To the homicidal hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was a hated symbol. To the innocents inside, it was simply a workplace.
Stockbrokers, prep cooks, bankers and janitors - all there to earn a living. For the survivors, their incomes were largely gone. They suffered serious burns, cuts and broken bones. They inhaled vaporized concrete, glass, asbestos, steel, plastic, paper, fabric and human remains. They saw horrible things, and trauma treatment was essential to recovery. Some workers had insurance; some had nothing.
They needed help.
In the days that followed 9/11, we in Wisconsin's Office of Crime Victim Services kept in touch with our professional counterparts in New York. They were overwhelmed by working their 16-hour days, so we offered to help from our office in the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
But it became clear there was nothing we could do from Madison. We'd have to go there. So with the blessing of the attorney general, four of us volunteered for a New York work assignment during the week of Oct. 7, 2001.
Located at 54th and 12th Avenue, New York City Family Assistance Center was a temporary but masterful public service assembly under one roof, the product of thoughtful bureaucracies. Family members, if they wished, could be transported and personally escorted to a viewing platform above the smoking rubble at the site. It was particularly important to families who'd held out faint hope for survival. If they chose, families could return to the center and, under color guard escort and by affidavit, have their missing family member declared dead. Help could begin.
In this secure warehouse at Pier 94 on the Hudson River, staff members from workers' compensation, life insurance companies and disaster relief programs were available. The Red Cross operated two cafeterias and had therapists and chaplains circulating the building, providing comfort as needed. Translators for the many languages spoken by victims and their families were available to help us. We had notaries, therapy animals, fresh flowers, tablecloths, carpeting, phones, copiers and fax machines. And there were ample, spotless bathrooms (which are a bigger deal than most people realize). This was an oasis for people - the Ellis Island of their next life.
Our job was deceptively simple. Applicants for payments through the Crime Victim Compensation program had to prove that they or their family members were victims of the attack. They had to describe where they were that day, say exactly what happened and produce proof of their stories - like pay stubs, photo IDs, marriage licenses and doctors' orders - so we could verify their claims.
With great care and respect, we necessarily probed for information and documentation, qualifying legitimate expenses. At our best we were careful, compassionate listeners who built each person the case file they needed to get help. We advocated with the bureaucracy when it needed a push, and we made sure that no one abused the program.
The intense intimacy of this experience made the horror more horrible for me. I'd bought a notebook when I arrived. I didn't have a particular plan for it. I just liked the cover - two square maps of Manhattan held together by a spiral binding. I had it with me while I was working to relieve myself from absorbing the emotional blows. I compulsively began writing brief accounts of the people and families I helped - 33 that week.
I filled the book. Here are some of their stories.
Tiny Maria DeOlio-Beato worked in food service. She was making coffee that morning when smoke and panic erupted. She started down the stairs, but she's so small that she quickly got knocked down. Stampeding down the stairs, people literally walked on Maria's body - on her back and ribcage. She thought she would be crushed and very nearly was.
Spanish was Maria's only language, and I'd enlisted a translator. But as she tried to answer my questions, she sobbed and pointed upward, repeating a word that gradually became unintelligible. She shook. I understood without translation. Maria had been repeating the Spanish word for jumping. People who chose to die on their own terms had hit the ground around her while flames followed from above. Maria will live with the sight and sounds of human beings smashing on pavement for a long time. Maybe forever.
Ed O'Hare was a shop steward for Local One of the International Union of Elevator Constructors. He and Christopher Fitzpatrick helped maintain the elevators in the seven buildings of the World Trade Center complex. Following the failed attempt to blow up the towers in 1993, they'd been trained to support an emergency evacuation. That morning after the first plane hit, they were in the lobby of the South Tower with firefighters and cops, preparing to help people get out.
Ed was concerned that one of his men was missing and was looking around for him when the second plane hit and the building above them began falling. They ran like hell. Chris ducked into a shop to escape the rolling black cloud; he slid on a tile floor, herniated a disc and damaged several nerves in his leg.
Ed went back to find his missing man. As he entered the lobby of the North Tower, that building began its collapse. Blown backwards into a wall, Ed rose, made it outside and, blind from the impenetrable smoke, ran smack into the side of a car. He dropped to his knees and crawled underneath to escape falling debris, holding his shirt over his face until the cloud dissipated.
"I knew those buildings were full of asbestos, and I had an idea of what we might have been breathing," he said.
When I asked Ed why he went back, Chris answered for his friend. "That was our building. We were like our own little city, and nobody was going to take it from us. We didn't want to leave. We'd been through this before. We had no idea these buildings were going down."
As they pulled out their elevator IDs so I could process their compensation claims, Ed smiled and said, "One of these cards will get you in any building in New York that has an elevator, no matter how locked or secure. Our work is about safety."
It sure was.
Pedro Salazar was wheeled to my station. He had worked in a shoeshine stand at the World Trade Center, and as the buildings fell, panicking people tried to cram into his tiny booth to escape ash and debris. They knocked him hard to his knees. He could barely walk. He waited for hours in an ER and gave up.
In greater pain several days later, Pedro was finally treated at another hospital. His next appointment was Nov. 30; he had no insurance and was told he must wait.
Pedro earned $75 a day in tips shining shoes, plus a base take-home paycheck of $112 per week. With this, he somehow managed to send money to his mother and sisters in Guatemala while supporting his wife and children here.
Pedro was respectful and sincere. No such words could be used to describe his bosses. Long before the attack, Pedro repeatedly asked them to report his tips in his paycheck; they refused to because it would have required them to pay FICA taxes on the full amount, actually about $500 per week. This mattered profoundly because Crime Victim Compensation pays based on what is reported on pay stubs, not actual earnings. When he confronted his bosses, they told him if he didn't like it, they could easily replace him with "illegals" (their words) who would accept their offer.
I was able to get Pedro a modest check. I also learned that indigent New Yorkers cannot legally be turned away from hospital emergency rooms. I told him to go to one immediately.
I wish I had voodoo dolls of his dirtbag employers. There aren't enough pins.
Geraldine Foley was a breath of fresh air from Ireland. She was there for her brother, Patrick Noel Foley, a contractor who worked for Con Edison. Part of the cleanup team on what the workers called "the Pile" (and soon became known as "Ground Zero"), Noel was capping gas lines on Sept. 20 when one caught fire and severely burned his hands, arms and chest.
Geraldine was sweet and upbeat; she said the skin grafts were "taking wonderfully well." She handed me Patrick's photo IDs. They were melted.
I swallowed. I copied them. As I completed his paperwork and handed her a check, I saw her eyes filled with tears. I asked her if she was okay; she said she couldn't believe that someone was doing this for her brother. This was my only moment of joy that week.
Too many funerals
Accompanied by her aunt, a weary, very pregnant young woman sat down at my station. Even in her deep sadness, Jacqueline Gavagan seemed remarkably calm, grounded and practical. As we began filling out her forms, I understood why. She had twins at home - three-year-olds - and was preparing to give birth to a son in about three weeks. The child would never know his father.
Donald was among the 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees killed that day. His memorial had not yet been held, but Jackie had already attended several funerals and was struggling to stay afloat in a sea of sorrow. At the last service, the widow of a principal at Cantor Fitzgerald was mourning the loss of her son, her husband and a brother-in-law - all murdered together in an instant.
Jackie said the overwhelming grief at that funeral put her in the hospital for five days. She stopped attending funerals so she and her family could go on. We completed compensation paperwork for her and their twins. Baby Connor would have to wait until he was born.
Saved by a test
Originally from Ghana, Samuel Boakye really needed someone to listen to him - right now. He was a catering manager for Windows on the World restaurant in the North Tower on the 107th floor. Seventy-nine of his coworkers literally disappeared that day. Sammy handed me an ID with his name and photo; the card showed him as the designated fire safety compliance person for Windows on the World. It was dated Sept. 10, 2011, and it saved his life.
Sammy's manager, Rick, didn't want to take the time for the training. Sammy took Rick's place in the safety seminar and arrived later than usual the following morning because he had to pick up this ID before he came to work. He felt his manager had died in his place.
Perhaps worse, Sammy asked one of his employees to report early that morning. Normally she would have arrived at 10 a.m., but Sammy wanted her to start at 8:30. The first plane hit the North Tower a few minutes after that. No one above the 91st floor survived.
Sammy couldn't sleep much, and when he did manage, he had horrible dreams. He thought he was holding himself together until he got to our office that day and saw the posters. The smiling dead papered the walls. Holding a prize bass or a baby, posing for wedding pictures and grinning in graduation photos - how could these people be dead?
I helped Sammy apply for compensation. His job was gone with the building, and he was supporting family in New York while sending money back to Ghana. I urged him to see a therapist and wished him well. His grief seemed bottomless.
The two towers
Eileen was the one person I talked to who wasn't there to apply for Crime Victim Compensation. In fact, she was sitting in my station on the phone when I came back from a break. Apologizing for helping herself, she was off-duty from the New York Police Department in civilian clothes. She wasn't applying for compensation; she was looking for someone to talk to. I could tell something was wrong.
Eileen began telling me the story of her two sisters. They were working in the Trade Center when the planes hit. One in each tower. Sister Maureen was unreachable that morning, but Eileen was on the phone with the other sister just as her building was about to collapse. Eileen told a white lie to that sister on the phone - told her that sister Maureen had gotten out (and later was deeply relieved to learn it was true). But at that moment, Eileen was focused on keeping her imperiled sister positive and getting her to safety. She instructed her to leave immediately down the staircase, but not to hang up the office phone so Eileen would know she'd gotten out.
Pounding and panic ensued in the background; no one could open the stairwell door. Maureen's sister came back to the phone. They were trapped. Eileen told her to break the lock. She heard more panic, screaming and a loud noise. The phone went dead.
Eileen had heard her sister die. I sat there behind my linen-skirted table, stack of forms and my "May I Help You" nametag, absolutely speechless. I recovered and gently recommended that Eileen and Maureen apply for compensation.
I thought about their murdered sister in the months that followed as I learned more about the mechanics of how those buildings fell. I realized that the stairwell door probably wasn't locked; more likely it was compressed in the jam from structural failure as the building began its collapse. I read an account of some victims punching a hole in the drywall and escaping down the stairwell. Note to self: Go through the wall.
On the evening of Oct. 12, Pedro and Manuela Pichardo were the last family I assisted. Both worked in service jobs at the World Trade Center. Both worked on 9/11. But there was a hitch; Manuela's boss claimed she didn't.
I needed proof that Manuela was there. I got a translator and asked her about that day. Her words dissolved into wails. I'd seen plenty of traumatized people that week. I believed her. I asked if there was anyone other than her husband who could corroborate her story. Yes, their coworker Yuni was also in the Family Assistance Center right now, and he had worked with Manuela on 9/11.
Pedro found him, and I got a translator to help me with Yuni's statement. We typed it up and he signed it in front of a notary (with proper warning about false swearing). Then I reviewed the Pichardos' medical bills. Each had several visits to the ER with injuries, but their hospital paperwork was scrawled incomprehensively with bad doctor handwriting, and I had difficulty tying their injuries to the World Trade Center in the notes. They'd not received treatment until Sept. 13, 2001. I asked why.
"I could not find her for a day," Pedro said quietly.
They'd escaped separately, and Manuela had gone to her brother's house. With no trains or phones, impassible streets and unbreathable air, it took 24 hours before each knew if the other was still alive. Proof ready, I was preparing to request a check when the curtain around my booth lifted and a head popped in.
Evacuate the building. Now.
I handed the paperwork to the translator and grabbed my stuff. We hustled out the doors and got separated in the sizable crowd spilling onto the sidewalks, up the hill and into a small park.
Manuela seemed to be going into shock. I stayed with her while I sent Pedro through the crowd looking for the translator, paperwork and Yuni. We did find them.
I had gut-deep hesitation about going back into that building, but I went. We finished well after 9 p.m., and the Pichardos left with a check. It turned out the evacuation was just a scare, but since deadly anthrax had been delivered that week to The New York Times and NBC just blocks from our hotel, we took everything seriously. Besides, the people I talked to that week were the ones who got out and didn't go back in.
I downed some cocktails after work that night.
We flew home to Madison on Oct. 13, me scribbling in this notebook through some unusually tough air turbulence. I ignored it.
I was weary of misery and glad to get home. In smiling disbelief, I watched the local news and learned the focus of local public debate during our absence - whether or not kids should be required to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school. What a contrast.
God bless Madison. It's sometimes like an adult Disney cartoon. I never want to see this lovely city in ruins.
Now, with 10 years passed, this seems a fitting time to tell these stories and pay respect to the enormous contribution and sacrifice of workers. I honor the firefighters, cops and public servants in unsung bureaucracies who make our governments go. I honor the people who make our coffee and fix our elevators. We are wise to remember what they do for us.