12 Years Ago A Pennsylvania Wine Dealer Drove To Ground Zero To Help With 9/11 Cleanup — Here Are His First Impressions

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John Corr

John Corr

It wasn't enough for John Corr to sit at home and watch images of the 9/11 on his television screen in Pennsylvania, so he drove to New York City to volunteer to help clean-up.

He was there by Friday, September 14th.

Corr kept a diary of what he saw during his time at Ground Zero, and was kind enough to share them with Business Insider.

Here's what he saw on day one, emphasis ours:

My very first impression of NYC on early Friday morning September 14th was of the hundreds of ambulances lining the West Side Highway on my drive downtown. Sadly, these crews would never have the opportunity to help someone as there were few survivors found after the first 48 hours. Arriving at the Canal St barricade on a rainy and gloomy Friday morning, I was directed to the Jacob Javits Center uptown at 34th St. I stopped there briefly.

The scene was wild and chaotic. A bus parking lot had been turned into a staging center/supply depot and their was a giant throng of helmeted construction workers, muscles bulging and testosterone pumping, waiting to be cleared for entry into GZ for duty on the “bucket brigades”. They were amped, boisterous and dying to get on with it. Along the sidewalks were dozens of food trucks/food stands from restaurants all around town passing out hot meals to cops, volunteers and passersby alike. In the sky above, a fighter jet flew in circles. An NYPD official dissuaded me from this scene and directed me again to the Red Cross Center further uptown at 66th and Amsterdam. It was here that I found purpose. The Red Cross was outfitting ERVs (Emergency Response Vehicles) to GZ and the next fleet would be leaving at 6 a.m. the next morning.

Waking at 5 a.m. I was greeted in the basement garage staging area by a chaotic scene. A small crew of blood-shot eyed college age volunteers were trying to assign crews to the Red Cross ERVs. The problem was that in their exhausted state (this was the 94th hour since the attacks) they were having trouble organizing and sorting through the clamoring crowd of a hundred or more. People seemed confused and frustrated with the procedures. Working my way to the front of the crowd, I asked a tired young man with the clipboard exactly what he needed. He explained that each ERV crew needed 4 people: 1 senior Red Cross worker, 1 certified Red Cross driver and 2 assistants. That was all.

I retreated to the back of the crowd, grabbed a box to stand on and announced what I was looking for. Three men came forward. The first, a man in his mid 60s (I forget his name) was a certified RC driver from West Virginia. The senior Red Cross person was Willard Dreisbach from upstate New York and Rod Richardson, a glass sculptor from Manhattan, rounded out the necessary four. We pushed our way back to the front, presented ourselves as the team and were handed the keys to an ERV and a checklist of supplies to load and drive to Public School #234 at Greenwich & Chambers in lower Manhattan, just a couple of blocks from the Trade Towers. Rod later wrote an insightful and accurate account of volunteer activities at Ground Zero for a local NY magazine... The school yard was a supply depot, their cafeteria became a 24/7 feeding center and their hallways lined with clothing bins. The upper floors were used as sleeping areas. In the gym was an impromptu medical clinic. There was so much GZ dust settling day after day on that school, I don’t know how they ever decontaminated it. In the school yard, you could brush the dust off a box and in a few hours the box would be covered again. The dust was a grayish yellow color and was blowing in a steady stream in a north by northeast direction straight up Broadway and streets parallel. Everyone was concerned about it and the poor people who lived in the neighborhood had it blowing their way for weeks (months).

In this “lead, follow or get out of the way” environment, the person somewhat in charge of the school was a young man who took it upon himself to use the abandoned school as a rendezvous spot and supply dump-off. He was there since the beginning and was the “go to” guy. However, he was fading fast when we arrived and within a few days he was removed by the NYPD who demanded he go home and rest. I never saw him again after that. Things like that were common at GZ.

We arrived at PS 234 just as the National Guard was putting up a cyclone fence around GZ and a two block outside perimeter. Greenwich & Chambers was a main gate for GZ and there was much activity and traffic through there 24 hours a day. GZ was a round the clock effort without let up. Our first duty was to set up a Red Cross feeding station at the school. The RC delivered breakfast, lunch and dinner from their mobile kitchen uptown. Hour by hour, supplies were dumped off at the school necessitating a non-stop need to organize and distribute throughout GZ. Many of these supplies were coming from private sources who would hear through the grapevine what was needed. Speed and urgency had far outpaced official sources for timely delivery of supplies. (see Rod’s article) Items pouring into the school were: metal cutting saw blades, portable generators and tool chargers with channel strips, Rebar cutting tools, fuel and fuel cans for the generators, truck loads of hard hats (to be assembled), flashlights (especially small, thin ones that could be duct taped to firefighters helmets – thus freeing their hands), AA batteries (couldn’t keep these in stock), misc batteries, duct tape, knee pads, work gloves (constantly discarded), anti bacterial waterless soap, anti bacterial wipes, eye wash, (there were eye wash stations along the school sidewalk – as well as chiropractic and massage areas) coveralls, work boots and rubber boots, 5 gallon buckets, small shovels, anti bacterial wipes, water and Gatorade, back packs, ponchos and rain slickers….and on and on ad infinitum. Our duties for the next ten days would be to get these supplies to the thousands of workers coming and going in this hectic place.

Two blocks south of G & C was “the pile”. It was a huge five story heap of smoking steel and god knows what else. Besides the two towers there were a number of other crushed and burned buildings. One of them had a huge crater/hole in it’s middle where a portion of Tower #1 had fallen on top of it. The Marriott Hotel, just west of Tower # 2 had been squashed down to 6 stories. West St. was impassable and a large effort was taking place in clearing it. Most of the buildings surrounding GZ were severely damaged, blackened and scarred. Buildings facing the pile had all their windows blown out (falling glass was a constant hazard) and a few still had huge steel girders sticking in them like giant arrows. Adjacent the severely damaged American Express Bldg on West St. was the Winter Garden bldg/Atrium Restaurant. This was a large, white tablecloth establishment built of glass and most of the tables were still eerily set for lunch although covered in spongy dust. The flowers on the tables, although a bit wilted, still showed signs of life. Only one part of the building was damaged where some girders had crashed through the glass ceiling and were strewn on the restaurant floor. On the second floor of the AMEX Bldg was a hustle of activity as a husband and wife volunteer team from Ohio had set up an impromptu clothing and shoe depot for the fireman who lined up by the dozens to get outfitted. Water was draining along the lobby floor.

Between the piles of Towers 1 and 2 was a sort of crater. When the towers fell, they had collapsed right through into their foundations which were around four stories deep. So, the visible piles which could be seen and were about 4-5 stories high were actually 8-9 stories total of twisted, compacted steel. In the center crater one could see firefighters and other rescue crews climbing up and over the outer “hill” and disappearing into this “no man’s zone”. Amazingly enough, the bronze globe in the smashed courtyard between the towers was still intact and standing. In some places, i.e. the top of the Marriott Hotel there were still small fires burning.

In the shattered streets, which in some places had been reduced to a mix of mud and fragmented debris, there was a constantly expanding array of cranes for removing steel, special bulldozers with pincers for grabbing and pulling at the steel (appropriately called “grabbers”), flat bed semi trucks for hauling out the steel (to Battery Park, where it was shipped over to a holding area/dump on Staten Island) and fire trucks with their ladders fully extended and manned with fireman shooting water onto the Pile from every direction. Some cranes would hoist cages holding rescuers up and over the Pile and slowly swing them along the tangled mess looking for any signs of life or remains. Some would be equipped with cameras on telescoping poles for insertion into holes or dangerous crevasses. In some of the surrounding damaged buildings the FDNY had run hoses up to the higher floors and were spraying water from those vantage points. In the middle of all this were the “bucket brigades”. These were long lines of firefighters and assorted volunteers who would pass back through the lines five gallon buckets of debris being dug by fireman (and only fireman) at the front of the line. The FDNY officers would try to gauge where they thought people might have been trapped and then dig accordingly. The brigades were digging around the clock in constantly changing locales. Along the edges of this scene were various tents set up as command centers, supply depots and even a temporary morgue.

On the edges of this scene, in the nooks and crannies and along the sides of buildings, were dirty, exhausted firefighters trying to grab a little rest before they would plunge back into the maelstrom. The noise of all these engines and activity and the constant warning/beeping of large vehicles caused people to shout to each other to be heard.

It was in this environment that I would spend my next 10 days.



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