A daughter reflects on her father's experience coping as a first responder at Ground Zero.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kelly Garbato
“We had a barbecue like this at the pit,” my father said.
The pit was his euphemism for Ground Zero. We were sitting together in the yard for a family dinner, despite our parents’ ongoing divorce, when my father told a 9/11 recovery story none of us had heard; one that wouldn’t have been published in the papers. As our mother went inside the house to fetch the utensils, our father shared how the firemen were on rotation at the site that spring of 2002. The Mayor scaled back the fire department’s presence for safety reasons and faced staunch opposition from the families of those who were still missing among the rubble. As a result, the Mayor set up a meeting with 9/11 widows and subsequently, the city allowed seventy-five firemen on the site at a time in one-month rotations. My father was a sergeant in the Emergency Service Unit (ESU) of the NYPD, where he and the officers in his command worked a steady eight months searching for anything—even jewelry—to hand over for a grieving family to bury.
“Police saved the rib bones we ate,” he said. “We buried them in a section the new firemen would search.”
My four siblings and I were used to our father telling stories about work. After twenty years in the department, he had plenty of them to offer. But September 11th was different. He rarely spoke of his time there, even when we pressed him. He had no problem admitting there were a few times he broke down and cried at the station with other cops around the kitchen table after a particularly tough shift of recovering body parts.
“We laughed as we watched the fireman mistaking the bones for remains,” my father said.
As he told the story, I felt for those firemen and I felt for him, though he probably had a part in the prank. My siblings and I passed on the ribs that night.
My father drove into the city using his badge to get him through secure checkpoints. He reported to work at Ground Zero leading a team of cops for twenty-hour shifts, sleeping the remaining four hours wherever he found space at the temporary police headquarters. Human remains were scattered throughout the surrounding area, blocks away from where the towers had stood. Cops reported seeing part of a skull in the street separated from the flesh of the face a few inches away and a severed hand with an engagement ring still attached.
Dust samples collected on September 16th and 17th had a reddish tint the first few days, what a scientist, Dr. Paul J. Lioy, attributed to the amount of human remains and blood contained within them. According to Lioy, the dust was “about as caustic as drain cleaner.” The rescue workers who claimed they were “breathing in dead people” technically were. Out of the twenty-three policemen who died in the collapse, my father was a friend to seventeen. Fourteen of them were members of ESU. And of those seventeen, a handful was very close to him. My father told me that one of the bodies he found was in good shape, a rare occurrence that coroners attributed to the amalgam of chemicals in the dust. Out of the fourteen ESU cops who died, only five bodies were recovered. Overall, only 291 bodies were found intact, and about 21,744 remains were found in total. Over 1,700 families were left with nothing to bury and approximately 3,051 children lost a parent.
On a clear day from the top of the hill at our hometown’s Fresh Kills Landfill, you could see the fractured Manhattan skyline. The barges would come in, often with seagulls hovering overhead. The tugboat crew thought that the more seagulls there were, the more human remains there must’ve been inside the wreckage. In ninety-minute rotations, sanitation, forensic specialists, and police searched through small objects traveling down on a conveyor belt, which turned up an average of five human remains a day. After the closing ceremonies of Ground Zero, another seventy-eight missing people were identified at the landfill.
Everyone wanted a piece of the action. Different companies had stakes in the clean-up, unbuilding, and rebuilding. There was money to be made: in overtime, construction, and selling scrap metal. Companies fought for contracts. Police, fire, ironworkers, sanitation, electricians, urban search and rescue, cadaver dogs, and construction all worked side by side in the recovery effort. They were bound to bump heads. Construction crews accused firemen and cops of stalling the recovery effort for overtime pay and in turn, construction crews themselves were accused of exploitation.
Rivalries mounted between cops and firemen, deep-seeded ones that split along uniform lines. Each force had lost some of their own and had a process for carrying their brethren off of the pile. If police found a body in a black and yellow striped turnout coat worn by firemen, protocol dictated they stop recovering him and notify the FDNY and vice versa regarding the NYPD. The process would get complicated when a body was so burned all they could make out was a wire running alongside the torso, which could be attached to a police radio or a Walkman disc player. Mistakes were easily made on some recoveries, especially given the fact that some Port Authority cops could be found in uniform or plainclothes. Tragedy had come to define both forces and some wore it like a shield. Rising tension came to a head when Mayor Giuliani cut down the fire department’s involvement at the site in November.
I thought of the story Dad told of the Ex-Lax brownies he had baked and left out for his officers years before. He’d meticulously wrapped the toilet in saran wrap under the seat so whoever ate them soiled themselves. Sometimes he was on the receiving end of the joke, like when a partner stole his windshield wipers, forcing Dad to drive home in the rain with his head out of the window. Many who hear these stories recoil in disgust, noting how childish and dangerous they are. These are people who haven’t watched my father’s eyes—how they soften and glaze—as he tells us that one year, he had seven children die in his arms right before Christmas.
My father isn’t unique; many of the men who work in high-stake, high-adrenaline positions use dark humor and baseless pranks to cope. As a member of ESU, my father responded to disaster long before September 11th; in 1990, when he was twenty-six, he spent hours carrying charred bodies from the Happy Land Social Club fire in the Bronx that killed eighty-seven people. What separated September 11th from other jobs was that he had to return to the site day after day for eight months with no break from searching for remains, some of which belonged to his friends.
My father now rents a small home at a lake, an hour away, where we used to spend our summers as a family. He bought a large smoker grill that stands on a rock beside the house. When his kids visit, he will start cooking at two in the morning; he rarely sleeps through a night since Ground Zero anyway. He makes pulled pork or racks of ribs with patience, following his recipe closely with a timer. The smoke will rise high above the tree line and the smell has neighbors flocking to his porch to see what’s on the menu.
When he told the story of the rib bones, I realized that no matter how hard my father tries he will never escape The Pit. There’s a reason he only shares that scene of the barbecue. It was a moment where vulnerable men laughed together, trying their best to feel normal in a place that was far from it.
Samantha K. Smith holds an MFA degree in creative nonfiction writing from Hunter College, where she was awarded a Hertog fellowship and now works as an adjunct instructor in the English department. Smith was nominated for the Shuster Award for Outstanding Masters Thesis by Kathryn Harrison. She was chosen as a fellow of Columbia University’s Summer Institute on “Rethinking 9/11: Life Stories, Cultural Memory and the Politics of Representation.” Her work has been published in The New York Times, Granta Magazine, Slate, and The Common, among other outlets. She is currently working on a memoir.