Safe Horizons Caseworker

by Jonathan Wallace

May 23, 2002

Year Zero is a series of essays combining my personal account of September 11 and its aftermath with reflections on ethical, legal, political, religious and other implications. The essays are all collected here. You can also subscribe to the Year Zero mailing list here.

From November until January I worked one afternoon a week with the families of people murdered at the World Trade Center. I was a volunteer caseworker for Safe Horizons, the former victim services agency. I spent most of my time filling out two forms, one registering new clients with the agency, and the other when they came back for follow-up visits.

The agency had received funds from United Way to be disbursed to the families in the amount of $7500 apiece. The rule was that we were to disburse it in $1500 increments every two weeks, against household bills indicating the family's financial need. The only qualification was a close relationship to a deceased person. Wealthy and poor families alike were entitled to the money. The relationship could be genetic, marriage, living together, even a same-sex partnership.

I got into it by way of being a lawyer. Within a week or two after September 11 I had answered email calls for volunteers from several lawyers' groups, but did not succeed in getting an assignment. Then I got into a program under which volunteer attorneys would prepare death certificate applications for the families. I attended a training session in the simplified procedure the city had created. You prepared an affidavit for the client stating the reasons why the loved one was believed to have been in the World Trade Center on September 11. There was no need for a body and no waiting period.

The training was in the Chemical Bank building a few yards from Ground Zero. You could smell the acrid smoke and see the earth-moving machinery working under bright lights on the Pile in the middle distance. Inside, someone asked one of the presenters, a psychologist, what to do if she started to cry while helping a client do the paperwork. He said, "Disengage and look for one of the rest areas where you can be alone for a while." There were also mental health workers and chaplains present everywhere whom you could ask for help.

I put my name on a calendar indicating when I was available to work, but I never got the call. The demand for death certificates was lower than the group had expected, and they had trained hundreds of lawyers to prepare the application. Many families were still, weeks after the events, not prepared to admit that their loved one was dead. The low demand was also partly attributable to the extraordinary dichotomy between the published numbers of dead and the real figures. We thought six thousand people had died but only half the number had. More than a thousand families came in in the first few weeks and after that, the applications levelled off. No application was necessary for the hundreds of bodies identified by the medical examiner, and some families sought relief through their own attorneys, without asking for help from the volunteers.

I was intensely disappointed. At the time, my whole emotional economy was organized around the principle of volunteering to do something related to September 11. It was a way not to feel so damn helpless. I had already started driving for the Red Cross, which was very rewarding in its own way but I wanted to meet the families, and if possible do something more cerebral than driving.

Then the bar association offered the idle death certificate trainees first crack at the Safe Horizons assignment. It wasn't really legal work, but neither was the death certificate assignment, which also involved filling out forms. I went for another training session, at the Bar Association building in midtown.

The idea which never really came to fruition was that we would be more than clerks; we would be guides, helping the families obtain benefits and information from other agencies than our own. It didn't really work out that way; most of the families, especially the repeat visitors, were already quite well acquainted with the different services available.

I worked in the cavernous Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 on the Hudson River at 58th Street. When I began, I had already spent a few days there as a Red Cross warehouse worker and had handed out urns of World Trade Center earth to the families at the memorial service on October 28.

Pier 94 was an unusual community founded on grief and determination. It was huge, drafty and provisional, with temporary dividers and curtains as walls. Every agency, governmental or private, that had a hand in the WTC relief effort was represented there. Except for the day of the memorial, when people collapsed in tears everywhere, the grief was very restrained, sublimated to determination and purpose. National Red Cross volunteers exuded grim cheerfulness; they had seen floods, hurricanes and tornados and this was different only in degree from what they knew, not in kind. Though the hall was drafty and cold, the people exuded warmth, and the place didn't lack for little touches and distractions, such as the ubiquitous teddy bears, candy and thank you notes from children, and the comfort dogs who waited everywhere to be petted or played with.

I suspect I am not alone in saying that Pier 94, like the Red Cross, was a sort of social club for me--and I have never before belonged to one. Unlike some of the volunteers, who were there every waking hour for months on end, I could not bear to go more than one afternoon a week, but it was an important day, giving shape and meaning to all my other activities. I was proud to wear the ID which allowed me to pass the security post in front.

I never analyzed the strong desire I felt, right after September 11, to spend time with the families. I think I had a mixture of motives. Of course, I wanted to help. Then, I was probably, like many others in that complicated time, a sort of grief-tourist just as I was also a danger-tourist. But I think that also I believed it would be healthy for me to be with people whose problems were so much worse than my own, to put my life in the perspective granted by theirs. I was feeling frightened and sorry for myself, to have been on the margins of the attack, and to be unemployed; but they had lived through something unimaginable to me, the violent murder of a spouse, partner, child or parent. In my head I constantly replayed the horror experienced by strangers who burned to death or were crushed or fell 100 stories on that crystalline fall day; but the film loops in their heads portrayed those same events happening to someone who they touched and smelled every day, whose noises and jokes they knew, who walked out the door that morning completely unaware, as were the people they left behind, that they were counting down the final two hours or so of their lives.

The day I started, about six weeks had elapsed since the attacks. I think I was surprised by how calm and practical most of the clients were. I do not know and hope not to find out if this is an equilibrium we all have, or if it is somehow created by the media attention or by community support. Perhaps it is simply good to have something else to occupy your mind than the constant replay. In any event, the families I saw were for the most part quite different than the people I met on the day we gave out the urns. They were practical people, clutching stacks of bills, fully aware of their entitlements. Few struck me as selfish or hostile, but some were prepared to tell you how they had been served better last time, or by another agency--a bigger check issued against less documentation. Most were dignified, calm and businesslike. I only saw one client cry--a woman who worked in the trade center and lived nearby, who lost an aunt, had a sick husband, and could not return to her apartment for months.

My first two clients were memorable for their contrasts. First I saw a Mexican family who had lost a son and brother, an illegal immigrant who worked in the Windows on the World restaurant atop the north tower. They were staying for a few weeks in his Queens basement apartment. One of the young men spoke a little English but we used an interpreter just to make sure we were communicating properly with each other. The parents had never been to the United States before. They were uncertain, undemanding and modest, here to settle their son's affairs and go back, and the $1500 I gave them was a very large amount of money to them. Next was the father of a deceased investment banker--the wife was too upset still to come in-- and the bills he presented included the monthly payment for a new BMW.

The Safe Horizons work area consisted of a line of temporary booths, about fifteen of them, similar to the ones set up at trade shows, and some tables and chairs opposite them. When you arrived for your shift, you claimed a place to sit; the booths were all assigned permanently to someone, except for a few grabbed by the volunteers who had been there since morning, so I always put my stuff down at one of the long tables. The whole of the pier had a very provisional feeling and in fact the powers-that-be kept changing its topography, so that nothing was quite the way you had left it last time. Working for Safe Horizons similarly had an unreal feeling, because life itself post 9-11 seemed to be taking place in an alternate universe, because dealing with the families of murdered people was so distressing and unusual, and because in the agency itself there was never a community in which I could anchor myself. I had the ID card which admitted me to the community of the Pier; but I never got to know anyone at Safe Horizons.

There were scores of volunteers there, many working full-time, and because I came in just one afternoon a week, worked hard and was otherwise quiet, they all stayed strangers to me. Week after week, I could see the same managers who had become familiar figures to me glance at my name-tag before addressing me. I did not exist in the Safe Horizons corporate memory; no-one logged in my comings and goings, oir kept a record of how many clients I had seen, or asked me how I was doing or if I needed anything. I was not managed in any traditional sense. I had to take comfort in the work itself and in the knowledge, which I alone would retain, that I was there.

The managers were mainly women in their 20's. The big boss was a young woman named Jenna, who was a natural; she radiated an easy-going authority, was never nervous about it, always knew what to do but was never harsh in telling you. I sat at my table with one client after another, and, if they had visited us before, pulled the file from the cabinet, looked through it quickly to familiarize myself and then filled out a short form recording the visit, checking off the nature of the bills they brought. I photocopied everything, then walked them past the table at which the comfort dogs were headquartered (which for some reason was also piled high with seashells) to the volunteer notary, where their signatures were witnessed. The client waited at my table while I took the file over to Jenna or another manager, who would review the paperwork, sometimes ask a couple of questions, then sign off on it. I walked the client back to the couches in the reception area at the head of the line of booths; after about a half hour wait their $1500 check would be brought out to the receptionist.

In the light of everything that was happening in those days, it was a very small job. Down at Ground Zero, people were lifting chunks of concrete and steel beams looking for bodies and parts; army, police and national guard were standing watch or investigating potential breaches of security; other groups were formulating responses to the expected bio- and chemical terrorism. I was sitting at a table giving away $7500 in $1500 increments. Nonetheless, I was glad to be there, to have a role which allowed me to participate in the response to September 11, in the search for meaning, even in a small way.

I wish I had kept a journal but it was one of those overwhelming times when you blank out and cannot write a daily account. I am sure I've forgotten a great deal but I remember the young Indian woman, a graduate student, who came home from school to live with her mother after her father's death. The smiling, devout woman from Virginia whose husband had been on a one day business trip to his company's headquarters in the trade center, and who explained dispassionately to me how her faith helped her through. The gay companion of a chef from Windows on the World, who told me that, despite a long and stable history together, and the fact that he was sole beneficiary of the other's will, he had been denied most of the benefits available to spouses from other agencies. We paid him, however.

There were several Japanese wives who spoke little or no English who had lived in the U.S. for a year or so with their banker husbands and were now making arrangements to go home. They were quiet, respectful, grateful and very graceful. We routinely paid $1500 or so for funeral expenses, and the most unusual request I fielded was from an Indian man arranging a cow ceremony for his deceased daughter. I saw the correspondence from the temple in India which would dedicate a cow to her and then take care of it for the rest of its life. For another client, I paid for an inscription and ceremony in a Buddhist temple in New York. For many others, the arrangements were more American-conventional: printed programs, prayers, and the refreshments after.

There was a firefighter's ex-wife, who had just moved in with him again prior to his death. She was one of the more inarticulate clients I met; she sat there looking stunned during our interview. I opened the file and found a photocopy of the note that he evidently had placed in his pocket either before entering the tower or when trapped somewhere inside. It began with his name and the name of his fire company. Then there were several confusing, fragmentary instructions, beginning "Please hold my stuff," and ending with a request, "Please give my love," to the ex-wife and members of his family. I wanted to ask her about the note, the circumstances under which he had written it, where his body was found, and so on; but I understood that in this job there was no scope for the exercise of any gratuitous curiousity. I took the filled-out form up to the manager--not Jenna, but another young woman who always seemed to me to be defensive and hard-edged. She flipped through the file, saw the note, and said, "What's this?" I replied that I had not asked, but that it seemed to be....She put her head down on the desk for a long moment. At Safe Horizons, I saw the managers, even the tough ones, cry more often than the clients. Not Jenna, though, who always stayed cheerful.

I fell afoul of another manager immediately, without meaning to. She was one of those people who, out of insecurity, invites you to disagree, though they cannot bear any dissent. Since my shift the prior week, the rules had changed, as they always did. I think the issue was whether I could give someone two checks. I had been allowed to several times before. This manager could simply have told me, "We don't do that any more." Because of her insecure demeanor, and my illusory feeling of being a veteran after several weeks on the job, I went over her head to Jenna, to find out that in fact we didn't do it any more. For the rest of that day, in a stunning exercise of the military-style chickenshit I had already experienced at the Red Cross, that manager rejected every form I brought her two or three times before signing it, asking me to find out the answers to trivial or irrelevant questions, then made me wait on line again when I came back a moment later with the answer. Instead of taking five minutes to get a form approved, it was now taking forty or more. I was very embarrassed for the clients, who must have been startled that an easy process was taking so long. It is difficult enough to endure this kind of nonsense when you are being paid for it, but it is intolerable when you are a volunteer. I nearly quit that day. However, the last time I went up, Jenna was there and signed the form instead of allowing the other manager to send me back again.

At the outset, the common understanding was that we would err on the side of saying yes. Unlike most bureaucracies doling out money, we were to look for excuses to give it away, not to withhold it. Therefore, we dispensed funds even when the relationship was somewhat uncertain-- for example, the ex-wife who presented us with a letter from the firefighter's commander saying that of his knowledge, they were living together again. We also paid clients who failed to bring in household bills with them.

Within a month or six weeks, the philosophy changed and we were now behaving more like the bureacracies I was used to. For the first time, the managers were sending me back to say no, or to manage the client's expectations. On their third visit, I gave the Indian parents of a stock analyst a check but told them we that we would not pay them again unless they could show us some evidence that their daughter had supported them financially. They looked at me, bitter and quiet, and I thought again about quitting the job.

We had tightened up in other ways as well. The funeral expenses, which were previously separate, now counted against the $7500 limit. Everyone knew that the money, and our program, was coming to an end. Jenna said that the decision would be made soon to pay everyone the balance of their $7500 in a lump sum, without making them come in with bills every two weeks to get it.

There was generally a sense of winding down, of ending, at the pier. Every week more agencies packed up and left, with the state and federal agencies going first while the private ones hung on longer. The hours had been scaled back; in the early weeks the pier had been open 24 hours, then until midnight; at the last it was closing by six, when I left. It was now a good deal emptier; fewer clients were coming in, and the cafeteria was almost empty. I was very upset; I felt as if the powers-that-be were declaring the emergency over when it wasn't. I was not ready to let go of the pier or the families.

The families weren't quite ready to let go either. The date on which the pier would finally close--first reported to be as early as December 15--kept being extended at their request. Everyone knew the end was inevitable, though; the city, which owned the pier, was eager to turn it back to trade shows and other uses.

Safe Horizons also helped people who had lost their jobs or homes in the Trade Center area; most of the volunteers moved back and forth, serving the several constituencies. I did not; I was there only to work with the bereaved families, However, at the end, there was a dearth of clients, and rather than sit idle, I took other cases. On one of my last shifts, I assisted a large man named Woodrow, seated in a wheelchair, a Vietnam veteran who said he had been a sidewalk vendor outside the towers. He had lost all his goods and had been injured fleeing the catastrophe. Talking to him was a strange experience; he had an old leather briefcase full of crumpled papers--letters from doctors and managers of homeless shelters where he stayed. His mind seemed to wander so specific questions elicited a stream of consciousness which left you without a solid answer. We issued him his check and he asked me to wheel him a couple of aisles down to the Salvation Army area, where he had heard he could get a bible. I took him over there and they gave him a bible and some other gifts as well.

One day, as I walked down the narrow corridor from the Safe Horizons area to the cafeteria, I noticed an open door to the outside. I stepped out onto a wooden dock on the Hudson. It was an unseasonably warm January day and there were ducks and gulls swimming in the water below. There were other volunteers out there, smoking and eating their lunches. I had never before been outside the cavernous facility during any of my shifts.

The last time I came in, the lump-sum final payments were being mailed and there were no clients waiting. I agreed to spend the shift checking the addresses in the files against those in a data-base. I was matched up with another volunteer I had never met before, a Brooklyn woman of a type I get attached to very easily (tough accent and presentation, big heart, sense of humor). However, our shift got cut short an hour later when one of the managers, embarrassed to have a group of new volunteers on his hands and nothing to do with them, shamefacedly asked if we would consider leaving to make room. I yielded to the newcomers and left. I never went back to the Pier, which closed a few weeks later.

Several months after that, I participated in a survey of Safe Horizons volunteers, carried out by the agency. A young woman named Tess phoned me and asked me a number of questions--where I was on 9/11, why I volunteered, what I liked and didn't like about it. I told her that what I disliked most-- but understood and could not blame, given the emergency the agencies were facing--was my anonymity as a volunteer. When she asked me what I liked, I told her that Safe Horizons and the Red Cross saved my life. I thought that without them there was a chance I would have slid away entirely.

Tess then asked what I had done in addition to volunteering, to cope with the aftermath of the catastrophe. "I wrote," I said. There was a pause before she responded, "You're the first person to say that."

After getting off the phone with Tess, I picked up the New York Times and read that Woodrow, the man in the wheelchair, had been arrested for defrauding Safe Horizons and several other agencies of more than $100,000. He hadn't worked at the World Trade Center nor been injured there.