There are no words to describe the feeling of the day I visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum alongside a 9/11 first responder.
Before I left for my trip to New York, I was determined to contact a 9/11 first responder to participate in my photography project, entitled "1 of One." After weeks of emails and phone calls between the City of New York, the fire and police commissioner, numerous fire houses, survivors groups and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, a person contacted me who was interested in participating. For the sake of anonymity, we will call this person "Alex". I was thrilled Alex was willing to meet with me and share their first-hand experience of the events on September 11th, 2001.
Alex, who is currently retired, was a FDNY rescue paramedic working in Brooklyn. Alex was working the morning shift for a friend on the clear, blue morning of September 11th, 2001. When the initial calls came in, they headed to Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge. They could see the smoke coming from the North Tower (WTC 1), and Alex told me they had a feeling that something was wrong. When they approached the tower, it was already mass destruction. Throughout our conversation, Alex kept using the word "insanity", which is a word that collectively explains the day. Litter in the streets, dust, glass, papers flying everywhere, and there was almost silence. I will not go into the details that Alex gave me explaining the carnage at the scene. I believe it is important for people to hear the unfiltered truth of the pain and desperation of the day, but it is not something I wish to type.
Alex told me a story about a women who was covered in cuts from fallen glass. Alex was trying to remove her from the site and take the women across the street. At this point, no one knew what was happening at the scene. They all thought a small aircraft has accidentally flown into WTC 1. As Alex was pulling the lady to safety. She repeatedly shouted, "plane". Alex said, "yes, a plane flew into the World Trade Center." Alex didn't know until moments later that the woman must have seen United Airlines Flight 175 heading for the South Tower (WTC 2). Alex does not remember hearing the explosion. If "insanity" described the time before the second tower was hit, I cannot fathom a word to describe the time after. People were frantic. The fire fighters were frantic. The story that Alex told me that best describes this moment is Alex's crew had to physically tackle and restrain another paramedic because the man was running to try and catch the falling people.
After getting a call from two friends who were trapped in an unknown area, Alex went out to try and rescue them. But then at 10:28 am, the North Tower fell. The wind from the North Tower blew Alex under a rig parked on West Street. For over two hours, Alex was trapped, getting crushed by the weight of the truck and WTC 1. After falling in and out of consciousness, Alex started to self-evacuate. A firefighter passing by, who had freed himself, helped Alex from the rubble and they headed to a 'safe' area. Alex worked for the next 12+ hours in searching efforts at Ground Zero. Alex said the dust was so bad, you would have to wash out your mouth and eyes with water every five minutes. The dust simply caked onto you in an instant.
Towards the end of the night, Alex started to feel sick and decided to go to the hospital. Alex insisted on being taken to a Brooklyn hospital, as Alex figured all the Manhattan hospitals would be full (this was not the case). Crush syndrome, a lacerated ear dumb, sinus issues and severe smoke inhalation were only a few of Alex's injuries. After five days in the hospital, Alex returned to "The Pit" at Ground Zero. The next 10 months would be spent searching for the missing and removing the rubble.
Alex went onto tell me about post 9/11 illness, such as a myriad of mutated cancers in people who are in their 40's. Since the fire from the 9/11 attacks burned for over 100 days, the search/rescue and clean up crews were constantly breathing in toxic fumes, dust and more. Even though two days after the attack, then EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman made a public announcement that the air was safe to breathe in lower Manhattan. Now, Alex spends his days fighting for the people who are getting undercut by the government and the City of New York. Alex has made trips to Washington DC with fellow survivors to lobby for their pensions, disability and more. At a public hearing in November 2017, New York state and New York City officials testified that they have rejected more 9/11 WTC disability claims from first responders than they approved. That same month, the New York City Employees' Retirement System finally signed off for Alex's WTC disability, after a long 16 years fight.
The 9/11 attacks will have a life long impact on the 90,000 first responders and 400,000 additional men, women and children who are classified as World Trade Center “survivors.” The survivors include tens of thousands of civil servants, thousands of children who either lived in the toxic zone or attended school there, and tens of thousands of commuters who worked in the zone.
When our informal interview concluded, I was having a hard time holding back tears. We packed our belongings and headed over to the 9/11 Memorial and Musuem for a personal, one-on-one tour conducted by Alex.