Year Zero

Red Cross Courier

by Jonathan Wallace

October 20, 2001

Year Zero is an episodic series of essays on ethical and practical implications of the present crisis. Subscribe here.

Worry is wasteful and useless in times like these; I won't be made useless.--Jewel

For several weeks we had lived with a deep but general anxiety. At first, for a day or so, we reacted as if to a terrible train wreck: the destruction of the World Trade Center was a one time event, with no implications for the future. Then it sank in quickly that it was the first shot fired in a series, and we began to think about what might come next.

Nonetheless my wife and I got up each day, took the subway, went into Manhattan and lived our lives as normally as was possible in the shadow of six thousand deaths. There was no specific threat to focus on, just the knowledge that there were men out there, and possibly among us, ready to kill more of us when ordered to or when the opportunity arose.

On Sunday, October 7, after a walk in the woods, we came back home to change clothes before going to a barbecue at the home of a new friend. I turned on CNN and we learned that the bombing had begun. Our fears crystallized even before we saw the Osama bin Laden video, for we felt that after three weeks of hush the war at home would begin now in earnest.

Then the network ran the bin Laden tape, another confident chess move of a formidable adversary, and we listened to him say:

America has been filled with horror from north to south and east to west, and thanks be to God that what America is tasting now is only a copy of we have tasted....God has blessed a group of vanguard Muslims, the forefront of Islam, to destroy America.

We felt a pervasive fear at this, like a fog which interferes with visibility without eliminating it. When Tony Blair came on, with his intelligent, confident style, which almost succeeded in making the horrible normal and able to be fronted, we responded with almost pathetic appreciation, that the British were our friends and so avid to help and defend us.

At the barbecue, we met an old acquaintance, a woman whose son had gone to school with ours, who told us she had been driving for the Red Cross. She was an English professor at a local college who was glad to drive because she had no other skills to offer. I immediately knew I wanted to do the same.

The next morning, back in New York City, I got on the subway with a new appreciation of its topography. I had learned to think like Al Quaeda. If a suicide bomber was planning to detonate himself on the subway, I thought, he would most likely do so when the train passes under the river. I looked for the terrorist in every car--and found him, for everywhere, not surprisingly, were vaguely Middle Eastern-looking men wearing thick clothing or carrying backpacks.

At Fourteenth Street I walked the two blocks to the PATH station. There was a crowd of people standing on the sidewalk and police cars nearby with lights flashing; as I watched, a van pulled up, BOMB SQUAD stencilled on the side. It occurred to me that an Al Quaeda bomb would probably be strong enough to buckle the sidewalk and dump us all down the hole; I drew back a hundred more feet, realized the fallacy of watching and the fact that it might take more than an hour to clear the station.

I started to walk up to Twenty-third Street, the next PATH station, eating a bagel as I walked. Not because I really expected the station to be operational, but to have something to do. A young woman, college age, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "I know you didn't drop it on purpose, but I wanted you to know I picked up your bag." I stared at her with wild incomprehension. I hadn't dropped my briefcase; what bag was she talking about? I understood finally, that she was telling me I had littered: I had dropped the paper bag in which the bagel came. I wanted to say something like, "We're at war because six thousand people were murdered, the government is warning that more of us will likely die now, and I couldn't take the PATH train to work because of a bomb scare, and you're remonstrating with me about littering." But I realized for her, God was in the details--just as for me, the devil was. So I thanked her and went on.

The Twenty-third street PATH station was of course closed because of the bomb investigation at Fourteenth. Someone told me of a free bus to a ferry which would take me to Hoboken. From there I knew I could improvise a route to Newark. I caught the bus which threaded its way in a long loop around the city, taking me back past Fourteenth Street where I could see the bomb squad was still at work.

The ferry station, at Thirty Fourth Street on the Hudson, was packed with people who usually took the PATH. The day had turned blustery cold, a winter's day, and I was underdressed because I had not expected to be outdoors. I stood with a great throng of people on a floating dock, listening to its timbers shift and groan. As a New Yorker I rarely talk to strangers but, the rules already broken, I joined a conversation about September 11, asking a man who said he had worked at Five World Trade Center about the fate of the building. It is the one with the Borders bookstore, the building I walked through every morning on the way to the train, and I had seen from Wall Street a few days before that it was still intact but with all the windows blown out. "The front is all right," he said, "but the back of the building is missing." He had arrived from New Jersey via the PATH just after the second plane hit, and he had had to decide whether to evacuate the building ("the whole place smelled of kerosene") or get back on the train. He did the latter. It was the second time I had heard of a train evacuating people after both towers were in flames. He had watched the rest from the Jersey side.

I told him about my experience emerging from the subway to the street and a woman who was with him said, "I must have been on that same train." She worked in Two World Trade Center, hence stood and watched her office burning. Co-workers who had just gotten out grabbed her by the arms and hauled her uptown to their company's emergency center.

On the ferry, I was very cold but interested to view Ground Zero from the river as we passed the lower tip of Manhattan. I saw the Winter Garden in Battery Park City, where falling debris had punctured the greenhouse roof and killed people trying to shelter there, and the huge rubble heap known as the Pile, still leaking smoke in numerous places.

This is the way we live now. I walked from the Colgate ferry stop to the Exchange Place station. I was almost three hours late to work because of what I later heard was a false alarm due to someone leaving a bag with an appliance--a vacuum cleaner or coffee maker, I don't remember--on the platform.

That night my wife and I walked over to the Red Cross office in Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn. The place, with its somewhat disorganized bustle, was very cheery. The connection was immediate: I didn't need to convince anyone I could help. There was a short evaluation--what was my relationship to what happened? Did I suffer from asthma or other health concerns? A minute later, I was signed up to drive the next night, from ten until six in the morning.

The Red Cross' Brooklyn facility is an old, squat building that could have originally been a school or some type of administrative office. The Red Cross was about to sell it, and move to smaller quarters, when September 11 came. It was chosen, over the Manhattan facility on West 66th Street, to serve as headquarters because of its greater size. It has the depressing architecture and green decor of a building born for bureaucracy, but it is floated by the tremendous spirit of the organization, which within a day after the planes hit the towers had started bringing volunteers in from all over the country.

Previously I knew little about the Red Cross except for the cliched image of the ambulance on a World War I battlefield and the occasional news report about relief efforts in Third World countries. I learned that the New York chapter had concentrated on two efforts: blood donations, and going to the sites of the city's ten to fifteen daily fires, providing shelter and support to the victims. Several Red Cross volunteers, there supporting a fire brigade, died at the World Trade Center on September 11.

The volunteers in other states concentrate on hurricanes and floods. In every state the Red Cross has a local chapter supported by these volunteers, who donate major chunks of their time to the organization's routine activities, and seek occasional assignments to large disasters elsewhere in the country. Because they have to be able to leave for weeks at a time, many Red Cross volunteers are retired, while others work for state governments or other employers who can tolerate long absences.

On Tuesday night, I reported to a small room on the first floor of headquarters where the courier operation was based. We had a dispatcher, a woman named Melissa, who wrote out white slips telling us where to go and whom to pick up, then handed us car keys and a cell phone. In the lot out back were fifty or sixty Red Cross vehicles, including Ryder trucks and fifteen passenger vans, and some donated BMW's which all of the couriers clamored to drive.

It was like a local car service assigned to a greater good. My fellow couriers included a Manhattan doorman, a computer guy who worked for the city, an unemployed airport freight handler, an emergency med tech, a young female accountant, and a technology auditor who also was a volunteer mounted officer for the Parks Department. A courier I met when I drove a day shift later was an older German man, who had been a child in Berlin during the Allied bombing. "This is nothing compared to that," he said, and I believed him. Then there was a welder, originally from Brooklyn, who had lived in Hawaii for twenty years. As soon as the planes started flying, he came to New York to work on the Pile, but three weeks later he was released because he didn't belong to the local union. So he was a courier instead. I heard there was another lawyer driving, but I never met him.

The first night, I mainly shuttled out of town volunteers between Red Cross facilities and five Manhattan hotels where the organization housed most of its people. All of these were in the West 40's and 50's. To get there, I took the Brooklyn bridge entrance a hundred yards from headquarters, where I passed through a police checkpoint, then took an emergency lane across the bridge. Most of that night the bridge was empty anyway, but on other nights I had the pleasure of breezing across while two other lanes of traffic inched along. Whatever I drove qualified as an emergency vehicle; most of the time when I showed my Red Cross ID to the cops, they would wave me through, though at certain checkpoints they would search the van in a desultory way, sometimes opening a door and looking in, other times shining a flashlight through the window.

The last time I had been on the Brooklyn Bridge was on September 11, running away from the attack. I exited and hooked a left at Chambers, where I had to pass a serious checkpoint to get into the "frozen zone"; I crossed its northern side, with an occasional sideways glance to the bent steel skeletons and laboring cranes of Ground Zero. The streets here were always wet, as they were washed all the time to lay the pervasive white dust. During this traverse I could smell the acrid smoke from the Pile. At the West Side Highway, closed to everything except emergency vehicles, I had to pass another checkpoint, this one staffed by rather frightening men in plainclothes with semi-automatic weapons. In a few minutes, halfway up Manhattan, there would be one more.

Everywhere in the frozen zone and on the West Side Highway one ignored traffic lights, which were still functioning, or at best treated a red light as a stop sign--roll up, take a look, pass through. Along the highway were the huge trucks being used to haul the wreckage to the landfill in Staten Island. At 55th street, Pier 94, the center for the bereaved families, where I made a number of trips.

The volunteers were housed at special Red Cross rates at elegant hotels like the Parker Meridian and the Marriott. In four nights of driving so far, I have probably ferried 100 people, but the majority of them have crystallized into one figure, the ur-volunteer, a pear-shaped, white-haired grandmother exuding strength and competence, with a midwestern or southern accent and a friendly amazement at the city's traffic and noise. I took fifteen of them in the large van one night and they all had trouble climbing in--their strength, while immense, was psychological, force of will rather than muscles. I adored these women, felt wonderfully grateful that they had come to our city to organize local volunteers, care for children, serve food, run supply depots, and do counseling and social work.

On my second night of driving, Melissa the dispatcher casually asked me to take a cargo van of blankets and sweatshirts into Ground Zero, to the Red Cross Respite Center #3 at the Marriott Marquis Financial Center hotel on West Street. I went through the Chambers Street checkpoint, then made a left just short of the highway and passed another checkpoint to go down West Street past the former site of the twin towers. The air was incredibly acrid, as the ruins are still aflame in numerous places. As I inched down West Street, I kept looking out the van window at the Pile, where firemen were hosing down the flames. I realized that tonight was the one month anniversary of the attack. I had heard of month-long fires before, but only in coal mines and thick forests.

Looking at the heaps of concrete and the twisted steel skeletons my mind went quite blank, as it had when I watched the buildings falling on CNN: though I knew intellectually that the remains of more than four thousand people are in the Pile, I was unable to acknowledge that a scene already more disturbing than anything I ever thought I would see in my lifetime, was also a mass grave.

Under the glare of the spotlights, the scene was as hellish as you would expect. The faces of the people everywhere were expressionless or solemn. Most people at the site were not wearing gauze masks or respirators, despite the intensity of the acrid smoke, which I could still feel in my throat the next day, after a visit that lasted only a half hour.

At the Red Cross orientation session, we were told the three "S"'s: no sightseeing, no snapshots, no souvenirs. When in Ground Zero, you go directly to your assigned area, do your job and leave when you're through. People who wander away are arrested. Reportedly there are troops with night vision sniper scopes in buildings around the site, and when they see anybody who does not clearly belong where he is, especially if he is picking up rubble, they are on him in a moment.

I had to pass through the entire site to get to Respite #3, which is on the southern side. I pulled in to the loading dock of the Marriott where several large volunteer workers had my van emptied in a moment. I talked to them and to a security officer and a Red Cross supervisor. Their sheer normality, their friendly casualness in the shadow of the Pile, seemed remarkable to me. Threading my way back out, staring again at the Pile, I remembered that the other Marriott, a block away, had been destroyed in the collapse. In innocent times, I had been to meetings and computer industry trade shows in both hotels.

A four hour shift might involve two or three trips. In the time in between the couriers sit and talk--about the attacks but also Star Trek, the Yankees, and the latest volunteer whose Red Cross ID was pulled for breaking the rules. People speculate about joining the metalworkers union and getting a job at Ground Zero paying forty dollars an hour. The doorman told us how the rich tenants shower him with gifts when they are vacating their apartments--appliances, record collections, even jewelry they no longer want. Several of us had been at or near the towers on the morning of September 11; we exchanged our stories while the dispatcher, an out of town volunteer, listened with interest. When another driver and I discovered that we fled across the bridge at the same time, Jennifer, Melissa's successor, asked if either of us had thought about running in rather than away--an indiscreet question saved by her naive and friendly candor. No, we both said without hesitation, but neither uttered what we were thinking: that we would be better men if we had, but were both here because we hadn't.

Another memorable assignment was a trip to the Bellevue emergency room the third night, to pick up a Red Cross supervisor and a patient and take them back to their hotel. At Bellevue, peculiarly, the emergency room is hidden away far inside the hospital; you can't drive right up to it. I parked the van illegally on the street and left it with the lights flashing, then walked the long covered sidewalk to the entrance. Hundreds of missing posters, which had been put up in the first few days, had been covered over with plastic to preserve them. I wanted to stop and look but didn't have time.

Bellevue's is a classic chaotic New York emergency room; I have been in too many. People on gurneys everywhere awaiting processing, the interns and nurses shouting to one another, too busy to stop and direct a passerby. The only thing new and different was the sign that said, if you have a fever, flu symptoms, or a sore, please tell us right away. Fear of anthrax, which had just been found in New York City the day before. I found my passengers: a gray-haired male supervisor and one of his volunteers, a young woman exposed to an unknown white powder on her first day with the Red Cross in New York City. Barefoot and carrying her clothes in a plastic bag, she was even-tempered but wide-eyed, frightened but not talking about it. I took her back to her hotel to await the results of her anthrax test.

Late on the first night, driving had already become a very comfortable routine. I discovered my favorite routes in and out of the city; short cuts and tricks; the garage on West 66th street where we could gas up for free. As a lifelong New Yorker, I didn't get my driver's license until I was in my thirties, and for years I had a cautious, distrustful relationship with automobiles: at the outset I was the type of driver who annoyed everyone by driving ten miles under the speed limit but who never got a ticket. The kind who angry drivers flashed with their headlights when I wandered into the fast lane. But more than a decade of experience had relaxed me. Now I discovered that I drew vitality from the mindlessness, the physicality, of driving. After September 11, I didn't want to work with my mind any more. For the moment I would rather be a courier than be the CEO of the Red Cross.

A related realization came at four a.m. as I was driving down Broadway, heading back to Brooklyn. Earlier that day, I had started at every backfire, stared intently at every low-flying plane, played over and over in my imagination the sidewalk fragmenting and settling in a huge blast, the oncoming fireball, the agony-snapshot as one's body flew to pieces. Now, driving, I was concentrating on navigating Columbus Circle, on avoiding the orange cones in the emergency lane, on living in the mirrors of the van. I had forgotten fear.