By Toby Bellin
Tuesday, September 11, 2001 before 9 AM on the crosstown bus on my way to work. Passing Fifth Avenue, I see a few people standing in the street looking up at the World Trade Center towers. I see black smoke rising from the top of one of the towers. That’s an awful place for a fire. How will the fire department be able to reach up there? At Fourth Avenue at the New York University registration office, Jenny tells me excitedly that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. A radio is on and we hear a second plane has crashed into the towers. The city has been attacked. By 9:20 Mayor Giuliani has shut down all bridges and tunnels into the city. Linda grabs her coat, rushes out to her daughter’s school. How will people get home to Brooklyn and the other boroughs? I live on W. 15th St. in walking distance. The office is emptied out, the towers have collapsed, the city is in lockdown and in a crisis.
At home I find my Saint Vincent’s Hospital volunteer ID, fasten it to a long sleeved white shirt. Out on 7th Avenue there is a human barricade: city police, state police and national guard block anyone from crossing 14th St. I’m passed through and walk the three blocks to the hospital. Inside a nurse meets me. Can I help you? “I’m here to donate blood.” “Follow me.” We are in a cafeteria, tables pushed aside. She comes back. “No donors are needed now. Listen at home for radio or TV announcements calling for volunteers.”
Exiting onto 12th St., I see a woman sitting at a table. Many people have come to volunteer. She writes as she asks “Name, any medical or construction experience, phone number or contact information.” “Do you need any help?” She pushes a chair towards me, slides over a pad of paper and pencil. A couple says we have an apartment across the street for anyone working at the hospital. Two young girls, students, want to help. I say they’re too young to donate blood and have no medical experience. One insists, “I’ll do anything!” Time passes. Once I glance over to see flatbed trucks with heavy equipment rumbling down 7th Avenue. At the table five student nurses have arrived from Baltimore. A doctor in an open white shirt says he’s an ophthalmologist, shows me a small case of instruments. He says he’s an ER doctor at Saint Vincent’s. “Put my name down anyway.” A man announces he has just come from Canada and can set up a field kitchen to feed thousands. I ask how he can be reached. Puzzled, he says he came directly without plans. “Contact us again when you have a place to stay.” A distraught young woman says she has walked from one hospital to another looking for her sister Victoria who works at the World Trade Center.
It is early evening; fewer people are coming. I stand and lead the woman to a small chair. She sits on one half indicating for me to share. To keep from sliding off, I try putting my arm on the back of the chair, ending by putting my arm around her shoulders. She keeps repeating, “I should be processing this.” I wonder if she’s a social worker. By arrangement, another sister comes to meet her here. Standing, “Take care of her,” I say and go home.
At my building the Red Cross has posted a flyer offering help to anyone who needs it. There’s a lighted candle at the top of the stairs. In my apartment there are messages on the answering machine. I change the outgoing one to say there’s no phone service now for outgoing calls but I’ll call as soon as I can. I put on the TV. Something is wrong with the picture. I sit on the edge of my bed in semi darkness listening to the news of the day.
Note: Victoria 31, mother of two young children, died September 11 in the North Tower.