A Quaker at Ground Zero

The Family Assistance Center (FAC) described below was located in a historic railroad terminal/museum at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, on the Hudson River and up from the Statue of Liberty. Shortly after September 11, it was established to help New Jersey families in the difficult and painful process of reporting missing loved ones, preparing various state and federal paperwork (including death certificates), and somehow beginning that frightening and often elusive state of mind called "closure." Initially, mental health services were offered by National Organization of Victims Assistance (NOVA) volunteers, and later supplemented by professional mental health volunteers (I was one of these), as well as representatives from various religious organizations. It was an awesome task—almost 4,000 families lost loved ones in the disaster, about 40 percent of whom were New Jersey residents. The FAC operated seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. A similar center was established on Manhattan Island for New York residents. What follows is an excerpt from my journal of this experience.

It was the day after Thanksgiving and I had signed up to accompany families on the ferry ride to Ground Zero. With feelings of anticipatory anxiety, I checked in at the counseling trailer and went over to staff orientation. Upon entering, each of us received a handwritten card created by school children from around the country. Mine came from "Christine, Grade 8," address unknown, who wrote in large colorful ink marker letters, "Be Proud to be an American!! Come Together as Americans!!"—all against a backdrop of a teenage girl wearing USA clothing, a bubble message next to her head showing the World Trade Center twin towers and "Be back soon!" The cards were ours to keep.

The orientation began with two state officials describing their Ground Zero visits, followed by detailed instructions for us:

We are not here to give answers or offer solutions. We are here to be present and offer support during a very difficult period of grief and mourning. You will be assigned a family to be with before, during, and after the ferry ride. Please do not lose sight of them, but don’t follow them too closely unless they ask you to or you feel that they need your immediate presence. Remember, this is their time, not yours. Since construction equipment is still in use, you will be given hardhats, goggles, and dust masks. Please make sure that you and your families wear the hats at all times. Also, please wear your "Companion" name tags so that you will be distinguished from family members. Remember, we will be entering a crime scene. While on the viewing platform, no photographic or any other recording devices are permitted. Unfortunately, there is no law prohibiting onlookers in New York from taking pictures of you or your families during the walk. Police officers will ask onlookers not to take pictures, but if they do it anyway, please stand in between them and the families. Be prepared for any kind of emotional responses from your families. Please respect how each family member chooses to use his or her time on this journey. Any questions?

I looked around. No questions.

Off I went to meet my "family." I noticed a group of six casually dressed adults, three couples in their mid-30s or so. The NOVA worker waved me over. I approached and introduced myself, doing my best to make eye contact with each person. One by one, they introduced themselves, shaking hands, some firmly with businesslike eye contact, others gently with wounded and red eyes. I nervously joked, "If I remember all of your names by day’s end, I will have earned my keep." I then removed my badge, wrote "John" below "Companion," and re-attached it. "At least I’ll know who I am." We smiled nervously at each other and proceeded to the remembrance wall.

"Is this your first time here?" I asked. "Yes," was the uniform response. Before I could ask anything else, they split up, with one of the women announcing, "There’s supposed to be a whole wall just for him." I stayed in the background. As I watched, I tried to get a sense of their moods and feelings. The three women seemed restrained, the three men more solemn and distracted. "Here it is," someone said. Everyone gathered around. On a wall that was shared with other victims, the upper right corner was separated with a hand-drawn, curving black line. They were looking up at a few family photographs, a funeral service program, and a "Nittany Lion" decal, all stapled in place. One man finally turned to me and said, "Tom was my brother, this is my wife, and these are his two sisters and their husbands," pointing to the others huddled around the wall. "I’m very sorry for your loss," I replied. "Thank you," he answered softly and turned back to the wall. I later found out that Tom had perished in the South Tower, leaving behind a pregnant wife and five young children. A few weeks earlier, his widow and his father came to the FAC to process the death certificate and had gone by ferry to Ground Zero to pay their respects.

I tried to slip back into anonymity. No one wrote anything at that time, all eventually drifting away, wandering among the other walls. Later, in their own time and privacy, perhaps inspired by other family messages, I watched each sibling approach with black marker in hand and write, pausing between words—thoughtfully searching, treating this moment as if it was the only chance to leave a message for their deceased brother. I thought to myself: What would I write if I were standing at my loved one’s only memorial, a piece of shared white wallboard with pictures and handwritten messages? Where would I begin?

Eventually, we all gathered again. "We have time for lunch, if anyone is interested," I offered. They looked at each other, noncommittal. "We’ll be gone for about two hours," I added, "and it’s strongly suggested we all eat something." "Let’s go, then," one sister replied, and all agreed.

The family dining area was already filling with other families and their companions but luckily we found a table large enough for all seven of us. We chatted nervously as we ate, but later I was able to hear more personal stories about their brother and some "good and funny family stories." What courage and grace, I thought. At 12:30 p.m., I made my announcement about the details regarding the ferry ride (hardhats, goggles, dust masks, no cameras). We made restroom stops and proceeded to the general orientation. We were introduced to the volunteer chaplain on duty, a rabbi who would be conducting the interfaith memorial service on the viewing platform at Ground Zero. A one-page "WTC Damage Assessment" map was distributed detailing the buildings that had collapsed or were destroyed, partially collapsed, or suffered major damage. Many family members were having difficulty looking at their maps. The reality of this visit was becoming evident, for here was the blueprint of the last known locations of their loved ones. With the orientation over, we boarded four New Jersey Transit buses lined up along the curb. A uniformed New Jersey State trooper sat up front, and two paramedics with medical gear rode in back. (I was reminded how grief and stress can trigger all sorts of physical problems, including, in extreme cases, stroke and heart attack.) I quietly said a prayer as the buses left for the ferry dock, winding through the streets of Jersey City, preceded and followed by state police cars with red lights flashing.

It was a bright, clear, and unusually warm November day, a nice day for a ferry ride to Manhattan Island—too nice, given these grim circumstances. Once aboard, each family member was offered a teddy bear and a single carnation to keep. No one turned them down, even the most macho of men. We sat on the open upper deck. Looking around, I noticed how diverse this group was—multiethnic, senior citizens, a woman who required a golf cart to get around, and a girl about ten years old with her mother. I glanced over at the state police officers riding with us. As they sat rigid and golem-like, I realized they weren’t just chaperones or there for crowd control—they were there to protect us from any possible harm, maybe even another terrorist attack. What a high profile target, I thought, a boatload of grieving families on their way to visit the remains of their loved ones. So this is what we’ve come to; God help us all, I thought.

The Hudson River was very calm. Replete with our hardhats, goggles, dust masks, paramedics, state police escorts, teddy bears, and carnations, we disembarked and began our walk toward the World Trade Center complex. Families huddled in the center of the column, flanked on both sides by their companions and New Jersey state police officers, joined almost immediately by New York correctional officers. The two-block walk was through New York City streets that were temporarily closed to vehicular traffic and partially roped off. Many New Yorkers were out on this warm and sunny day, the day after Thanksgiving. It seemed many were not expecting to see this peculiar parade of people. As we turned a corner, the smell hit me: acrid and burning, like smoldering ash mixed with hot dust. I will always remember it as the smell of death. The crowds along both sides of the street were thicker, with people watching silently, an occasional camera being raised to capture this solemn procession, quickly lowered respectfully when approached by a police officer requesting, "No photographs, please." Losing track of my family, I stepped off to one side and scanned, then saw them moving along quietly. I looked at the throngs of onlookers, the voyeurs, and felt resentment building up in me. How dare they glare at us like we’re some kind of cheap entertainment! But as I looked closer, I didn’t see morbid excitement or curious wonder in their faces—nothing like what one sometimes sees driving by a car accident. I saw pain. I saw red eyes and waves of grief and sympathy. These New Yorkers knew exactly what they were watching, and they were sensing the bitter and overwhelming pain of these strangers from across the river. This wasn’t a television show; it was real, up close and personal, in your face. Still, I perceived a healing energy in their eyes and in the air, through the city sounds and burning stench. One man, visibly moved, leaned over the rope toward a Red Cross worker standing next to me and said, "Good job."

We came to a large, chain-link gate that opened onto a plywood walkway. We had arrived at Ground Zero. We marched single file onto the viewing deck, into the noise and smell of what had been the World Trade Center complex. The gate closed behind us. This wooden viewing platform had been constructed at one corner, a perch overlooking the entire area of devastation, like the view from home plate in a baseball diamond. Families worked their way up front, with police, staff, and companions staying in back. I stood next to a small memorial wall covered with the names of over 60 countries that lost nationals in this disaster—earlier in the month, United Nations dignitaries and President Bush had come to this platform to view the site firsthand and dedicate this memorial wall. Around the wall, flowers and teddy bears covered the ground; handwritten messages were scrawled on any available spaces. The smell and noise were intense, almost overwhelming. The site looked like an open construction pit, with large cranes prying and probing in efforts to stabilize and clean up. The building directly across from us was gouged out, its entire facade scraped away by the violence of the collapsing buildings. Other buildings were covered with black canvas or plastic sheeting to prevent more debris from falling. Water cannons were sweeping the area, looking for "hot spots" of heat and smoke. One crane pulled up a slab of concrete, immediately releasing a plume of fresh smoke from underneath. The two nearest water cannons converged on the exposed area and quickly doused the smoldering ground. It’s been about two and a half months, I thought, and it’s still burning. In the far left corner of the destruction, two iron girders formed the shape of a Christian cross. We were told that, during the early days of the recovery work, this cross was unearthed exactly as it was now, created by the falling and twisted iron, impaling itself straight up at that spot. It had become a symbol and shrine for the rescue and recovery workers. Next to me, a woman reading the UN memorial wall began to sob hysterically, prompting her companion and another Red Cross worker to approach and give comfort. Many others were wiping their eyes and holding on to each other. My family was up front, against the rail, quiet but fixated on what was their brother’s grave.

After 15 minutes, the rabbi moved to the center of the platform. We all huddled around her as she loudly and movingly gave the memorial service. Although I could barely hear her through the noise, it didn’t matter. I was already deep in prayer, looking over the remains of thousands of people, all victims of horrific violence, some rushing to get out, some rushing to get in, some who had jumped from windows in desperation, some on the ground caught up in the falling debris and burning jet fuel. This was a holy place, a sacred place, a cemetery.

The service over, we left the platform, walking down the ramp and back onto the streets of New York. Being one of the first out, I stood off to the side to help with crowd control, keeping an eye on my family. More onlookers thronged along our route as we left the viewing area. I looked behind me and saw the little girl and her mother coming down, wearing their hardhats, holding hands, carrying their teddy bears and carnations. My heart ached. I had forgotten about her. I glanced over at an elderly woman standing with other onlookers by the rope barricade. Someone’s grandmother, I thought. She caught sight of the little girl and quickly covered her mouth with her hand, suppressing a moan, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Back on the ferry, we all were quiet and distracted. About halfway across the river I looked back, along with many others, to face the city for one last look and prayer. As we left the ferry, we placed our hardhats and goggles in large boxes for the next trip of grieving passengers. The buses and police escorts returned us to the FAC where, upon disembarking, my family lingered outside of the entrance near a flagpole. I gently approached and asked, "How’s everyone doing?"

"All right, considering," one brother answered.

"You’re all welcome to go inside and get some refreshments and we can talk a bit, if you feel up to it," I suggested.

They looked at each other. "No," one responded, "I think we’ll just head back. We have a long ride ahead of us. Thanks anyway."

"You’re welcome." I paused, then added, looking each of them in the eyes, "I just want to tell you all that I’m very honored that you permitted me to be a part of this difficult journey with you."

"Thanks for being there for us," a sister replied.

"Could you do us a big favor?" a brother quickly added. "Would you take our picture?" As I stepped back to capture the entire scene, they huddled together, arms around each other, a U.S. flag flying above their heads, Manhattan Island behind. I took two shots and returned the camera. Remembering again how grief can affect concentration and coordination, I asked, "Who’s driving?"

Puzzled, they looked at each other. "Why, I am," the older brother replied.

"Please drive carefully," I added, and waved them off as they walked toward the parking lot.

I missed the "debriefing" session, a required group event for all staff to discuss each other’s feelings about the day. Instead, I found myself relieved that it was over—that I hadn’t been intrusive or pushy, that I didn’t break down.

The next thing I knew, I was standing at the remembrance wall, reading what Tom’s siblings had written earlier. I forced a deep breath (one of many this day) and walked back to the counseling trailer.
There I talked about some my experiences and feelings to the remaining counselors on duty. Perhaps I was in shock, perhaps denial. It all seemed too surreal, like a bad dream.

I left to go home. Driving alone down the turnpike, I realized why the debriefing was so important as I struggled to keep my attention on this fast and busy roadway. With every American flag I saw, every "God Bless America," every "United We Stand," my eyes welled up, and I gently and quietly moaned in my own private grief.

John Blum

John Blum is a certified and licensed mental health and substance abuse clinician. He is a member of Rancocas (N.J.) Meeting and lives in Moorestown, New Jersey. Names have been changed to preserve confidentiality. This excerpt is part of a larger journal, available free of charge by contacting the author at [email protected]