My Blog by Stephen Venters

Sunday, September 11, 2016

15 Years later

Over the last 15 years, I've worked on the memoirs of my experiences at 9/11 in an on-again, off-again fashion. When I started the project, I thought I'd breeze through it and hit print. Well, I learned writing a book is a lot of work and takes a lot of focus. I feel I have a lot of it done, maybe 75%. Someday I'll finish it.

I've often wondered if my friends and family where interested in my story and I never have fully told it. So, for the 15th anniversary, I thought it might be good to post one of my chapters. I've chosen one that contains no gore or anything horrific, those chapters are much harder to re-read.

This chapter starts when I'm in a convoy of vans delivering medical supplies to Stuyvesant High School, which only a couple of blocks from where the towers stood. It's about 6pm Tuesday evening on 9/11/2001.

Chapter 5

Stuyvesant High School

The World Financial Center sits in the southwest corner of Manhattan, almost at the very tip. The West Side Highway, which spans the entire length of Manhattan, bisects the World Financial Center just west of the North Tower and is known as West Street in that area. It is a major artery through there and eventually enters the Battery Park tunnel at the very southern tip of the island.

Just north of the World Financial Center, we returned to West Street in our attempt to reach Stuyvesant High School. There it is a wide six-lane highway with a grassy median dividing it and lined with sidewalks. As we turned south onto it, I could see that every bit of that space was filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of dust-covered firefighters. They were sitting, lying and resting on the sidewalks, median and in middle of the highway. They were everywhere and they were covered in grey dust, completely covered. I knew now why the highway had been blocked off a few blocks north forcing us into the small streets of downtown Manhattan. Some were milling about or chatting, but most were sitting or lying down in exhaustion.

I watched a group as they geared up to walk the two final blocks to the edge of the pit. Then they marched two-by-two south through the snow-like dust, towards the smoke and the heat, carrying over their slumped, tired shoulders shovels, axes, saws, and other extraction tools.

Here, only several blocks away from where the World Trade Center buildings stood, the street and sidewalks were covered in a several inch thick mixture of grey dust and loose sheets of office paper. Occasionally, I would pick one up and look at it. It would be a spreadsheet, or a fax, or a page from a contract or memo. I would wonder what its story was. Who printed it? What floor did it come from? Was it on someone’s desk or filed away in some cabinet and forgotten? I found a dry cleaner tag with someone’s name on it. I wondered if those clothes would ever be picked up. I briefly thought about keeping the tag and attempting to contact the name on it as to return it to him. But returning laundry to its rightful owner was not why I was here, so I dropped the tag and moved on. Though I would always look for a date on what I picked up, I never did find anything with that Tuesday's date on it.

Through this office wasteland, the firemen marched. We immediately began to hand out the dust masks contained in our two big boxes. "Would you like a dust mask?" I'd ask the worn faces of the firemen, looking into their bloodshot eyes that were clearly scratched raw from the thick smoke. Most accepted them graciously, though a few declined, knowing they wouldn't be much help. Some already had ones that were filthy and filled with dust. So I offered them a new mask. The reality is, those thin dust masks didn't help much nor did they protect your eyes. Later, when I was on the edge of the pit, my mask was utterly useless. It allowed smoke to get sucked in around the edge of the mask rather than through it. They also obstructed and muffled your voice in an already loud environment. I think most of the firemen ended up not using them at all. It wouldn’t be for a few more days until gas masks arrived with asbestos filters and, by then, a lot of smoke had already been inhaled.

I continued walking around handing out the masks and occasionally asking how it was down there. "Hell," "War Zone," and "Hot" where common answers. No one I spoke to had seen any survivors. I would tell them about Chelsea Pier triage and how no one had gone through there, either.

After handing out all the masks, I had lost the group I had come with, so I walked to the high school that was being set up as a field triage. It was chaos there, too. No one was in control, so things were getting done, undone, then redone. Tables set up here, then moved over there, then moved back. I offered my assistance and was pointed to a girl handing out labels to be taped to us stated our job, either "EMT" or "Doctor" or "Vol." I told her I knew how to do PAD (Patient Administration Detail). She handed me a handwritten sign on an 8.5x10 piece of paper which was then taped to my back with 2 inch medical tape.


Firefighters were going about, using the restrooms, eating food set out on tables, and resting on the stairs. The medical people were moving tables, chairs, and boxes of medical supplies. I was hard pressed to find anything to do but get in the way so I went outside. During this time, I made two phone calls: one to Susane and one home.

I had been playing phone tag with Susane all day and really wanted to talk to her in person. Thankfully she answered, but to my surprise, she was very irate that I had gone down to Ground Zero. I was taken aback. Though it bothered me that she was angry with me, I was too focused on my situation to see she what her needs were. It never occurred to me that she would be afraid and would need a friend around. Having just spent the last five months traveling alone in foreign places, I had shed the idea of “a home” and I didn’t understand that to her it wasn’t just New York that had been attacked, but her home. More so, I didn’t understand that she felt incredibly alone and unsafe and scared. In the years since, I’ve come to realize I missed a real opportunity to really help someone through the 9/11 attacks and has become one my life greatest regrets.

My second call went home where I talked to Cassy, my stepmother, for a few minutes to tell her I was at Ground Zero to help out and "safe."

After those two calls, I sat down, wondering what to do next. How could I help now that I was there?


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