NEW YORK, NEW YORK — On September 16th, after spending every day since the 11th walking up and down the West Side Highway, trying to volunteer but finding no one who would take me, a woman whose wedding I was supposed to cater called to tell me it was canceled because the city had turned her party space, Seamen’s Church Institute, from a maritime museum and party location near the South Street Seaport into a home for hundreds of rescue crews. There was no electricity, no plumbing and no running water, and they were trying to feed, clothe and give counsel to anyone who could get to them.
By the time I showed up at Seamen’s, Billy and Dominic were already there, unloading trucks filled with supplies. Billy and Dominic are the security guards at the Institute, sweet men whom I’ve gotten to be pals with over many years of catering events there. Dominic’s head was wrapped in a flag, and he hadn’t shaved in days. They were both wide-eyed and pale.
“We were trapped in the tunnel when it happened,” Billy said. “I had to walk out and leave Dominic. He told me just go, go.”
The best man at Dominic’s wedding is among the missing. “There’s no way! He was on the 76th floor!” Dominic said. “I can’t think about it…. Just keep moving! I’ve been here since Day One, haven’t been home in a week.”
It didn’t take much to get me on board. “She’s a chef,” Dominic told the man in charge.
The man in charge gave me a volunteer pass, a hard hat, and a ventilator mask, and I was put on a pick-up truck en route to ground zero.
“She’s going to St. Paul’s!” someone said.
“Where’s St. Paul’s?” I asked the driver.
“Next door to the Millennium Hotel. They say it’s stable.”
We were led through police barricades and armed guards until the truck finally dropped us off at the church.
What I saw was an old brown church, with a row of port-a-johns to the right and a long stretch of tables to the left. The tables were covered with everything from hot dogs to thermoses filled with coffee. There were boxes of doughnuts, eye solution, Band-Aids, hundreds of apples, and thousands of bottles of Gatorade on ice. Dozens of firefighters, cops and construction workers were in line to eat, and a small group of women were doing their best to keep up with the hot dog requests on two small backyard barbecue grills.
I added coals to the dying fires, threw on a few more packs of hot dogs and looked for anything resembling a pair of tongs.
St. Paul’s dated back to 1762. It had been the place George Washington prayed, and here it stood still, covered in dust and dirty but unharmed. Each step leading into the chapel held a different box of clothing or supplies: socks, flannel shirts, work gloves, second-hand hard-hats. Inside, on some of the wooden pews, policemen sat collecting their thoughts. Soldiers napped in the back rows.
My grills were set up in front of the church’s cemetery. Two-hundred-year-old tombstones, so old their inscriptions had long since eroded, poked out from piles of burnt and charred papers from the World Trade Center. I looked at one piece of paper, a bit of banking business of some kind, a cover letter from a fax.
“Have you been given the drill yet?” a woman asked me. She was stuffing the hot dogs into buns.
“If you hear the alarm, you’ve got to run around and out of the gate. Then run as fast as you can, that way toward the Seaport.”
“Okay,” I said.
On my second day grilling for the workers, I was taken on a cold drink-run to the place called the Hole. I went with one of the guys, pushing a wheelbarrow filled with ice and Gatorade. The Hole is the deep, collapsed area at ground zero. The Hole is adjacent to the Pile, where the debris is piled more than seven stories high.
Soldiers guarding the Hole let us by, allowing us to go to the tent set up less than one hundred feet from the debris of the second tower. Smoke and steam rose out of the wreckage as firefighters on their fresh-air breaks sat unfazed a few feet away. Nothing I’d seen on the news had prepared me for this. Sharp burnt bits of metal stuck up fifty feet or a hundred feet &151; I have no idea how high. I had to crane my neck to find the top of the debris. Shards of bent, broken metal rose up over my head. The background was total destruction.
“I’ll take one of those!” a silver-haired firefighter said, and I handed him a Gatorade.
“Where you from?” he asked.
“I live here,” I said.
He took off his helmet and ran his fingers along his scalp. “I’m sorry what they did to your city. We just flew in from California to help out.”
I said thanks and felt dizzy from the sight I was still catching in my peripheral vision.
The tent was full of firefighters, and they cheered when we poured ice into their cooler of warm sodas and energy drinks. We handed around the cold Gatorades.
“I haven’t had something cold to drink since 6 a.m.,” one of the guys said. It was sometime after noon.
Later that day, Seamen’s delivered two hunks of steel they’d welded into grills. They were four-foot-long pits filled with charcoal that sent up smoke and fire so intense I had to throw down a burger and then jump back. The legs were too tall, causing Hector, the tallest griller among us, to stand on milk crates just to flip the burgers. I kept up on the backyard grills.
When shifts changed, fifty rescue workers at a time showed up hungry for burgers. They settled for hot dogs only when we ran out of burgers. Someone said we fed a thousand people on my second day.
“You guys are the best,” said a carpenter from Queens.
“No. You’re the hero,” I said.
“Nah. We’re all in this together. It’s you guys feeding us and the people who run up with eye wash the second you rub your eyes, and the people cheering you on as you drive in. That’s the reason I can do what I do, because you all do what you do.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Do you know how many times I’ve heard that since I’ve been out here? I can’t even count them.” He walked away shaking his head.
There was an air about ground zero that was not filled with sadness so much as something like love. No one looked as though they had slept.
Steve, an out-of-work actor, had been there for a week. He threw foil-wrapped hot dogs directly into the Hole. The men working down there caught them.
“More! More! I need at least a hundred hot dogs,” Steve said. He was wired and pushy, but none of us took it to heart.
Scott supervised the many drug store and clothing donations. He slept on a blanket on the floor of the church for a week.
“Are you with the church?” I asked him.
“Nah, I just found my way out here.”
A pastor from another church came once to deliver ice and stayed for a week. His job was simple. He ran to Costco six times a day and bought all the burgers and dogs he could carry then drove them back to ground zero.
Things changed on my third day. There had been no official statement, but everyone knew the rescue mission had become a clean-up mission. The pace of the workers slowed. There were no more news crews and no hurry in the air. People started to break down.
The dogs sent out to sniff for survivors had become depressed from only finding bodies. The crews took turns hiding, so the shepherds and labs could find them. When the dog sniffed out the guy who was hiding, they received hearty praise and hugs.
I went with a relief run to the Hole and handed out packets of trail mix to the crews. They loved the chance to eat something healthy and took handfuls of the packets. A sign on a nearby dumpster read, “Airplane parts, FBI.”
The men have a look on their faces that reads, “It’s over.”
The Board of Health sent inspectors to make sure we wore plastic gloves. They asked us to wrap the apples in foil and cover the grills. The dust, they felt, was a health hazard.
“We’re pretty sanitary over here,” I said. “Are you worried we might be creating a health problem?”
“More like we’re worried about your health,” the inspector said.
One of the girls said they think the bodies might be creating a biohazard.
We were told that they would shut us down soon.
“These guys are going to be down here for months,” the inspector said. “We want to come up with a long-term way to deal with this, working with the local restaurants that have been closed.”
The inspectors told us not to use the huge steel grills, as they have no covers, so we added a third backyard barbecue grill, and I ran back and forth, turning hot dogs and replacing the covers on each of the grills.
A truckload of replacement volunteers arrived to give us a break, but no one wanted to go.
“I think tomorrow might be the last day they let us do this,” Scott said, instructing the new crew on how to sort clothes and supplies. “I’ll be here for as long as they’ll let me stay.”
I stayed until my eyes were blurry from smoke and then caught a pick-up truck back to the Seaport. Crowds of people took snapshots of us as we drove past, this motley crew in the bed of a truck with the American flag flying off a makeshift flagpole.
On my last day at ground zero, I skipped Rosh Hashanah services and got out to the site early, but I was delivering food to a gloomy crew. The Board of Health had shut down our grills and any food production. We were allowed only to dole out pre-cooked burgers and sandwiches.
The trucks from Seamen’s Church brought over a thousand peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. None of the rescue workers was interested in peanut butter and jelly.
“No more burgers,” a cop said. His hands were raw, beaten. He said he’d been digging out nothing but body parts all day.
“They just want us to pack up,” said Roger, the volunteer who seemed the most like our leader. He wore a hard hat with an American flag taped to it.
I stepped into the church in search of serving utensils and found a dozen rescue workers sitting in the pews, most of them with tears in their eyes.
I took my last walk to ground zero. I delivered a bag of a hundred peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the guards at the Pile. We were no longer allowed in to deliver them ourselves.
Back at the long row of donation tables set in front of the burnt-out shell of 5 World Trade Center, Brian, one of the guys who works for my catering company, sorted through boxes of underwear and t-shirts. He was organizing things to be sent elsewhere, perhaps to the Salvation Army.
As we commiserated on how this was a strange place to spend Rosh Hashanah, an amazing thing happened.
An army soldier with a long white beard stacked several Styrofoam crates one on top of another and placed a plastic shelf used to transport bread on top the crates, forming a table. He covered the table with a blue velvet cloth on which was embroidered the Star of David.
Then he set down a prayer book for the days of awe and a shofar.
As he began to recite the prayers, a group of Jewish soldiers gathered around him. Brian, some Jewish volunteers, and I heard the prayers and joined in.
Then, in front of the worst vision of death and ruin any of us will probably ever see, he blew the shofar. The sweet-sour mournful sound of the ram’s horn pierced the air and resonated into the distance.
The women began to cry. We kissed each other. “La Shanah Tovah!” we said, holding each other. We were all strangers. We probably would never see each other again, but we kissed and hugged like family.
The soldier with the shofar wore a tallis made of camouflage. “Thank you so much,” I said to him.
“Ah, it’s nothing,” he said, laughing and taking my hand in his. “This is the army. I do this all the time.”