9.11.03: Stories from the WTC Pit

I expected the second anniversary of 9/11 to be that of lesser sorrow, emotion, and pain, and I could not have been more wrong. As expected, the police had me walk zigzag through the streets, passing about 20 checkpoints to reach gate entrance No. 1. Once there, I found myself standing in line with the family members as they waited for the names to be read and to descend into the pit. As I stood there, I saw a man standing alone in military uniform, and said to myself, today, no one should be alone.

As the names began to be read, I felt ashamed, thinking how dare I assume the position of a family member. Then I asked myself, is there any other place I would rather be? By far, I felt this was where I belonged, for the pain of September 11th is not exclusive to those who lost someone: It is also still very hurtful to those who filled the buckets with body parts.

So I held a bouquet of flowers close to my chest, to hide the fact that I did not possess the special white ribbon needed to access the ramp to the pit. And as we started forward, a woman tripped in front of me, and the apparent incident distracted security enough to allow me to enter unnoticed.

While walking down the ramp with the families, my guilt was immense. I turned to the gentleman next to me and said, I don’t know if I belong here, I am not a family member. “What did you do?” he asked. “I was a rescue worker,” I answered. He put his arm around me and said, “We are all family today.”

At the bottom, I slowly walked around trying to find absolution, but quickly found myself wanting to help someone, anyone, any way I could. Watching the grieving families was as hard as it has ever been, for I was among them. But then I saw the guy in military uniform standing alone in the corner.

I walked over to him and asked if he was OK. “Yeah,” he said. I said, “Well, I’m not, and could use a friend right about now.” We shook hands and hugged, and I could tell he was anything but OK. We talked about the day, and he explained that he lost his brother in the attack, and this was the first time he got up the strength to come here.

We walked around together, talked, and said prayers while tossing flowers into the reflecting pools. We listened and watched the children play classical music for a while, then it was silent. As he was asking me what was going on, the bells began to ring, and I did not need to look at my watch. “It was the time the first plane hit,” I said. He was overcome. “Every church bell in New York,” I whispered as I put my arm around him. In that moment, I had filled my selfish need for being there, for my calling of the day was to help others, just as it was two years ago, regardless of the outcome.

We stayed together, and with each ringing of the bells he became more uneasy. He was obviously a man of honor, and like me, he was someone who was unfamiliar with his own emotions. After the third bell sounded he wanted to leave, but I asked him to stay a while longer, and he agreed. We walked and talked, then started up the ramp. About halfway up I said, I have a gift for you, and handed him a large stone I dug up from the far end of the site. “How did you get this?” he asked. “I dug it up while you were in the restroom,” I said. He banged the rock on the metal railing, smiled, and said, “This means a lot to me, you have a friend for life.” We shook hands, and continued up the ramp.

By the time we reached the 1010 fire house, he was tired and needed to rest, so we sat there smoking cigarettes as I explained the significance of where we were. After a while I looked at my watch and stood up at attention, [as] it was time for the last ringing, signifying the second tower falling. He sprung to his feet, and again, it was silent. The order of salute was given, and I had the honor of standing with a new friend, surrounded by firemen, in front of the 1010 Firehouse. My friend and I then exchanged phone numbers, said our good-byes, and I started my trek over again to the pit, for I was not done with this day just yet.

Shockingly, I made it back to gate No. 1 and shook hands with Mayor Giuliani; I told him, “How excellent it is to see you here today.” After walking down into the pit and mulling around for a while, I found an 11-year-old girl filling up an empty Gatorade bottle with earth. She was using the bottle’s cap to dig. I approached her, knelt down, and asked her if she wanted some help. She said “yes,” so I sat there with her and we dug together.

While sitting there, a bishop with a large cloak knelt down and offered some words of hope. He explained to her that her uncle was not gone, but was here with her right now, and they will never be apart, for the physical world is just that, and many other unknown worlds exist together. He said that every ounce of love that she feels for her uncle can be felt by him, every second of her life.

After the bottle was full, I asked if she wanted a big stone. Her eyes lit up and she said, “Yes!” I told her that I would be right back. I snuck around a barricade and through a tent, then dug up the largest stone anyone could have found. I was worried that the stone would be too heavy for her to carry, but quickly decided it was OK. When I returned,
I offered her the stone, [which] she took; she ran with it to her mother who was standing about 20 feet away. She had been watching the whole time. As I was leaving, she thanked me emphatically, through the flood of her tears, that stone, it meant so very much…

Just before leaving, I tossed a flower into the pool. A man next to me asked for whom I was praying. I said, “It was for all the victims,” and repeated, “I pray your pain was nil, and we will see you soon, for without you, time stands still.” I then turned to see who it was that asked, only to find that it was a priest, who told me he worked at the morgue and as a counselor.

Counseling was what I needed most, so we talked for a while. He explained that I have seen things that no one should and that it is my own choice to let them go or not. He said it must be a conscious decision to not let what I have seen control me anymore, and I agreed. I thanked him for the advice and continued walking around, asking myself whether to let go or not. Finally I made my way into a small tent, sat down, and had a good cry.

I have decided to not put myself through any more. I have seen and done enough to respect myself, and I need to move on, to be free of the power of 9/11 that has consumed me. Although I will probably return each year to the site, I feel that for me, to continue being distraught is to continue letting the terrorists win.

Jeffrey M. Johns

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