15 years on we are still haunted by the memories of that day...
“A Lot of Thursdays Ago”
By Armen Amirian
Tuesday, 9/11/01 I wasn’t in the city. Took the day off to deal with my nitwit insurance agent. Lucky for me. Work was on the other side of town from the blast, but the city became crazy, fast. Would have been a real project getting home.
I headed over to check on my folks. My cousin’s wife Dorothy worked in the Towers, and had called in the morning. No word from her all day, so my folks sat by the phone and the TV waiting for news. My mom was crying thinking about how their little girl would be if her mommy never came home. Late Tuesday, Dorothy called. She had made it down the stairs in time but was trapped downtown with no way of making a call. Huge relief. Lots of stories like that.
Got my son from school and sat home watching the towers collapse on TV. I was so sure they’d never collapse I was completely stunned when it happened.
As did most of my friends, a frenzied flurry of calls went out to find out where I could go and volunteer my skills. Finally, Thursday morning we got a call at work from a kid who worked at the shop occasionally that the town was looking for licensed welders. I had both a Class 1 welding license and Oxy/Acet cutting license, so I was in. The word was to get to the Javits Center on the West Side and wait for transport. Got off the phone and announced the news to everyone in earshot. Leah and Tina, two of the other welders, said they’d come.
Packing up. What to bring? Leather welding jacket, stick welding stinger and leads, oxy/acet torches and hose, tool backpack I had bought myself for Christmas, welding helmet, gloves, and a bunch of other stuff. And ID, money and cel phone. And licenses. Tools weighed half what I did.
We all ran down to the street. I stepped out in the street, yelled at a cab to stop, and we all piled in. More than a little nervous and no idea what to expect. In the cab, Leah had a blank look on her face and finally said “I’m scared”, to noone in particular. “Of what?” I asked. “Getting hurt.” she replied. I realized I was scared too, but not sure of what. Not scared of being hurt, but more of seeing the devastation, specifically dead bodies. Not sure if I could handle seeing dead people of even worse, parts of people. By about 46th St the traffic was at a standstill, so we hopped out and started to hoof it the rest of the way. None of us really thought out what we were doing very thoroughly. We all compared notes about what stuff we brought that was useless and what we forgot. It started to rain and the other 2 pulled out umbrellas. I had to laugh, as Leah had this flowery girly umbrella that couldn’t have been more out of place considering the nature of the mission we we about to embark on.
The closer we go to the Javits Center the more police and military there were. A block away heavily armed military stop us and ask what we are doing. We explain we are welders there to help. They ask for ID and licenses. I’m the only one with welding licenses, so I am allowed to get closer. Leah and Tina are sent back. The whole area is an armed camp. Following orders, I head toward a transport bus. I’m by myself now-don’t know anyone.
I’m on the bus with a bunch of guys. I’m not the youngest, but I’m certainly the smallest. For the most part they are big tough guys, all union ironworkers and steamfitters. Many know each other from the trades. A lot of hardhats, a lot of tattoos, a lot of muscle. Probably a lot of Harleys in garages.
A few seats over is a guy whose nickname was probably “Tiny”. He is about 6’6 and 350 pounds. He is taking up two seats, but no one seems to mind. Near me is a large black man covered with body piercing and the kind of homemade tatoos you get in jail or in a rough neighborhood. There is a whole paragraph tatooed on his neck. I try not to stare, but it says something about “surviving, God willing”. Reminds me of a guy I knew who had overcome his demons and had a similar tattoo on his neck. The words were in mirror writing so he could read them each morning when he looked at himself in the bathroom mirror to give him strength to make it through another day. I’m sure this man stood at the mirror that morning and read the words out loud. Maybe a few times…
This is not the Lexus and quiche crowd.
The boys are fairly quiet. A few are calling home to let their loved ones know where they are and will be for a while. Those with phones are asking the others without if anyone wants to make a call.
The bus stops multiple times as boxes of donated supplies are tossed on board and passed back. Welding gloves, respirators, eye wash, sandwiches, water, and rain ponchos all circulate the bus. Hard to eat, but I grab a bottle of water for later. No one is taking what they don’t need and all are making sure that everyone is taken care of.
The closer the bus gets to the Trade Towers, the worse it looks. All along the way people are lined up, shell shocked eyes, but cheering us on. They know what we are doing. Always thanking us for our efforts.
Finally, the bus stops. We are blocks away, but there is so much debris that the bus will certainly get a flat or be stuck if we try to get closer. We grab our gear and head out. These guys are huge. All carrying more gear than me with no effort at all. I feel like the little kid at school dragging my books behind me while the big guys carry their stuff without even noticing it. We still aren’t in direct sight of the Trade Towers but we are all walking together in the same direction. Once we can clearly see the wreckage, one of the Ironworkers stops and turns to me and starts talking.
“It’s a good thing my daddy is dead. If he saw this, it’d kill him. He worked on the towers when I was a kid. One day he brought me to work and took me all the way to the top of the towers when it was just a steel skeleton. It was so windy up there he made me crawl to the edge of the building ’cause I’d get blown off if I stood up. I looked over the edge of the building 110 stories up. It was so amazing it took my breath away. I was so proud that my daddy had built this. Now look at it!” He shakes his head and walks onward.
As we walked down towards the Towers a gurney with an anonymous corpse in a body bag was being rolled up past us. Someone’s mom, I wondered? Someone’s dad? Maybe. But certainly someone’s child. Someone who was carried in their parent’s arms a thousand nights being sung to and talked to as they reluctantly went to sleep. In a blink that person changed from ‘Is’ to ‘Was’. One of the guys I’m walking with says his neighbor is a detective and was given a pile of arms, hands and fingers to fingerprint and try to identify.
By now we are almost at ground zero. We have passed two melted fire trucks and a lot of debris. There are abandoned cars covered with a kind of grey silt. The cleaning crews have done an amazing job. The streets are much improved compared to the pics we saw on TV.
A few weeks later I’d be at a MS fundraiser bicycle ride. All I knew about the guy in charge is that he was a heavy duty money guy from NYC. Every year he sponsored his own team of co-workers from his investment firm. At the dinner the night of the ride he got up and told us that while he was at a final meeting in NJ having to to do with the MS ride, his office in the towers was hit and he lost all his teammates, and that he was riding in their memory. Can’t imagine how he could even stand up there and talk. Tougher man than me.
All around there is dust and debris. What had once been the tallest building on earth is now a very tall pile of wreckage, still smoldering. At the edge of the pile, a large part of the facade of one of the buildings remains vertical. Looking around I see that the grating from a fire escape acted as a filter, catching papers. Two days ago these were on someone’s desk, in neat or not-so-neat piles waiting to be dealt with. Now they are stuck in the metal grating of a fire escape, as lost as the person behind the desk.
We set up outside a Burger King waiting for orders. Periodically we stop while the dogs and their handlers go into the rubble looking for survivors. They have little booties on so their paws won’t get cut on the debris. At this point, survivors are still being found. By the end of the week, mainly bodies. I hear later that the dogs are so saddened that they are only finding bodies that the volunteers are laying in the wreckage for the dogs to find them so they can feel better. Even the animals are saddened by this attack.
At one point we form a human chain and load bags of dog food into the Burger King. This is where the K-9 detail is being housed. I wish I had a camera so I could take a picture of the dog food being loaded into the Burger King.
The day went on. At one point a procession of armored SUVs with tinted windows arrived. Word was it was the Mayor and Governor. No one knows if a follow up attack is planned, so security is intense.
Honestly, I never did any welding that day. Mainly what we did was move supplies, food, and rubble. Understandably, things were not very organized. But I did whatever was asked, and made my very tiny contribution. Many others did immensely more.
Phone reception is zilch down there. After what seems like an appropriate amount of time, I climb onto a bus and head back to work to dump my gear, and eventually take a bus home. I make some calls to let a few folks know I’m fine.
Every few years I meet someone who lost someone in the towers. There is a cruel twist in that me, a stranger, was physically closer to their loved one sooner than they were. I never mention it to them.