Ten years ago my youngest son pulled me up to the roof where we could see the smoke from the destruction of the first World Trade Center tower. We watched in horror as smoke billowed, soon to be followed by windrifts of shredded paper and air full of a peculiar dust smelling of construction debris and dead bodies which lasted for weeks. Subways and roads had been closed so I couldn’t grab my EMT bag to help the survivors, and word soon came that there was no need for additional EMTs with so few injured survivors. People apparently either got out or they were pulverized.
At that time I was at Old First Church, serving as the top layperson in a church without permanent clergy. I decided we should open the church since people would be worried and the walkers escaping Manhattan would need somewhere to sit down on their way towards home. Soon a crowd formed, exchanging information, needing to share fears. Someone brought a radio since cell phones were out. Others brought flowers. The front steps of Old First became a nerve center for the community, for people regardless of affiliation.
Around 7:00 two of us decided we needed to close up and go home, but it was clear that people still needed a way to express themselves. I wondered whether we should put up paper that people could write on and she knew of a roll of butcher paper. We taped large sheets to the wooden front door, labeled one, “Lord Hear Our Prayers” and taped a box of markers for people to use. I came by two hours later and the sheets were full, candles were set on the front steps and bouquets of flowers were arranged around like a small shrine. The next few days we set up more, finally around 10 six foot sheets of paper were filled.
I came by Old First yesterday and read the prayer sheets from 10 years ago, posted for the 10th anniversary memorial. It was interesting to see a total lack of vengeance. There were expressions of grief, of a lack of understanding, even expressions of anger to God, but also pleas for peace and wishes that no one would attack our Muslim neighbors (in a highly interracial community.) Overwhelmingly the messages prayed for the safety of specific people, that our local firemen might be found, prayers for peace and pleas not to generalize anger at the perpetrators to the vastly larger peaceful Muslim population. In fact I think that there was perhaps less vengeance in the reactions of New Yorkers than in people who were elsewhere in America. Maybe we were too busy (together with our Muslim neighbors) digging out and lending a hand to engage in the simplistic jingoism that lead to war.
One of my acupuncture professors, Phyllis Shapiro had coordinated with FEMA and the Acupuncture Society of NY to set up treatment for the flood of first responders who had volunteered to help look for survivors or bodies, I particularly remember working on an EMT who had come from Colorado where he had just worked at Columbine, the site of a mass murder in a high school. Often the rescue workers brought in their dogs, all of whom had died by the fifth anniversary of the crash. Respirators clogged up after a few minutes and there were no replacement charcoal filters, so most worked without protection, relying on false assertions from the EPA that the air was safe to breathe.
Of course the air was highly toxic. While fine powder of any sort is injurious to your respiratory system, this had 220 acres (each floor of the 110 story buildings was an acre in size) of vaporized mercury from florescent lamps, lead from pipes, asbestos, jet fuel and electronic equipment that had all kinds of heavy metals. One fireman pointed out that with all those floors of office space he never saw an entire telephone in the debris larger than a three inch part of a keypad or a single computer- most were vaporized. Adding to the toxic mix was the burned odor of dead bodies, a sickly sweetish odor that mixed with the construction debris, creating psychological as well as physical properties.
With Wendy Henry, Marcella Robinson and others, we created ,CRREW, a nonprofit volunteer group to provide acupuncture and other wellness services to the stressed out rescue workers and to residents of lower Manhattan. We worked on people during the cleanup, did numerous health fairs and events and finally ran a free clinic at the University Settlement House. The organization has worked with first and second responders in New York, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines. It got Acupuncturists Without Borders through FEMA lines in New Orleans and generally inspired a generation of acupuncture nonprofits.
The promised health care for the men and women working to clear up the Trade Center site seemed to fall victim to politics and the tight budgets left over after war costs. Programs through the Fire Department, St. Vincents, CRREW and Serving Those Who Serve which provided respiratory system herbs and stress reduction classes became sparser as funding dried up or volunteers grew fewer, needing to support themselves in hard times. Michael Moore invited our volunteer group for an introductory showing of Sicko, and we knew three of the Trade Center workers he took to Cuba. (They were present for the showing.) Funding for conventional medical care was only recently passed and cancer is still not funded, despite overwhelming evidence that the rescue workers get it earlier, more frequently and at atypical times in their lives.
Through the Brooklyn Interfaith Project, I became aware of other damage to our city. Some 25,000 Muslim neighbors were swept up in INS raids, with virtually none of them related to any terrorism. Most of them had immigrated here because they disapproved of regimes in their former countries. They were held in secret detention facilities without legal representation, phone calls to family or information on their rights. Stores on Coney Island Avenue and in Kensington or Flatbush closed as proprietors and workers disappeared. At least a sizable percentage were legal green card carriers. I never saw this covered by the conventional press.
Poverty and loss of life followed the jingoism that grew out of the reaction to the tragedy, with politicians cynically using pain and loss of pride, whipping up emotions into a frenzy of war. The New York Times estimated this week that the costs of reacting and overreacting was at least $3.3 trillion dollars (not counting interest or social costs.) For each dollar that Al Qedda invested in the attack itself, the cost to the United States was an astonishing $6.6 million. It gives creedence to Osama bin Laden’s video gloating about his plan of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.”
Stress and respiratory problems continue to plague New Yorkers who were present at the Trade Center. Those who did not lose relatives often did not avail themselves of help because others were worse off and may themselves have not processed the trauma as well as actual victims. We saw a flurry of ulcers, heart disease , depression, substance abuse, divorce, mental illness and other stress-related conditions six and 18 months after the incident, but high numbers still suffer even 10 years later. This is especially prevalent among the rescue workers, especially the EMTs and paramedics who did not have the same resources that the firemen received.
Most of us are back at work and don’t spend a lot of energy on the design controversies of the memorial. Perhaps it would have been more humane to let the site stand as an intact graveyard than to subject sanitation workers to searching the Fresh Kills Landfill for tiny body parts in toxic construction debris, but the value of real estate in lower Manhattan dictates otherwise.
Today I participated in a day of music and remembrance sponsored by our Community Bookstore, Old First Church, Congregation Beth Elohim and the Brooklyn Music Conservatory Chorale and Orchestra. Rabbi Andy Bachman recalled the time immediately after the attack, when New York City was at least briefly considered part of America and when America was considered with good will in much more of the world than today.