Volunteering at Ground Zero

Signing up for Red Cross in high school takes New Yorkers to site of attacks

Alex Brook Lynn (center), along with several of her friends, was called in as a volunteer at Ground Zero after signing up with the Red Cross in high school. She’s pictured here in a Starbucks near the World Trade Center, which volunteers used to brew hot coffee to serve to the first responders searching for victims in the rubble. (Photos courtesy of Grace Giardina)

Less than four hours earlier, she’d wrapped the shoot for her first short movie.

Standing at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Bleeker in her pajamas watching the Towers burn, native New Yorker Alex Brook Lynn couldn’t stop thinking that she’d coined her first endeavor “This Has Been A Moment in History,” and here she was, witnessing just that.

“Everybody’s just looking. Looking downtown. And there’s smoke and they’re on fire and it looks like cartoon fire. Like not real. It looks like a movie,” Lynn, a friend of this reporter, recalled. “And people are standing outside of their cars, they’re stopped in the middle of the street with the doors open with the radio blasting. Cars coming uptown on Sixth Avenue are dead up stopped, doors opened.

“You look around and you go, ‘this is a moment in history.’”

Becoming a volunteer

Lynn, a filmmaker, production designer and still photographer who was 19 at the time, had registered with the Red Cross in high school. By 5 o’clock that evening, she and several of her friends, including Village Voice columnist Harry Siegel were down at the site working as volunteers, helping in any and every way they could.

“The funny thing,” Siegel said, “is if this wasn’t a big, momentous moment in American history and all that, none of it’s all that interesting, other than maybe some stuff about being in like weird smoke and knowing that smoke is made of towers and people and copy machines and whatever else. …

“We all felt very frantic and charged. Pretty early on we knew that there weren’t going to be survivors, but it felt very important. All this. But it didn’t give me any greater access to the meaning or the centrality of the event or anything else. I think people felt helpless and wanted to be doing their part and pitching in and there wasn’t the sense at that point that this wouldn’t be rebuilt 10 years later. There was this real urgency about it and so there we were.”

Rescue workers and Red Cross volunteers climbed through the remains of the World Trade Center for weeks after Sept. 11, 2001.

While waiting to be picked up by the Red Cross, who already had Siegel in tow, Lynn walked a couple blocks uptown to St. Vincent’s hospital where the doctors and nurses stood by as ambulances sped down to the site.

“They’re all wailing downtown and then five minutes goes by, and 10 minutes go by, 20 minutes goes by. You realize they’re not bringing anybody back up,” Lynn said. “The only people coming back up — well nobody was really coming back up. The only people being treated down there were for smoke inhalation and things like that.

“Nobody with mortal wounds were coming back up. Why? Because they’re all buried. They’re not wounded, they’re dead. Or they’re suffocating under a gajillion pounds of rubble right now. And you’re thinking about that as no ambulances are coming back up, as doctors and nurses with their hands, fingers locked spread behind their heads, waiting. Just waiting. Waiting for people to come back up so that they can stitch them back up and do whatever they need to do and no one is coming because nobody is alive.

“And that thought, that realization, you realize of course they’re not coming. They’re buried.”

The Red Cross came and took Siegel and Lynn, as well as countless other volunteers down to the site. Hours before, everyone had been watching — from the streets, or their TVs — as the Towers burned and finally fell. Everyone knew it was a moment in history and everyone knew, especially as they collapsed, that people weren’t going to come out.

Early reports had the death toll in the tens of thousands.

But, it was time to get to work. To sort through the rubble, and pull out whoever remained. Or their remains. Often the latter.

On the site

As first responders tried to find people to save, the Red Cross volunteers entered the insanity to support these efforts.

“The second night was when the truckloads of food and stuff started arriving, but the first night it was just fire engines and fire hoses,” Lynn said. “NYPD was set up in a half caved down Burger King right next to Ground Zero and … spray painted in blue was ‘NYPD headquarters.’

“And you went in and we’d dole soup for a couple hours or make cups of soup and cups of coffee and put them in boxes and climb into the rubble with the firefighters who are just digging, digging, digging and climb into the rubble to say ‘take some soup,’ and they’d eat a little soup and then throw the cup back at you — not in a mean way.”

Like the Burger King, other local businesses — their windows blown out and their floors, walls and ceilings covered in rubble — became sources for needed space and supplies.

“The building across the street, Brooks Brothers, all its windows were shattered and that’s where people were sleeping,” Lynn recalled. “And we went in there and everything was covered with dust and we opened the doors and find all these extra socks, pants — things like that.

“And there were these big folding tables put out for people to grab clothing, because your clothing would get muddy immediately. So then we brought out all these suit pants and stuff — and I’m pretty sure they were fine with it — and we’d put it on the table and people would grab the suit pants, put them on, wear them for a couple hours, get them muddy, throw them away.

“So there were a lot of volunteers running around the rubble in like cuffed, Charlie Chaplin-esque oversized Brooks Brothers suit pants. And Brooks Brother suit socks. That was a big important one. There weren’t enough socks the first night. So we’d put out all these socks and you’d put on like four pairs of suit socks and then run around and immediately get muddy, no matter what shoes you were wearing.”

Similarly, the Starbucks a few blocks away left its doors open to the volunteers. They were able to get the machines running and spent days there, making hot coffee, running it out to the mound and climbing in to deliver it.

“There were a bunch of different (tasks),” Siegel said. “Mostly they were variants of passing out supplies or moving buckets up and down as things came in and came out. Very, again, ordinary stuff that would have to get done just in a fairly unique circumstance.

“Actually, the best thing I did was I bought a ton of cigarettes before I came down and passed them to people because as a smoker I was like, oh my God, no one’s going to have cigarettes down there. …

“I understand that the air was not good but it was really not the day to quit smoking.”

Waking up at Ground Zero

For the first week or week and a half — Siegel and Lynn couldn’t remember exactly — the volunteers stayed at the site around the clock, only traveling home every couple of days to catch a quick shower.

Alex Brook Lynn awoke at Ground Zero to the "twisted-looking organ thing" that most people only saw in pictures.

Otherwise, they slept on the site in the shattered buildings that surrounded the mound.

“I fell asleep in the Brooks Brothers (building) and woke up, I remember waking up and opening my eyes and seeing, you know those modern buildings and it’s just square windows and steel beams,” Lynn said. “And they were all shattered. And you wake up and you look and you’re on your side and you look out onto the whole scene with that twisted-looking organ thing that’s in all the photographs and that mound of rubble and the firefighters in the lights and you look out and I remember seeing three shattered panels of window and I’m like, this is a cartoon. This is a cartoon, this is a comic book, this cannot be real.

“And it is real, but it’s insane.”

Lynn remembers briefly running into Siegel’s brother, Jake, outside a coffee truck. They hadn’t seen each other in about a year, but there was no time to catch up.

“I go to grab my coffee and I turn back around and he was gone,” she said. “Because every minute you’re being pulled to do something else because the volunteers that were allowed down there were needed.”

Images from the comic book

Spray paint on the side of an historic financial district building points the direction to the morgue set up in the Fed-Ex building by Ground Zero. Below are more of Giardina’s photos from the site.

The surrealism of the event was captured in photographs by their friend Grace Giardina, who was also a volunteer.

One photograph in particular, Lynn recalled, showed the makeshift signage, similar to the NYPD Headquarters marking on the Burger King.

“She has all these photographs of the wall that’s spray painted — this old, marble Wall Street wall; this financial district, 1801, beautifully-gilded, kind of like foundation to a building just with red spray paint that says: ‘Morgue, this way’ and just bins, lined up bins full of garbage bags with like fingers and toes.”

Leaving Ground Zero

Every few days, when the volunteers would leave the site to shower or go home for a short while, they were greeted by people in lawn chairs, cheering and holding signs saying “Thank you, We love you.”

“And then when you leave, it’s all odd and disorienting and you hadn’t heard music in a long time and people are doing ordinary (stuff) and you’re very tense about it. In probably unreasonable ways,” Siegel said. “And then people want to ask you, or they did for awhile and now they do again because of the anniversary, so it’s of the moment.

“You’re there, it’s not that meaningful, people want to take meaning from it afterward, you’re very uncomfortable about doing that and feel a little tense and grieved about it, but it’s not really their fault.

“Part of the reason you’re there is you want to do your part and feel a sense of connection to things and they’re doing some variant of the same. So it’s all sort of ridiculous.”

“It was weird and surreal,” Lynn said.

The aftermath

In the months following Sept. 11, 2001, Siegel left New York for Seattle and Lynn tried to join the Army.

“I went to a recruiter station, entirely separately from all my friends. Jake did join the Army in the months that followed,” Lynn said of Siegel’s brother. “I talked to them. I had a physical. I have no cartilage in my knees. They said that might be an issue. I didn’t really push it.”

Lynn said it wasn’t blind patriotism that inspired her to try and enlist, but a sense of understanding what it was she would be fighting for.

“I’m not going to lie and say it wasn’t slightly inspired by this reverie for figures of old like FDR, Winston Churchill, something to fight for, an evil to hate, people to protect,” she said. “That this kind of warfare was untenable, that it had been brought to our attention, that this had been going on for far too long. That there was something larger than myself to believe in and thus — it wasn’t just America for America’s sake, but it was also the idea that your country truly is sovereign and understanding what that truly means.

“And that means that you love your country for more reasons than you were just born there, because you believe in it. You believe in the great peacemaking capabilities of something like Capitalism. The peacemaking capabilities of something like greed.

“How I could see a Hassid and an Arab Muslim, I wouldn’t say fundamentalist but just to the right, not moderate Muslim, pounding their fist in every coffee shop on Atlantic Avenue about how they hated each other, but when push came to shove, they’re pushing their babies down the same street and they’re making their money from the same consumers. Why? Because they’re here. Why? Because their kids will have a better shot.

“So we can pound a lot of fists here,” she continued, “but essentially our form of government allows for this greedy desire for good. It’s greedy monetarily, but it is inherently a desire to make your life better and this can be a great peacemaker.”

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