Sunday, October 7, 2018

Women at Ground Zero by Susan Hagen, Mary Carouba

Rating: WORTHY!

Published the year after 9/11, but written when the events were still fresh and raw, this book was really hard to read, especially the 'In Remembrance' section at the back. The authors' intention was to contribute profits from the book to families of 9//1 victims.

The book covers twenty-eight female first responders (EMTs, police, fire) very nearly all of whom went into Manhattan on September 11th 2001; all of them survived. The three in the IM section did not: Yamel Merino, a 24-year-old old single mom and EMT, Captain Kathy Mazza, Commanding Officer of the Port Authority Police Academy, and police officer Moira Smith.

I wasn't impressed by the one story about a CNN news producer Rose Arce at all. I didn't think her story belonged in with these other women: every one of the other stories resonated; every one, no matter what the story was. The stories were of Carol Paukner, Maureen McArdle-Schulman, Mercedes Rivera, JoAnn Spreen, Regina Wilson, Doreen Ascatigno, Sue Keane, Janice Olszewski, Terri Tobin, Marianne Monahan, Bonnie Giebfried, Tracy Donahoo, Tracy Lewis, Amy Monroe, Kim Royster, Patty Lucci, Lois Mungay, Maureen Brown, Molly Schotzberger, Ella Mcnair, Kathleen Gonczi, Nancy Ramos-Williams, Brenda Berkman, Christine Mazzola, Carey Policastro, Kally Eastman, Jennifer Abramowitz, Richelle Jones, and Sarah Hallett

Most of these people were there shortly after the first plane hit or after the second plane hit. Some were later arrivals; others came in later still and had the unpleasant task of searching for body parts and personal effects. One of them was a captain who was on vacation, and had a hell of a time trying to get back to NYC to join her crew, most of whom had been sent in in the first waves and died there.

For me the two most fascinating stories were that of Bonnie Giebfried who was an EMT who told a story of constantly being moved further and further away from ground zero as the buildings collapsed, and one thing after another happened. She and her EMT partner would set up their triage and treatment operation wherever they could, with whatever equipment they could scrounge after having to abandon their stuff twice, and process people through. Their entire day went like that until Bonnie herself started having asthma attacks - which she hadn't had in years, but which were brought on because of the massive blast of appallingly contaminated air that swamped them not once, but twice as each tower fell. She ended up having to get treatment herself, and be evac'd across the river, but her simple matter-of-fact telling of her story engrossed me completely.

The other one that really left an impression was that of Terri Tobin. She was about to put on shoes that would work better for her in these conditions when the first tower came down. She was wanting to get into her car, but was luckily blown over a concrete barrier by the blast of air, and ended up covered in rubble. It was lucky because when she finally got a chance to look at her car, it was crushed and burning.

She worked her head clear of the rubble only to see her helmet cracked open and lying a few feet away. Those helmets are tough, so she felt her head and discovered a piece of concrete embedded in her skull. She had hold of somebody's arm and tried to pull him from the rubble, but the arm was all there was - no one was attached to it. She was starting to get organized again, her head now wrapped by EMTs who did not want to remove the concrete, when the second tower came down, She ran barefoot to the river, and was hit in the back by a piece of glass which stuck there. Still she was functioning, but was eventually ordered to go to the hospital by a senior officer. As if that wasn't already more than enough, she had been back at work only a week when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed a mere block or so from her home in Belle Harbor (or Rockaway as she describes it), a month after 9/11, and she had to respond to that.

There were so many other similar stories of these women being only a block or two away when the towers came down, and running in the choking black filth to try and escape, and having lucky escapes, being in the right place to seek shelter at a crucial time. Carol Paukner, the first story, was blown over twice by explosions. There are stories of people who should not even have been on duty that day but were picking up overtime or had switched shifts. Maureen McArdle-Schulman's was one of these.

Twenty-three year old Mercedes Rivera was one of the first on site and was ordered into the WTC by her commanding officer. Fortunately they'd moved their triage area to 7WTC before 2WTC came down, but they were swamped by smoke from its collapse. JoAnn Spreen was standing under the tower where the second plane hit. As they were moving away from the building, she was hit on the head by debris and evac'd out.

For some it was sheer luck where they were when bad things went down. Regina Wilson was working overtime and supposed to be on the truck, but one of her fellow firefighters told her to stay on the engine since she'd worked that the day before, so he took the truck and went in in the first wave - and never came out. Sue Keane was in 2WTC when one came down and had moved over to 5WTC when 2 came down.

Throughout these stories in which the authors made themselves commendably invisible, was an overriding concern for others in the team, the battalion, the precinct. More than one story made mention of a priest who was giving last rites to a firefighter who had been killed when hit by a falling body, and the priest himself was hit by debris and killed. There are cross-mentions in one story of someone whose story I'd read or would read before the book was done. There were endless mentions of white dust covering everything thickly, of the need for water to wash eyes out, of debris falling, of bodies falling, and of body parts that people encountered while moving around the disaster zone. The twin towers alone covered an area of about four football fields.

There were repeated stories of people being caught in the impenetrable black smoke and dust that seemed to go on forever before clearing, and that burned eyes, and choked throats, and seared lungs. For these people, 9/1l hasn't ended. There are bad memories, nightmares, and medical problems caused by inhaling that putrid cloud that came out each time a building collapsed. There are flashbacks and PTSD, and the undying memories of those who died - people who were family, friends, colleagues.

This is horrible reading, but it - or something like it - ought to be required reading. I commend this book unreservedly.