“I don’t think that I’ll ever be ‘dulled’ when it comes to the vividness of what I’ve seen at ground zero, especially on that first day
If one could ever glimpse hell…..but also, community at it’s truest form….if one could ever glimpse heaven……”
I wrote those words on October 11, 2001, just after returning from the ceremony marking one month since the attack that changed our nation, and my life, forever. It was the last time I wrote anything new about it. Sure, I’d re-post the piece of poetry I scribbled in my journal after returning from my first shift at ground zero, but new information? Nope. That would mean that I needed to actually think about what happened, and I did NOT want to go there.
For 15 years, a small tote labeled 9/11 sat on the top shelf of my closet, no matter where I lived. In it, you’d find a pair of pants, once black, a uniform shirt, once white, now both an ashen, grey color; a dual filtered respirator, caked with dust, leather gloves with holes worn in the fingers, and an ID badge with a photo of a very, very young me on it.
To open the tote would be to release “the stench.”
Lower Manhattan had a particular smell about it in the days and weeks after the attacks. To this day, certain smells take me back to ground zero–burning toast, burnt popcorn…strange, how a smell can transport you to a different place and time. So I didn’t open it.
This past week, I took the first vacation I’ve had in 5 years.
Tracy was graduating, and she wanted me to come to her hooding ceremony, so I took the time off work and hopped a train to NYC.
The graduation wasn’t my only reason for visiting Manhattan.
It’s been 15 years, and it was time to face my ghosts…to go below 14th Street…to finally go back to the WTC site and look the fear that still plagued my dreams and sent my eyes skyward whenever I heard a plane fly too low right in the face.
It was time to go to the memorial.
The thought started off rather innocuously. I recently moved apartments, and came face to face with the tote of ash covered stuff again.
And I didn’t want it in my apartment any more.
It came open, and the smell hit my nose, and I just. Wanted. It. Gone.
But I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out….there were PEOPLE in that ash.
In a way, it was sacred.
But it couldn’t live in my house any more.
So I dashed off an email to the 9/11 registry staff, telling them what I had, that I needed to divest myself of it, and asking what I should do with it.
I was unprepared for what they wrote back.
“Dear Ms. Kapp,
Please accept our sincerest gratitude for your service at the World Trade Center Recovery Site. We would be happy to accept your donation of your service uniform and recovery gear into our archive here at the 9/11 Memorial. We have also received your piece of poetry, “Shredded Normals”, and would like to discuss obtaining permission to use it as part of our exhibit collection.”
So a few phone calls, and half a dozen emails later, it was decided. I’d donate my uniform and give permission for my writing to be used in their oral history exhibit.
Only catch –
I had to bring it to them. And show up at the memorial to record the poem.
But I don’t go south of 14th street…
One particularly kind lady on the phone said, “you know, really should visit the memorial and museum. It helps. I promise. You know that you’re on the registry….that means it’s always open to you. You never have to pay.”
I mulled it over in my head.
Maybe someday. But not this trip. I was here for Tracy. It was her time. No, no, not this time.
Until she phoned that night and told me that she had to be in a meeting for work all day Monday, and that I’d have to find something to do with myself in the city.
Okay, fine. I get it.
So I phoned her back. “Okay. I’ll come.”
And on Monday, May 2, at 1:30 PM, I did as she told me, walked right past the ticket and admission lines, straight up to the security guard at the door and said the four words that she told me.
“I’m on the registry.”
The guard’s eyes softened, he put his arm around my shoulder, asked the crowd to move aside, and ushered me through the door and directly to the registry window.
I gave the young man my ID, and his eyes momentarily widened, and then he spoke softly into a radio clipped to his shoulder.
A minute later, another security guard appeared at my side, with a key, a bottle of water, and a little pack of tissues.
“Ma’am, we have you on both registries….the survivors/relief worker registry….and the family registry.”
I just stared for a few minutes.
“but…..he just cut his foot on the pile and got staph…… He didn’t die right away…not because they fell on him….I…I didn’t think that……he….. counted……”
“Ma’am, here, he counts.”
And she escorted me to the family room – a small room looking out onto the memorial plaza, with with letters, photos, mementos covering the walls, several deep chairs and couches for curling up in, ….and a desk with paper and pens.
“Tell me about your dad. What was his name?”
And for the first time since he died, I came completely, helplessly, unglued.
I could not stop the tears, no matter how hard I tried.
So I stopped trying.
And I cried.
And cried some more – all the while, the wonderful security guard sat there next to me, a silent witness to what she’d seen time and again in that room with the black leather couches.
After a while, she said quietly, “I’m going to give you some time alone. You stay as long as you need to…”
I was alone.
I cried some more.
Wandered around the room.
Found myself at the desk.
And I did what comes so naturally to me
I started to write.
Dear poppy, [yeah, I’d taken to calling him poppy after high school…long story for a different day]
And I told him everything.
Everything I’ve wanted to tell him, wished I could say
Everything he’s missed
Everything I was too afraid to tell him when he was alive
I poured my heart out to him for a solid hour
And finally said goodbye.
Slowly, the tears faded, and I knew that I was ready.
Ready to leave the room.
Ready to face the museum.
Ready to move forward.
That room is a safe place, visited only by 9/11 family members, and not the general public. It’s a sacred space, a chapel of sorts.
I left my letter, an offering to my father, on the desk that had become an altar, wiped at my eyes with a tissue, took a deep breath, and exited the room.
It was time to take a journey back to the event that changed me forever.
(my two tickets into the WTC site, reflecting the registry information)
The museum is entirely underground, intentionally using some of the old WTC foundation as the walls, so visitors are literally surrounded by the history and enormity of the space and event.
To enter is to ride an escalator down to the ‘top’ level of the museum where the information desk and museum shop are located.
I stood, motionless, at the top of the escalator, trying to gather enough courage to drop down into the museum.
I felt the anxiety start to build.
The cold blood feeling in my chest.
The numbness in my hands.
The desire to turn and run was almost overwhelming.
But I didn’t.
I took a breath, and another,
And stepped onto the escalator.
It was eerily silent. There is no music playing. Nothing on the walls. Staff members speak in hushed whispers. Even the information kiosk is muted – a black stone, no color, no life.
Just a simple sign pointing people to the starting point of the museum journey.
It was time.
The journey through the museum is a downward spiral – literally and figuratively. Guests walk down a ramp, through the timeline of the day, hearing audio clips of news reports, survivors giving soundbites of where they were, sounds of the city in chaos.
As I rounded the corner, the fairly low-ceilinged passage opened up into a huge chamber, made up of the scarred walls of the old world trade center complex’s foundation.
And on the longest, most visible wall of all, was hung a massive art instillation —
(Art installation at the 9/11 memorial. Blue squares are individual watercolor paintings of people remembering what color the sky was on that bright blue September morning)
Beautiful blue squares of watercolored paper surrounded the short, profound words of Virgil –
“No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time”
Again, I wept.
For my father, yes, but also for the day.
It’s true – the sky was incredibly blue that morning.
It was a gorgeous day.
The first day of my final year in seminary.
There was so much promise in the blue sky that morning.
It was just a normal day…
I woke up late, rushed to prepare,
just another normal day.
A tear in my hose,
out of milk,
late for chapel.
Another normal day.
In an instant, though, the whole world changed.
And my normal day,
in my normal life,
in my normal world
ceased to exist.
I sat with those memories for a while, staring at those 6” squares, remembering
In some ways, the day is a blur in my memory – a whirlwind of events and activities.
watching a plane hit
the stronghold of our country engulfed in flames.
The antithisis of a normal day.
There wasn’t time to be scared for long. Not in The Salvation Army.
The call went up from the commanding officers –
Who among you has disaster relief training?
Someone – I can’t remember who – pushed me forward. “THIS IS BILL KAPP’S DAUGHTER! SHE’S BEEN DOING DISASTER SERVICE SINCE SHE WAS LITTLE! SHE CAN RUN A CANTEEN NO PROBLEM!”
And that was that. I was placed into the first group of rescue and relief workers sent to ground zero.
A quick trip back to the apartment the change into pants, and we were off – less than two hours after the first plane hit.
Called together once again,we were sent out to serve.
Clad in jeans, strong boots, and tell-tale Salvation Army shirts.
What was once a normal route was now a military zone
with armed guards waving us on and police saluting as the van crawled by.
Again, I wiped my face, and turned to the left, into the area of the museum with signs at the entrance stating that children under 10 should enter with caution, because of the content.
Unlike that Tuesday morning 15 years ago, I knew exactly what I was walking toward, and somehow, I still wasn’t prepared.
I rounded the corner, and my breath caught in my throat.
A crushed fire truck sat, roped off, in front of me, along with a huge, twisted piece of the cell phone antenna that was once on top of the towers.
All of a sudden, I was back at ground zero, standing, staring, at the utter destruction that laid before me.
Standing at ground zero,
at the burning pile of twisted metal
that once stood so majestically for all to see.
A fluttering piece of paper jolted me back to reality
drifting down from the sky,
a bit of burned newspaper
floated into my hands.
A weather report,
with the 11th date
‘it’s going to be a beautiful day’ it read.
And i thought, despite myself,
I slowly made my way through the exhibit, passing displays of twisted metal, broken glass, and cases of belongings recovered from the rubble.
Behind a wall, a video of those who, faced with the unspeakable choice of jump or burn, fell to their deaths, played in silent tribute to the end they faced as their world literally crumbled and burned around them.
Rounding another corner, I entered the portion of the exhibit dedicated to the rescue and relief workers…the people like me, who, when everyone else was running away, chose to face the horror and work in the war zone.
The Red Cross was featured, the search and rescue dogs, and, of course, The Salvation Army. As complicated as my thoughts are about them as a church, I felt a sense of pride as I looked at the pictures, the ID badges, the equipment donated by officers and volunteers.
And then I came face to face
There, in the display, was a snapshot of a very young, incredibly scared looking me – doing what I did at Ground Zero – running a mobile kitchen. I was serving two shell-shocked looking NYPD officers.
I literally couldn’t stand.
I was not prepared for that.
I sank to the floor, quietly sobbing yet again.
Another museum goer looked at me, crying on the floor, and looked at the picture I was sitting in front of.
Almost immediately, a museum staffer was there. I don’t know if the lady who realized it was me in the photo got her, or if she just saw someone sitting on the floor, but she came over, shooed people away from us, and sat down with me.
“That’s you in the photo?”
“You didn’t know it was here, did you?”
I shook my head.
“Do you want us to remove it from the exhibit? We can if you want. We can open the case and take it out right now if you don’t want it displayed.”
Again, I shook my head.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen the photo before. I had. It was published in the New York Post a few days after the attacks.
What I wasn’t prepared for was seeing it THERE.
I sat there for a long time, with the museum employee, as she asked what I did at the site, how long I was there after the attacks….how old I was.
I had just turned 21 three weeks prior to the 11th.
I was just an overgrown teenager from Ohio who was thrust into a nightmare I was unprepared to face.
We worked for hours,
offering a shoulder to cry on.
And then we began to head home,
dragging ourselves down the street
as people lined the highway
silently clapping in somber reverence as we walked past.
They hailed us as heroes…
Lord, i do not feel like a hero.
Just a dirty,
I told her about that first day – not having anything to cover our mouths or noses with. Using ripped tee shirts from blown out stores, doused in bottled water, as dust masks. Diving for cover when building 7 came down, and trying not to panic. Running every time the pile settled and the ground shook as if an earthquake had rattled the island.
Realizing that there were PEOPLE in the ash covering my body.
In the shower,
I tried to wash away the stench
wash away the ash
wash away the pain.
But as I stood there,
the emotion of the day overtook me,
and I sat sobbing on the floor of the shower
and I realized that my neatly packaged,
Just as I’d done multiple times that day, I cried until I could cry no more.
This time, the loss of my innocence.
“Have you heard of the survivor tree?”
I shook my head.
“When they were cleaning up, all the trees from the plaza were dead and burned up….except one. One scraggly little pear tree had a few green leaves clinging stubbornly to it’s scorched branches. They dug it up and sent it upstate where it was nurtured back to health. Now, it’s back in the plaza, and it’s big and beautiful, and alive. But it’s been changed. You can see exactly where the little guy was on 9/11. The scars are still there. But it didn’t kill it. Still, it grows and goes on. Like you. The attacks changed you, but you’re going on.”
The survivor tree.
And not just surviving, but thriving.
Just like I would.
Just like I AM.
I sat for a few more minutes, and then knew that I was ready to keep going. I thanked the museum worker, who smiled and said, “wait here” – and ran off.
I shrugged and waited.
A few minutes later, she returned, carrying a small green and white box.
I opened it, and smiled.
It was a beautiful, delicate tea mug with a simple, striking sketch of the tree on one side, with the words
“The Survivor Tree. Remembrance. Renewal. Hope.”
“Thank you,” I smiled.
She walked with me to the end of the corridor, with her arm around my shoulder.
I realized that we’d reached the end of the museum.
“You can only go up from here.”
She smiled again, and walked away.
It was true.
In front of me was the longest escalator I’d ever seen.
Like the day of September 11th itself, the 9/11 exhibit stopped at the deepest, darkest point.
But it didn’t end.
This time, I stood at the edge of the escalator and felt something different building within me.
I’d done it.
I’d faced the memory of the day that changed me – and found my green leaves among the scorched branches.
Clutching the survivor tree mug in it’s box, I stepped onto the escalator.
As we rose toward the surface, I began to notice a change in the environment.
Music started to play.
It was quiet at first…but as we rose, it began to build – hopeful swells carrying us up and up, closer and closer to the light of the surface.
I stepped off the escalator, blinking in the sunlight, walked outside, took a few steps, and came face to face with the survivor tree, in all it’s splendor.
Without thinking, I reached over the railing and caressed the scorched, gnarled bark, and then reached up and touched the newly green leaves.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001 changed me, for sure.
So did Monday, May 2, 2016.
and I would
take nothing for granted,
call nothing ‘normal’ again.