The View From Sea Level

Mindful Ramblings on Topics from Silly to Sublime

Picket Fence
Standing ruins of WTC1 still block the view of the World Financial Center from across the plaza.
Picket Fence
Workers take a lunch break near the Corner Store (bagel cart in center rear).
Eleven days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, a muggy September Saturday, I got up before dawn.

I did it so that I could be on the subway before seven to reach the financial district before eight. Eight a.m. was the shift change at the Seaman’s Church Institute and St. Paul’s Chapel, the locations of relief worker aid stations sponsored by the Episcopal Church.

See a map of the World Trade Center area

Volunteering to help with the aftermath of the attack is, like so many things in life, a matter of who and what you know. Andrew and I had managed to get official volunteer slots the previous Sunday, so we knew where to go when to be accepted as workers. We felt lucky.

Although the basic setup at the Seaman’s institute was the same, much had changed in a week. Power had been restored (and therefore the elevator).

The desperately painful sense of mourning had been replaced by determination and pride. The upstairs café was still busy with police officers and workers. Bacon, eggs, and waffles were still being cooked on baking sheets over charcoal fires on the patio. But today there was conversation and even, occasionally, laughter. Last week there was a respectful hush.

We worked for a couple hours. Andrew mopped the floor. I kept the cooks supplied with utensils, pans, and boxes of donated waffles. There were plenty of helpers sent from churches all over, so when an opportunity arose to go over the St. Paul’s, we took it. Donning hard hats and green "church volunteer" ID tags, we walked west on Fulton Street.

There are three types of officials guarding the approaches to "the Pile:" NYPD, State Police, and National Guard. We had learned the previous week that the NYPD officers were the best to approach. It’s their city, so they seem to give consideration to requests from its citizens. The others tend to opt for a "no" answer when confronted with an unfamiliar request. We knew that our church id’s were pretty much meaningless in an official sense. What got us through to St. Paul’s was courtesy, a determined "I have business here" walk, and approaching the police, not the army.

A Wailing Wall
The front of St. Paul's Chapel draped
with messages from America.
Stockpile of donations in the Corner Store
Most people, at some point in their lives, have an opportunity to view a public event from a restricted location – backstage concert passes comes to mind. Getting close to what was once the World Trade Center is one of the most powerful such experiences I’ll ever have.

St. Paul’s Chapel and its antique graveyard take up a small block bounded by Vesey and Fulton on the north and south, Broadway and Church on the east and west. In 1789, after his inauguration, George Washington worshiped at St. Paul’s. These days the small, airy space serves an equally significant purpose. The chapel entrance is on Broadway, protected from the devastation and, now, decorated with banners covered with hand-written messages to the rescue workers. Tables on the front porch offered coffee and snacks – a grim sort of church coffee hour display.

Inside a national guardsman sat in a pew, head in his hands. What unspeakable horrors had he taken this time to contemplate? What visions was he seeking to expunge in the quiet of this sanctuary? A few rows away a police officer lay somewhere between sleep and unconsciousness loosely covered with a donated blanket.

Cards from children on the churchyard fence.
A Red Cross food station adjacent to The Corner Store.
Looking west on Vesey Street, the ruins of building 7 across from the burned out building 6 (Border's). An American flag graces the top floors of the abandoned American Express tower, upper left.

A cleaning crew negotiated their way past the barricades and came in to clean the chapel. Diligent workers more accustomed to tidying offices like the ones that lay in dust all around us worked their way around the sanctuary with cloths and mops. They carefully pick up each item stored on the deep window sills, wiped it off, wiped beneath it, and put it back exactly as they found it. Underpaid, overworked office cleaners tidied up the packages of cereal and boxes of Band-Aids in this new, strange workplace. And while they worked, a volunteer paused to kneel before the altar, and then a national guardsman did the same.

In one of this crisis’s most ironic events, the Department of Health had visited the chapel and tried to site it’s emergency food service operation. Andrew was there on Tuesday evening, a week after the attack. The health inspector tried to prevent the distribution of turkey sandwiches because they were not on ice and they contained mayonnaise. The police officers being served drove off the inspectors. The sandwiches were consumed long before the mayonnaise had time to sour. But the inspectors had persisted.

On Wednesday freshly made sandwiches from a deli were being distributed. The health inspectors appeared, seized the sandwiches, and poured bleach on them. That was the end of open bowls of chips and snacks – set out by volunteers to create a sense of home. By Saturday the apples were individually wrapped in cellophane, and the volunteers were spending a lot of time keeping the coffee service area free of the ever-present dust.

We were already growing weary when a request came for cases of Red Bull, that exotic "energy drink," to be brought to the "Corner Store." We each took two cases of the stuff (someone – probably the distributor -- had donated more than 200 cases) and, securing our hardhats and white dust masks, trooped out around the corner and down Fulton Street toward Church street.I’ve walked that block countless times, but never again will I come out of the Subway at Broadway and walk beside the churchyard on my way to the World Trade Center. I walked on that side of the street because the service entrance of the Millennium Hilton across the street was usually blocked with trucks, while on the chapel side the sidewalk was clear except for a bagel cart selling coffee and pastries in the morning.


Copyright 2001 Mia's Mar Vista News. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction by permission only.

Copyright 2001 Mia's Mar Vista News. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction by permission only.