Of Images and Hopes

Everyone who has been at Ground Zero, or “the pit” as workers call it, has an image they will not be able to get out of their minds for a long time.

Over-the-road truck driver Michael Frank of New York, who hasn’t seen this kind of carnage since he signed up for Vietnam at 17, describes his:

“I was just clearing some rubble away, and I looked down and saw two little girls hugging each other, and their flesh had melted together. I just start crying every time I think about it. I’ve cried so much about it I don’t have any tears left. I’ve got girls of my own.”

There are grief counselors on the spot near the pit, and they tell workers that as long as they’ve got their minds on their work, they may seem to cope well with what they see. But they warn that the images may come back to haunt them much later.

For Frank, who works at or near the pit day and night as a volunteer, the image does not go away. He sleeps on location, in one of the small tent cities set up for workers. Rather, he tries to sleep. “I spend a lot of time looking at the ceiling,” he says. “I can fall asleep no problem, but then you wake up in the middle of the night and you start thinking. Then you start thinking about all the other guys out here working, and I put my boots back on and go back to work.”

There is an ethical dilemma in the pit that Frank didn’t find in Vietnam: the temptation of money. Cash from exploded ATMs and restaurant safes lies scattered around, as well as jewelry. These have proven too much of a temptation for some people, Frank says. He, too, has looked down and seen piles of cash, but he has just kept walking. “I came in here with $25 in my pocket, and I still have $25 in my pocket,” he says.

Much of the looting presumably came in the first few days, when police were too preoccupied by search-and-rescue missions to pursue thieves. By the third day after the disaster, the National Guard had sealed off all of lower Manhattan as a crime scene, keeping potential looters and the curious at bay.

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Blood and heartbreak are not new to Frank. Part of what inspired him to volunteer for Vietnam was that his brother had gone, and never came home. “They sent back an empty casket,” he says. “They never did find his body.”

Now he has come again as a volunteer to try to save lives. Ten days into the disaster, he is one of the few to maintain hope of finding survivors.

“They have a mall under there, with restaurants and food and water,” he says eagerly. “There might be people alive in there for a long time.”

A New York cop standing behind him says somberly, “I hate to say it, man. There aren’t going to be any survivors in there. I wish you were right, but there’s no way.”

“Oh yes there are,” Frank says, looking in one direction while the cop looks in another, both shaking their heads.

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