Year Zero

The Urns

by Jonathan Wallace

November 19, 2001

I had been working as a courier for a few weeks when I decided to try some other roles in the Red Cross world. One night when I was driving, I dropped by the front office at headquarters and asked for an assignment to Pier 94, the Family Assistance Center. I was seconded to the logistics function there--a warehouse operation run by an upstate New York volunteer named Karen.

Pier 94 is an enormous facility; you could probably park all the 767's hijacked on September 11 within it, end to end. It creates a unique impression on you, because the ceiling is high above your head, yet in most parts of it the walls (temporary dividers or hanging curtains) are very close together, so you have the sense at once of being in a huge cave and a compressed warren. The place is usually cold.

The pier is located on the Hudson River at 54th street. To get in (after a long walk across the most barren part of Manhattan) you first pass a wall of posters of the missing, covered with plastic to preserve them. Then you go through a police checkpoint, where your briefcase, bag or backpack is searched. You pass a Salvation Army kitchen-truck and an outdoor area where staffers smoke cigarettes and go through the staff door where there is a table for Red Cross volunteers to check in. They look for your name on a list and if they don't find it, someone inside has to come and get you.

Everywhere you see the familiar uniforms of our post-September 11 world: cops, National Guard, firefighters, Army and people in FEMA jackets. All execpt the firefighters help run the place; but the firefighters are there assisting the widows of their brethren.

Inside, every agency, governmental or private, which has anything to provide, or to say, to the families of the victims has its own area. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way, and a Buddhist compassionate organization are all there, along with the Department of Labor, Crime Victim's Bureau, Workers' Comp, Immigration and the FBI. There are large waiting areas everywhere for family members to sit, and a cafeteria dedicated to them alone. Mental health workers and chaplains are everywhere, looking for signs of despondence or distress, or simply for people who are sitting alone and look like they might need company.

Then there are the comfort dogs. I saw bloodhounds, dachsunds and poodles and numerous other breeds, each one calm and steady with people and able to enjoy, or at least endure, a lot of petting and attention. The dogs added a lively, humane element; perhaps all government offices should have them. There is another type of dog at Pier 94 also, the bomb dogs (I'll come back to them).

The warehouse was to the left of the staff entrance, in an area containing all the support services, between the kitchen and the cafeteria. There are a few hundred square feet of pallets of Pepsi, Snapple, and Snickers (Snickers bars are the ubiquitous Red Cross candy, thousands of them in bowls wherever you go). Here are also stacked the supplies donated from all around the country: gloves, eyedrops, hand lotion, and First Aid stuff which the donors probably thought was destined for Ground Zero.

I loved working in the warehouse that day. Karen, the supervisor, is a natural manager, warm and decisive, the type who gets things done with a minimum of fuss while making sure that everyone eats, takes a a break and is otherwise fine. On the board over her desk, a fading bouquet and pictures of her dog, Buddy. Karen had two assistants, Henry, a young Englishman who came over as soon as he could get a flight after September 11, and Carl, a national Red Cross volunteer from the midwest who told us how much he missed his family, farm and livestock. The local volunteers doing the lifting and carrying, that day and the next several I worked, were two other unemployed lawyers, a former bartender who had most recently worked for a television network, a salesman for a cable station, an unemployed construction worker, and a Vietnam vet, now retired, who had once worked for a bookie.

There were always a few more of us than the work really required, and we spent part of each day sitting around waiting for trucks to come in. The trucks delivered Pepsi and Snapple, office supplies and other goods needed for the family assistance center to function. Most often, the goods were on a pallet and we would wait first for the bomb-sniffing dog and then for the forklift (or the "hi-lo", as we called it). There were several officers with dogs who spent all day checking every incoming truck and shipment for explosives. We would wait a while, chatting with the truck driver, until a taciturn cop came over with a shepherd or lab. With abrupt hand gestures, he would indicate each box or pallet he wanted it to sniff, and the dog would obediently rear up on its hind legs, or jump into the bed of the truck, to do its job. When he was done, the cop would give us the high sign and stroll away.

The hi-lo driver was a very irritable man, and everyone was scared of him. He had a low tolerance for the foolishness and inexperience of the volunteers who had never been around a truck before. Watching him, I wanted to learn to drive a fork-lift; his every move was effortless, and none was wasted. When a truck-driver, struggling in a truck-bed crowded with yet-to-be-unloaded goods, couldn't extricate the pallet jack from under the pallet, the hi-lo man abruptly ordered him out of the way, then used his machine to lift both the pallet and the jack together out of the truck.

Learning to use the pallet jack was the high point of the day. You pull it along with the handle forward, as it is easier to steer that way, then slew it around and insert its two tines into the openings in a pallet. When you have it positioned properly, you depress a switch on the handle, then pump the handle until you have lifted the pallet an inch or two off the ground. Then you can pull a thousand pound weight from the truck back to the warehouse without straining yourself. Part of the art was to avoid the two or three holes in the concrete where the pallet could get stuck, and to learn the places where you needed to speed up to get over a bump.

Sometimes we shrinkwrapped the pallets, a task at which the ex-bartender excelled. He would take the roll of plastic and dash around the pallet until he had it covered to the top.

Our least favorite task the first day was sorting bears. Children from all over the country had sent in teddy bears and other stuffed toys for the families. These stacked up in large garbage bags in a storage area on the far side of Pier 94 from Karen's warehouse. The bears, meant to be given to the bereaved families, were so popular that when we would walk the length of the pier to bring back bears from storage, we were warned to conceal them. Warehouse workers who weren't so careful had been mobbed by people asking for bears.

The bears came with notes attached, most of which said things like "I hope this bear will be a comfort to you," but part of the job was looking for inappropriate notes saying things like, "Don't worry, we'll kill that bastard bin Laden". Then we had to sort them by size, as the medium size bears were preferred, the small ones were used sometimes, and the oversized ones were left in storage unwanted.

I went back to the storage area with Stuart, a lawyer in his thirties from Texas who had come to New York to be an actor. We had spent an hour sorting bears when two employees of the mayor's office showed up to get bears for the day's boat trip to Ground Zero, for families who wanted to see the site where their loved one had perished. The two city workers acted helpless, in the manner of people who are hoping you will give them your bears so they don't have to gather their own. Stewart fell for the ruse and handed them the bears we had spent the last hour collecting. "Sheesh," I said, "You're not from here, are you? You should have told them to get their own fucking bears."

That afternoon, Karen said that all of us were invited to hand out urns at the big memorial service the following Sunday, October 28. "Think about it before you answer," she said. "It is going to be intense." I told her I would be there. "Wear black pants and a white collared shirt," she said.

The memorial would begin at Ground Zero and continue for some hours of sermons by religious figures and songs by well-known entertainers. Then the families would be brought to Pier 94 by bus, where they would each receive an urn filled with earth from the World Trade Center site and an American flag. The urns were meant as a stand-in for the ashes of the dead, many of whom would never be found.

A few days after September 11, I had gone to the Armory (Pier 94's predecessor) with two shopping-bag loads of books and magazines to give out, but I had not been admitted. I went because I wanted to be with the families, and the same thing had drawn me to Pier 94. In the warehouse area, I had seen the family members from a distance, but had no contact with them. I was worried about how I would do during the urn ceremony, but eager to participate.

On Sunday I caught a bus in from Long Island, arriving at the pier about three hours before the families. Karen and ten other women were ironing white shirts for volunteers who had not brought their own. We all spent about an hour together in Karen's area-- there was no work to do--before the word came down that we were all get together for a staff meeting. The location was ambiguous, and hundreds of volunteers milled restlessly around the huge facility until we found the meeting in the staff cafeteria, which had been set aside for police and firefighters that day.

About 120 of us had been designated to hand out urns, in teams of two. Anywhere from five to fifteen thousand people were expected; up to five members or friends of each family were invited.

We had imagined something like a huge crowd of family members, fronted by a crepe-wreathed stage, filing down the aisles of an auditorium to receive the urns from us; but the whole event had been given a somewhat bureaucratic cast. We were to sit in booths normally used for the delivery of the pier's numerous social services, and family members would be guided into our booths to receive the urns and flags.

The assistant commissioner, a man named Brian, briefed us on the protocol. The flags were folded into a triangle, which we were to present to the family member with the point outwards. The urns were in cardboard boxes; both the flags and the boxes were to be offered to the family member between our opposed horizontal palms, with the right palm on top. Each booth had about forty urns and flags but we were to have only one of each on the table at a time. We were warned that some families would request more than one urn, and we were told to refuse. The urns represented the missing remains of the loved one, and by definition there could be only one set of remains to a family, except for those who had lost more than one member at the Trade Center. Each family would give us a white card, which entitled them to the urn; if it wasn't filled out we should politely ask them to complete it; if they didn't have one we were to send them back to reception.

We were to recite a brief statement, which was given to us on a card:

"The citizens of the City of New York express their condolences, and in honor and remembrance of your loss, give you this urn."

I was paired up with another warehouse worker, Pham, a Vietnamese immigrant who worked as a fashion photographer. Karen, who had been separated from us in the crowd, came by, very concerned that we weren't all together; her job was to walk the floor, so she visited us regularly the next few hours to make sure we were all right. Someone came by handing out purple sashes, which we were expected to put on over the right shoulder; the purple sash offended Pham's fashion sense, but after some grumbling he grudgingly wound it around his shoulder. Across from us we could see another pair of warehouse workers, a physical therapist named Jacqui and a man named Jim whom I had not met before.

We opened one of the boxes to find a small purple sack closed by a drawstring. Inside this was a maroon wooden urn and a metal plate which could be engraved with the victim's name and attached to it.

We had about an hour's wait before the first bus brought families up from Ground Zero. Pham, whose English was strongly accented, suggested that I make the recitation while he would do the presentation. Karen, on one of her trajectories, suggested ways to humanize the wording, by substituting "loved one" for "loss". This inspired me to tinker with the wording some more, so when we finally had our first family, I said:

"The people of the city of New York express our most deeply felt condolences and, in honor and remembrance of your loved one, give you this urn."

That left the flag, for which we hadn't been given any words. Should we say, "urn and flag"? But it wasn't possible to offer them both at once, though there were two of us, without overwhelming the family member. So we ended up saying something like, "Please also accept this flag."

Our first family was the wife of an investment banker who had died at the Trade Center. I said the words and Pham gave her the urn; I then handed her the flag, all of which she accepted with a controlled show of emotion. As she left the booth, however, the situation slid out of control as an older woman with her stayed behind and said, in a nervously humorous tone, as if expecting to be refused: "She's the wife, but I'm the mother. Can I have one too?"

We both were silent, startled that this had happened to us so quickly, and then Pham said we weren't supposed to. The mother made no fuss, just nodded and left the booth, as if she expected no better treatment. A few minutes later, we saw Jacqui and Jim give a second urn to two sisters who had requested one, and we found out that other volunteers had done the same, rather than say no. Pham and I were remorseful, and I went out to the information desk and had the family paged, but it was too late. We kept talking all day about the mother we had refused and how easy it would have been to do a small kindness.

We didn't have a constant flow of customers. The sixty booths were laid out in a U shape, and we were at the opposite end of the U from the point at which the families entered. In theory, the people steering them were supposed to ensure an even distribution along the U, but in practice it proved impossible to walk a highly emotional family the whole distance when there were booths available up front. By the end of the day, five hours later, Pham and I had seen only six families while the booths up front had probably seen several times that amount.

Grief was palpable in the aisles. Members of several families broke down when we handed them the urn; Pham ran off and came back with tissues, only to find that the next crying person walked away with the entire box. We began putting the tissues loose on the table so that this couldn't happen. All up and down the aisles we could hear the sounds of weeping. Chaplains and mental health workers rushed everywhere, then returned with family members leaning on them. A grandmother collapsed at the booth opposite us, crying out to God in her grief, and a large woman chaplain, who dwarfed her, came and carried her away.

Karen came back a few times to make sure we were all right. "You're my dream team," she said. Chaplains kept checking on us, and towards the end of the day, no fewer than ten mental health workers came in to the booth to tell us we could go for a debriefing afterwards. I had only learned the phrase a few weeks before: a debriefing is a mental health counseling session at the end of a traumatic day of activity; the Red Cross also offers debriefing to the cops, firefighters and other rescue workers at Ground Zero, but mental health workers privately complain that the men are too macho to take advantage of it. Jacqui had never heard of a debriefing, and asked if one of us could attend on behalf of the rest of the warehouse workers, so we wouldn't all have to go.

I have found myself unexpectedly in tears almost every day since September 11, often while reading the profiles of the dead in The New York Times, and I had been very worried that I would not be able to get through the memorial without breaking down. Around the time the woman collapsed opposite us and the sounds of people crying surrounded us from every side, I knew I was starting to slide. I got through it only by thinking very cruel thoughts about the people who did this, which I will not share.

I started looking at the card so I knew the relationship before I made the recitation. Relationship to Victim: Wife, father, brother, daughter; we saw each in the next few hours. I tried to change the words for each one, to make the words as felt as possible even though I was reciting them over and over. "The people of the city of New York express our most deeply felt condolences and, in honor and remembrance of Anna, of your father, of Jorge, of your daughter, give you this urn. Please also accept this flag."

One woman wanted to see the urn and we took it out if its coverings for her, very worried it would spill, as in a movie. But it was tightly sealed. Across the aisle, another woman examined an urn, then handed it back to Jacqui. "Her husband was on the flight which hit the first tower," Jacqui said. "He was supposed to catch a ten thirty flight, but he got to the airport early and got on that one. She still hopes he wasn't really on the plane, so she decided she didn't want the urn."

Jacqui was hugging some of her customers and Pham was hugging some of ours. The last man to come in to the booth was bitter and angry; he was an older man who lost his wife, and was, remarkably, the only angry mourner I saw. After he left I looked at the card again and saw I had mispronounced his wife's name. I was unhappy with the way I had handled the first and last family of the day.

Some of the families I met showed a great deal of composure. Weeks had passed since the events and most individuals had a network of others to support them and for whom they felt the need to be strong. Still, I kept working the moral calculation: were people who collapsed in wailing grief superior to those who kept a tighter grip? I concluded that people have different ways of expressing themselves, but that everyone I met, even the most composed, was staggering under the weight of a one hundred pound sack of stones. With such a weight pulling you backwards and down, you can do everything you do in normal times, walk, speak and even laugh, but with terrible difficulty and always conscious of the weight and the threat.

It was almost another hour until we knew for sure there were no more people coming, then Karen took us all out for beer and dinner at a bar a few blocks away. Our own form of debriefing, she said. Then, "Please put away your ID's"; you are not supposed to be seen drinking alcohol with your Red Cross badge visible. We felt a mute but intense love for one another, like a tiny but powerful weed poking through a cracked pavement of grief.

We hadn't seen nearly as many families as we expected and there were hundreds of urns left. I phoned the banker's wife to tell her that her mother might be able to get one, but the word was the mayor's office was still hanging tough on the families' request for additional urns. Someone suggested I go back to the storage area, ostensibly on a bear inspection tour, and lift one for her. I imagined myself led away in handcuffs, and shorn of my Red Cross ID, uselessly protesting that I was stealing the urn for a mother I had turned away. It was one of those mistakes which would have been easy to avoid but which, once made, are difficult to set right.

Later I heard a cynical explanation for the urns. Soon after the memorial, the mayor cut back the number of firefighters searching for the remains of their colleagues at Ground Zero and angry firefighters fought with police on the perimeter. The firefighters, who postponed their memorial service into next year so Mayor Giuliani could not attend, believed that the city was in an unholy hurry to rebuild the site and get the businesses back. The work at Ground Zero had entered its third phase. First it was a rescue operation, then the recovery of bodies. Now it was just a construction site. The mayor said several times that he didn't think many more bodies would be recovered, yet every day several more were being brought out. Turning Ground Zero into what the firemen called a "scoop and dump" operation meant that many remains would be found at the dumping ground, at the Staten Island landfill, if at all. In this grim world-view, the city was buying off the families with the urns, to relieve itself of the obligation to do everything possible to recover the bodies.

Everyone at the pier that week also said that some of the families were selling their urns on Ebay. I logged in to look but couldn't find any sign this was true.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of the urns. There is a primal human urge to have something to mourn and to bury--"even a shoelace", one mother said. Otherwise I suppose it is like a story which never ends, even when the chemistry of flaming jet fuel and phsyics of collapsing skyscrapers dictate that there can be no mystery. Sometimes we rescue ourselves, we stay above the flood, through absolute concentration on an object. The bears we sorted in the back room were in great demand even by adults. Later I saw even families who had recovered a body accepting the gift of an urn.

I came back one more time, later the next week, to hand out urns again. It had become part of the process: families picked up the urn between visits to various agencies to apply for benefits. I arrived before anyone else, and I set myself up in the first of three empty booths. Almost immediately, a mental health worker asked if she could bring a family over. I felt uneasy because I had not seen a supervisor, so nobody had actually told me to begin handing out urns. I explained this and she said, smiling, "This is the Red Cross. If you're the only one here, you're in charge."

I had given out two or three urns before the supervisor arrived. She was a national volunteer with her own posse of mental health workers to protect, and she was angered to see that some other area had imposed me on her. She had a smile she flashed from thirty feet away that was pure aggression. She didn't like anything about me; the way I had set up the booth, or the fact I was working alone. She acted as if she thought I was an impostor, a dangerous con man who had inserted himself into the urn operation for unknown reasons, and that was enough to make me feel like one.

My first partner was a very warm older woman from Ohio who kept saying, "This is a real honor." It was her second day, and she far preferred this to the more menial work she had done the day before. She memorized the little speech immediately--we had new cards, and the words had been changed again, adding the mayor at the beginning and leaving out the expression of condolences. I gave her my version, which she immediately modified to make it even warmer.

A young Japanese widow, who spoke difficult English, stayed a few moments after receiving the urn and flag to tell us how her four year old son was still waiting for his father to come home. "May I give you a hug?" my partner said, and she held the thin woman, who clung to her.

Another memorable customer that morning was a lawyer in his twenties with patrician lines who I thought had been trained, as I had, to avoid displaying his feelings. As with many of the families, there was a rush of emotion at the moment I presented the urn. His face wavered and lost its noble structure for a moment, and then he forced it back into shape.

Just as I decided I really liked my partner, she was called away to check out of her hotel; she was being switched to another. Both of us were quite startled; we had just formed a close relationship for the work and the day. "I don't want to lose you," I said. "I hope I get back," she replied.

Her replacement was a woman in her fifties who regarded the urn operation as an opportunity to debrief everyone who came in. She re-arranged the booth yet again (it was the third time someone had changed the lay-out that day) and modified the speech. The next customer was a very tall older man from rural Pennsylvania, who had lost his son. He had a sort of Henry Fonda-like grandeur. He kept dabbing his rough, unshaven face with tissues, which left strips of paper attached to him everywhere, but of which he took no notice. My new partner asked if he wanted to sit down and then, once he did, inquired, "Is there anything you want to tell me about your son?" She might as well have opened him with a scalpel; he began to cry inconsolably, gasping, "I will never get over this." She lifted him up and walked him over to a memorial across the way, where he could see a photograph of his son. She had worked on him with surgical expertise, to slice him open and reveal the grief.

She never came back. The woman with the hyper-aggressive smile returned, clearly holding me responsible for having lost another partner. "You can take off if you want," she said. "We have three booths and my people"--her posse--"are getting almost no traffic." By taking the first booth I had hogged all the customers. She was clearly aware that it was a radical act in the Red Cross world to chase off a volunteer, and she had to be careful. "Of course if that doesn't work for you and you want to stay, you can. I'll consolidate and put you in a booth with one of my people." I counted the white cards: I had seen eleven families in three hours. I had another three to my shift, but I didn't want to stay where I was not wanted. I handed her the cards and went over to the warehouse area. Karen was home visiting her dog Buddy for the week, but Carl told me he was overstaffed and there was nothing going on.

I was almost paralyzed with sorrow. I had in effect been fired from the urn operation and I knew I would not go back. Each of the families I saw that day had left me with a crystalline pebble of grief, except for the man from Pennsylvania, who left a heavy stone. I had them all in a sack and had nowhere to put them. For the first time I considered being debriefed, but I was afraid I would hit on a mental health worker like my second partner, who would cut me open in a misguided act of "compassion". I left the pier instead and wandered across the most barren part of Manhattan--Eleventh Avenue, Tenth, Ninth, Eighth-- towards the subway.