Never this much light in New York City

I talked to my friend on Monday, the day Wall Street resumed business after the attack on the Twin Towers. He’s a banker, and, perhaps out of obligation to his profession, he is not one who easily shows his emotions. He is not easily rattled. He’s usually the first with a slightly off-color joke or a flippant comment aimed at taking the edge off a situation. But on Monday, the tone in his voice was unmistakable. There was no joke, no dismissive intonation.

You see, we both knew there was no way to take the edge off of this situation. We’d both been there–Alex at 8:47 a.m. when the first airliner struck the World Trade Center, and me 36 hours later as the corpse of a New York City firefighter was pulled from the rubble. We’d both witnessed things that we knew would change us forever. We knew everything would be different now–not necessarily in any grand, sweeping way, but in a way that rose within us to somewhere just beneath the point of comprehension. It was something–wass something–that neither of us can wrap our minds around, neither of us can explain, neither of us can process. And so on Monday, on the telephone, we shared silence.

And then, finally–his voiced cracking–Alex said, “You know, there was never this much light on Wall Street before.”

“Never this much light on Wall Street before.” At first I didn’t understand what he meant, but then it hit me. Those two towers rearing up into the screaming blue had turned lower Manhattan’s canyons into even deeper and darker recesses. Now, with the towers gone, light spilled freely into the city streets like the rush of floodwater down a brittle, dry arroyo. As an English teacher and one who is prone to reading too much into everything, my metaphor meter went into overdrive. “Never this much light on Wall Street,” I repeated to myself. And the paradox was clear: Somehow amidst this incomprehensible tragedy, there was immeasurable brilliance, there was light.

And I thought back to how it was for me, stepping off a bus at Ground Zero. Ten o’clock at night. The devastation exposed in the clinical glare white of utility lights powered by the whir and chug of generators pulsing into the night air. It was a light that blinded, yet hid nothing. I thought back to that first ambulance ride I’d ever taken. The stitches were barely pulled snug on the EMT patch I wore on my sleeve. I remembered the advice my partner, a veteran paramedic, gave me, “Just make sure you focus; otherwise the scene will overwhelm you. Find something to do, focus on a task, don’t let the scene get into your head.”

Yet on Wednesday night at Ground Zero I stood there, completely overwhelmed, completely unfocused. The lights seemed to burn brighter, etching the horror deeper and deeper into my brain. My stomach hurt like I’d been kicked[~]a gut-clenching pain. And it wasn’t only the visuals, the things I saw. It was the smells and the sounds. The acrid air. The glass beneath my feet. Someone was talking. We were moving toward a makeshift field hospital. “No, there have been no survivors yet tonight,” somebody said. And then a passing firefighter grabbed my arm. “Hey, Doc,” he said. “Put that respirator on, will ya?”

I looked into his face, blackened and drained of life. I looked at his immense hand on my shoulder. The width of his shoulders was that of two men. “Thanks,” I said, pulling the mask in place. But he was already gone, and once again the scene crowded in on my senses. Off to my left a bucket brigade of volunteers was blazing a path through the immense pile of twisted debris, one brick at a time. To my right, a crane was working, carefully lifting a large piece of concrete into the back of a waiting truck. There were National Guardsmen in fatigues, somebody handing out bottled water.

While I was still taking it all in, a man in a white shirt and a red helmet collapsed to the ground near me. His friend knelt anxiously by his side. Suddenly the stethoscope around my neck reminded me of my purpose. It gave meaning to my being there. I’d come to help, and all at once there was something for me to do, somebody I could help, some way that I could make a difference. I fell into the routine of vitals and patient history, assessment and treatment. Mike had been working for 30 hours without sleep, his friend told me. He was dehydrated, exhausted and bleeding from a nasty cut on his leg. “Rebar,” his buddy explained. “It happened yesterday.” Mike’s heart was racing; his respirations came fast. His eyes were red and tearing. A deep cough echoed from his chest. He told me he’d lost his brother. I flagged down an ambulance for him, and he disappeared like a ghost into the night.

I walked around in a daze for a time after my interaction with Mike. I saw a firefighter in an orange body bag come from the wreckage. I saw an ambulance in the distance, its lights slashing into the night, and I walked toward it instinctually. It wasn’t until I was close enough to touch it that I realized it was covered in ash, all its windows blown out, surreally agape. I reached in and turned off the lights.

I made my way to the field hospital where a volunteer was having his eyes flushed, another man was connected to an IV, a search-and-rescue dog whimpered, his eyes burning from the gases, his nose choked with dust. An EMT bandaged a bleeding paw. I stood there for a time with the other EMS volunteers, arms folded, looking on, waiting for the victims of this tragedy to be found. Waiting for something to do. And finally I couldn’t take it anymore. The disorganization was immense, and no one noticed as I pushed my stethoscope into my pocket, exchanged my surgical gloves for work gloves, and joined the line of men on the bucket brigade stringing into the smoldering heap like an impossibly large worm snaking into the heart of a very great darkness.

The world closed in on the man in front of me and the man behind me. On the white plastic bucket coming down the line. On those things in my own field of vision. On those things I found. The heavier the buckets the better, I thought–less opportunity to think about anything besides the burn in your muscles and the pumping of your own heart. The first human remains I saw were nothing like a human at all. Perhaps a shattered piece of concrete or maybe a piece of ductwork or somebody’s handbag, but not a person. And then there were other pieces and we picked them up, each, one at a time, like we were cleaning up our room or tidying up the yard. Body parts went into green bags, full corpses into orange. There was a system, it was a job, and each of us did it as best we were able.

We kept our sights on that person we would rescue, the living human we would pull from the wreckage. But that never happened. There were no dramatic rescues. No spirits raised, no celebration of the resilience of life in the face of adversity. This was the worst of humanity, and as I rode out of that war zone on top of a fire engine at sunrise, I was disheartened, and I wondered why I had come at all.

But then at the Fourteenth street NYPD roadblock everything changed. The sun was up now, brilliant light spilling across the Hudson River. And there, at 7 a.m., were New Yorkers[~]everyday people, waving flags and cheering at every emergency vehicle that went by. A firefighter who sat beside me started to cry. And it was then that I realized that these times[~]these apparently catastrophic events, these tragedies[~]reveal not only the worst of humanity, but also its best. Those people on the streets of New York were as much the heroes as the emergency workers at Ground Zero. And, in a rush of emotion, I suddenly understood what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote, “I understand the large hearts of heroes.”

It was like Alex had said on the phone, except it occurred to me that it wasn’t just Wall Street. It occurred to me that there has never been this much light in New York City.

Ret Talbot is an emergency medical technician and the director of public relations at Oldfields School in Glencoe, Md.