A Witness Remembers 9/11

The 9/11 five-year memorials have arrived. Its a day I will never forget and those of you who read here know I live in NYC and I was a witness and a volunteer at Ground Zero since I am a NY State Emergency Med. Tech, now at the level of Paramedic. At that time I had just finished my EMT-Basic training and had my State Certification. Along with a group of about 15-20 of my classmates led by one of our class instructors we met at close to the site of the disaster that evening around 6 PM, it took me several hours to get home from Brooklyn. At that time I lived in lower Manhattan, about a mile from Ground Zero…and I was working in Brooklyn. I always took the F train to work.

I stood in horror and watched a plane hit a skyscraper while another one burned and then stood in dismay with tears, watching while they both tumbled to the ground. The huge panoramic bank of windows in our office suite spanned all of lower Manhattan, with the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground and the twin towers behind – what a view it was… and on that fateful day it was the worst view I’ve ever witnessed. At first we thought we were under attack from a foreign army. The plane looked to be a dark green to all of us. One member of our group did take pictures. He had a 35 MM camera with a 500 telephoto lenses attached. This camera was used as a tool, part of his job. He ran to get it from his desk and began snapping pictures.

We suspected that what we were seeing was either bodies falling or terrified people jumping to their death…it turned out to be both. He wouldn’t share the close up view of the lenses but we were able to see enough with the naked eye. The story unfolding before me made me retch and I sobbed. Since I had just finished my EMT training I knew Emergency Personnel would be responding to this and so when the buildings came crumbling down…I also knew they were lost.

My co-workers thought our company, an electrical generating plant, could be a potential target so we were told to evacuate the building. We went outside and I told my boss I was going home to Manhattan. I walked up to the Manhattan bridge and was stopped by NYPD, no one is going in everyone is walking out! One police officer told me that a Q train was scheduled to go over I had to walk about 20 blocks to find the train entrance. When I arrived on that platform…I cant tell you how I felt, I felt a certain freedom, when you see an organized way of life suddenly thrown into chaos, then it frees up something in your mind, the feeling that there is no order – I find this hard to put into words… it has to be the way a freedom fighter feels as he raises his gun and aims at the oppressor. I still didn’t know what had caused this horrible event to take place – I only wanted to help the injured… so I waited for that train. Persons on the platform were screaming, mostly in terror of seeing their world crumble before their eyes… we didn’t know if more were coming.

F-15s were doing fly-bys it was loud and scary. When the train rumbled in and the doors opened many shrunk back in horror and tears wanting to go home but too scared to actually do it… I wasn’t. I got on that train… only about 1/3 of the people on the platform had the courage to get on. On the eight car bullet we shot out of the tunnel onto the bridge… the sight below was unbelievable a cloud of ash, smoke, and dust enshrouded all of lower Manhattan and the sunlight was almost blocked – it grew dark and dismal. I sat by the widow staring, wondering, and praying. When that train got me on the other side I had to figure out where I was, I didn’t usually ride the Q! My cell phone had quit working so I hiked over to 8th avenue where my friend was working and we made our way to the rendezvous site of the volunteers.

Once there, we organized ourselves and began to set up triage areas. All the walking wounded had already been removed and the search for survivors was on… we honestly believed we would be giving aide to survivors… but none were found. Rumors of trapped survivors were rampant. But none were dug out… the screams would go up but then die in horror as the bodies, one by mangled one, were dragged out of the rubble. I was by this time just wandering around the site dazed. I wanted to help but I also wanted to witness the event. I left my triage post to the less adventurous and began to walk around. Over by building 7 I saw large chucks of glass just waiting to fall on would-be rescuers below and I pointed this out to a couple of NYPD officers, they should rope that area off…pointing up to the huge sheets of glass hanging literally by a thread… they DID! Yellow tape was stretched to keep passers-by out to hopefully a safe distance.

Other volunteers who had set up shop in One Liberty Plaza soon discovered me. They were the acting “Temp. Morgue.” Okay… so I began to help them. Bodies were brought in from the gray mud pile of debris in black bags… we opened those bags and cataloged what we saw. Trying to determine sex, race, height, weight, any clothing, and jewelry items? Most men had ID on them no women had ID on them.

When I grew tired I found a park bench and laid down. I looked up and for the first time since I had lived in NYC I saw stars twinkling overhead. I slept. In the morning I went home and showered and slept in my bed. I went back that afternoon and evening and tried to help again… but I realized it was useless… No living survivors were found. So on the third day I returned to work since trains were now moving again over the bridges… and the rest is history. I have one piece of burnt paper picked up from the ground and I have the goggles they gave me as PPE… other than that all I have are my horrible memories.

A news cameraman from Albany interviewed me. “Are you going to change the way you live your life,” was the question I was asked. I answered “NO, this didn’t change the way I live my life but it did change the way I thought about the rest of the world, now I know there are people who hate Americans and they do want us dead!”

That weekend I went down and stood alongside West St. with thousands and cheered the firefighters, and construction crews as they came in/out changing shifts… it became a hero’s gauntlet. Their faces told us what we all knew anyway… but we never lost hope. The flyers began to line the walls: LOST, MISSING, PLEASE help me find my MOM, SISTER, BROTHER, and LOVED ONE! I read hundreds of them… I attended candle-light vigils in Washington Square Park, and in Union Square… we, strangers but united by the same horror sang “We Shall Overcome”… we held hands, we prayed and we mourned the dead… for weeks we were all in a state of shock. Two weeks later I broke down and cried for hours, trying to rid my mind of the crumpled, dismembered and crushed bodies that lay before me encased in gray mud, they looked as if they had been freshly unearthed from graves and in a way they had.

I’ve heard many stories of what could have been done, what should have been done, what we will do next time… I for one never want to experience a NEXT time… let that be the ONLY time!

To all of you who had family or friends lost in the WTC disaster I offer you my condolences.

Sondra Hickman is a freelance writer, her book Before Life Got Complicated will soon be released by Publish America, visit her at: http://dixxeland.blogspot.com

Sondra Hickman is the author of Before Life Got Complicated (2006). Sondra was born in Tennessee, raised in South Carolina and lives in New York.