Shortly after 9-11, I traveled to New York City to work with the Red Cross. I thought going there would empower me, make me feel like I had done something for my country. In some small way, I wanted to honor those who died.
On the second day, I was asked to go work at Ground Zero at a respite center for rescue workers. Several of us were put on a bus to travel to the site. As we went through a checkpoint guarded by men with machine guns, we could see that ash covered everything. The bus went silent. This was becoming real. Then the smell came. It happened slowly, like perhaps it was just some fumes from the bus. But it was smokier. Then came a smell I couldn’t identify. It was horrible. I really wanted to know what it was. Then it hit me. I knew. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I knew what it was, but I knew. It was the smell of death.
You wouldn’t think that you would know what that smelled like. It was unmistakable. It was a smell that in one degree or the other was all over the city. You just had to get close enough to the source to really get a handle on what it was. It is a smell that would be with me long after I left New York. For weeks I would smell it every time I woke up.
When we walked up to the point where we could get our first real view of Ground Zero, we all stopped. Even our armed guard stopped moving to give us a moment to take it in. One thing I don’t think people realize is just how enormous it was. It was bigger than words. On TV it looked almost small. Compartmentalized. Like it all fell in a neat pile.
I was asked, along with a firefighter, to deliver water to the workers. Although we never shared our names with each other, the time I would spend with this man would change my life. We were brothers united in a common mission to clean up this…mess. This disaster. As we were walking along we talked about his wife and his kids and of a friend he had lost in the collapse of the second tower.
We continued on our trek to hydrate the workers. He began to tell me that he thought I was amazing for being there. He said that he couldn’t imagine coming so far from home to do what I was doing and that he was really grateful. I told him that he was being silly. That was the word I used to this huge fireman with the thick accent of a native New Yorker. Silly. I told him that what I was doing didn’t compare to what he had to do. He said “It’s just my job.” What he was going through shouldn’t have to be anyone’s job.
At the end of the day, I went back to where I was staying. When I knocked on my room door, a woman who was with our group opened the door. When our eyes met, the look in hers terrified me. She looked at me like she had no idea who I was. When I looked in the mirror I knew why. I was covered in ash from head to toe except for a circle on my face where my mask had been. My eyes were empty. There was no twinkle. No life. It scared me.
I took a bath, which I sat in until the water was freezing cold. When I stood up and the water ran off of me, it left behind a film of ash. I had to take a shower. When I looked in the mirror, my eyes looked a little better. But the smell was filling the room. It was in my clothes. I threw my shirt, jeans, socks, and underwear out the window. I wanted them away from me. I wanted to get rid of that smell.
It breaks my heart that my kids will never live with the sense of security that I had growing up. They will never live in a world where the Twin Towers stand tall and proud. I will do my best to make sure that they learn about the day the Towers fell and about those who perished in them. I will tell them about the heroes of the days surrounding 9-11. We will honor their memory every year. Most of all, I will work hard to save them from a world that has that smell, the one I can’t forget, the one I shouldn’t ever forget.