Six Days at Ground Zero

This first-person account shares what it was like for one EHS professional to spend time at Ground Zero.

The daily routine of an industrial hygienist is predictable, for the most part. A typical day might include collecting air samples, reviewing analysis data or helping a factory worker choose the correct respirator. The events of Sept. 11, however, rapidly changed my routine.

When two passenger airliners struck the World Trade Center (WTC) towers, the ripples from their impact, and the others that followed, spread around the world. People throughout Manhattan rapidly depleted supplies of any form of dust mask or respirator. Surgical masks, bandanas and even towels were used as makeshift substitutes in an attempt to protect lungs from the clouds of dust.

Rescue workers removing debris and bodies from the burning rubble pile needed respirators that could remove toxic particles and gases. For example, thousands of gallons of refrigerant were known to be stored in the WTC basement. When exposed to heat, these refrigerants can be converted into a highly toxic gas, phosgene. Asbestos, used as fireproofing during the towers' construction, was also spread throughout the debris pile. Technicians trying to reroute underground telephone and power cables required specialized respirators that use battery-powered fans to filter higher concentrations of contaminants. Respirators became a critical item to everyone participating in the rescue and cleanup effort. No event in history has generated the need for such an enormous volume of respiratory protection equipment, most of which required special training and individual fitting.

As a leading manufacturer of respirators, 3M was granted special permission by the FAA to fly a company aircraft to New York to deliver donated respirators and a crew of three, including myself, from our headquarters in Minnesota. As we embarked with just our crew, a flight attendant and two pilots, a sense of calm and order filled the cabin. It was an oddly comfortable way to be traveling to the worst disaster in the history of the United States. The reality of our mission returned when a military fighter jet pulled up alongside our plane to check us out. Thankfully, our pilot had not forgotten the special flight authorization code, "Lifeguard N33M."

The streets around "Ground Zero" &endash; an area of about 50 acres surrounding the collapsed towers &endash; were lined with people from all over the country, people who felt compelled to be a part of the experience and to help in some way. A contractor drove in from Pennsylvania with a cutting torch and was trying to get access to what was now known as "the pile." A family from New Jersey set up a kitchen on the sidewalk to cook large kettles of soup and chili. Clusters of people holding signs of support stood at intersections and cheered rescue workers. Goodwill swelled in the streets around Ground Zero.

Access to Ground Zero was restricted to persons bearing a red, laminated ID card issued by the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. Soldiers, police, firefighters, utility workers, anyone with the red badge was a welcome citizen of this newly formed city.

The barriers that normally exist between city dwellers were absent, replaced by a common mission. The sense of unity that enveloped the nation was focused at Ground Zero. Pallet loads of bottled water, soft drinks, socks, bandages, rubber boots, candy bars, over-the-counter medications, toothbrushes and other necessities were scattered about for anyone who might need them. So much had been donated it was getting in the way. McDonald's moved its kitchen onto the street and gave out food.

In a complete reversal of the area's previous focus as the financial center of the world, no currency changed hands in Ground Zero. "What do you need?" you were asked, and it was given to you. If you asked for a bottle of water, you were likely to get a six-pack, along with a few homemade sandwiches and some energy bars.

Firefighters and rescue teams working long hours to locate victims would seem the obvious beneficiaries of this bounty, but they seemed the least interested. They were usually seen walking quietly between the pile and their support stations. They wore blank expressions that were often compared to soldiers returning from combat.

Rescue dogs also worked long shifts in the rubble, sniffing and pawing through debris with unwavering determination. It was dangerous work. Climbing over broken glass and jagged metal caused many cut paws. It will be hard to forget the aura of nobility surrounding these dogs as they were led away from the pile exhausted, bellies nearly dragging on the ground. They were brought to a special canine triage center where they first got a warm bath. Then a team of veterinarians worked on their paws, cleaning and stitching wounds while hanging IV bags that replenished fluids. During all this, the dogs would look around with a curious expression as if to ask what they had done to deserve all the attention.

The buildings went down in a churning mass, over a million tons of concrete and steel, plus the contents of 10 million square feet (230 acres) of office space. The heavy components plummeted straight downward, but the lighter materials stayed aloft and floated further from the site. Any planter or garden in lower Manhattan held a random assortment of letters, bank statements, tax documents, microfilm and other once closely guarded information about companies and individuals around the world.

New Yorkers walking the streets were paying more attention to the missing person posters that were plastered all over Manhattan and beyond. Some posters provided details about the location of scars, moles and other distinguishing features. Others were simply memorials, describing the missing person's family, personality or accomplishments.

After the sixth exhausting day of training, testing equipment and shuttling materials around Ground Zero, we returned to our hotel to find a team of replacements had arrived from Minnesota, and the plane that brought them was waiting at the airport to take our group back home. In just a few hours, we were back on the ground in Minnesota. I had originally planned to take a few days off to visit family and friends in New York, but I was in no mood for visiting.

My thoughts frequently wander back to my first arrival at Ground Zero. The pile looked surprisingly unmonumental considering its source. There was little to suggest the great buildings that recently stood there &endash; only mangled metal and concrete ground to a fine powder.

I walked around the pile to get a better perspective. I tried to convince myself I was looking at what had been the Twin Towers. I remembered as a child, while driving to my grandmother's house for Sunday dinners, seeing the towers in various stages of completion. Later, as a resident of Manhattan, it was always fun to take out-of-town visitors to the World Trade Center's observation floor. But I could not make the connection between what had been there and what I now saw.

I moved closer until I was standing right at the edge of the pile. I tried to imagine that I was looking at a tomb for 6,000 people. It just seemed like a big pile of debris. I could not get my mind around it. I am still trying.

Clifford Frey, CIH, is a 3M senior technical service representative.

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