News

Opinion: On anniversary, 9/11 volunteer revisits the tragedy — and humanity

I left Palo Alto for New York City, my birthplace, as soon as I could get my Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer documents in order, just two weeks after the attack in lower Manhattan.

Francine Toder, Ph.D., is a local psychologist, writer, author of four books and emeritus faculty at CSU Sacramento. Courtesy Francine Toder.

As a psychologist, I already had the training and just needed the hard hat, badge, walkie-talkie and a flight to get me there. My role was to support the efforts of first responders — police, firefighters, handlers of survivor- and cadaver-sniffing dogs as well as volunteer medical personnel as they struggled to manage the horrors.

Wearing a helmet, goggles and face mask, I left my emergency response vehicle and entered a surreal space, once the World Trade Center, noting a smell permeating the air that defied description. Some said it smelled like death or maybe the electrical smell of a melted toaster cord. Hot smoldering hills of rubble rose from the ground and manholes.

The smoke was so heavy at the makeshift police station at Ground Zero that walking the flight of stairs took enormous effort. The whole scene was eerie and seemed like a black-and-white movie in slow motion. Delivering food and drink to disaster workers there, I noticed how little they talked, communicating through eyes that were sad and intense. The mood was somber, resolved and very subdued. New York was humbled by Sept. 11 and you could see it reflected in locals' behavior — less horn honking, more courteous encounters and recognition of sorrow in each other's faces. It was business as usual but with a tenderness I'd never before witnessed in New York City.

Winding my way up to the top of the landfill at the Staten Island facility designated to sort body parts, I could see at a glance that this was no ordinary place. Enormous hills of mangled metal dotted the landscape. I knew what was in the piles and why there were people raking the ground and why others were watching debris pass over a conveyor belt. The mission of this place was awesome: trying to separate building materials from human remains.

What's local journalism worth to you?

Support Palo Alto Online for as little as $5/month.

Join

Even though I was acquainted with the facts, I wasn't prepared for the mood of this place — melancholy, quiet for a New York setting and uncharacteristically gentle. A walk through the mess hall where hundreds of exhausted disaster workers ate around the clock, I observed a sense of seriousness and camaraderie. Outside it was very cold, the early November wind was howling and it was hard to keep the swirling dust and debris out of my eyes. I used my gut to pick out workers who I thought might benefit from some conversation or support and took my lunch with them.

The slow, painstaking work was critical because the facility served both as a crime scene and a personal memorial. The losses were very real to the locals, many of whom lost someone or had a friend who did. This was sacred work, made clear by the clergy of different religions who blessed the ground where bodies had been brought but of course couldn't be definitively identified. I thought that the whole landfill ought to be regarded as a sacred burial ground or identified as a memorial site — the final resting place for so many people. I hoped that this would mark the end of a tragedy and a step toward recovery.

As if the mood in New York weren't somber enough, the crash of a commercial plane in Rockaway Beach on Nov. 12 ratcheted up the general nervousness several notches. The site was less than a quarter mile from where I was stationed, and I saw the plumes of black smoke as I was riding in a Red Cross Emergency Response vehicle on my trek to provide food and water to disaster workers at Ground Zero.

My new orders rerouted me to Rockaway Beach to talk with local residents who were traumatized by the crash from seeing either the crash itself or the destruction of homes, their own or their neighbor's. I saw disbelief, anger and fear on their faces as they assembled at the barriers constructed at the crash site. A temporary morgue was set up within their view. They came alone or in families. Kids in twos and threes wandered by to gawk, cry and inquire about the safety of their neighbors.

A woman rocked as she sat on her porch steps facing the burned out remains of the house across the street. Another woman sat in shock. Her house was demolished with a piece of the plane sitting in what had been her front yard. Even though all of the tangible reminders of her former life were taken by the fire, she was focused on a mother and child, neighbors across the street, who had perished in the fire. Over and over I saw people being re-traumatized, this crash being just the latest assault on their lives. Rockaway lost 84 people at the World Trade Center. Now this. It was almost unbearable.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

After daily shifts that woke me at 4:30 a.m. and didn't end until nightfall, sleep didn't come easily. But writing did. As a writer, this immersion proved invaluable. Keeping my sanity meant chronicling what I witnessed and observed on a daily basis because some of it was so unspeakable that talking to loved ones at home wasn't an option.

In looking back, I was amazed at the resilience of Americans to deal with disaster and come together with heroism and compassion even in the darkest of times. Three weeks later I returned to California. Ten years later I was diagnosed with lung cancer, like so many disaster responders.

At the time it seemed impossible to imagine that an attack on American soil would ever be repeated. Yet here we are two decades later following a domestic attack and ongoing threats from foreign adversaries. Domestic terrorism is something new, but our ability to come together as a nation of patriots is not.

Francine Toder, Ph.D., is a local psychologist, writer, author of four books and emeritus faculty at CSU Sacramento. She can be emailed at [email protected]

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Opinion: On anniversary, 9/11 volunteer revisits the tragedy — and humanity

by / Contributor

Uploaded: Tue, Sep 7, 2021, 11:30 am

I left Palo Alto for New York City, my birthplace, as soon as I could get my Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer documents in order, just two weeks after the attack in lower Manhattan.

As a psychologist, I already had the training and just needed the hard hat, badge, walkie-talkie and a flight to get me there. My role was to support the efforts of first responders — police, firefighters, handlers of survivor- and cadaver-sniffing dogs as well as volunteer medical personnel as they struggled to manage the horrors.

Wearing a helmet, goggles and face mask, I left my emergency response vehicle and entered a surreal space, once the World Trade Center, noting a smell permeating the air that defied description. Some said it smelled like death or maybe the electrical smell of a melted toaster cord. Hot smoldering hills of rubble rose from the ground and manholes.

The smoke was so heavy at the makeshift police station at Ground Zero that walking the flight of stairs took enormous effort. The whole scene was eerie and seemed like a black-and-white movie in slow motion. Delivering food and drink to disaster workers there, I noticed how little they talked, communicating through eyes that were sad and intense. The mood was somber, resolved and very subdued. New York was humbled by Sept. 11 and you could see it reflected in locals' behavior — less horn honking, more courteous encounters and recognition of sorrow in each other's faces. It was business as usual but with a tenderness I'd never before witnessed in New York City.

Winding my way up to the top of the landfill at the Staten Island facility designated to sort body parts, I could see at a glance that this was no ordinary place. Enormous hills of mangled metal dotted the landscape. I knew what was in the piles and why there were people raking the ground and why others were watching debris pass over a conveyor belt. The mission of this place was awesome: trying to separate building materials from human remains.

Even though I was acquainted with the facts, I wasn't prepared for the mood of this place — melancholy, quiet for a New York setting and uncharacteristically gentle. A walk through the mess hall where hundreds of exhausted disaster workers ate around the clock, I observed a sense of seriousness and camaraderie. Outside it was very cold, the early November wind was howling and it was hard to keep the swirling dust and debris out of my eyes. I used my gut to pick out workers who I thought might benefit from some conversation or support and took my lunch with them.

The slow, painstaking work was critical because the facility served both as a crime scene and a personal memorial. The losses were very real to the locals, many of whom lost someone or had a friend who did. This was sacred work, made clear by the clergy of different religions who blessed the ground where bodies had been brought but of course couldn't be definitively identified. I thought that the whole landfill ought to be regarded as a sacred burial ground or identified as a memorial site — the final resting place for so many people. I hoped that this would mark the end of a tragedy and a step toward recovery.

As if the mood in New York weren't somber enough, the crash of a commercial plane in Rockaway Beach on Nov. 12 ratcheted up the general nervousness several notches. The site was less than a quarter mile from where I was stationed, and I saw the plumes of black smoke as I was riding in a Red Cross Emergency Response vehicle on my trek to provide food and water to disaster workers at Ground Zero.

My new orders rerouted me to Rockaway Beach to talk with local residents who were traumatized by the crash from seeing either the crash itself or the destruction of homes, their own or their neighbor's. I saw disbelief, anger and fear on their faces as they assembled at the barriers constructed at the crash site. A temporary morgue was set up within their view. They came alone or in families. Kids in twos and threes wandered by to gawk, cry and inquire about the safety of their neighbors.

A woman rocked as she sat on her porch steps facing the burned out remains of the house across the street. Another woman sat in shock. Her house was demolished with a piece of the plane sitting in what had been her front yard. Even though all of the tangible reminders of her former life were taken by the fire, she was focused on a mother and child, neighbors across the street, who had perished in the fire. Over and over I saw people being re-traumatized, this crash being just the latest assault on their lives. Rockaway lost 84 people at the World Trade Center. Now this. It was almost unbearable.

After daily shifts that woke me at 4:30 a.m. and didn't end until nightfall, sleep didn't come easily. But writing did. As a writer, this immersion proved invaluable. Keeping my sanity meant chronicling what I witnessed and observed on a daily basis because some of it was so unspeakable that talking to loved ones at home wasn't an option.

In looking back, I was amazed at the resilience of Americans to deal with disaster and come together with heroism and compassion even in the darkest of times. Three weeks later I returned to California. Ten years later I was diagnosed with lung cancer, like so many disaster responders.

At the time it seemed impossible to imagine that an attack on American soil would ever be repeated. Yet here we are two decades later following a domestic attack and ongoing threats from foreign adversaries. Domestic terrorism is something new, but our ability to come together as a nation of patriots is not.

Francine Toder, Ph.D., is a local psychologist, writer, author of four books and emeritus faculty at CSU Sacramento. She can be emailed at [email protected]

Comments

Grateful
Registered user
Gunn High School
on Sep 8, 2021 at 11:42 am
Grateful , Gunn High School
Registered user
on Sep 8, 2021 at 11:42 am

Thank you for sharing your experience about the aftermath of 9/11 at Ground Zero and for selflessly volunteering your time to help those in need. You are a true patriot with a heart of gold.


B
Registered user
Downtown North
on Sep 10, 2021 at 7:15 pm
B, Downtown North
Registered user
on Sep 10, 2021 at 7:15 pm

With pain in my heart I read and reread what you have written about 9/11 and more. That you showed up, fully, in a timely, kind, informed, and honest way is a gift to everyone you touched and to those of us who get to see a speck of what you saw. Thank you for what you did then. Thank you for helping each of us, to remember, to show up in our lives, and in the lives of people around us. Thank you.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

In order to encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion, commenting on stories is available to those who are registered users. If you are already a registered user and the commenting form is not below, you need to log in. If you are not registered, you can do so here.

Please make sure your comments are truthful, on-topic and do not disrespect another poster. Don't be snarky or belittling. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

See our announcement about requiring registration for commenting.