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FORT KENT, Maine — There’s an inches-thick file folder on the corner of my bureau that had been there undisturbed for close to 10 years before I flipped it open this past week.
Ten years ago I was a disaster assistance employee with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and when the scope of the Sept. 11 attacks became clear, FEMA was placed in charge of coordinating all rescue and recovery efforts. It was all hands on deck.
That file folder contains all of the documentation, photos and ephemeral memories from my three weeks in and around ground zero after Sept. 11.
I remember getting the call to respond late in the day on the 11th after putting in hours covering several regional angles of the story for this paper.
To be honest, I was pretty hesitant about taking on the temporary job in the media relation’s cadre at the largest disaster response in the agency’s history. But my father, living out in Oregon at the time, really struck a chord when he said to me, “Julie, the entire country wants to be there to help, you actually can.”
Working with scores of other disaster assistance employees over the next three weeks I had a chance to see some of the best and some of the worst that a disaster of that magnitude brings out in people.
I have to say, it was mostly the best.
Sure, there were the recovery workers who it seemed just about every day wandered in to show off what new piece of free gear or clothing they had snagged from the general supply area.
There was the state official who sent me on a wild goose chase around the city to every television station to track down the reporter who had interviewed him earlier so that I could return with a copy of that tape. When all I came back with was the message that his portion of the interview had ended up on the cutting-room floor, this same official yelled at and blamed me.
At any other time, his petulant temper tantrum would have been only annoying. But delivered as it was just blocks from the world’s largest crime scene, it was wildly inappropriate and small-minded.
Perhaps I should have turned his attention to the building next to ours where every day hundreds of relatives and loved ones of those missing from the World Trade Center gathered for any scrap of information available.
My daily walk from the hotel to the operations center took me right past this victims assistance center, and if hope had a home in New York during that time, this was the place. Countless posters and fliers with photos of the lost were affixed to giant bulletin boards, stapled to light poles or simply held by those searching, praying for a miracle.
Their message was always the same. They contained a name, a photo and a brief plea along the lines of, “Last seen on the 82nd floor stairwell of the South Tower.”
After a week or so when the operations down at ground zero had quietly moved from rescue to recovery, we’d see these same relatives and loved ones outside the center, but instead of the posters they were carrying toothbrushes, hairbrushes or anything with DNA for use in body identification.
I remember stopping to talk to a woman with a therapy dog. A small child was sitting down next to it, having the kind of conversation with the dog only the two of them could understand. Her mother was inside registering items in the hopes the remains of her missing husband could be identified.
The woman with the dog, it turns out, was an OB-GYN and — like so many of the city’s doctors — had responded first by volunteering at the nearest hospital emergency room. With so few living pulled from the debris, she went home and got her therapy dog to provide the type of emotional healing animals do so well.
As for her thriving Manhattan medical practice?
“I have a lot of new widows as patients now,” I remember her telling me.
Some amazing acts of kindness and heroism arose out of the ashes that day. Many I learned of like the rest of the country, by televised reports.
There is the famous account of a blind worker on one of the upper floors who, in all the confusion, unleashed his beloved guide dog so it would have a chance to escape the approaching flames. The man sat at his desk as chaos raged around him for several minutes and then felt a familiar, warm, wet pressure on his hand.
That dog had come back and, eventually, the two made it out of the tower and to safety.
Then there was the “squeegee man” — a maintenance worker who was trapped in an elevator with several banking and investment executives.
He used his squeegee first to pry open the elevator doors and then to dig through the mortar of the wall beyond and into a restroom on the other side. All of them got out of the building safely.
Down at ground zero I met a very nice member of the NYPD K-9 unit. While many of the other search and rescue dogs were showing signs of actual depression at this point, having been trained to locate living victims, this dog was cheerful.
Smitty was a gorgeous German shepherd trained as a cadaver dog. Tragically, Smitty and his handler were having great success with their given task of body recovery.
I remember the people of New York pulling together to help; cabdrivers refusing to take my money; police officers making sure I made it safely back to my hotel at night.
I remember when planes began flying again how people started and tensed when low-flying aircraft approached the city along designated flight paths.
I remember going out to the ironically named Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island where the debris from the towers was being taken.
There we saw emergency vehicles that had been crushed when the towers came down. Though they were stacked five high, the entire pile was no taller than my two-story house.
We saw debris that bore no resemblance to anything you might suspect came from a massive office building.
We saw scores of workers in coveralls raking through every single bit of that debris looking for pieces of evidence and personal items that perhaps could provide closure for the living.
We saw a world that had changed forever as military helicopters buzzed overhead and armed gunboats cruised the Hudson River.
All these memories and more flew out of that file folder, the one I had put aside for so many years.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.