It’s been 13 years since I slammed my transmission into overdrive, popped the flashing red light onto the roof of my car and went barreling down half-empty streets in Brooklyn towards Manhattan.
Beside me were a sheaf of papers bearing photos of a girl I didn’t know, who was working in an office on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. “Maybe someone has seen her,” her terrified parents said. A colleague handed half of the stack to me before getting into his own car to head down the same road.
We both knew it was a long shot but neither of us realized just how long a shot it was. In fact, it was no shot at all. No one ever came out of that pile of busted concrete and twisted metal alive. I know, because I was there.
Too old already to be a firefighter (which I was in younger days), back then I was a volunteer fire chaplain. But I was on my way to work at a local mental health clinic that morning, since I am also a trauma therapist and ADHD specialist in my “other life.” I was listening to the radio in my car when the DJ interrupted the music to make “a special announcement.” Annoying, I thought idly.
A plane had slammed into the World Trade Center, he said. Details to follow. Weird, I thought. “Radar screwed up? Pilot lost control of the plane?” I started to run through the list in my mind. Meanwhile the DJ was doing the same thing on the air with a second person who had joined him on commentary.
That’s ominous, I reflected. Having lived five years in Israel in my younger years, all my red flags went up the more I thought about it.
And then a plane hit the second tower. That’s when I knew this was no accident.
By the time I reached the clinic, patients were calling in to cancel and the secretary had a small television on, with live coverage showing what had happened. “That’s a terror attack,” I muttered, and disappeared into my office. The next call was to the volunteer fire and rescue team coordinator. I saw two patients and the clinic closed early. A sigh of relief and I raced to pick up the flyers: “Have you seen this girl?”
I flashed an ID in order to get into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which was blocked off to everyone. Cops were everywhere. “A bit late, no?” I grumbled, whizzing into the tunnel. It opened up into a smoke-filled nightmare.
I couldn’t park anywhere near the site. In fact, I couldn’t FIND the site. The World Trade Center had disappeared. The entire area was wrapped in a thick grey haze for dozens of blocks in each direction. It was impossible to see beyond a foot or two. The Liberty One building was not stable — it was swaying in the breeze.
I finally found a spot about half a mile away. It was still smoky in that area, but at least I could see the address, which I’ve since blocked from my mind. There’s a lot I’ve blocked, in fact, but what I have never been able to block out is the stink that hit as soon as I got closer to Ground Zero.
There is no mistaking that smell.
When I was a child, my Sunday School held a special assembly to educate the students in Grades 4 and up about the Holocaust. On that day we were shown the film, “Let My People Go,” a documentary of the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews. It included a full description by concentration camp survivors of the crematoria and accompanying photos.
Hana Levi Julian