Five years ago this morning, I had just voted (in the primary election for Mayor), and was walking to work, listening to Morning Edition on my earphones. At about 8:50, the broadcast was interrupted by a report that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. At that point, information was sketchy. It could have been a small prop plane, and the first thing I thought of was that picture from the 40s of a plane crashing into the Empire State Building. By the time I reached the office, there were rumors of a second plane hitting the other tower. Convinced that this just couldn’t be right, I removed my headphones and headed to the cafeteria for a bowl of oatmeal.
Of course, I was wrong—and had no way of knowing just how wrong I was. Yet, as I learned the horrific truth, I couldn’t help but think that stopping for breakfast while thousands of people were dying a couple of miles away was a greviously callous act. Later in the day, I sought penance by attempting to donate blood (and was turned away from several hospitals). Still later, I began volunteering for the Red Cross at the Family Assistance Center on Pier 94, and helped launch nyrelief, an online bulletin board for New Yorkers looking for volunteer opportunities.
Volunteering at the FAC may not have washed away the survivor guilt I felt, but it was the right thing to do. Most of my time there, I was in a Red Cross file room, sorting the thousands of aid requests that had come in from those touched directly by the attacks, along with those touched only peripherally; requests came in from as far away as South Jersey and Putnam County, many from those whose livelihoods had been temporarily interrupted by the closing of Lower Manhattan. Those that came from victims’ families were handed over to the head of the unit for high-priority processing. I still remember her—like many of the Red Cross volunteers, she was a retiree from the midwest or south—cradling one of those files. “These are my babies,” she said, maternal instinct kicking in as she tried to find something in her Red Cross training that would help her make it all better for the family.
My one encounter with the families was October 28, 2001, when I volunteered for urn duty. In hopes of giving the families—many of whom would never have a body to bury—something they could hold onto to remember their loved ones, the city had created a series of wooden urns and filled them with dirt from Ground Zero. Each urn was placed in a box with a flag and a metal plate that could be engraved. One by one, the family members came to us and accepted our solemn offering. We had a prepared statement—“the citizens of the City of New York offer our sincere condolences. This urn is our gift in honor and memory of your loss”—and our unprepared responses. Hugs, words of commiseration, a hand to hold. One woman burst into tears as she approached my table. Another smiled stiffly and said, “I know it’s strange that I’m smiling. I’m just happy to have some closure.”
That was my last day at the pier. Soon thereafter, the Family Assistance Center, which had hitherto been run by the City, was handed over to FEMA, and its character changed overnight. Under the City’s management, it had largely been controlled by organizations like the Red Cross and Safe Horizon, which filled it with a sense of mission—and compassion. The walls were lined with drawings sent in by schoolchildren around the country; volunteers fed the “clients” as they awaited services; flowers were everywhere. Under FEMA, it quickly became a bureaucratic processing center, focused on one thing: getting the paperwork done and moving on. Even the children’s drawings were taken down, as if they’d somehow distract from the mission at hand.
To this day, I can’t help but remember those days spent in the cavernous pier as among the most meaningful in my life. The day we handed out the urns, The New York Times ran an item in which it singled out the FAC, calling it a “bright spot,” and saying that “many victims’ relatives expressed amazement at the sensitive and efficient treatment they received from a wide range of agencies, including the Red Cross, represented at the center.” I’ll always be proud to have been a part of it—though, more than anything, I’ll always wish I hadn’t had to.