It all seemed like it happened yesterday…black smoke against the blue sky…opening my eyes and hoping it never happened, and closing them but not falling asleep. But the first part is now over. The 16-acre clean up is virtually complete yet there are still over 1700 bodies still unaccounted for. If you’ve had the chance to go on the observation deck at Ground Zero at any time during the last 5 months, you’d know…16 acres of empty space is okay in Nebraska, but in New York City it’s just horribly sad.
For the past 36 weeks, I’ve smelled the rancid air, heard the booming and crashing noises of buildings being demolished, listened to horrific stories, and most of all felt the chill run up my spine every Tuesday night while I drove to this “mass grave” called Ground Zero. These are real feelings and they are pretty horrible to have. I share them with countless millions. Sadly, others have it much, much worse than I do. After all, I didn’t lose anyone I know in this. But I’ve spoken to and treated hundreds who have. I’ve realized that the English language has yet to create words to describe situations like this. I’ve listened to those who confided in me stories that made me become an unexpected ‘grief counselor’, and I’ve also been witness to some who were unable to cope with this tragedy.
I’ve watched rescue workers take new boots from the church and replace them with ones with the soles burnt off. I’ve been thanked (literally) over a thousand times for donating my time and chiropractic expertise to strangers. I’ve found that I can adjust through a bulletproof vest. I’ve been given names to contact on the NYPD “should I need a favor.” I’ve been offered office space in NYC to open a practice through OSHA and HUD. I’ve looked and read countless “Missing Person” flyers posted by recently-widowed or grieving loved ones. I’ve seen home photos found amongst the fallout in the graveyard of St. Paul’s Chapel and wonder whose office desk they once sat on. I’ve read encouraging cards and poems from people in just about every country, and definitely every municipality in THIS country. I’ve realized that second-graders have more of a grasp of this event than I wish they had to.(They are also some of the most creative artists). I’ve read stories of Canadian towns doubling in population as they took in travelers stranded while our airspace was sterilized for those 2 days afterward. I’ve heard the Honor-Guard-detail commands over the radios and the signal for the officers to salute the passing flag-draped coffin. I learned physics in college, but how can 9 floors of the south Tower be compressed into a 4-foot-high block located underground between the 2nd and 3rd level of the parking garage(floors 29-38)?…and then how can dusty cars(too contaminated to be returned to their owners) be found perfectly untouched in a “structural void” a few feet away. I’ve seen window blinds stuck up in the trees overhanging the Chapel’s graveyard, left there intertwined in the branches as part of the Towers’ falling debris. It’s the kind of physics that books normally use to express a point, but never to witness. I’ve learned that I long for the time before Sept. 11th when my thoughts weren’t corrupted by these events. I’ve formed friendships that I’ve grown to cherish with people I should have had absolutely no exposure to (primarily the NYPD!). I met a thousand people I would have never known existed, and treated roughly 500. I’ve treated people covered with that beige-dusty-powder that still lingers down there and I’ve come home with it on me. I’ve needed to have my car washed every Wednesday because the same powder covered my car. I’ve also learned that discretion prevents me from disclosing the thousands of other stories I’ve either witnessed or been told…and they’re better off kept that way. I’ve learned that WFAN gives a very detailed sports report at 2:20AM. I’ve been kept awake on my long drive home with phone calls to my brother Chris(in California), who would stay home on Tuesday nights specifically to keep me from falling asleep on the ride back to Bethel. I remember cheering on the Yankees during that amazing “November” World Series…And as time went by, I watched the lights on the Empire State Building get changed from Red-White-Blue to Red-Green for the Christmas holiday, and then back again to symbolize our patriotism, and also signifying(again)NYC’s tallest building. I also believe that God has kept the weather exceptionally warm during this winter for a reason. I’ve been to the observation deck and been totally speechless at the memorials that hang there listing all 2,823 names. I’ve also seen well wishings from Washington, DC, whose Pentagon suffered also to the tune of 191 lives. And of the Heroes of Flight 93…who can say enough about their ultimate sacrifice? Don’t ever forget these casualties…Ever.
- #5WTC before being torn down
So, there will be normal hours in my Bethel office starting this Wednesday. I’ll never forget the ribbings I took initially for starting my Wednesdays at 11AM after the first few weeks, having not told anyone why. And the recently-informed patients quietly pulling me aside by the elbow to shake my hand and say, “Thanks for going down there.” I’ve seen the same cop car parked at Fleet Bank in Bethel scrutinizing me as I drove home at roughly 3:45AM(since I was the only car on the street at that time). I’ve always admired and respected the phrase, “turning disadvantage into advantage”, but never had a worthwhile real-life application until now…People who I would have considered strangers to me on September 10th, were really just “long-awaited friends in disguise”…and for that I am the most thankful. But I’ve learned that people are at their best when things are at their worst…and of all places, it’s in New York City. Other cities can only wish to be like it.
In an E-mail I wrote on September 13th, I asked a question with regard to the attack and why I felt what I did. I asked: Was I more angry at them (terrorists), or of what I was becoming BECAUSE of them? Well, after going to NYC and helping out in my capacity…after going on-site and seeing what was left of buildings as well as of lives…after hearing stories that I will not soon forget…after realizing the needless loss of life applauded by these terrorists, I can firmly state that I believe our cause there is justified. These lessons need to be taught by force. Sadly there is just no alternative. I’m amazed that there are groups and factions in the US that are rescinding their patriotism in favor of being “sensitive” of others. It’s as if putting out the flag or supporting the country was not “in-season” anymore. It wasn’t too long ago that I saw pictures from just about every nation on this planet in full support of us. “We Are All New Yorkers” seen globally written on hand-made signs…flag pins on lapels…”You’re either with us, or you’re against us”…Children from across the planet holding American flags…Thousands of candles lit in front of every US Embassy… the courage of the phrase, “Let’s Roll!”…German warships pulling alongside US Naval Cruisers in open sea and flying OUR flag half-staff with all their officers on deck saluting ours…Flags and banners with messages written on them to lost co-workers, never to be read…Candlelight vigils in every town, city, or municipality…The “Thank You Volunteers” signs written by people waving and cheering as I drove down the West Side Highway to GZ each week…It’s these things: signs of compassion, humanity, character, strength, bravery, determination, fortitude, courage, encouragement and solidarity which I choose to remember… more than the pictures of burnt buildings and body bags being given Honor Guard salutes. Anyone who feels we should not be in this war has obviously not been to Ground Zero. So if you doubt it, then go…go to that 16-acre mass grave; read the messages left at St. Paul’s Chapel, talk to the workers pulling out unidentifiable body parts and tell me how you feel… and then tell me why you should feel any bit differently (… and then check to make sure that flag is still hanging outside your house).
All our previous experiences were unable to prepare us for these consequences. I set out on this self-imposed assignment in September to do what it is that the Lord has equipped me for, and that’s to treat people…and I did…roughly 500 overall. I made the commitment and stuck to it (this should more than please my fiance, Rachel!) A good percentage of these workers had never been adjusted before 9/11/01, but somehow they just knew that they “needed it.” I know that there weren’t any better-prepared health professionals down there than the chiropractors. Some would call THIS a sacrifice. As the current President of the Bethel Jaycees, I’ve learned that service to humanity IS the best work of life. And I’ve never been more confident in my decision to be a chiropractor than driving home on the Northbound side of the FDR Drive at 2:30AM each Wednesday morning.
I’ve written these letters primarily for myself…no one else. But of the only stories I have mentioned, I did so from a unique perspective…from behind the scenes…as someone who quietly helps the helpers. This is why I share them…someone who’s health services may have helped the officers and workers get through their days a little bit easier while they were confined to this site for 261 days. This was not a mission for fanfare or fame. I did this because I needed to; because I am an American, and I have a unique ability few others have…healing. Besides, just exactly what other kind of incident would have warranted my response if this one didn’t? I wanted to know that somehow, if only I could help speed up the recovery, then my job would be considered successful. Chances are that history will most likely never record all the countless volunteers who helped out during these events.
So, from September 27, 2001 to May 28, 2002 I had an insurance-free, walk-in practice on Broadway in New York City with free drinks and food, massage therapy, religious services, pharmacy supplies, well-wishings, cots with stuffed animals, and even armed guards at the door.
It was quite honestly “the best practice I never had.” But all that is over now. At 10:51PM on 6/1/02, during the only 3-minute downpour on an otherwise cloudless day, the office/Chapel closed it’s doors for the first time since September 11th. As for New York City and the rest of the country, phase one is now complete. And so is the relief effort. The rebuilding process will now begin.
And as for me…it’s time to go home…Rachel and I have plans of our own to complete…
Dr. Russell Caram, June 3, 2002
Bethel, CT., Harrison, NY.
Click here to read the 10-year follow up story titled “The Flag”.
(The Steel 9/11 Cross depicted here was made from the steel remains of Tower 1 and given to me as a ‘thank you’ for volunteering my services at St. Paul’s Chapel for 8 months. It’s been on my desk for over 8 1/2 years has not moved from there. Upon receiving it, I could swear it had a strange resonance to it, as if it were “sad” and somehow harbored some memories or secrets from those who died on 9/11/01. It’s as if the steel held those secrets safe in the dark, and never supposed to see daylight. As if it knows it’s not there anymore, doing it’s job… I know of no other way to describe it, but it was a feeling that was common among the select few who received these crosses…)
One thought on “16 Acres”
It’s been so long since we talked, and even longer since I first read this in an email you sent out.
I have often reflected back to your essay on what you did to help the “City”, as we called it, in the months after the attacks.
I remember being up at Blue Jays the evenings following this tragic event and we noticed still no planes in the sky.
We held fundraisers and supply drives to aide you in your volunteer work at Ground Zero, and you even took several people to help you out down there.
I will not say they were good times as much as a time to come together and help others, which is how we originally met as Jaycees.
Every year on this date I read your writing. It helps me remember not just those who perished on that day, but the people that answered the call in the minutes, days and even months after.
“And that service to humanity is the best work of life”