Pete Earle USMA Class of 1996: A Volunteer at Ground Zero

I was at work in midtown Manhattan (I'm a trader at a hedge fund) watching the events unfold on CNBC; upon hearing that trading was to be suspended for the day, my firm emptied out.

I decided to head downtown to see if I could volunteer my help. As all subways, buses, and taxis had ceased operation, I walked/jogged the fifty some-odd blocks to Canal Street. A huge plume of smoke loomed in the distance as hordes of people briskly made their way past me, away from the demolished financial district and toward home, the bridges, GCS and the Port Authority. On the way, many individuals were crowded around windows showing CNN and other news stations, and manybodegas were hanging out free water to anyone walking/running by.

At Canal Street I asked a few police officers where the volunteer point was, one of whom directed me to 2 Lafayette Square, in front of the downtown courthouse.

The few blocks between Canal and the designated volunteer site were absolutely filled with cops, firemen, National Guardsmen, ATF, NTSB, and other personnel, as well as hundreds of police cruisers, ambulances, tow trucks, fire vehicles, Humvees, etc. At this distance - the plume of smoke was terrifying, huge and thick, black and gray, blowing toward the southwest of Manhattan.

By now (about 12 noon) drenched with sweat, wearing khaki pants, a blue polo shirt, loafers, and carrying my work bag, I arrived to the volunteer site where about 200-300 people were already standing. The organizers asked us to divide into blood donor, ex-military, and medical groups. I joined the ex-mil crowd whose job, 'search team,' would ostensibly be to locate the survivors and the dead in the blocks around the WTC - not in the actual building debris. We were given dust masks, designated t-shirts, gloves, tourniquet cords, and bottles of water for the trip into "ground zero," as they'd begun calling it. And, while waiting the masses of us (except for "Blood," for donors) were given down-and-dirty first aid lessons. Among the members of the ex-military group were many former infantrymen like myself, but also individuals representing backgrounds ranging from special operations to finance across all service branches, regular and reserve. There were a few Vietnam vets, a few young kids who'd just recently completed their enlistment term, and a USNA grad among us.

We wound up standing in our groups for several hours, as Air Force jets flew overhead, protecting NYC airspace. It's became a little frustrating, as all many of us could think of were the windows of opportunity to rescue some of the critically injured in small pockets that we were losing.

It was nothing if not surreal, the idea of this city - my home area and where I work - requiring military defense. Also, that in this day and age, in this country, that hordes of typically unflappable New Yorkers would have reason to quickly crane their heads up or duck in terror whenever an unusual sound (in this case, that of the roar of fighter jets or fast, low-flying military and governmental helicopters) came from overhead.

At one point as we waited for transportation into ground zero, the wind shifted and a strong gust of the smoke plume came through 2 Lafayette Square. To say that we were caught off guard and shocked is an understatement; everyone, myself included, was wearing their mask around their neck. Far more than a plume of brown cigarette-styled smoke or even the nasty stench of an oil fire, this smoke was, in a word, noxious: my eyes welled up with tears and clamped shut as if accidentally poked, and some people visibly gagged. After that, even though the smoke thankfully didn't come through the volunteer area again, everyone kept their masks on.

After a few hours, the ex-military group, 100+ of us by my hasty count, got on the buses to go into devastated financial district - it was about 3:00. The leaders of our group, among whom were some police, etc., laid down some ground rules: if you can't take it, get back on the bus - it's not a test or competition; do not tell any survivors of the other bombings or casualty estimates; do not photograph the dead; etc. I was quite sure that at this point, 5 or 6 hours after the collapses, that tourniquets were a foregone conclusion, but hoping that at the very least we might find someone who'd been hiding under a vehicle or perhaps in a stairwell. With that we drove into the damaged area.

I've worked on Wall Street, a good portion of it in the financial district (for a period of time on Broad Street two blocks from the WTC) since 1996, and so I was almost paralyzed with shock at seeing the alien landscape. In fact, I'd come through the WTC on my way uptown in switching from the PATH train to the 1/9 Uptown subway at 7:00am that very morning. Now, the streets, sidewalks, vehicles - everything, in a word - were covered with pulverized concrete, ash, and papers. Excel spreadsheets, brokerage research reports, hand-scribbled Post-It notes, and most heartrending to me, the occasional photo of wives, husbands, or children that had been taped to someone's computer monitor or sat on their desk for weeks, months, maybe years. It was, and is even as I type this, emotionally devastating beyond description. The ash, dust, and concrete ranged from about 1 inch deep 4-5blocks away to what must have been over two feet deep in places, and odd bits of office furniture (wheels to rolling chairs, paper catches from printers, etc.) were scattered around the streets. Flattened vehicles, all four tires flat and with windows devoid of any glass whatsoever lined the streets. Large chunks of concrete, steel, and shards of glass were (perhaps still are, as I write this) also scattered throughout what I can only describe as now an entirely unfamiliar, unidentifiable landscape, as were other, unspeakably awful reminders of the collapse which I simply will not discuss. It was in two words, gruesome and mind-numbing, by far the worst thing I've ever seen in person or in photos, and hopefully the worst I will ever see.

We came to stop at the corner of Greenwich and Jay Street, where we were relegated to a courtyard and told to prepare both mentally and physically (hydrating and resting in the shade) as firefighters, cops, U.S. Marshals, the FBI, ATF, the National Guard, Marine Corps, etc., were feverishly preparing for renewed attempts to search the rubble for survivors, herding the occasional stunned or hiding straggler into the Red Cross area, and towing destroyed vehicles out of the area.

Just as we were starting the grisly task, at about 5:12pm, about two or three blocks away from us a loud crunch gave way as Seven World Trade Center (the building across the street from the towers) collapsed as a result of the heavy damage it had sustained earlier in the day. Because it - a stout, fortress-like building - fell sideways, several streets were blocked, huge clouds of dust kicked up and immediately engineers sought to re-open several routes to the WTC. Sent back to the courtyard, we waited for several hours until word was passed down that with the structural integrity of many other local buildings in question, and with the long night of opening blocked streets ahead, we'd be best off returning tomorrow. I tried to return the next morning, but was turned back by NY/NJ Port Authority police - they'd had thousands of more volunteers come during the night, more than they could use, and were turning folks back to instead give blood and keep the streets clear.

I personally know two people who worked in the WTC; one emailed me late Wednesday night to say that he was alright, and the other is, at last I heard, still missing. But I also saw total strangers selflessly loaning cell phones to one another to contact their families; some literally giving the shirts off of their backs to workers for bandages; and others of all ages, teenagers and the elderly, bringing personally-owned shovels, flashlights, canned food, and other items downtown for whoever might need them. Also deli owners opening up their bottled water inventories for pedestrians fleeing the city on foot, and so many blood donors that the wait to give was over 5 hours. Chalk a few up there for the brotherhood of mankind, the resilience of America, and reasons why I'm damned proud to be and American and, specifically, a New Yorker.

God bless America and freedom loving people everywhere.

Peter C. Earle
USMA '96