Upon exiting through an outer doorway we were met with hell on earth. My first instinct was to look upward in awe and disbelief at what confronted my senses. The skin of the remaining, surrounding buildings were torn and scarred from the force of the collapse and formed the walls of a canyon in which massive piles of rubble and twisted steel rose and sank like giant burial mounds for two full square blocks. Towering steel girders shot 30 and 40 feet into the night sky-like grave markers reaching out to heaven. Spot fires smoldered in the evil wreckage as the smoke and dust formed to cast a pale haze which diffused the bright pierce of emergency lighting. Portions of the outer skin of the towers still stood a hundred feet high like steel curtains that were set up to keep out the life and light of the real world.
In that haze and like a miracle put in motion shone the light of several hundred brave and caring souls. They formed single file lines which had many origins within that hellish landscape and stretched like the fingers of giant caring hands towards the outer perimeter of the disaster scene. Under a sparkling night sky and through those lines passed hundreds of five gallon buckets filled with debris. Once reaching the end of the line they were emptied and returned to their origin where angels labored to the point of exhaustion on hands and knees digging and cutting into the piles to refill the buckets with scoopfuls of broken concrete, paper, and steel. As they dug, those empathetic heroes remained ever mindful that any item of potential personal significance should be set aside for identification purposes and even among the odor of death, continually hoped and prayed to find a void holding survivors.
We worked for several hours to provide aid in any way we could by digging, cutting, handing off buckets while the night sky continuously and ominously flashed with lightning. The air hung heavy and humid as thunder rolled over the tops of our heads. The physical and mental exhaustion of FDNY soon became clear and apparent. My heart could feel the pain and desperation in their souls. It poured from their dry, encrusted eyes. It was discouraging when as quiet was called for across the pile, to looked up from focusing on one very small hole that was scratched in one very small area of the pile to once again be confronted with the enormity of it all. We had only been there a few short hours. FDNY had been digging for days for their own and it seemed like an endless job with little hope for life to be found. Where would they possibly find the strength to continue? Our hearts were filled with that thought when just as a heavy downpour began, we finally decided to depart the scene and travel home to our firehouses where every member was present, accounted for, and ready for duty. The brave men and women of FDNY would need to continue to search for days for hundreds of their own who had answered their final alarm.
Stay strong, stay brave brothers and sisters of FDNY you are always in our thoughts and prayers.
Copyright 2001 by John D. Klim. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission of the author.