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First Aid For Heroes: Chapter 1 Preview

What’s That Smell?
“I can’t smell that smell anymore!” I exclaimed to my sister Melissa as I stood overseeing the area that was nothing like it had been eight years earlier. I had returned, with my family, for a visit to the hallowed grounds of what used to be the World Trade Center about a year ago. Standing there, I felt both estranged and like the biblical story of the wayward prodigal son that had returned home.
So much had changed since that dreadful day. Besides the obvious cleanup, which helped and was necessary, New Yorkers had rebuilt some of its buildings and repaired others. Seeing the positive changes made me feel hopeful as well.
“What do you mean Janie?” Melissa asked bringing my focus back to Ground Zero.
This was my sister’s first visit to the Ground Zero site. Since she’d come to do the tour with me, I took my time trying to explain it to her. I wanted her to understand and I wanted her to feel the emotion, or at least a sense of what I felt. What I felt was that it was extremely important to me to share this with her.
Melissa had become such a close sister and friend to me over the years. We didn’t start with such closeness as children, but as we grew into adulthood and shared so many experiences, the bond had been formed. Now she was here to share one of my experiences, one I hope she could understand.
“The terrible smell is finally not here, though I assume in reality that it has been gone for a long time,” I said. “Odd that I smelled it last year, it must have been all in my mind,” I said softly, more to myself than to her. It had been almost eight years since that tragic event, but it still felt fresh to me.
The overwhelming feelings came flooding back as I began to remember events that I had forgotten or perhaps couldn’t bear to recall during that chaotic time. It’s funny how the human brain will work to shield us from our own ugliness. But I was thankful, because at the time, I couldn’t have handled any more than I did.
I have been back to Ground Zero about five times since my days of volunteering after 9/11. Each time I return, more memories work their way to the top, like bubbles in water floating and finding their way to the surface. And each time those memories return, so does another wave of pain. Our country and its people were just raw and many still are experiencing that rawness.
Gary, my husband, and I, along with my sister and her husband, Mark, had come to New York City for the weekend in August 2009. Each time Gary comes back with me to the site, he learns a little more about the six and a half weeks I spent working as a Red Cross volunteer nurse right on the edge of the Ground Zero site.
“Here is the bridge that was standing”, I pointed it out to them, as if I were some tour guide. “See this white bridge?” I continued. “Just below it is where I brought the ill rescue workers that often needed more first aid care than I could give them. There was a group of doctors, the DMAT (Disaster Medical Assistant Team), whose job was to take care of the more critically ill and injured. I would either walk, or get a ride on a golf cart from my Respite Center, across the ‘pile’ and then back to the to the respite area,”
I explained.
“It was a long walk”, I reminisced. “I would see those firefighters and rescue workers climbing on the pile in the dark with the flood lights lighting up the site, the pile, as if it were daytime. There were always the rescuers watching those individuals working on the pile. They never would turn their backs on their comrades; they would just watch and watch. Sometimes when I walked back from the DMAT they would turn and talk to me and thank me for being there and helping. Can you believe it, they thanked me? They were working so hard trying to find human remains but they thanked me? It still blows my mind.” I felt the lump in my throat growing. Swallow, Jane, hold it together. Show your sister you are strong!
As I talk, more memories push to the surface. I can see in my mind the lingering smoke around the Ground Zero area and smell the stench of debris. I shiver shaking off the memory and hear my sister’s voice.
“So where was your building?” she asks.
“On the other side of the site at St. John’s University, just one block past the site, on Murray Street” I said pointing toward the university. “The American Red Cross took over the building and used it as a Respite Center for those that were working at the Ground Zero site. It was a place that they could go and just relax, eat, get first aid, talk, watch television, play on the computer, well it had just about everything one could imagine! It even had a place in it where the rescue workers could get massages!”
“The first place I volunteered at was at a Public School located at West St. just about a block from where I got off the subway. I asked my supervisor that first day, how do I know where my building is? She said: Yours is the one with the huge American flag covering the entire front of the building. It was impossible to miss.”
It was a thrill to me, they were finally rebuilding! It made me feel hopeful. I was glad. I believed the American public needed that. It was a very slow process but I could see that there was some progression since I had been there the year before.
Americans still considered it a scar in the middle of lower Manhattan. There will always be that scar in my mind and in the minds of millions of others, but knowing that they are rebuilding is a great relief to me. Each time I go and see more construction being done, it becomes very cathartic for me as if each beam being put in place is somehow helping me heal.
Two construction workers see me looking through the fence at the site and come by to chat with me. One guy was tall and fair, the other man was shorter and dark. I guess they could tell by the look on my face that I was struggling a bit with my emotions.
“You okay lady?” the taller guy asked.
“Yes”, I assured them. “I used to be a volunteer here right after the attacks,” I explained. They nodded.
“God bless you for helping,” the shorter guy said. I smiled and nodded.
I told them that it was so good to see the building being redone. I thanked them for making it happen and shook their hands. I am growing, I am healing, I thought, I did this without so many tears this time. But next time, who knows, the tears may fall freely.
“St. Paul’s Church is right here,” I said, returning the focus to my little group. “It is still standing because the north WTC tower fell in a different direction.” As if by divine intervention, the north tower fell to the west and slightly north of the church. Though it was carpeted in dust and debris, it escaped serious damage. “The church became a center for rescue workers as well as a shrine where desperate relatives would leave flyers with photos of the missing”, I reminisced as I spoke to them. “There would be flowers, candles, poems and other gifts left behind.” I continued. In a weird way, I felt strange to be describing the event like some celebrity highlights. Only these highlights were not celebrity tidbits, it was a blemish on America that permanently marred us.
We then walked the path that I took to my apartment in Battery Park City where I stayed while I was volunteering. I took a deep breath.
“Every day,” I told them, “as I finished work and headed to my apartment I would have to walk by the Teddy Bear Wall.” It was also an area where family and friends could leave memorabilia of their loved ones. It is now devoid of these artifacts and just stands as a naked wall. I took a picture of it. “It was so very painful for me to walk by that on a daily basis,” I said feeling that old sadness returning. “Most days, I would shield my eyes so as not to see this wall. I was living and breathing Ground Zero daily and I needed some down time to clear my mind.”
“Here’s the spot where Rudy Giuliani shook my hand, along with the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo!” I exclaimed. Gary, my husband, had come to visit me in November of 2001, and he and I were taking a tour of the outside perimeter of the WTC site when Mayor Giuliani approached. “They both walked directly over to us and thanked me for all I was doing to help at the site.” I guess I was pretty obvious as I was wearing my Red Cross vest and hardhat at the time, so I was visible as part of the team.
Suddenly, another memory came flooding back to me, as it always does every time I come to Manhattan. Unlike the many memorable moments, this one wasn’t pleasant. Would my stalker be out here looking for me? Would he know where I was? I decided not to mention it this time when I came into the city; it was my own private concern. But someday I hope to be able to come to the area and not always be looking over my shoulder, wondering if he is still out there. Would I always be afraid that one day he’ll suddenly show up?
“I am so in awe of what you did Janie. Thank you so much for sharing this difficult time in your life with us, it means so much to me to get this tour from you. I can sense that it still is very painful for you to be here and to talk about, but thank you. This has impacted my life!” Melissa reached for me and hugged me so tight then tenderly kissed my cheek.
Daily I am forced to remember my six and a half weeks here because of the cough I’ve inherited that makes me need to use an inhaler. Sometimes I have a lot of difficulty catching my breath, all this as a backlash for my time at Ground Zero. Other days I am so hoarse that I can hardly utter a simple sentence. I’m not alone of course, so many of us (volunteers) that were in this area are suffering from these and many more side effects today.
But on the bright side, I have always been drawn to the wonderful city of New York. Thank goodness, Gary is too! Several years ago, we even bought a time-share near Central Park so that we could visit this wonderful city at least twice a year. We have since visited the Ground Zero site almost every time we come to town. Some visits to the area are more difficult than others, but as time goes by, I know that I am slowly beginning to heal. But no matter how much time passes, the memories will never leave me, ever.