Aftermath of a National Tragedy: A Personal Journal from 9/11 (Part 2)

9/11 Memorial Lights of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero

9/11 Memorial Lights of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero (Courtesy of www.richardkingphoto.com)

(Continued from Aftermath of a National Tragedy: A Personal Journal from 9/11)

Wednesday, September 12th

7 am – 6 pm

The work day at the hospital passed by in a blur, and the three other medical students on my team noticeably were distracted. Our conversations inevitably turned towards the craziness we had seen in the last 24 hours. The hospital was running at half-speed, since the computer system with all the lab values, charts, and drug ordering capabilities had been knocked out. It seems that the main computer running this Midtown Manhattan hospital is for some ridiculous reason located in the southern tip of Manhattan near what used to be the World Trade Center, and is now either knocked out or lying under tons of rubble. The computer techs came around trying to fix the system, but couldn’t do it because they needed mouses on the computer in order to try to reboot the computers with a new program; unfortunately, all the computers work on some old-school “light pen” technology where you point and click with an electronic light pen on the screen, so all of the computers didn’t have a mouse and couldn’t be fixed! My medical students friends and I laughed at the irony in the situation.

As we were busy seeing our patients, doing physical exams, and writing our notes, a gradual stench of smoke and something burning drifted through the hospital. As we began to glance nervously at each other, wondering whether this building was also being hit by a terrorist bomb or act of arson, the announcement came over the loudspeaker:

Attention please, attention please…the hospital is NOT on fire…the burning and smoke you smell is the north wind blowing the smoke up from the World Trade Center disaster site.

We all laughed nervously and quickly finished up our day, as medical students on a non-emergency rotation in a city filled with a million unending emergencies. I headed outside, determined to buy some food for the dwindling supplies in my fridge….

6 pm – 8 pm

Outside the hospital, I suddenly remembered that the temporary morgue, filled with an unimaginable amount of horrible things that at one time might have resembled human bodies, was right next to me and I quickly hurried across the street towards the throngs of sobbing, incredulous passerby and fearful relatives who were being held back by the police and still in total denial. A hysterical doctor in plainclothes grabbed me, jabbering about how she couldn’t do anything, how she felt helpless, and how she almost vomited as a not-so-well refridgerated truck had driven by towards the morgue on the corner of First Avenue and 30th Street, with its noxious burden of smoking, charred, and crushed human flesh. Crying, laughing, sobbing, the doctor told me to call those I love and walked away, a glazed look in her eyes.

Walking towards Second Avenue, I passed by one of the many refridgerated trucks that was in standby mode, waiting to be hauled down to Ground Zero of the World Trade Center and drag more body parts out of the wreckage. It might have been my imagination or the garbage can I passed at the same time, but thinking of the nauseating cargo that would soon be inside and perhaps catching a whiff of some rotting garbage, I almost lost my stomach right there on Second Avenue.

I had to get out of there, away from the Medical Center and the East Side/Kips Bay area…I couldn’t take it anymore. I had reached my absolute limit and had been spending the last 36 hours surrrounded by death. I was sick of the sirens, the imagined stench of death, the constant bombardment on the television. Determined to find something resembling the warm, welcoming, energetic life of the New York City I once knew, I set out trying to pretend that I was just living a normal night in NYC.

My first goal was to try to get some basic food supplies so I could cook for myself and eat in the next couple of days….the restaurants seemed to be working and delivering, and NYC’s famous pizza joints were still open as usual. But I was still a broke-ass med student waiting for a loan refund coming in the mail from the downtown NYU financial office, and the last time I checked all mail service in NY seemed to stop below the quasi-DMZ-line that NYC had set up: As of Tuesday night, NYC police were threatening to arrest anyone who didn’t belong below 14th Street for safety reasons. So cooking seemed like a good, cheap, and natural way to get back to living in NYC.

What I saw when I stepped in the local Gristedes was not exactly disturbing, but it was depressing. I saw families walking out with cartons of milk, and bags and bags of toilet paper, and began to realize that NYC was starting to horde. In the greatest city of the world, in a place where you could normally count on running down at 4 am to Chinatown, Koreatown, or the local diner and finding food anywhere, suddenly the supermarkets looked like something out of a third-world country. The bread shelves were completely bare, only a couple of cartons of milk remained. I went to try to get chicken and quickly realized that there was no chicken left on the shelves, no ground beef as well. Everything left in terms of meat seemed to be in the extremes, either crappy-ass hot dogs or steaks and gourmet fish filets. I left the store extremely annoyed and again determined to find some chicken, anywhere. The last thing I needed tonight was to have to stock my shelves with a bunch of hot dogs…however ridiculous that seems to some people it somehow made sense to me.

8 pm – 12 am

I ended up walking all the way down to the limits of where most New Yorkers could get to: 14th Street/Union Square Park, and the scene there almost awed and humbled me. Stretching before me as far as my eyes could see was the largest improptu shrine I had ever seen. Innumerable candles lay around the ground, throwing flickering light on sobbing shaking men and women, people in prayer, people in song, and dozens of flowers, in a park normally filled with skaters, punks, and glowstick artists. All over the ground, there were rolls of butcher paper unrolled with markers next to them, filled with comments ranging from “All Arabs must die….now you’ll learn the wrath of our might” to “America brought this on itself…the capitalist pigs government ruling this country caused this” to simple messages of “Love Each Other.” It was overwhelming, and with the World Trade Center smoke cloud looming to the south and the warm lights of the Empire State Building to the north, I stopped in the middle of this endless stream of emotions poured out on paper, and prayed for a few minutes. Aftewards, I looked around for awhile, and was interviewed by a Korean film student on what I thought of the last days events. Union Square Park was filled with people, some just looking, some getting high, some just hugging silently….It’s still there right now, and will probably be there for a while to come.

On the way back home, I finally found a store that actually had chicken, and I walked back home with a fresh store of chicken and pasta, happier than words can describe. It’s crazy how content someone can be with the simple things in life when you realize that hell is in your backyard, and others have much bigger problems to worry about. Walking back home northwards on Park Avenue, I passed by a bunch of bars and restaurants and lounges, filled with laughing, camaraderie, and conversation…at first I was really upset and thought “How the hell can anybody be JOKING or happy right now?” Then I realized this is what I had been looking for: the life and spirit of New York, unbroken by the destruction and death that had suddenly appeared a day ago. I realized that people were just celebrating life, celebrating with friends, co-workers, and loved ones they thought they might never see again, people they had taken for granted. The faceless bastards who had violated our city were unsuccessful in their mission of terror, New York was not afraid and was taking back the streets. I saw a New York filled with people refusing to live behind locked doors, and I fell in love with The City (not the Big Apple like some foreigners call it) all over again…

12 am – 2 am

Upon returning home, I was just setting my shopping bag down when I received a frantic call from my friend Rachel, who was calling me to warn me of a bomb threat made to the Empire State Building…which was only 4 blocks away from me. She was calling on the run, and quickly hung up so she could call other people and get away from any possible bomb blast. People were fleeing the streets all around the Empire State Building, and it would be the first of numerous bomb threats going on the next two days, including bomb threats to Penn Station, Grand Central Station, the American Express Building, and Times Square. My faith in humanity was quickly being peeled away by the pathetic actions of a few sick individuals, it was extremely depressing.

My last hours late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning were the most disturbing so far, and are the ones I think I will carry to me until the day I die. After realizing that the Empire State Building was not going to fall on my head, I found out that some medical students had been called up to volunteer for something that few people were willing to deal with: identify, separate, and pore through the endless stream of body parts being brought up by those “death trucks” I had seen earlier in the afternoon. In the weeks to come, the task of identifying body parts and simply getting the remains back to relatives and loved ones is going to be tremendously difficult, but is so important for the throngs of people outside the hospital who are waiting for some sort of closure. On the one hand, I wish I could take back that decision I made to volunteer for the gruesome task that I took part in that night, but on the other hand I will always remember and honor the memory of this life-changing and indescribable event.

For 90 minutes, myself and some other medical students armed ourselves with morgue gowns and thick yellow rubber gloves, helped weary medical examiners, FBI agents, and other law enforcement officers unload and pore over the decaying remains of the victims of the World Trade Center destruction. Sifting through intestines, shattered bone, torn skin, and a horrifying mess of human mush, searching for some sort of identifying information: a tattoo, a piercing, an earring, even a birthmark that could be possibly used in the months of DNA testing and pathology to come. The stench etched itself onto my soul, a wretched smell of rotting garbage mixed with the odor of something that was definitely flesh, and unmistakably human. My stomach was churning at first, but I quickly got over it….it was my job, I had volunteered to do this, as had all of us. No one should have to go through this, but eventually somebody had to.

New York’s finest, the firemen, the policemen, the FBI agents and so many others were gloved and gowned standing at the sidelines, but why would anybody force them to dig through the remains of their own fallen….why after they had already been tortured with the sight of all their comrades who were crushed and wiped out right before their eyes? Grown men were shaking and sobbing, unable to look at the carnage. Full and intact bodies were far and few between, and the stories the seeped through the crowd were heartbreaking and froze everyone to their souls. Stories of a fireman, decapitated but still bearing the company badge and uniform that was now his death robe. Stories of remains found of two or more people who in their final moments, hugged each other and held each other tight….people whose remains were now so pulverized that the two or more human beings had literally had their organs and bones smashed together with their arms locked and intertwined in a final fatal embrace..

I left around 2 am as a new group of medical students came by to relieve those who had been helping out for awhile. Coming back to the apartment, I thought back on the events of the last two days, and let out a sigh….whether it was a sigh of sorrow, one of mental and psychological exhaustion, or one of frustration is still unclear to me, but it felt like a mix of all of those. I showered, cleaning my body but futile in my attempts to psychologically cleanse myself of the horrible memories of the past 48 hours. As I knelt by my bed, just before getting my last 4 of 9 hours in an two-day span, I prayed for those who had lost, those who had found, and those who were no longer with us. I prayed for what was only minutes but seemed like hours. In the end, I had to stop, because I felt it was physically and emotionally impossible to pray for everything….

But strangely enough as I was finally falling asleep, I felt content. New York would go on. My country would rise again, and the United States of America would stand proud, of that I was sure. This is only the beginning of something that has forever changed the world, and this is only one of millions of stories that New Yorkers have to tell. We will always remember and honor those heroes among us and those who are no longer with us. Tomorrow is another day, today is our finest hour. God bless the victims, the workers, and the families, friends of everyone who has been affected…..we will overcome.