My Rollerblades squeaked as I sprinted through yet another set of red lights. I had come five miles but still had two more to go. Over my back hung a bag containing a hefty first aid kit, my old 8mm camera, and a small bottle of Chanel No. 5.
I quickly glanced at the sidewalks filled with people gathered around radios and television sets dragged outside from corner stores, and I picked up speed. As I got closer to my destination, I had to battle my way through crowds of people streaming in the opposite direction. Although they walked in an orderly, quiet fashion, their hair and clothes were covered in white soot, and they held on to one another like invalids. They looked like the victims of the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima, whose black-and-white photos I’d seen in books. There was no color anywhere. People all seemed to be holding cellphones to their ears but none of them were speaking. They were in shock. I turned onto the cobblestone streets, which were less crowded though more difficult to navigate on skates, and continued to make my way to the World Trade Center. Soon, I found myself alone in a blizzard of ash and smoke that burned my eyes and throat.
Inside the cloud, I found a Latino man in his late forties dressed in an expensive blue business suit, lying unconscious on the ground. I loosened his Gucci tie and tilted his chin back to start giving him CPR, all the while calling out into the fog for help. What felt like hours later but was probably only minutes, two EMS workers ran over and carried him away.
Deeper into the smoke, I saw an arm elegantly pointing out of the rubble toward me. I began ripping at the chunks of cement, reaching in to yank the person free. When I pulled on it, only the arm came with me—there wasn’t a body attached. I screamed in horror and threw it on the ground. When I looked down at it, I saw a ring with small sapphires and diamonds on the delicate wedding finger.
Still wobbling on my skates, I looked at my worst nightmare. A million pieces of paper danced around in the air currents like oversized confetti. I caught one and read someone’s private bank statement, then tucked it in my backpack. The air smelled of burned plastic. There was almost no sound except for tiny beeping noises coming from underneath the rubble at regular intervals and an occasional thud on the ground. I later found out that the thuds were the sounds of people who had jumped from the skyscraper crashing to earth, and the beeps were the sounds of the alarms embedded in the uniforms of the recently buried firemen. My heart was beating louder than rain, yet I felt compelled to push farther into the darkness.
It was 10:27 a.m. on September 11, 2001, and something even bigger was about to happen.
I felt the ground moving beneath me and looked up to see the World Trade Center’s nearby north tower tumbling toward me like a stack of cards. I sprinted away, frantically attempting to outskate the avalanche that was trying to eat me alive, but then gave up and dove under a parked UPS truck.
Twenty bucket-loads of prayers later, I crawled out into the now even denser fog of sooty darkness. I saw pieces of bodies scattered about like roadkill and collected them into a pile. I counted five legs, three arms, two torsos, and half a head. All the other stuff was unrecognizable. Inside a computer monitor I saw someone’s charred skull.
I found some trash bags in a destroyed shop nearby. Even though I had worked for eight years as a nurse’s aide in my mother’s hospital when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I had always been squeamish at the sight of blood. I felt queasy as I stuffed the torn flesh into the bags. My thoughts froze and my nose wrinkled up as I readied myself to perform the task at hand.
Then I remembered what I’d placed in my bag at the last minute, and took out my precious bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume. I dabbed a little bit under my nose to mask the smell of burned bodies, and it worked. I continued shuffling around like an astronaut on my first moon landing, looking for more signs of life.
Staring into the raging fires in the surrounding buildings, I thought about my friend Jonathon Connors, who worked on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center at Cantor Fitzgerald. I prayed he had gotten out. He was a good friend who worked hard to provide for his children and his wife, who had been living with a life-threatening disease. He had always secretly wanted to be an actor, so he had invested in my first film, and to thank him I’d chosen him as an extra in one of the scenes. He had been very supportive of my career and always visited me on set.
With Jonathon in mind, I pulled my old 8mm camera out of my backpack and started shooting quick, shaky images. The clicking noise of the worn film canister disturbed me. I suddenly felt guilty taking images, so I threw the camera back into my pack. I felt that if someone saw me capturing pictures of this horrific event, they would think it was a shameful thing to do. I suppressed my filmmaker instincts and didn’t shoot anymore the entire time I was on-site at Ground Zero.
When I ran across survivors, they walked past me with blank stares on their faces like zombies in a silent horror movie. Occasionally I stumbled upon other ordinary folks doing what I was doing—trying desperately to find people still alive among the wreckage and ripping down the wood pylons that were mounted on surrounding buildings to create makeshift stretchers for the injured.
An hour later, policemen started screaming for everyone to move away from the World Trade Center area. Reluctantly, I obeyed their commands, but I knew I wasn’t done yet.
It became too difficult to navigate on skates, but in my mad rush to get to the disaster area as quickly as possible, I had forgotten to pack shoes. So I left my Rollerblades beside the Stuyvesant School wall just off the West Side Highway and quickly walked in my socks to a nearby pet store. In a Schwarzenegger-movie moment of grandiosity, I announced in my most assertive voice, “I am a nurse and I have no shoes. I need to go in and help people, so I need your shoes now!” The stunned Asian man at the checkout counter balked at first, throwing me a suspicious look. He then revealed his feet, probably hoping I’d pass on the thin, open-toed flaps of plastic he wore. But they were good enough for me. I took his business card, confiscated his flip-flops, and told him I’d be back.
The officials had us gather at the City Hall Park, located a few blocks northeast of Ground Zero. Shocked civilians continued to wander the streets with vacant expressions on their faces, but a gang of eager volunteers like me fought for information about how we could help. A tough guy on a bullhorn took control, asking if anyone had any medical or Army experience. I raised my hand. I didn’t know what we’d be doing, but I knew I could help somehow. He and a few other construction worker–type men sorted us into groups. I joined the medical group.
A few hours later, we loaded into a New York City public bus now manned by a policeman and headed back over to the West Side Highway. Those five long blocks resembled a ghost town. It was surreal to think how busy the streets would have been just hours before. The scenery passed by in slow motion, as though time itself were snoozing. I watched five Hasidic men running toward Ground Zero with boxes of bottled water on their heads. I looked up and saw a shirtless man sitting on his window ledge, smoking a cigarette and surveying his demolished neighborhood.
The West Side Highway was full of firefighters and ambulances. As we drove closer to the World Trade Center area, I saw that the fallen towers had completely buried the highway. Everything was covered in white dust, like winter’s first snowfall.
We exited the buses and regrouped in a nearby building. The local hospitals had already donated large boxes of medical supplies, so we packed our backpacks and grabbed as many bags of saline as we could carry.
I saw a large man standing near a swarm of firefighters about one block north of Ground Zero. He introduced himself to me as Michael Voudoras. He was a volunteer EMT who had ropes and a huge medical kit slung over his sturdy back and a wild, confident look in his eyes. I knew at once that we were going to get along.
At 5:30 p.m., World Trade Center Tower Seven collapsed. I had been watching it burn since the morning and was just one block away when I found myself running for cover for the second time that day. By then, the fires were burning freely and the crazy air was filled with wind and ash.
After that, the officials cleared us out once more and announced that nobody would be allowed back into the Ground Zero area, since they thought many more buildings would collapse. They moved us back out and blocked off road access. All the rescue workers were frustrated, and Michael and I started getting antsy just standing around feeling helpless. A cranky nurse in scrubs declared that she was going into Ground Zero anyway, and marched off down the street, only to be stopped by storm troopers.
It was starting to get dark when a slick black car with four men inside pulled up to our area. It looked like a scene out of the movie Men in Black. A mysterious suit-clad arm emerged from behind the tinted windows and placed a loudspeaker on the car’s roof. Earlier, someone had placed a spotlight on the ground to light up the area after nightfall, and it shone through the car, making the shadowy figures inside look even more impressive. A radio broadcast began. It was President George W. Bush telling us that we were now at war. The crowd was spellbound. Hundreds of rescue workers surrounded the car, hanging on every word. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the car quietly vanished. A buzz of excitement hissed through the crowd. I felt a surge of pride: We were now soldiers, fighting on American soil.
At this stage, only a small group of exhausted firemen were being allowed back into Ground Zero. But who was going to take care of the firefighters, I wondered? Michael and I gave each other a cheeky look and then hid behind a group of firemen, using them as cover to sneak back into the danger zone. We knew that many firemen were still getting hurt, and we were determined to help them. We were also eager to look around for anyone who had been buried alive.
As we stepped into the ash and flames, I silently recited the same prayer that I had prayed all day: If it was my time to die, then I was ready. Up until then I had had an amazing, fulfilling life, for which I was grateful. In welcoming and accepting the thought of my death, I felt no fear at all.
Michael and I walked around for hours with our first aid kits and saline bags, treating firemen with burned, sooty eyes and small open wounds. We climbed over remnants of smashed jewelry stores and unmanned banks, desperately looking for someone trapped but still breathing. It was a pitch-black night: The soot lay like a blanket across the sky and the power had gone out. We felt like the only people left on earth.
In the late evening hours, we came upon the American Express building, which had been converted into a small disaster-response staging area and morgue. The ground was soaked in mud and water, which oozed over my flip-flops, through my socks, and around my toes as I stumbled to help a fireman. His eyes were bloodshot and full of soot; he looked like the walking dead. He had been working in the Marriott hotel and was the last one to run out before the south tower had come crashing down on top of it. All of his friends were dead. He sat on the ground in despair, a broken man. I whispered words of comfort and stroked his hair as I cleaned his eyes.
The wind created ashy tornadoes that danced around us as we tried to wash the soot out, making our task even more challenging. On top of that, I realized that although my eyes were fully open I couldn’t see anything—my eyes were filled with dirt, too. So Michael and I sat face-to-face on a pile of rubble to blindly clean the muck from each other’s eyes.
“Darling,” I said, “you take me to all the best places.”
“Only the best for you, my dear,” Michael replied.
As soon as our eyes were fresh, we ventured back into the action.