I saw a large man standing near a swarm of firefighters about one block north of Ground Zero. He introduced himself to me as Michael Voudoras. He was a volunteer EMT who had ropes and a huge medical kit slung over his sturdy back and a wild, confident look in his eyes. I knew at once that we were going to get along.
At 5:30 p.m., World Trade Center Tower Seven collapsed. I had been watching it burn since the morning and was just one block away when I found myself running for cover for the second time that day. By then, the fires were burning freely and the crazy air was filled with wind and ash.
After that, the officials cleared us out once more and announced that nobody would be allowed back into the Ground Zero area, since they thought many more buildings would collapse. They moved us back out and blocked off road access. All the rescue workers were frustrated, and Michael and I started getting antsy just standing around feeling helpless. A cranky nurse in scrubs declared that she was going into Ground Zero anyway, and marched off down the street, only to be stopped by storm troopers.
It was starting to get dark when a slick black car with four men inside pulled up to our area. It looked like a scene out of the movie Men in Black. A mysterious suit-clad arm emerged from behind the tinted windows and placed a loudspeaker on the cars roof. Earlier, someone had placed a spotlight on the ground to light up the area after nightfall, and it shone through the car, making the shadowy figures inside look even more impressive. A radio broadcast began. It was President George W. Bush telling us that we were now at war. The crowd was spellbound. Hundreds of rescue workers surrounded the car, hanging on every word. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the car quietly vanished. A buzz of excitement hissed through the crowd. I felt a surge of pride: We were now soldiers, fighting on American soil.
At this stage, only a small group of exhausted firemen were being allowed back into Ground Zero. But who was going to take care of the firefighters, I wondered? Michael and I gave each other a cheeky look and then hid behind a group of firemen, using them as cover to sneak back into the danger zone. We knew that many firemen were still getting hurt, and we were determined to help them. We were also eager to look around for anyone who had been buried alive.
As we stepped into the ash and flames, I silently recited the same prayer that I had prayed all day: If it was my time to die, then I was ready. Up until then I had had an amazing, fulfilling life, for which I was grateful. In welcoming and accepting the thought of my death, I felt no fear at all.
Michael and I walked around for hours with our first aid kits and saline bags, treating firemen with burned, sooty eyes and small open wounds. We climbed over remnants of smashed jewelry stores and unmanned banks, desperately looking for someone trapped but still breathing. It was a pitch-black night: The soot lay like a blanket across the sky and the power had gone out. We felt like the only people left on earth.
In the late evening hours, we came upon the American Express building, which had been converted into a small disaster-response staging area and morgue. The ground was soaked in mud and water, which oozed over my flip-flops, through my socks, and around my toes as I stumbled to help a fireman. His eyes were bloodshot and full of soot; he looked like the walking dead. He had been working in the Marriott hotel and was the last one to run out before the south tower had come crashing down on top of it. All of his friends were dead. He sat on the ground in despair, a broken man. I whispered words of comfort and stroked his hair as I cleaned his eyes.
The wind created ashy tornadoes that danced around us as we tried to wash the soot out, making our task even more challenging. On top of that, I realized that although my eyes were fully open I couldnt see anythingmy eyes were filled with dirt, too. So Michael and I sat face-to-face on a pile of rubble to blindly clean the muck from each others eyes.
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.
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