What glorious fools they all were.
Such unmitigated valor had been last seen in places forever burnished into the pages of our history books. Anyone who had flown B-17’s over Germany, sailed out to meet the Imperial fleet near Salvo Island, clung to that pier at Tarawa, hacked through the hedgerows beyond Normandy, cleared the streets of Hue in ’68, turned east with the CAV towards Kuwait and the Republican Guard, or battled their way in and out of Mogadishu would have recognized them immediately — and gone with them. Yet most of the grunts of Ground Zero were “mere” civilians.
Where does America get so many magnificent people?
We had all seen the first wave decimated. As the dust dissipated, the rubble still shifted, metal creaked all around and above, alert pagers chirped, and a few radios broke squelch.
Was it over? Yes and no yet neither mattered. There was so much carnage, this faint hope, and all the fallen to find.
The second wave washed their faces, lowered their heart rates, and surged onto the Pile. America closed in and closed ranks behind them. Together, with whatever it took and given whatever they would need, to bedrock they charged, damning all else.
Turning the ‘Pile’ at the World Trade Center into an empty ‘Pit’ staggered the minds of those who first faced the task. In terms of weight, the shattered humanity of 2,749 people was a mere 1/100,000th of 200 million tons of wreckage. Bobby Gray gave some sense of it, in the book Nine Months at Ground Zero, while describing the evening of September 12, 2001:
That second night, I was at the edge of the pile with Sam Melisi of [the] FDNY. I grabbed this operator named Dave who was in Local 15 and asked him to run the Bobcat, a little frontend loader that can hold about a yard of material. He went into the edge of the pile of debris, got a bucket, and backed it up. I don’t know where we were thinking we were gonna put the material, but then Sammy said, “Okay, stop him. Just shake it out a little bit. I’m going to go through it.”
I’m like, “Huh?”
I’m looking at the pile and then looking at this little bucket of material Sam’s sifting through by hand, running it through his fingers. Then I had this realization that we would have to do this with the entire pile, all of it, every single bucket.
I thought, “Oh my God, there’s 50,000 people here.” We weren’t listening to the news or reading the paper. We didn’t know how many people were lost there yet. But I already knew we were not going to find many whole people. We were going to find parts, maybe millions of parts, and if there were 50,000 people in the pile, I knew two of them might be in that bucket.
It would not be that easy.
The destruction ran 70 feet deep to bedrock, towered seven stories above street level, plunged through nearby streets, crushed or crashed into adjacent buildings, and spread out in all directions over a field twice the size of the World Trade Center’s 16 acres. This photo, taken from the roof of the FDNY’s ‘10 House’ a few days later, shows but the southwest corner of the site.
They wanted what we all wanted: more miracles. Yet those fleeting hopes came with a price as this article Safety Becomes Prime Concern at Ground Zero, on November 8, 2001, in the New York Times illustrates:
Goggles, respirators, safety boots and helmets are mandatory for workers on the debris field. But the protection they provide, if they are worn and worn properly, can still be inadequate, as there have been 34 broken bones, 441 lacerations, more than 1,000 eye injuries and hundreds more burns, sprains and smashed fingers through Sunday.
From Sept. 21 to Oct. 7, for example, OSHA observed an average of 43 hazards on the site each day, ranging from workers not wearing proper protective gear, to dangers caused by improperly stored fuel tanks, to cranes that were dangerously assembled. By late October, the number had fallen to 33 a day.
Rates for some specific injuries have fallen even more sharply, according to the New York City Department of Health.
In the first three weeks after the attack, firefighters, construction workers and others sought medical assistance 6,342 times, for problems like broken bones, burns or more modest issues, like blisters or sprains. In the last three weeks, that number was 1,297, with 384 visits last week, the records show.
The most immediate threat is from the countless physical hazards at the site: the hot steel, the gas cylinders, the unstable debris piles, the cranes swinging back and forth.
The other primary threat is not as visible: the toxins that have been measured in the dusty air, or the smoke that rises from the fires still burning deep underground.
Part of the problem, particularly in the early weeks, was that many workers and firefighters did not wear proper respirators, leaving large numbers with lung irritations, coughs and perhaps even more serious injuries.
By the following May, they had brought up 200 bodies and scraped 20,000 human remains from every nook and cranny of hallowed ground they could lay their hands on. Even those bitterly earned numbers left 1,100 unidentified and the grinding collapse, fires, and time makes 100% identification seem impossible.
Some say that had the workers only known the danger, they would have been more careful. That is insulting; they were neither emotionally detached nor stupid. It burned beneath them for months (a year later, in the Pit, you could still taste it within the swirling dust). That assumes city officials are less human, cared less, and were not as shell-shocked as the rest of our nation. It also pretends that — at least in the early days — something less than the 82nd Airborne Division could have removed them by force.
Yet thousands from the second waive are now sick and perhaps dying and no one was found alive after September 12, 2001.
So, were they too brave?
They completed their mission within the limits of mere mortals, we owe them a debt that can never be paid, and that is a hell of a question to ask about heroes.
Author’s note: The beginning of this commentary was originally published in October 2006.
Related New York Daily News articles:
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Set fair standards for judging WTC deaths