Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Memories Came Flooding Back

It's hard to say what made the most lasting impression on me.

Could be the dazed look still on the faces of many New Yorkers. Perhaps it was the overpowering presence of police officers who were everywhere. Then there was the dust. It still lay heavily on windowsills, ledges, and tops of wall surrounding the grounds of the City Hall. I can still see the long tandem trucks that rolled incessantly through the gate of the makeshift security fence that had been hastily erected around what came to be known as "Ground Zero". Each truck's trailer was piled high with chunks of concrete and twisted steel. One after another they came, around the clock, heading, we were told, for a landfill on Staten Island. As the endless caravan of loaded vehicles exited, another string of empty trailers headed back inside the fence for the next load of debris.

Perhaps the most sobering sight were the hundreds, no, thousands, of "Missing Posters" that adorned the walls of buildings up and down Broadway and the side streets that intersected it. Photo after photo, with names of those who were missing, along with contact information were literally everywhere. These posters helped put a personal face on the huge tragedy we had all witnessed a week earlier on live TV.

We stood silently on Broadway, just off the Fulton Street subway station. A river of humanity passed by on the wide sidewalks, as survivors were trying to get their lives back on track a week after the worst attack ever perpetrated on American soil. The faces were all different, yet eerily similar. They wore expressions of worry, despair, apprehension, or just blank looks as they stared straight ahead. Many, like our small group, simply stood reverently, looking down the block at the huge piles of rubble that only a week ago were the twin sparkling buildings that had stood 110 stories tall. Now it was the scene of destruction, and the tomb of thousands. The sound of heavy equipment and jackhammers echoed through the man made canyons. The only traffic sounds were those made by emergency vehicles and the trucks that kept coming and going from the site of the former World Trade Center's Twin Towers. There was no other vehicular traffic allowed in lower Manhattan. In fact, the subway had just opened that morning. Previously the only way to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan had been to walk across the landmark Brooklyn Bridge.

We weren't there to rubberneck. Rather, we had come to help, and this was our "morning off" after working the midnight shift of helping to prepare thousands of meals for the first responders, and recovery personnel who were working around the clock, just across the river from our work site in Brooklyn. The Kentucky Baptist Convention had a huge Disaster Relief kitchen unit on site, where thousands of hot meals were being prepared each day, to be taken across the river by Red Cross ERVs to fee the hundreds of relief workers on the job around Ground Zero.

Two van loads of us had come from some of eastern Kentucky's Greenup Baptist Association's churches to help with the task. We had arrived in the New York area at a Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief staging area in New Jersey, around midnight on Monday evening. Worn out from the day long drive, several of us felt that we should spend the night in the Baptist Church there, but the younger guys pressed us to go on over into the city and roll out our sleeping bags in the temporary Disaster Relief "camp site". Even though we weren't exactly sure where it was, at the urging of the young guys we pressed on.

We were told in the staging area that the DR HQ was "near the Brooklyn Bridge", and with guidance from the Lord, and the help of the ever present NYPD officers, we eventually found the three story warehouse that would serve as our home for the next week. It was not only "near" the Brooklyn Bridge, it was literally UNDER the span. The first floor was a beehive of activity (even at that late hour) as thousands of boxes of clothing. and innumerable cases of bottled water were being moved around by volunteers on fork lifts.

We signed in with the DR "Blue Hat" that was in charge, and were issued a Red Cross cot and told that our sleeping quarters were on the second floor. Before going upstairs for some badly needed sleep, we walked over to the railing at the river's edge and looked quietly across at the skyline of lower Manhattan. In the area where the Twin Towers had once stood, now was a cloud of dust and smoke, still rising from the ruins, illuminated by the halogen lights that surrounded the work area. It was the same view (with the Brooklyn Bridge soaring above) that I had seen hundreds of time in movies and television shows over the years. The notable exception was the empty space where the towers had stood until the previous week.

Our sleeping facility was as dark as a coal mine. Fortunately someone had brought a flashlight and we found a sparsely taken area where we set up our cots. I was asleep before my head hit the cot. When we woke at first light, it was possible to see what the lodging situation was. In a word, crowded. The warehouse was a huge open area with large concrete pillars separating the concrete floor from the concrete ceiling. There were probably 150 people who had set up campsites there. Meals were taken as we prepared the meals to go out to the relief workers, and shower facilities were in a Virginia Baptist Convention Disaster Relief trailer parked on the premises.

I could write volumes on what we saw and experienced that week - but time and space does not allow. Quite frankly, the 9 1/2 years that have passed, my six year battle with cancer, three new grandchildren, and the grind of every day life had served to dim the memories a bit. But they all came flooding back late Sunday night when the breaking news on the television declared that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan by U.S. military personnel.

This was the man who embodied the evil that cost more than 3,000 lives of innocent people in New York City, Washington, D.C. and in a field outside of Shanksville, PA. He is the guy, along with his radical Islamic followers, who gave us the TSA, Homeland Security, Terror Alerts, and basically changed our way of life in America, forever.

While the death of bin Laden cannot bring back even one of the 911 victims, I pray that it does bring a sense of justice to the families of those who were murdered by his demented minions. It took 9 1/2 years to track him down and dispatch him from this world into the next. I thank God that Presidents Bush and Obama, respectively started and completed the search. Kudos to our military for a job well done.

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