The Pit and the Big White Tent

A road unexpectedly traveled

This September 11th finds me in Germany working on a U.S. military base. There’s an election in America in about six weeks and a pandemic that is still claiming victims around the world. We are in extraordinary times. There seems to be very little that the pandemic hasn’t affected. The choice Americans make for our president will also have a major impact on our lives and very likely the lives of people around the world for many years to come. Nineteen years ago, the attacks on the World Trade Center created another extraordinary moment in history for the world and for me personally.

On September 11, 2001, I stood in my living room watching two airplanes filled with innocent people being deliberately flown into the World Trade Center Towers. As I saw the two main towers collapse in a giant plume of dust and smoke, I knew that life in the United States and much of the world would never be the same. I was watching a meta-life-change. What I didn’t know that day was how much this tragedy would alter my personal and professional life.

After I recovered from the initial shock of seeing those buildings collapse, I went to my phone and called the Red Cross. I was one of their volunteer Mental Health Technicians. When the person on the other end answered, I asked how I might volunteer for the relief effort that would surely be mounted in the coming weeks and months.

The Red Cross person said they would add me to their list of available personnel and someone would reach out to me. Even though I felt a little better knowing that I might be able to provide some useful services to the people directly affected by this horrible event, there was an unshakeable feeling of sorrow and anger.

A few weeks later I received a call asking if I was willing to go to New York with a Red Cross team. I told them I could be ready to leave in two weeks. I had a large psychotherapy practice and needed some time to make sure I had enough coverage for my clients by other therapists.

I received my orders and a plane ticket two weeks later and flew out to New York. I wasn’t sure what I would be doing but I hoped I could somehow provide some support for the recovery effort.

The morning after I arrived, I reported to the Red Cross Headquarters in Brooklyn. There we were given a short briefing on the current situation and received our assignments. I was to work at the World Trade Center Site in what was referred to as The Big White Tent (BWT). I’m not sure how I got there but I think it was on the number two subway line. Everything seemed kind of unreal.

The Big White Tent, (BWT), sat in what had been a parking lot at the edge of a giant gaping hole that was several stories below ground level. It was where the towers once stood. On the far side were subway cars, one of which was partially hanging over the edge and looked like it could fall into the abyss at any moment.

At the entry of the Big White Tent, we were given instructions how to decontaminate each time we entered the facility. First you washed and scrubbed your shoes, then you took a hose from a hook and vacuumed yourself head to toe. All this was done under the watch of a National Guard soldier who would then allow you to come forward and present your credentials for entry.

While all this was going on, large dump trucks full of twisted metal and debris from the Pit, as it was called, were washed in a wash rack just a few yards behind us. A few days later, I asked why each load was washed. It was explained to me that the debris from the Pit was highly toxic and needed to be decontaminated just as we were when entering the BWT. This debris was driven a few blocks down the street and dumped where it was picked over by personnel looking for human remains. This material was then loaded onto barges and shipped over to Fresh Kills sanitation dump, (not a grisly pun but the actual location of the site), on Staten Island to be put on conveyer belts where it would be sorted more thoroughly.

Once inside the BWT, we entered a huge room that served as the locker room and showers for the first responders who worked in the Pit. From here we went through an airlock door and entered the other side of the BWT where we would work. This side mainly consisted of food lines where hot food was served 24/7 by volunteers and a large eating area. The remainder of the space was occupied by cubicles for the various support organizations including the Red Cross.

Our job, as it was explained to us, was primarily to circulate among the recovery personnel and offer any mental health support we could.

I was on the 2:00 PM to 2:00 AM shift. Work at the Pit never stopped. The large tri-axle dump trucks full of debris came and went in an endless stream day and night.

Late at night I would often go with a co-worker, to walk the perimeter of the work site. We would take chemical hand warmers and snack food items to the National Guard soldiers who manned the access gates to the Pit. We got to know many of them and their life stories. These men and women were from all over the country. I can’t remember any of them complaining about having been activated and ordered to serve at Ground Zero as the World Trade Center site was called. They missed their families and friends but felt their work was important even if it was boring at times.

One of our duties was to escort family members to a special viewing platform that overlooked the Pit. It was a plywood structure like many I would later see when I was working in deployed locations in Africa and the Middle East. It had both a makeshift but sturdy quality to it.

One night I was with a colleague walking the perimeter and we stopped at the viewing platform. There were no families there as it was probably midnight. The floodlights from the Pit kept everything around it illuminated almost as if it were broad daylight. As we stood on the covered platform, I began to read the messages written on the plywood walls and the cards tacked to the wood. It was a cold night just before Christmas. One of the cards I read said, “Dear Daddy, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas in heaven. We love you and miss you so much.” I could not hold back the immense wave of emotion that came from the depths of my soul. On that cold winter night, hot tears flowed down my cheeks and dampened my wool scarf. The magnitude of what happened at this place back on September 11 swept over me like a tsunami of grief and sorrow. That child’s scrawled message to her “Daddy in heaven” personalized the attack of 9/11 in a way nothing else had. That child was my child and all children in America who had been and would be impacted by the acts of a few evil men on that terrible day in September.

The Pit was several stories below ground level. It was wide and very deep. At the bottom were pools of yellow and green liquid. In the huge piles the recovery workers had made were twisted steel beams in shapes that reminded me of dead trees. Mixed in with this was a mush of material that bore little or no resemblance to what had been the contents of the towers. It had an unreal look like something out of Dante’s Hell. There was nothing that humanized it. It was as if the debris had morphed into something unworldly and unholy.

When any human remains were found, all work at the site stopped. Workers would descend into the pit down a ramp made of debris and the remains were placed on a stretcher and covered with an American flag. It didn’t matter how much of a human was found. Often remains were only bits and pieces of the human they belonged to. No matter the size, all remains were given the full respect of silence and a flag lowered to half mast while escorted out of the Pit.

One of the other stops on our perimeter walk was at the temporary morgue which consisted of trailers where remains we examined and then placed in refrigerated units that ran day and night with a mournful hum. At this morgue, along with human remains, personal items were catalogued. There were eyeglasses, rings, jewelry, combs, etc., all the everyday things that their owners had worn and brought with them when they left for what they thought would be a routine September day. All these items would be used to help families identify their loved ones and confirm that they had perished in the towers. Many times these were the only remnants the families would have of what had been a mother, a father, a son, a daughter, a wife or husband. Everything else was consumed in the cataclysm of fire and immense pressure of a 110 story building collapsing on itself.

In the BWT, activity went on around the clock. Workers and firemen from the Pit would come in for food and some rest before heading home or starting their shift. It was never really noisy in the food area. In fact, except for the sound of machinery outside, there was very little human sound to be heard. People spoke in hushed voices as if at a funeral service for loved ones. The entire site was, I believe, considered as sacred to most of the personnel there.

Firemen worked in the pit because there was always danger a fire could erupt, even after many weeks. Sometimes when debris was lifted by the cranes used to remove the rubble, a fire would flare up as oxygen reached the superheated, highly compressed material underneath a pile. The firemen were also there with their long pikes to pick through debris and look for human remains and personal effects before it was lifted by the cranes and loaded on the dump trucks.

One of the rules at the Pit was no standing around idle, or “homesteading” as it was called. Union workers were sent home by their stewards if they didn’t appear to be working steadily. Another unwritten rule was that there were to be no arguments or disputes between the numerous agencies working at the Pit. The mantra was, “Take it uptown”, which meant take it to Gracie Mansion and the Mayor’s office. The intent was that the work of recovery at the site was always to be the focus. This was probably the reason why the work at the Pit was finished ahead of schedule and under budget.

One day a worker was brought to us at the Red Cross cubicle by a couple of his co-workers because he was acting strangely. The team lead and myself talked with him and noticed he smelled of alcohol. Concerned about his condition and his safety, we decided to call his supervisor. He came in short order and talked with the man a few minutes. He turned to us and thanked us for calling him. Then he looked at the man and told him to get his tools and leave the site and never come back. “We ain’t having no drunks on this job!” He spoke into his hand radio, said a few words and a few minutes later two beefy guys appeared. They picked up the intoxicated guy and walked him out of the facility. The supervisor turned to us and said to let him know if this guy shows up again.

A few days later when I was doing my perimeter rounds, I stopped in at St. Paul’s Chapel which was a relief site and food station for Ground Zero personnel. It was a good place for us to warm up near the end of our rounds. I was about to sit down in one of the pews when I saw the guy that had been tossed out of the site by his union boss a few day before. He was stretched out on one of the pews snoring loudly. He looked terrible. He was dirty and unshaven. It appeared he had been on an alcoholic bender for the past several days. I didn’t know why he chose to drink but still he was a human being, fired from his union job with no place to sleep other than a pew in a church on a cold night. I wondered if he had become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the tragedy at Ground Zero? Had he perhaps started drinking to self-medicate? Was he another casualty of 9/11? I tried to wake him so I could talk to him but he would not respond. At least he was in a warm and safe place.

The Red Cross housed us in hotels around the city. Since virtually no one was coming to the city following 9/11, there were plenty of excess rooms available. My room was in a Hyatt uptown near Carnegie Hall around 7th Avenue and 57th Street. It was an easy subway ride to work but at 2:00 AM when I got off, myself and coworkers would share a taxi. At that time of the morning the city was pretty deserted, especially in the area around Ground Zero. Many of the surrounding buildings were either empty because they had been damaged by the shock wave of the collapsing World Trade Center Towers or were closed because commercial activity had mostly ceased. A quiet Manhattan was something I had never experienced and it felt a bit like being on the set of a doomsday movie. Except of course, this was not a movie set. This was real and New York had experienced a real doomsday scenario.

Wherever I walked about in the city on my time off, the personnel in the shops and restaurants made it a point to thank everyone for coming to New York. I had several heart-felt conversations with waiters and waitresses about how 9/11 was affecting them. There was a feeling of shared loss and camaraderie that I had never experienced when I lived there many years ago or during visits with family and friends. America had been gravely wounded and we all shared in the pain of that wound. We often spoke about how America would survive this wound and heal from it. It was an extraordinary time of unity.

My wife came to New York for the last few days of my assignment. She brought with her a banner that my son’s high school had made thanking the first responders for their work and their sacrifice. I got permission to allow her to come onto the work site and bring it into the BWT where there were multiple banners and posters hung about from schools and organizations throughout the United States.

When I left New York, it was with mixed feelings. I was tired physically and emotionally. I longed for home, family and friends. I also had become attached to people I worked with at the Pit and missed them. A few years later I began to understand this feeling even more when I was counseling soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many would tell me that all they thought about when they were deployed was going home and once they were home they constantly thought about going back and being with the friends they had left behind. Deployment produces an intensity of connection to the people you serve with that is rarely found in everyday civilian life.

I knew 19 years ago, watching that the attack on America by men full of hate and a desire for vengeance, that it would alter my life and the lives of all Americans for many years to come. I didn’t know how, but I was certain that life in America would change and not for the best. I had a full psychotherapy practice in a small California town. I thought I would be there for my entire career. This was not the case. Instead, for the past fourteen years plus, I have travelled around the United States and the world counseling military members and their families. I have lived, worked, eaten and slept inside a military world. As a civilian, I have been privileged to be allowed to be intimately involved in my country’s response to that terrible day in September, 2001.

While I have often disagreed with the decisions taken by our political leaders, I have never regretted my work with the soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen/women, and military families I have met. I have seen first hand the wounds of war. I know they run deep in those who received them and in the nation that sent them to war. If there is one thing I have learned through this work, it’s much easier to go to war than it is to end a war. I hope I have helped to heal some of the wounds this war has created.

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Thank you for being one of my readers. This was not an easy essay for me to write. It brought back many strong feelings. Through these memories I am even more keenly aware, with a Presidential Election only a few weeks away, of how carefully a country needs to choose its leaders. Decisions they make on our behalf can have long-lasting impact on a nation and the entire world. Be safe. Be well. Love the ones you are with, even those who are hard to love. Life is short, even when there isn’t a pandemic.