Staring into the raging fires in the surrounding buildings, I thought about my friend Jonathon Connors, who worked on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center at Cantor Fitzgerald. I prayed he had gotten out. He was a good friend who worked hard to provide for his children and his wife, who had been living with a life-threatening disease. He had always secretly wanted to be an actor, so he had invested in my first film, and to thank him Id chosen him as an extra in one of the scenes. He had been very supportive of my career and always visited me on set.
With Jonathon in mind, I pulled my old 8mm camera out of my backpack and started shooting quick, shaky images. The clicking noise of the worn film canister disturbed me. I suddenly felt guilty taking images, so I threw the camera back into my pack. I felt that if someone saw me capturing pictures of this horrific event, they would think it was a shameful thing to do. I suppressed my filmmaker instincts and didnt shoot anymore the entire time I was on-site at Ground Zero.
When I ran across survivors, they walked past me with blank stares on their faces like zombies in a silent horror movie. Occasionally I stumbled upon other ordinary folks doing what I was doingtrying desperately to find people still alive among the wreckage and ripping down the wood pylons that were mounted on surrounding buildings to create makeshift stretchers for the injured.
An hour later, policemen started screaming for everyone to move away from the World Trade Center area. Reluctantly, I obeyed their commands, but I knew I wasnt done yet.
It became too difficult to navigate on skates, but in my mad rush to get to the disaster area as quickly as possible, I had forgotten to pack shoes. So I left my Rollerblades beside the Stuyvesant School wall just off the West Side Highway and quickly walked in my socks to a nearby pet store. In a Schwarzenegger-movie moment of grandiosity, I announced in my most assertive voice, I am a nurse and I have no shoes. I need to go in and help people, so I need your shoes now! The stunned Asian man at the checkout counter balked at first, throwing me a suspicious look. He then revealed his feet, probably hoping Id pass on the thin, open-toed flaps of plastic he wore. But they were good enough for me. I took his business card, confiscated his flip-flops, and told him Id be back.
The officials had us gather at the City Hall Park, located a few blocks northeast of Ground Zero. Shocked civilians continued to wander the streets with vacant expressions on their faces, but a gang of eager volunteers like me fought for information about how we could help. A tough guy on a bullhorn took control, asking if anyone had any medical or Army experience. I raised my hand. I didnt know what wed be doing, but I knew I could help somehow. He and a few other construction workertype men sorted us into groups. I joined the medical group.
A few hours later, we loaded into a New York City public bus now manned by a policeman and headed back over to the West Side Highway. Those five long blocks resembled a ghost town. It was surreal to think how busy the streets would have been just hours before. The scenery passed by in slow motion, as though time itself were snoozing. I watched five Hasidic men running toward Ground Zero with boxes of bottled water on their heads. I looked up and saw a shirtless man sitting on his window ledge, smoking a cigarette and surveying his demolished neighborhood.
The West Side Highway was full of firefighters and ambulances. As we drove closer to the World Trade Center area, I saw that the fallen towers had completely buried the highway. Everything was covered in white dust, like winters first snowfall.
We exited the buses and regrouped in a nearby building. The local hospitals had already donated large boxes of medical supplies, so we packed our backpacks and grabbed as many bags of saline as we could carry.
Excerpted from The Third Wave by Alison Thompson. Copyright © 2011 by Alison Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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