IMAGES NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN
By Jay Valle 9/13/01
As I pulled into Grand Central, I checked my gear: goggles, respirator, gloves, CPR mask, etc. I got off the train and walked towards the 42nd St. exit. There, I was greeted by two New York City police officers. The oldest of the two looked at my baseball cap and said, “Hey, Fairfield, thanks for coming. Just walk up to the corner, and the volunteer bus will pick you up and take you in.” I sat on the bus next to a few construction workers from New Jersey and a group of firefighters from different parts of New York state. All was quiet; no one had anything to say. I guess we were all just thinking about what we were about to see. As we drove away from Grand Central, I heard cheers. I looked out the window and saw people standing on the corner and others walking by. They cheered and wished us luck. I looked at the others with me and couldn’t help noticing the expressions on their faces. I think I may have been the only one who noticed the well wishers. Everyone else had a look of uncertainty, blank expressions with wide eyes, as they all gazed out their windows, never really focusing, just apparently daydreaming.
We reached the site known to all by this time as Ground Zero. I’ve never seen anything like it: miles of equipment, ambulances, fire trucks, heavy construction vehicles, trucks full of food and drink. Police vehicles from all over the state and many from surrounding states lined the roadway. We were then escorted by NYPD to the dropoff point just outside the perimeter of Ground Zero. The bus driver parked, then stood up and said, “Thanks for coming. Good luck. God bless you all.”
We exited the bus and were led by police and the National Guard to a staging area, where we were fitted with the correct equipment: boots, respirators, heavy-duty work gloves, and complete rain gear. We were offered water and food, but no one accepted any. We were all too eager to begin helping. I continued to look around and couldn’t help but notice those who had just left Ground Zero: the tired and somber looks on their faces, many with tears in their eyes, their clothing covered with gray dust, which has become so synonymous with Ground Zero. They walked slowly towards the barricades with their helmets off and jackets draped over their arms or shoulders, all with sign of a struggle, a look of exhaustion, and the expression of despair.
As we entered Ground Zero reality hit home: we were in a hell of ash and steel. All around us there was dust, smoke, and an indescribable smell. I joined a group passing buckets of debris. There must have been at least fifty of us. We passed the buckets down the line to where others sifted through them looking for anything. The trucks lined the street waiting to take their cargo, one leaving the scene every few minutes. I continued this for at least an hour: my hands began to cramp and my fingers hurt. The whole time no one spoke. We were determined to do as much as we could until the next group relieved us. The rain tapered down then, but the wind made it feel like late October. The sweat still poured down my face, and I could taste the dust on my lips.
We were all pretty exhausted, even though we only worked for a couple of hours. I think our emotions had a lot to do with it. We’ve not only become physically tired, but emotionally exhausted. It was hard to tell the difference between sweat and tears. I was done and tried to find a place to sit and rest for a moment. I found a large piece of granite and sat on the ground using the stone as a backrest. I pulled my gloves off and noticed the redness around my fingers with blisters just starting to appear. I removed my hat and wiped my brow, only to find dust and dirt on my hands and fingernails. I looked around and again couldn’t help noticing all the other helpers, also tired, some standing, some sitting, some looking at the sky, but all with the same expression on their faces, one that we’ve all shared through this ordeal: The look of hurt, bewilderment, and disbelief.
As we started to walk away, again I saw another image, one I’ll never forget. A station wagon on the side of all the rubble, covered in a deep coat of gray ash and dust, its side windows blown out and all its tires flat. On its windshield, a flower, a bright red rose, with its long, majestic stem holding its thorns. As I stared at it in disbelief, a smile slowly came to me, and I thought, "Just like the American spirit. Here sits this beautiful flower, amongst all this tragedy, all this darkness, all this ugliness, and it remains defiantly beautiful and full of life, yet with its pointed thorns it sends its message to all who dare disturb it."
I continued to look back at the site as I walked out into the cheering crowd and countless volunteers who waited for us with water, food, and dry clothing. In all my wildest dreams I would never have realized the magnitude of this tragedy and the unrelenting spirit of all who helped. I left the scene with a heavy heart and a choking sensation in my throat, followed by tears in my eyes, wondering if there was anything else I could have done or helped with. On my mind, all those people around the perimeter, waiting, hoping, anxious for news about their friends or loved ones that still remain missing.
On my train ride home I closed my eyes and fell into a deep sleep only to be awakened by the sound of the train's arrival in Westport. I looked around with blurred vision, trying to focus on my surroundings, and noticed many commuters that had boarded the train, all staring at me and commenting amongst themselves. We arrived in Fairfield, and as I grabbed my gear and stood by the train door, I was thanked by some of these commuters, particularly by one woman who said, “God bless you.” I responded, “God bless us all!”
To the family and friends of all who were affected by this senseless tragedy, I offer my most heartfelt condolences.
To the police officers and firefighters of New York City, who made the ultimate sacrifice, I salute you.
Officer J. Valle
Badge # 31
Fairfield Police Department
100 Reef Road, Fairfield, CT 06824
*** Posted by Officer Jay Valle on 2009-04-06 ***