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Erin Williams' post-9/11 journal

  • Published Friday, Sep. 9, 2011, at 3:28 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, at 1:34 p.m.

Editor’s note: Wichita native Erin (Calvert) Williams was a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Coast Guard 10 years ago. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was temporarily assigned to a base at Yorktown, Va., to learn how to plan for natural disasters and mass rescue. Three days later, she and two classmates, LaTarsha McQueen and Michael Weaver, went to New York City and ground zero to volunteer for recovery efforts. This a shortened version of the raw and detailed thoughts Williams put on paper a month later during a cross-country flight to San Diego. Today, Williams, 35, is a Coast Guard lieutenant commander stationed in Valdez, Alaska. She is married and has four children.

BY ERIN WILLIAMS

After the event happened, I thought about arranging a class trip for the weekend to help out. I didn't know how people would react, so I decided against proposing it.

On Thursday night, September 13th, Michael said that he was going to New York City. I immediately invited myself. Once I told my roommate LaTarsha, she decided to join.

We made preparations on that night over nasty pizza and good beer at the enlisted club. Friday, September 14th, I arranged for transportation. Right after class we stocked up on snacks and ginger ale and hit the road. I took the first leg of driving.

For about 45 minutes, we sat in silence, preparing ourselves mentally for anything we'd see. I wanted to get into the destruction area and help where I was needed, but I thought it was a slim shot.

On the drive, I prepared myself to see the worst, or at least what I imagined would be the worst, especially having responded to a few unsuccessful search and rescue cases. We had a brief conversation on death, dead bodies, and our experiences around such devastation. Silence again.

‘My heart began to sink’

The reality of the situation didn't set in until about 2 a.m. Saturday morning. We were heading north on I-95. Michael was driving. I peered out through the rear passenger window and saw the ruined New York skyline.

Gone were the lights of all of the buildings. Instead, a tremendous yellow glow from the rubble area lit the night. Three days after the incident and smoke was still billowing — amazing. I really wanted to take a picture. We pulled over on the highway, still empty, and took a picture.

My heart began to sink as reality set in. LaTarsha started to drive. Again, silence in the car. Unbelievable. We proceeded to Upper Manhattan.

We found a close parking spot to Michael's friend's house. At 3 a.m., we made it. Awake for 21 hours, I was exhausted. I set my alarm for 8 a.m.

‘God bless you all, good luck’

The clock sounded the alarm. I hit snooze. Eight minutes later, it was the same routine. At about 8:45, we all rolled out of bed.

No showers were necessary now, but uniforms were. We weren't really sure where to go. We discussed going to the Coast Guard base at Staten Island, but then decided to stay in the Manhattan area. We left at 9 a.m.

Once outside, we started walking to the car. About five to six people were sitting on the street. As we passed, they said, “God bless you all. Good luck out there. Thanks for all your help.”

We stopped and visited with them, then packed the car and left. I was taken by surprise at the attention. It made me proud to serve in the military. We started driving and soon found food.

We thought the Incident Command Post was in Central Park. No. At breakfast, we asked an NYC cop who was standing on the street corner. He directed us to the Javits Center.

A short time later, we came across the Javits Center. Again, my heart sank. Tears welled up in my eyes. The site before me demonstrated the true meaning of awesome. Before us was an extremely long line of people standing on the sidewalk — easily a half mile long.

Many volunteers had digging and construction equipment. Several were wearing hard hats. Some came in groups, others on their own. All were patiently waiting to donate their services to the rescue effort.

Editor’s note: The trio spent some time trying to volunteer at the Javits Center. Eventually, they decided to head for the Battery Park Coast Guard office.

We drove as far as we could; I think we stopped at 14th Street. We parked in front of a police car and behind a van, threw on a couple of backpacks with bare essentials, not even my toothbrush, and started the hike.

We just acted confident and walked like we were on a mission. We were.

We passed police barricades. We continued to a supply area that was made up of boxes of random items — socks, earplugs, and water. We stockpiled on earplugs, gloves, eye protection, masks and socks.

The woman at this station expressed her frustration with the volunteer coordination. She was a registered nurse with her own supplies who was turned away after she offered to help. She said that she'd help in any way possible, thus her job at the supply area.

We moved on.

Finally, we hit the first identification area. An Army or National Guard soldier saluted us, asked for our identification and directed us right towards the water. He said it was the safest path.

We came to the intelligence unit area. The man told us the correct way to go. When we turned left on a side street, it was my first glimpse.

Abandoned strollers

Until this point, I had not seen the World Trade Center area firsthand except for a visit years earlier to the top floor of Tower I — but there it was. We saw what remained —- the skeleton.

All I could think was, “Oh my God.” I wanted to take a picture; I was the only one who wanted to capture the moment as the other two didn't find it appropriate. Michael took it for me.

We moved on.

We were blocks away, yet pulled so close to the situation, especially since there was debris everywhere, literally.

We passed fireboats with hoses connected and charged. Still, more debris _ dust, paper. We had been walking so long and fast that I felt a blister forming on my heel. We continued.

We came to a small mooring area. People were gathered around, milling about. Some were sweeping, others were picking up random debris and some were taking pictures.

The three of us were walking next to each other. I had my head down. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a Coast Guard petty officer take our picture.

He introduced himself and told us we were about 15 minutes from the Coast Guard Battery Park unit. We moved on.

We came across an area where people were bulldozing debris into a large pile. I saw several abandoned strollers and wondered what went through the minds of the infants’ parents.

What would go through my head if I were trying to protect my child from such an atrocity? I could only imagine their panic and fear.

We saw a pile of bicycles, still chained to the bike rack and resting in a tangled mess on the corner.

I looked down and saw a single shoe — a woman's black dress sandal.

What was going through that woman's mind on September 11th? Was she OK? She was obviously fleeing, but to where?

I looked up and saw the corner of a high-rise destroyed. It looked like someone took a can opener and pried at least four stories open.

I was amazed because we were still several blocks from the World Trade Center. We moved on.

I knew we were getting close to the Coast Guard base. We passed soot-covered, abandoned vehicles with inches of building remains covering the cars.

I saw a hot dog and donut stand with donuts still in the window. We passed what looked like a scenic viewpoint.

I looked over towards the water and saw the Statue of Liberty with the Coast Guard cutter Tahoma in the foreground. I was speechless, overwhelmed with pride in my country and my service.

I had a flashback to the days I spent on-scene with the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 response of the coast of California. I am glad that now I may be able to help rescue rather than just stand watch and feel helpless to the situation.

Michael took a picture and we moved on.

Welcomed with open arms

We rounded the final corner for the Battery Park Coast Guard office. I saw several people, maybe 50 or 60, standing at a checkpoint to enter the lower Manhattan area. Marines and Army (maybe National Guard) personnel were trying hard to organize the chaos.

I figured out that the civilians were waiting to return to their homes. Many held up signs and stood in anticipation of being allowed in.

We almost headed to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal by mistake, but were quickly directed to the CG unit. We had made it so far already, but had yet to really help.

Once inside, we were welcomed with open arms.

„ø„ø„ø

Editor’s note: Erin and LaTarsha stayed at the Coast Guard office while Michael went back to move their car after being warned it might be towed. He returned about 3:15 p.m., and the three prepared to leave again.

„ø„ø„ø

Following the rancid stench, smoke

Michael, LaTarsha and I changed clothes, grabbed a dust mask, and headed out. A shout of “Good luck” comes from the PA office.

We walked back the way we came. There are no cars in the Battery Park and Ferry Terminal area.

I had a flashback to seven years earlier. I took the Governor's Island ferry with one of academy classmates. At that time, I was practically risking my life to cross the street.

Now, things were different, much different. There were Army trucks and armed men everywhere. We passed by the Manhattan residents one more time.

Instead of walking along the water, we headed straight to the heart of the city, following the rancid stench and smoke.

We came across the Wall Street statue of the charging bull. I watched as a man taped an American flag to each horn. They were blowing in the wind like the bull was actually running.

I thought about what belonged on the other end of the bull — the terrorist's face. I smiled and felt a rush of pride. We continued.

My mask was on and off. It didn't seem to help keep the smell out, but I knew it provided some protection.

All the buildings were abandoned — Wall Street was empty. Vans and trucks from construction companies line the streets.

The people walking towards us had somber looks on their faces. Some men were mindlessly digging up the street to run cable. It seemed crazy to me to see construction guys giving no thought to aesthetics. They just wanted to get the job done.

Adrenaline pumping

As we got deeper into Manhattan, the smell of burnt metal grew stronger.

I looked down the alleys and saw piles of paper, dust, and whatever else piled high in the fire escapes of buildings.

I took a second to think about what the rush was like that morning. I imagine it was probably like a tidal wave of trash and dust.

We hit a first aid area, formerly known as a bank. We tried to find hard hats. No luck. We continued.

We tried to enter ground zero at one area. Denied.

I looked up across a now empty lot. Oh my God — how could this have happened? Rage, sorrow, pain, discouragement. I wanted more than anything to get one more block into the action so I could really help.

We walked around a huge building, one block east. A group of volunteers set up tables of food. I pocketed a couple of granola and Power bars.

We tried the entrance by this group and were successful in getting past the guards. We made it to the southeast corner of the WTC towers. We all donned hard hats scrounged from the Burger King supply area, directly across from the Towers.

Gloves and safety glasses were on. We each grabbed a bucket and proceeded to the next checkpoint, 10 feet away, to get on a bucket line.

An Army second lieutenant, my equivalent, stopped us. He wouldn't let us through. Mike tried to sweet talk him. The guy was very apologetic, and I knew he saw the drive in our eyes.

We re-grouped on the corner. LaTarsha decided her skills would be best utilized with public affairs, so she returned to Battery Park to help the Coast Guard crew. I understood.

My adrenaline was pumping, and I was trying not to imagine all the trapped people. She turned to walk; we all agreed to meet at Battery Park at 11:00 Sunday morning. We had to leave in less than 24 hours.

Mike and I talked to the person who appeared to be the leader of the volunteers in the Burger King area. He explained the setup. Any kind of food you may ever want was being kept on the service counter in BK. Drinks were on ice in a huge garbage bin. Supplies were set up on a couple of tables for easy access. We thanked him and just stood on the corner.

I was staring at the remains of the buildings and who knows what else. My mother taught me never to stare, but I couldn't help it. I was trying my hardest to soak in the magnitude of the horror.

`Evacuate, evacuate’

Suddenly, we saw a man, obviously a rescue worker, scurry around the drinks. A volunteer helped him load a bucket with drinks and ice. Our efforts began.

We grabbed several buckets and frantically filled them as we had just seen done. A few minutes passed. I was overjoyed to see so many people wanting so desperately to help. It was truly awesome. The task was completed extremely quickly.

We searched around for something else to do. We asked Joe, the lead volunteer. We followed him upstairs in Burger King and he instructed us to put batteries in flashlights — something I hadn't even thought about doing.

Sunset was coming soon with darkness to follow. I wanted to get this task done quickly so I could move on to the next. I'm moving fast. My hands were shaking and my heart was pounding. I wanted to stay close to Michael. He was like my security blanket.

We finished preparing a box of miscellaneous flashlights. Michael took it downstairs to the sidewalk outside Burger King.

A man came to help me. He was in his mid-twenties, I'm guessing. He was from San Diego, too, and just came to the city to throw a swingers’ party. Yes, a swingers’ party. I was surprised but impressed that all types of people were here to help.

We continued working. I was clumsy. I was nervous and scared. Michael never came back. I hung out and continued working.

"Evacuate, evacuate, get out!!" was the next thing I heard. A surge of "What the hell is going on?!" raced through my head.

All I saw was everyone running down and out the back of the BK. It didn't seem logical to me. Why not go out the front door?

A wave of panic hit everyone. I was on the middle level of Burger King when it happened, talking with a nurse about 'AA' batteries. I heard the word "evacuate" and immediately ran upstairs and yelled through my mask: "Evacuate! Come on, Get out!!"

People remained fairly calm, but I could feel the tension and worry. Everyone dropped everything. Literally. We all ran down to the lowest level of the store and out the back door.

I had no idea where we were going. What were we running from? I got out to some street and kept running. I got a couple of blocks away. Some people were walking, others running for their lives. People were scattered.

I stopped and looked back towards ground zero. In fact, almost everyone was looking back. I saw the nurse and decided to stick by her.

I walked up to her and said sarcastically, "Hey, I think we're out of AA batteries." She smiled. It was nice to see someone smile.

She explained the whole situation to me. It turns out that engineers were watching all of the unstable buildings. Lasers were pointed to strategic areas; when a building passed through a laser beam it sounded an alarm, which triggered an evacuation.

When the "all-clear" was given, a whistle from one of the cranes sounded so we started back. I didn't say much; I was pretty freaked out.

A visit to the morgue

I met up with the swinger guy again in the flashlight assembly area.

I grabbed a small blue light and two other lights and put them in my pockets for later. After all, a gas generator illuminated the BK lights. What if it ran out of gasoline?

I spent another 20 minutes or so doing the flashlight task, then I went downstairs to the BK counter to get food.

There were volunteers everywhere making and serving food. I was a little skeptical about anything that wasn't sealed. The air was just so thick. I picked up a Power Bar (forgot about the one in my pocket) and fruit and headed outside to take a break.

Long folding tables were lined against the building. I sat next to a group of resting firemen. All seemed to be talking and carrying on except for one. He was staring down at the ground with the most solemn face I have ever seen. The sky could have fallen and he wouldn't have budged.

I caught myself staring at him, wondering what horrifying things he had seen. He was definitely running through events in his head. He sat there for several minutes.

Above him, painted on the wall, were "MORGUE, POLICE HQ and TRIAGE." I wish I could take away all of his pain and agony from this whole thing. Many gruesome memories awaited him.

The nurse came and ate a snack next to me. We shot the breeze for a while. I told her that I was done doing the flashlights and ready to move on. She asked me to help her out for a while, and I gladly accepted.

We started walking. She mentioned that she was looking for her team. So we walked towards the morgue.

It was in the lobby of some building, lit by lamps connected to generators. Two policemen heavily guarded the doors. The nurse went inside and looked around. I had no desire to go in. She had no intentions of inviting me.

I felt weird and out of place until she came out a few minutes later. No sign of her friends. We walked to the first aid supply in the bank.

As we walked, she told me to keep my head up and constantly look up for falling debris. Over the last few days, a lot of debris had fallen and she had a couple of near misses.

Setting up triage in a deli

We walked to the bank. Can't find her team. We walked a block back to ground zero. A doctor grabbed us and said he needed our help setting up the new triage site next door to Burger King.

We turned around and headed back to the bank. I've never set up a triage before. I mean, I know basic first aid, but that's it. We scavenged the place looking for blankets. I found a box full of towels. The doctor said they'll work.

Threw the towels and a few blankets on a gurney. Rushing down the street, we pass the barricaded checkpoint. The Army soldiers let us though. Five of us continued pushing the gurney to the new triage site, which looked like a bagel shop or deli.

After parking the gurney on the street, we all helped remove tables from the building. Once all the tables were out, several firemen hooked up a fire hose and hosed down the floor.

The deli had two entrances. The main entrance shared the street with the World Trade Centers and ground zero. The rear entrance was where we took out all the tables. Some were passed through a huge broken window.

The nurse was sweeping the water and broken glass from the window to a corner. It looked like she needed a dustpan. I remember where one was at the BK from earlier that day. Three minutes later, I was holding it and watching her scoop the glass into it.

People were taking good, square tables inside. The broken tables were piled across the street, next to port-a-potties. I helped people wipe tables and take them inside. The nurse's teammate spray-painted a red cross and the word "Triage" on a dust covered rear window.

People kept commenting that the paint job couldn't be seen from the street so the firemen energized the hose again and washed the window.

Teamwork displayed

Everyone seemed strangely happy about the cleaning. I sensed a sigh of relief from all the workers. It was weird, but I guess it was more of a pride in such a fine triage set-up.

I was amazed at the teamwork displayed in that short period of time. Everyone seemed to quickly find his or her place in the organization and fall into an appropriate role.

I walked to a bar across the street behind the triage site to find a mop and bucket. Two uniformed men were in the bar. The one behind the bar was eyeing the establishment's fine liquor.

I ignored them and walked to the back. I was a little scared; all the lights were out. The men left. I walked up front. No bucket or swab. I went back to the triage.

At the front of the store, all of the nurses and doctors were gathered around one man. He was briefing them on the new site. He pointed out a cardiologist and his nurse and put them in charge.

He said that volunteers were not in charge and were not to make any decisions. I was the only volunteer allowed in the triage as a worker. Not sure how that happened.

The main man passed it to the lead doctor. He gave a little speech about how he was glad we were there. He realized what a tough job we had. He discussed the slim chance for survivors, especially after a few days into things.

But he encouraged us to keep our heads up and stay focused on our mission. The nurse in charge also spoke, saying similar things.I spent the next few hours wandering around the deli, seeing what supplies people needed. I wandered back to the bank's first aid station in search of spray paint.

I walked back to the triage with a box of assorted colors of paint and a box full of body bags. Arriving back at the site, I asked if the doctors or nurses needed any body bags. They gladly accepted them.

It was amazing to see how well the nurses had set up the restaurant. When I walked in the main entrance, I could find pretty much any first aid I needed near the door in a display case — from Tylenol to eye drops to Dr. Scholl's shoe cushions.

On the left, they set up several chairs for immediate care, including oxygen. In the back of the store, there were two critical triage tables. They put 12 tables together in two sections and covered each with a large blue tarp. One was designated for simple surgery and the other for cardiology.

A couple of beach chairs were in the corner. A path from the front to the back was constantly kept clear. I wandered out back. People were unloading supplies from a truck to the Burger King.

A man offered me a case of water for the triage. I have no idea how he knew that was where I was working. I wasn't dressed as a doctor. I accepted the water, again, taking whatever is offered.

I took it back to triage. They were happy to have the water. I set the case in the middle of the store.

Cheering for lights

One of the doctors grabbed some guy and me. Our task was to move all obstructions from the sidewalk in front of the store.

Most of it was food that we carried to Burger King. There was also some trash that we threw out back in the growing pile of tables. It was now over a story high and 30-40 feet in diameter.

The food was resting on two tables that we carried to the critical triage area. The staff wanted the tables.

People from somewhere, engineers or construction workers, started bringing in lights. One was a huge bubble. The top half was colored while the bottom half was white.

Within an hour, these men set up lights and had them energized by two generators — one out front and one out back. Amazing. The bubble light inflated and came to life. Everyone cheered.

I walked to a large area across from BK where a building was cleared earlier. In search of a better respirator. No dice. I put a travel size toothbrush in my pocket for later and returned to the triage area.

It was starting to get dark. I wandered to BK in search of small flashlights for people. I found a few small lights in the box I had helped fill hours earlier. The lady in charge got mad at me for taking so many, but she settled down a little once I told her where I was going.

I found some duct tape and went next door. At the triage, staff members were taping lights to their hard hats. I taped the small blue light to my helmet. For several minutes I taped lights to the helmets of doctors and nurses.

Felt like crying

I hung around the site for a few more hours. I decided to head back to Battery Park. It was extraordinarily difficult to leave — I was very hesitant.

I walked around Ground Zero for a while. It gave me time to think.

I wondered about Michael's whereabouts. He was quite determined to get his hands on the mound of debris. I thought about what LaTarsha may have seen that day.

I stopped at a corner and watched everyone work. Again, I was in awe.

There were hundreds of people who were working long hours around the clock. After working only a few hours, I was incredibly sore and tired and I was leaving the next day.

These rescue workers were working two to three times that and they were working for days on end. The true heroes.

I sighed and felt like crying. Just absolute destruction right in front of me — how overwhelming. I slowly turned and started walking down random streets.

At one point, I turned my flashlight to a parking garage under a building. I saw a garage full of nice cars covered with dust. For a while, I zigzagged back to Battery Park. The streets were dark.

I got close to the charging bull statue. Street sweepers were cleaning up the Wall Street area and getting it ready for business.

A company of Army personnel marched in section right past me, the last one greeted me with a salute. A few minutes later I was sitting in the conference room on the second floor of the Battery Park building.

A petty officer from Elizabeth City was sleeping in a nearby office. I wanted to talk. I called a few friends. Answering machines.

I put "sleeping" signs on the office door and the door to the adjacent office where the petty officer from Elizabeth City was sleeping.

I showered and lay on a couch in a vacant office. I had to get the day out of my system. I started writing. I jotted down a few quick notes, set my alarm, and turned out the light.

‘My body wouldn’t budge’

At 6 a.m., my alarm sounded. Snooze. 6:08, it sounded again. I could barely move. I wanted badly to jump up, throw on some clothes and head to ground zero.

I knew I was leaving in a few hours and could endure the day with sleep deprivation. However, my body wouldn't budge. I set the alarm for 8:30.

Shortly after 8:00, I heard the Staten Island Ferry moor. It tied up less than 50 feet from the Coast Guard building.

The Elizabeth City petty officer was still sleeping. I grabbed some junk food from the kitchen for breakfast. Cupcakes, Ding Dongs, chips and bananas covered the kitchen counters.

The refrigerator was stocked full of bottled water. I sat and ate. Elizabeth City awoke and joined me.

I got dressed in a semi-uniform, which included a long-sleeve Coast Guard T-shirt with a name tag, working blue pants that didn't fit, and my worn and wet Nike tennis shoes.

My tennis shoes were still wet from the day before. I mentioned that I wanted to head to Ground Zero again, but had to be back by 11 to meet the rest of my group. The Elizabeth City petty officer jumped on the opportunity to help out at the site. We departed a few minutes later.

Finding way back to ground zero

The walk to ground zero was familiar. We passed guards at a checkpoint. We passed the patriotic bull. The smell was still filling the air. Thick, heavy dust.

Since I knew the area from the day before, he followed my lead. It looked like the security at the site had tightened up during our few hours of rest.

We were denied entry at the first location, where I pocketed the granola bars from yesterday. The Army soldier said that only Army personnel were allowed in because too many military people were trying to help by flashing their military IDs. I laughed inside. Yep, I was one of "those" people.

I had to get back to the triage site; I could see it from where I was standing. We retreated back the way we came. We headed towards the bank first aid station.

Overnight, someone had put up chain-link fence around ground zero. Whoever organized this was serious about keeping people out, but I found a way around. There was an opening at the end of one fence section.

We simply walked between the fence and a building. The Army soldier carded us and waived us through. We strategically avoided the gate at which we were denied.

We walked across the flattened lot, towards the dumpster labeled "AIRPLANE PARTS," and worked our way to the triage site.

Army personnel were literally everywhere. Obviously they were lacking in communication because there I was again, at ground zero. I was at the South Tower. I was across from the Burger King.

Again, I was speechless. We had very little problem getting from the dumpster to the triage site. I guess we looked like medical personnel.

Civilian personnel at triage replaced

I walked into an abandoned room. What the heck happened? No lights.

One doctor and one nurse were wandering around the site, not sure where to start. I was disheartened to see so little staff support.

I learned that the Army came in last night, just after I left and kicked out all civilian personnel.

Whoever was in charge was bringing in FEMA and other government medical personnel. What a crock, I thought. Who in their right mind would get rid of something in high demand before having a replacement on-scene?

Well, we knew it was just the four of us for the time being.

I noticed a layer of dust on everything. In just a few hours, all the boxes, oxygen tanks and operating tables were dirty. I explained that I had been there the night before and helped set up the area.

The nurse mentioned that I should be wearing a better respirator. I went searching at the bank first aid. No luck. Settled for what I had and returned to the triage.

I said that perhaps we should start cleaning up and getting rid of trash in addition to ensuring that the supplies are ready for any situation. We all cleaned.

The petty officer started trying to get lights to work. I helped. No gas in the generators. We both searched the area for gas.

Strange demeanor

I walked around the familiar area, following the cables from a generator. I went up to the top floor of Burger King.

We found only one gas-filled generator connected to the Burger King.

I met back up with the petty officer. Somehow, he connected an extension cord to a generator and was able to get a little power to the deli. Lights illuminated the room. Dust particles were floating freely about the room.

A team of three doctors walked to the front looking for a few necessities for the field. They were going to walk down to the southeast corner of the site and assist workers with minor medical needs. I gave them bottles of saline solution, Tylenol, Band-Aids and some other gear.

Two or three nurses arrived at the triage site. I started hunting down hard hats for them to wear.

They had nothing. No PPE (personal protective equipment). I may not have had the best face mask, but they had absolutely nothing. They anxiously tried on their new hats for size. I helped adjust them to their satisfaction.

They had a strange demeanor. It was like they got all dressed up to go to their regular jobs.

The sidewalk out front looked like the nurses lounge; I was surprised not to see a Starbucks cart sitting next to them!

I just wanted to yell at them because I felt like they were being disrespectful. Had they been here before? I kept to myself, figuring that we each have our own way of handling such unique situations.

Were they already numb to the situation? Was I?

Hard to leave

Suddenly, there was silence at the site. All the machines stopped.

People gathered around the southeast corner's pile. It looked like they found a survivor. The word passed quickly that somebody heard tapping.

I told the volunteers at the triage site to get ready. Seconds turned into minutes. Our hopes were up. We were all staring at the corner for several moments. Just silence and stillness. No survivor. I was frustrated. I sensed frustration throughout. Couldn't we find just ONE person?

I went back to helping with the hard hats. The petty officer was out front next to me. Time was ticking quickly. I kept looking at my watch. 10:25. 10:35. Finally, at 10:40 I had to leave.

I was stressing out on the inside. It was like a moral fight with myself. I just flat out did not want to leave the site. There was no question in my mind that if I could have stayed, I would have been there until they kicked me out.

But, I absolutely had to get back to the Coast Guard station on time. I was on the Burger King corner messing with a hard-hat. I handed it over to the petty officer and started my walk across the lot.

An Army guy from our unsuccessful entry point stopped me and checked my ID. He looked at it like he'd seen it before, but he let me continue.

I left the gated area, stopped and turned to look at a sight that I would probably never see again in my lifetime.

Truly amazing. Such destruction. Such teamwork. Such unity. Such patriotism. I wanted to stay, but knew that I had to go.

Reconnecting with LaTarsha and Michael

I got back to the office right before 11:00 am. I was the last to arrive. LaTarsha returned early in the morning and Michael around 10:00.

I was happy to see them. Neither was dressed in any resemblance of a uniform. LaTarsha helped out on Staten Island for a short while and spent the night over there. Michael helped out at ground zero until about midnight and then went to his friend's house until the morning.

I went to get some food and water. Michael followed me into the kitchen. I could tell he was disturbed and had a lot on his mind.

He started telling me the details of his events. He spent several hours at the site, on top of the pile. He was one of the few who knew how to properly use the saws that could cut through the metal, so he was pulled left and right all night long.

When he cut through the steel, he tried to save the bodies, but each and every one was cooked. The people were steamed all the way through; entire bodies slid out of pant legs.

We were both disgusted. I didn't say much; I knew he needed to talk, but really what could I say?

He continued telling me the gruesome details. We both knew that not everyone wanted to hear this stuff. We agreed to keep it between us.

We said our good-byes and thanked the Coast Guard personnel who hosted our brief stay. The three of us were on the road by 1 p.m. with only silence in the car, having rescued no one, but hopefully we made a small bit of difference.

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