Sunday is the 21st anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Ten days after the fall of the World Trade Center, I took a train to New York from our home in Annapolis to visit my daughter Liz, who worked for a cruise line that ferried tourists around the island of Manhattan.
She was in her late twenties at the time. On 9/11, on her way to work on Chelsea Pier, she passed the Trade Center site minutes before the first plane hit the North Tower.
Since the towers’ collapse, she had been on the front lines of a massive shuttle effort by ferries and cruise ships to ferry stranded New Yorkers off Manhattan Island.
My train trip was my first chance to get to New York to see her since the bombing. After our visit, I emailed other family members and some of our friends. My email to family and friends is reproduced below.
Friends and family – I am writing this after an amazing 24 hours in New York. It was a way to provide family support for an incredible young woman who illustrates how so many New Yorkers are reacting to the terrible events of 9/11.
As my Amtrak train approached New York, I could see out the coach window through the mist and rain that the World Trade Center had in fact disappeared! I realized that television, instead of bringing us reality, actually diminishes it. So it was when I looked across the harbor into the hazy sky that I finally accepted it wasn’t a nightmare. The towers were gone and what we had seen on television was real, as I had feared.
Upon disembarking at Penn Station, I rushed out of this place as quickly as I could, feeling a real fear that it was “no longer good” to be in such crowded spaces. Outside Madison Square Garden, the street at noon was busy, but somehow people had lost that New York feel. Little American flags were everywhere, police conspicuous around the corners, a “God Bless America” on the beam of a construction site…my foreign taxi driver had taped a paper American flag to his dashboard ( as if to ward off the American backlash?)
A light southern breeze carried a pungent odor as it rose from the Financial District.
Short cab ride to Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River side of 23rd Street where my daughter’s cruise line, Spirit, is headquartered. His company embarked on a massive project at its own expense, using its flagship ship, “Spirit of New York”, as a floating kitchen and refuge for the thousands of volunteers who picked through the mountain of mortar and steel twisted.
At Chelsea Piers, another of the Spirit boats, Spirit of New Jersey, is set up as curator, and tons of donated foodstuffs, from cases of frozen lasagna to Gatorade, are staged to be transported to the tip of Manhattan Island to the kitchen of the Spirit of New York. A boat is the only way to get there.
Liz is meeting with Red Cross volunteers and NYPD and FDNY officials when I get there. She steps out for a quick hug and heads back to the meeting. She’s the one busy now, and I visit her place of work—a role reversal for us. I go down to another deck and get to work setting up folding chairs for a Red Cross orientation meeting for new volunteers.
Things seem pretty screwed up. I learned that I had arrived in the early stages of a handover of this project by Liz’s company which ably supported the effort to feed its resources to the Red Cross. A small business serving up to 20,000 hot meals a day! (Why did it take 10 days for the Red Cross to show up here?) I saw the Red Cross leaders arguing amongst themselves over who was in charge while volunteers in the street waited to be put to work. I remember similar horror stories of Red Cross inefficiencies.
Finally, Liz emerges from her meeting and strides up to the lower deck. She has a commanding presence, every 5ft, 3½ inches of her, and quickly turns confusion into an orderly effort. Soon the new volunteers loaded a shuttle boat with several tons of food, forming a bucket brigade to deliver the food from the New Jersey bridge onto the smaller boat; then about 30 volunteers, including Liz and I, put on ponchos and climb into the open boat for a shuttle to the end of Manhattan. It is now pouring rain and the wind has picked up from the south. Ours is the only civilian ship on the water. A dozen others are either Coast Guard or police. In the distance, in the mist, I see the Statue of Liberty. (She must be crying.)
I’m not ready to enter the little harbor at the end of Manhattan. The smoke I saw on TV is real smoke now. And twisted buildings and bombed windows are now real destruction. We are one block from where thousands of people are buried.
In the pouring rain, I start the volunteer unloading squad sneaking out of the shuttle boat into the hold of the Spirit of New York, unloading food for the volunteers. Participating, working and doing something feels good. And it’s a way to push away sadness, fear and anger… especially anger.
Then Liz and I rushed to the crowded cruise ship turned into a volunteer center. Exhausted firefighters and cops are now real people, not characters inside a 27-inch screen. They sit sprawled over their hot meals at cruise ship tables – places where tourists used to sit enjoying cocktails while admiring the beautiful New York skyline. In the center of the dining room are makeshift massage stations, and beefy men give equally beefy neck and back massages, relieving some sore muscles from picking up debris, and God knows what else.
I see two fire department chaplains consoling each other.
I step onto the upper deck of the ship with Liz and gaze north across the small harbor into what the world now knows as “Ground Zero”. Liz tells me the Archbishop of New York has urged New Yorkers to call her “Ground Hero.”
He is right. There are many heroes in New York today. I put my arm around one of them and gave him a hug from his family,
— Richard Gilbert, September 21, 2001