Falling Flights and Meteorites

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

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.

January 30, 2002

We had now lived for two months with the certainty that there would be more violence, a belief which became more intense when the United States commenced bombing Afghanistan in late October. We wondered every day when Osama bin Laden would retaliate and why he had not done so yet. Certainly the attack on the World Trade Center had been the opening move in a series. It was impossible to understand why there had as yet been no second move by our adversary.

On Monday morning November 12, I dropped by my mother's house early in the morning and was drinking coffee with her when my step-son called from Washington to say that American Airlines Flight 587 had gone down in Queens with the loss of all aboard. We turned on CNN and saw footage of roiling clouds of dark smoke rising from a neighborhood of small houses. I left right away to walk over to the Red Cross headquarters in Cadman Plaza.

I had been volunteering as a courier for about a month. Going over there immediately upon word of a crisis was a method for not feeling helpless. When I got there, I saw that ten other couriers, not scheduled to work that morning, had had the same idea. One, a patrician man in his late twenties, who I had taken for an Upper East Sider, was in a state of shock, telling the dispatcher, "I grew up in Rockaway. My school is on that block...." Because he knew the area, the dispatcher sent him out right away.

The rest of us had to wait awhile. John Bowman, the Red Cross "lifer" who ran the couriering operation, thanked us with quiet pride for showing up and said he would deploy us as soon as he knew where we were needed. The Red Cross, very rapid and experienced in these matters, was setting up a center for the families in the Ramada Inn at Kennedy Airport. We turned on the television in the courier office and saw the routine plane crash coverage: constant repetition by the anchors of the fragmentary information available--on television silence is the enemy--interspersed with images of smoke and interviews with local residents who had seen the plane come apart. There were the usual contradictory accounts of which piece flew off first and whether flames were seen. In later years, when I remember September 11 and its aftermath, one of the things I will associate with it is the phenomenon, already familiar from earlier emergencies, of television newspeople babbling when they must fill airtime but have nothing to say.

John sent me out on a run into Manhattan to pick up a passenger and bring him back to headquarters. We had heard that morning that all the security measures the city had already begun to relax were back in force; the Brooklyn Bridge was closed to all but emergency vehicles, as it had been for a short while after the World Trade Center attack. We had contradictory information about which checkpoints were letting Red Cross vehicles through, and which were turning them away. I attempted the U-turn onto the bridge, was waived through the checkpoint by the police, and had the unique experience, very strange and memorable for a New Yorker, of having the Brooklyn Bridge entirely to myself. There was not another vehicle on it anywhere, in either direction, at a late morning hour when it usually would have been crowded.

By the time I got back, it was already evident that the Queens crash had not created a great need for couriers. The morning's state of emergency was already easing and the idea beginning to emerge that the crash was an accident and not an act of terrorism. The plane had taken off in the wake of another, had been seen to skew out of its route apparently due to turbulence, and then the tail had come off. We live in a strange time indeed when we are pleased that the deaths of 240 people are only an accident and not enemy action. I suppose we are more used to dealing with the odds of accidents.

John needed to send some supplies out to the Ramada and indulgently sent four of us in one of the donated BMW's. The official rationale was that two of us, not strictly needed to move the four small boxes we were transporting, would learn the route to the Ramada in case we were called upon to drive back there later.

I had not been in one of the BMW's before. Given to Red Cross by the manufacturer within days of the September attacks, the cars had caused great controversy. There was some concern about entrusting them to mere couriers, who might put out cigarettes on the seats or otherwise mistreat them. I think they had been taken away from the courier operation at one point, and then restored. None of us were allowed to drive them unless we had a brief orientation session first (which included a plea to treat them better than our own vehicles). There was also a worry that if potential donors saw Red Cross volunteers driving BMW's that they would conclude that the Red Cross already had too much money. The cars, the SUV model, had large logos on the side saying they had been given us by the company.

The driver was a SEC lawyer in her twenties who had been one of the first volunteer couriers in our operation but who had dropped out for some weeks because there were too many people driving and not enough to do. Sitting next to her was a man with a punk haircut who resembled her and who I assumed was her brother--they both had the same shock of extremely pale blond hair. In the back seat with me was a young banker named Mary, whom I had met my first night as a courier, and seen several times since. I can no longer remember what was in the boxes we were carrying; they could have been paper cups or the ubiquitous Red Cross candy.

The Ramada was on the highway exit ramp at Kennedy Airport. Even before we saw the hotel we could see the antennae and satellite dishes from the numerous vehicles the television networks were using for their broadcasts from the crisis center. The parking lot was thronged with police, emergency and Red Cross vehicles of every description. Inside was a scene of barely controlled chaos, as hotel staff scrambled to accomodate the crowds of distraught family members who were arriving. People were screaming and crying and collapsing everywhere, while the sturdy, calm, midWestern Red Cross mental health workers were doing their best to support them.

Inside, we found a coordinator who asked if we could run over to the local Red Cross chapter in Queens and bring some supplies from there. After unloading our few boxes, the SEC lawyer and her brother went off on that errand, while Mary and I innocently asked if we could help in some other way. The coordinator gave us a mission, to carry a message to hotel management, which we did. When we tried to go back into the ballroom, where we had met the coordinator, we found ourselves blocked by a local Red Cross potentate, a stocky woman named Lee.

Without realizing it, Mary and I had broken the rules. We were both of a designated class known as "Local Disaster Volunteers" or LDV's. LDV's are the lowest life form in the Red Cross system; we are the people who walk in to local chapters after a disaster to volunteer our services, but who are not Red Cross regulars and have not received either the training or the organizational status it confers. The national volunteers, the DSHR's, are the aristocracy of the Red Cross system, with "mana" which increases based on the number of disasters on which they have "gone out". Right after the attacks, the drivers in the courier operation had been entirely LDV's, because most of the DSHR's brought in from elsewhere had ben afraid to drive in New York City. Later, in January, when a news team wanted to film a Red Cross van driving across the Brooklyn Bridge, the logistics coordinator (John Bowman's replacement) chose a Florida DSHR, a truck driver, to drive the van and be interviewed by the reporters. The dispatcher, himself a DSHR from Vermont, turned to me confidentially and said, "Have you noticed that whenever there's a plum assignment, like meeting the press, it never goes to an LDV?"

Lee, the woman who was blocking our re-entry into the innards of the Ramada, was in charge of assigning LDV's to the Ramada and was very offended that we were there, volunteering for assignments, without having come through official channels. She asked why John Bowman had sent four drivers in one vehicle and immediately called him on her cellphone to complain. She was very nasty to us and at that moment seemed to me to be the embodiment of "chickenshit", the obsessive military malicious commitment to form over substance, usually with the objective of protecting one's own turf and strangling any adversary in red tape.

In retrospect, though I still don't like Lee's manners, I understand her dilemma better. The Red Cross specializes in assisting in the most difficult human situations. To do so it must bring a certain amount of order and infrastructure. (In fact, the Red Cross operations I witnessed largely seemed very chaotic, perhaps because the New York disaster was the largest and most complex response Red Cross had ever managed. But, remarkably, a high volume of good work got done despite these problems.) For two couriers to turn up and ask to help out in the Ramada was not really organizationally sound, either for the courier operation, which would lose us unexpectedly for at least the day, or for the Ramada operation, which already was having trouble accounting for and managing the people it had.

Once we were told there was nothing else we could do, Mary and I stood in the lobby of the Ramada and watched, waiting for our ride to return. A tall, broadly built man came by with an unconscious woman over his shoulder, in what I now know to be a classic "fireman's carry". Mayor Giuiliani, wearing his familiar baseball cap, went by followed by an entourage of about twenty people including police. A group of ten Scientology ministers in their orange t-shirts turned up and Lee blocked them with the same hostile smile, finally escorting one of their number into the ballroom.

The Red Cross coordinator who had entrusted us with the message to hotel management came back and asked if we could help unload some things upstairs. I told her Lee had called our supervisor to complain we were here, and she smiled and shrugged. Lee was a power in the kingdom and there was nothing she could do about it.

The SEC lawyer and her brother came back and we left in the BMW. She told us that Lee was one of the rudest people she had ever driven. All the couriers disliked her. Most of the DSHR's we ferried were very friendly and respectful, thanking us for transporting them in a strange and frightening city. Lee treated us like the hired help. We briefly discussed complaining about Lee to her supervisor, but realized we were all too frightened of her. Four professionals--two lawyers, a banker and a graphics designer--valued the opportunity to drive for the Red Cross too much to risk having our ID's pulled for standing up to a powerful but distorted figure in the system.

When we got back John was rueful about Lee but not angry at us. He had issued a new directive that no courier was to agree to carry out any task inside the Ramada without his express permission. It was one of a long series of directives about places we would not go and things we couldn't do (another example was that the laundry at Respite One must be waiting for us downstairs and under no circumstances were we to go upstairs to get it). I had never before seen the internals of the political process which produced these directives.

John needed someone to go back out to the Ramada; there were some DSHR mental health workers getting restless because their ride had not shown up. Though I had now been on for ten hours and had planned to quit, I agreed to go. Laura, a very lively travel agent, agreed to ride with me and we took the seventeen passenger van (referred to by the couriers as the "seventeen pass"). The scene outside the Ramada was just as chaotic as before. Laura ran inside to find our passengers while I inched along in a traffic jam outside the hotel entrance. When Laura re-emerged, I stopped where I was and Laura and I helped the women aboard. As it happened, I was blocking traffic for the moment it took us to load. Laura got into the driver's seat just as a police detective, with hatred in his voice and eyes, walked up and said, "I--want--you--to--move--this--van--right--now".

The women were the counter-Lee, the friendly, respectful grandmotherly midWestern DSHR's we were so used to, and so grateful for. They weren't mad at us that they had waited so long to leave, and swapped stories with us as we drove them back to headquarters, from where other couriers would take them on to their hotels. I had now worked a twelve hour shift and was exhausted. When we got back to Cadman Plaza, I signed out and walked home.

My overwhelming impression of that day is that whenever I came back to myself, undistracted for a moment by driving, or people crying and screaming, or by Lee's chickenshit, I asked how many hammer blows we could take. Thousands of people had been murdered just weeks ago at the Twin Towers, and then we had had the anthrax killings. We were used to planes falling into the ocean-- hundreds of people had died after leaving Kennedy in recent years aboard Flight 800, the Swissair flight, and the EgyptAir flight supposedly crashed by a suicidal pilot. But American Airlines Flight 587 had fallen into a residential neighborhood and killed people on the ground. There was nothing reassuring to me about the carnage being unrelated to the war. I've spent most of my life trying not to remember that we live in a universe of constant, unrelenting and insensate violence.

The next afternoon I was scheduled to work for Safe Horizons at the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94. For some weeks now I had been serving as a volunteer caseworker there. It was a very simple job. The organization, formerly known as the New York City Victim and Witness Services Agency before its rather strange name change, had $10,000 to give each family of a World Trade Center murder victim. The families came in and we filled out some paperwork with them. We were only permitted to dispense funds $1500 at a time. Every two weeks the family members would show up with bills equalling or exceeding $1500, we would review them and request a check. It was a mindless job but somehow very satisfying. I had wanted to meet the September 11 families and had previously had only the opportunity to spend a few very intense moments with them when I was handing out the urns.

One thing I liked about the job was that, at least at first, it was the opposite of chickenshit. We were always looking for a way to say yes, dispensing money even when the families didn't have proper documents, or giving them a bit more than was really authorized. The managers who made the decisions and signed the checks were all women in their twenties and they could be moved rather easily. Unlike most bureaucracies, the job involved finding ways to give the money away, not to withhold it.

Pier 94 was a huge, cavernous place which had been honeycombed with low, flimsy dividers to create spaces for the scores of agencies serving the families. Safe Horizons had a row of about fifteen cubicles. Out front was a waiting area with overstuffed armchairs where the families waited for us. Volunteers had no permanent place to sit; each day when you came in you found an empty desk or table and dropped your stuff on it, then steered your clients there. At the end of the row was a desk where the managers sat. You filled out paperwork with your client then queued up with the other caseworkers to make your pitch to Jenna, the big boss who looked like she was about eighteen years old, or to whomever else was approving checks that day. You might see ten or fifteen families in a six hour shift. Most of the job was just getting them their $1500 check, though sometimes we also advised them on the benefits they were due from Red Cross, Salvation Army or government agencies.

My most memorable client that day was a woman who had divorced a firefighter after ten years of marriage but was living with him again on September 11. She was dazed and very quiet, while many of our clients, surfeited with media and public attention, were very poised and articulate. She had been in before-- this was her second or third check--and I looked through the file. To establish the relationship, she had presented a letter from a senior officer in the department, verifying that of his personal knowledge they were living together again. I flipped a few more pages and found a photocopy of a note written by the dead firefighter. It gave his name and his squad and said, "Please hold my stuff", and then "please give my love" to a list of family members including the ex-wife. He had apparently placed the note in the pocket of his coat when entering the towers or perhaps when he was trapped somewhere and knew he wasn't going to make it. We had read that the heavily fire-resistant coats frequently preserved the bodies of the men and his had been found. I wanted to ask her about the note but I couldn't. It wasn't relevant to the sole question of how much money I was going to give her.

I filled out the form requesting $1500 and went and stood on line to see the supervisor. In charge today was a stern young woman who I thought was tough but fair. We all became somewhat hardened to the things we saw and heard at Pier 94 every day. The trick was to be calm and professional while remaining compassionate. She took the file from me and flipped pages. She saw the note and said, "What's this?" I replied, "I didn't ask her about it but you can just imagine...." She understood what she was looking at and put her head in her hands. She sat that way a half minute or so and then signed the check request.

On Friday night we went out to our home in eastern Long Island. I don't remember what we did that Saturday in particular but we certainly walked in the woods somewhere, probably in the Mashomack preserve in Shelter Island, which we had discovered in the weeks after the attacks. We would have walked about a four mile loop through the woods, then along the bay and then through a meadow. Just sere woods "where late the sweet birds sang" and glinting water. Above our heads however we could hear the perpetual rumble of the fighter jets patrolling the coastline.

Saturday night I took the bus back to the city while my wife stayed one more day in Amagansett. A few weeks before, I had started taking an emergency medical technician course which met all day Sundays.

I had read in the paper that there was a meteor shower that night and knew that if I had stayed out in the east end I would have had a much better view. I didn't want to be exhausted for the demanding class on Sunday and decided not to try to wake up for it. However, I was up at 4:45 a.m., not unusual for me these days when I rise three or four times a night. I went out on the deck and looked at the Brooklyn sky which is never really dark. In fifteen minutes or so I saw ten or twelve really bright meteors.

I wasn't familiar with this November meteor shower but since childhood I had made a ritual of watching the Perseids, which occur in early August. In Woods Hole, where we spent summers in the 1960's, a group of children would lie head to head in a sand trap on the local golf course so we could cover all quadrants of the sky. Forty years later, friends would come over to the Amagansett house and we would stretch out in deck chairs and watch. In August 2000 we had seen the most spectacular show of my lifetime, with a meteor a minute, as close as your hand, some leaving iridescent trails. In August 2001, the sky had been cloudy and we missed the Perseids.

I had always had a sentimental idea that the meteors represented a promise made by the universe, that you could make a wish upon a shooting star. They were a cheerful and optimistic thing; whenever I saw one I felt happy and expectant, irrational as it was, about the future. Now I was conscious of two things. One was that it was good to be watching something so beautiful, in the same way it is good to inflate your lungs with very fresh air. The second thing was that the beauty I was experiencing was actually a phenomenon caused by huge rocks falling from space into our atmosphere and burning up. In other words, life was a braid of beauty and horror, and even worse, it wasn't always possible to tell where one left off and the other began. The first sight I had of the catastrophe on September 11, as I came up the subway stairs, had been of long rolls of printer paper slowly falling from the burning tower, glinting in the sunlight: also an eerie and beautiful sight. But I didn't want to think about the implications of this any more, so I went back to bed.