LEARN It! Challenge 11 of 24
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Chapter 4: The Ground Zero Clinic

Once in New York, we set up camp. We took a school/administrative building and changed a portion of it into a dormitory and a field hospital screening clinic. This plan was reminiscent of a White Paper I had written, which recommended using schools in this way, in times of crisis.

            The facility was in a disaster mode. The NYPD headquarters had relocated there after the emergency command center in the World Trade Center was destroyed and the phone lines leading to the downtown headquarters were cut in the disaster.

            Every available officer was, in some way, fighting for the lives of the victims who might still be alive. For some, this meant literally searching for survivors; others secured a perimeter and guarded potential targets, like the city water supply and Grand Central Station. Detectives were assigned to the landfill, where they sifted through dust and debris for flight-data recorders, evidence, and human remains.

            The Police Academy building was filled with staff and volunteers who did not usually work there. Its gymnasium initially served as a triage and staging center after the buildings came down.

            On the first day, the gymnasium overflowed with people who spontaneously showed up, seeking care for eye injuries and irritations. Now, it was a dormitory and food center. The Red Cross offered blankets and food. All day and night, people came and went, trying to get a few hours of rest. I tried to sleep there the first night but found the constant interruptions intolerable. I eventually went up to the site of our clinic and slept on the floor.

            Throughout the building, every quiet spot was filled by an officer or volunteer, covered with a Red Cross blanket, trying to sleep. No one complained. They all asked if I was OK—if I needed a blanket, or if I wanted food. When morning came, clan and new underwear, socks, and toiletries were brought to us by volunteers. Notes and pictures of encouragement hung on the walls. I was tired, but these notes, and the strength of those around me, provided inspiration. I felt proud to be there, despite the fact that I had done very little, compared to the men and women who treated me as part of their team.

            I went to Ground Zero several times. I was in the command center and saw the mother and wife of an officer being shown pins on a map, indicating the place where the officer was last known to be. They were told that the search-and-rescue effort to find the officer had become a search-and-recovery mission, because all hope of survival had passed. I heard their cries and saw their tears.

            When I was in the Ground Zero morgue, I saw the procedure the workers followed when a body was found, or when a bucket with human remains arrived. I was there to observe the inadequate use of masks and of proper universal precautions against infection disease. I saw a firefighter’s body recovered and realized that the only way he could be identified was by the remnants of his uniform. I saw a collar bone and muscle on the body of a police officer, with a scorched portion of his bulletproof vest still attached. The body was logged in and placed on a stretcher in a tent, where a brief exam revealed the police clothing. The next stop was to a refrigerator trailer, and then off to the official morgue, where DNA analysis would determine his identity.

            As I faced the grim realities of mortality, I thought about my late father, and his stories from another war. When the battle was over, the decaying remains of the soldiers from both sides of the Battle of Iwo Jima were scattered along the beaches. He had been assigned to the detail of collecting bodies and moving them to mass graves. Beyond recognition, American and Japanese were buried together. The battles of my father’s generation lasted years and were scattered around the world, but in the end, they created an America that permitted me to live a life in freedom where I could pursue my dreams. My four daughters can aspire to any occupation they desire; they can vote and make choices that allow them to control their own lives. The horrors faced by the veterans of lengthy conflicts like the World Wars seemed overwhelming when I considered the destruction of the Twin Towers—which was, when viewed in this perspective, just one battlefield created from one attack.

            As I left the morgue, I came across an officer who was trying to attach a large American flag to a railing. He asked if I could help. I had just seen the family of a victim receive devastating news of their loved one’s loss and had assessed the risks of future potential victims who were breathing all kinds of toxins. I had just seen a portion of a body—once an officer—placed in a bag and put into a refrigerator. As I held the flag, while duct tap was used to attach it to the railing, I found myself with tears in my eyes, standing straight and tall. I was honored to be helping with that flag at that place at that time, and I experienced a sense of patriotism as I had never felt before. I was proud to be an American. Again, I thought about my father and his service as a veteran, and as a patriotic citizen, and I felt privileged to be his son.