What we saw. What we did. How we felt. 


Lisa McSherry, 35
Owner, Lex's of Carytow

I went to New York on Sunday to do some buying for my store with Raul Cantu [owner of Nacho Mama's and Adonis]. Monday night, he and I went to the 107th floor of Tower 1, what they call the best bar on earth, and stayed there till they closed at 2. Then we went back to our hotel, the Millennium Hotel. We were like two blocks away.

Tuesday morning, Raul got up and he left the hotel at about 8:30. I stayed in the hotel because I was just going to wait for him and we were going to pack and go home. I got up to go to the bathroom.

When I was in the bathroom, I felt the whole hotel move and I was wondering what in the world that was. So I went to the window and it looked like a snowstorm. I thought it was some kind of celebration, and I looked at the World Trade Center.

I didn't know what to do. I just froze. I thought this was a nightmare and I called my husband and I told him that I thought it was a bomb. I looked at the TV and they interrupted the "Today" show and they said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought it was an accident, and I was afraid that the building was going to blow up, and we were like a stone's throw from it.

Just the first building had been hit. I was on the phone with my husband, and he was telling me to get out and the intercom said stay in the hotel, because there was so much debris and it was safer than the street.

So I was throwing things in my bag, because my fear at that point was that the building was going to blow up. I was just kind of running back and forth, looking out the window. It was so surreal and I didn't know what was happening. And people ... [sobs] ... I'm sorry. People were jumping out of the building, and I was still on the phone with my husband, and he was saying, "Get away from the window!" And I ran to the door and I was getting ready to leave and I looked out the window again and then I guess the second plane hit. All I saw were the flames.

I could see big pieces of metal as big as cars and they were heading toward my window. I grabbed my bag and I ran down 45 flights of steps. There were others but no one knew what was going on. We got to the bottom and the hotel at this point was evacuating people.

Still, five or six blocks away there was just chaos in the streets. I ran and I tried to use my cell phone, but I was shaking so badly that I couldn't even dial a number or remember a number. It was just sheer panic because you could hear these fighter jets overhead. People were yelling and screaming and just running everywhere because people thought we were being attacked. After running another 20 or 30 blocks, the people stopped because they didn't see anything and thought maybe those were our [fighter jets].

Of course everyone on the streets was trying to use their cell phones and it was total fear. Everybody was kind of talking as they were running into people and I heard that the Pentagon had been hit. Nobody wanted to be near the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center. There were lines 200 to 300 deep to a pay phone. I finally got a hold of my husband, who had gotten a hold of Raul.

Around 3 or 3:30 we finally got back together. At that point, our mission was to get out of New York and get back to our car. When we got on the road we just headed south. It was still just a sense of fear and I never felt safe. Finally when we hit Fredericksburg [we started to calm down]. From Fredericksburg to Richmond it was just eerie.

We got home about 1 or 2 in the morning. [Wednesday] night was the first night I slept at all. It's hard to stop crying. — Interviewed by Wayne Melton

Bill McCarthy, 52
Firefighter, city of Richmond

I was home in the garage refinishing some antiques, and my wife called me and said, "Are you watching the news?" I said no, and she said, "Go in and watch it." I went in and I watched it for about five minutes. Then I went back out into the garage. I saw what was going on, but if I can't do anything I was reluctant to watch it. You start thinking, What would I do? How do you motivate yourself to go the extra mile? How far are you willing to go? You have to examine yourself.

I've been a firefighter for 25 years. I was a medic, a Vietnam veteran. I've lived in Richmond all my life. I do have ties to New York City. My father's people all came from the city. We still have some family up there. Really, I hadn't thought about it until now, the possibility of any of my family being involved.

What has weighed on my mind more than anything else is the firefighters. Given the nature of firefighting, I haven't thought about the loss of life as much as the tactical problems of how to get these people out. There's a sense of fatality about the whole thing, that as hard as everybody tries, the chances of anybody living through it are virtually nil. It's not a rescue, it's a body recovery. But you still have to hit it real hard.

I saw a firefighter this morning. He's talking about the firefighters getting a list of people to volunteer and go up there. The people I know would gladly pay their own way to go up there and work for free, because firefighters throughout the world have a brotherhood. Any group of people that will day-to-day risk their life and possibly die to save people they've never met — there has to be a special place for them. I'm trained in search-and-rescue. I'd be happy to go up there.

But somebody's got to stay here; not everybody can go. Richmond's got a very, very busy fire department. The station I work at, that's my home. My heart is with those people up there. I know what it's like. I've dug through houses here where we've thought we lost whole companies because a house collapsed.

I've heard figures of upwards of 300, and you can't differentiate between the police and the fire departments. It's going to be a hell of a funeral, because when they have one firefighter killed, people come from all over the country. Firemen will come from all over the country, all over the world. What can you do to recognize the loss of 300 lives? There isn't anything worthy. Your heart can't take but so much.

I don't think you can rebuild that place. It's going to have to be turned into a monument. This is incomprehensible — 110 stories. You can't digest it. The firemen, the policemen, went in there knowing they were putting their life in danger. I wouldn't take away from the tragedy of the many people working there, but just because of my job my thoughts are more with the firemen.

It's not another day at the office because it's so extraordinary, but you have to shift into another gear. You can't fall apart. You have to work. It has to go beyond duty. It's a trust. It's a vocation. There isn't enough money to pay someone to risk their life daily. You have to get it from within. — Interviewed by Dan Wagener

Elizabeth Walls, 88
Retired, Army nurse in World War II

Well, I went to borrow something from my neighbor, and was surprised. She said, "Have you been looking at the television? Look, look!" She had it on. I have a vision problem, and I've looked at my television in the last couple days more than I have six months before. I have to listen to the radio. But I sat down glued with her for a while to the television, and then I came on back up and started looking and going from [channels] 8, 9, 10, 12, switching from one to the other to see what was going on. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing.

And my thoughts went back, of course, to Pearl Harbor days. I was a nurse, a public-health nurse at that time. And all I could hear from my friends were, "They need nurses. Are you going? What are you going to do?" And finally I did go into the Army, and I ended up in Patton's Third Army in an upfront hospital. And I saw a lot of disaster and what war can do.

First of all, I landed on Utah Beach [in Normandy] in a B-17. Our equipment had not come and so they divided us up and sent us for a few days to the First Army Hospital. And I remember passing St. Marie-Eglise — that was the first city in France that was liberated. Now, that place was just all blown to pieces. Some of the buildings were on their sides, with the roofs and everything caved in, the leaves on the trees were all gone. … It was terrible.

So I've seen, in my time, a lot of destruction. And seen battle casualties, or our boys, as we say, as well as some of the German soldiers. My thoughts keep going back to what I saw in World War II. And my thoughts are not very pleasant, you can guess.

But to think of something like this happening, right here. I thought, Gee whiz, I've been to New York. I haven't been in the buildings, but I have seen them, and I've had two or three trips up to the Pentagon. … And I thought: Before, I started thinking about going into the Army. But now, of course, that has long gone, thoughts of that.

But I'm thinking I have two great nephews. One is 20, one is 23; one just finished the University of Virginia, and the other one is up there now. And I just hate to think about them having to give up their young life to maybe get called in. I just wondered if it's going to come to — they talk about, this is war that we are in — will they actually start the draft again? Will they start calling them? And I think of my own immediate family, and what's going to happen to them.

I just stay glued now to the radio or the television all the time. I just can't believe hardly what I'm hearing. But I know it's all true. I think it's one of the worst things that could have happened here. Like if it was Pearl Harbor, that was a military base. But here. To destroy New York City, as they did, was terrible, but I think I feel worse about the Pentagon. And all the people on those planes. To think of those pilots, the ones who took over — they had no mercy at all.

Interviewed by Jason Roop

Anna Wilson, 10
Fifth grader at J.B. Fisher Elementary School

I heard on the radio while it was happening, when the two planes crashed into the two towers. I was late going into school, so that's when I heard it. I didn't know what was happening at first. My mom was just sitting there saying, "Oh my God, oh my God." I said, "What? What?" and she said, "Hold on a second." I was the first one to really hear about it.

Then on the morning announcements they put part of it on — they were just talking about how it got hit. Then as the day went on, more things got hit and started exploding and stuff. I just thought it was scary and like, what was going to be hit next?

My friend — her grandfather works in one of the two towers. And my other friend's aunt worked in there, and my friend's friend's brother worked in there. So lots of people who were friends of friends had been working in the building. I don't know if it was at that time, because that was pretty early. And the second building evacuated before it got hit mostly. They wouldn't let the people in to search for them, 'cause the building was real delicate and it might have fallen down on top of them.

I just sort of stayed up late [Tuesday] night and I couldn't get to bed because I was thinking about all the stuff that has happened and I was thinking about if anything else is going to happen. I was just thinking about the people and saying prayers for them. Stuff like that.

Interviewed by Holly Timberline

Zulfi Khan, 44
Member, Board of Trustees

World Affairs Council of Greater Richmond

We were running late; my wife wanted to go to work. I turned the TV on, and they were showing the first tower. I thought it was just some crazy person who didn't know how to fly. I went into another room to get the key, and my wife said there was another one. We didn't see the plane. We left and we heard the news on the radio and they said it was deliberate. Somewhere along the way I heard there were a couple of planes that were unaccounted for. That confirmed that something was seriously wrong. The saddest moment was when the building collapsed.

Actually, this is the saddest thing collectively that people can come across. People die, individual families get affected, but this is hurtful; it makes you angry and emotional, and it is something that has been considered a crime for a long, long time. Especially when it's done at this level, especially when it touches the American people, in a country where a lot of people like me have come to live. There is a reason this is a peaceful country, and a country of reasoning which accommodates so many things.

It makes you angry that the people who probably have done it associate themselves with the religion we believe in, which is Islam. Islam is a religion of peace; it condemns strongly hurting someone or killing someone. That makes a person like me who is a Muslim very, very upset that somebody dare associate themselves with Islam and do an act like this. In my dictionary, these people are not even part of being Muslim. I feel ashamed they even associate themselves or use the name of our religion.

In the history, the religion has been used for different purposes. And that is very upsetting. It makes you very, very angry to see something like this. I hope it affects all of us in a way that we understand it once and for all. And I have full confidence in President Bush's judgment and the government's reaction to it, that this time we go all the way to eliminate these type of people who use these means to gain power and strength.

I am sure that the people of the United States will be behind this because of this hurt and sadness that we have seen. We might have to sacrifice a few of our liberties in the short term to eliminate this, but in the long term it might be worth it. That is my feeling.

Some people have already reacted in a negative way toward different ethnic groups, and that's very unfortunate. That should not be the case at all. Some people who do not have much exposure to the religion of Islam might think differently, but the people who have any association or link know how we feel about this, and how strict this religion is regarding violence or even disturbing the peace. This religion is very clear about not damaging somebody's property or someone's life. You are answerable to the God you believe in.

Interviewed by Dan Wagener

Retired Col. Persse K. Deverell III, 59
Commandant JROTC program, Benedictine High School

I was like everybody else. I was incredulous. The closest thing that came to my mind was the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in the '80s. They killed about 275 Marines.

We kept the students well apprised. Of course they were in awe. I told them: "Boys, you all need to pay attention here. Because what you're looking at on TV right now is something of such horrific magnitude it's beyond all comprehension. Secondarily, you are looking at history, right now. You're visualizing history. Fifty years from now this is something you'll see in history books."

Throughout the day and since then, I haven't sensed any fear. I think you need to be careful about that because of our student body. I mean, you're dealing with teen-age boys who routinely think they can walk on water and dodge bullets. They don't show fear very much. But they were clearly awestruck.

They went off on different tangents about how this could happen. That was their first reaction. They went from that to the macho, "We're going to kick butt on this one. We're going to get who's responsible for this."

They don't have the reference points that I've got — fighting wars where you know who you're fighting. These kids have not been alive when this country's been at war. Desert Storm, sure, but that wasn't really a war. They don't have any reference points of knowing what a difference it is between what happened this Tuesday and what this country's been engaged in when it comes to war.

Some of the boys said, "We're going to go to war." And I told them, "No, I don't think so." But I'm quick to say this is my personal opinion.

Of course, they want to know, "What would you do, Colonel?"

I say, "If I were running the show, I would be in favor of surgical strikes." You go in to a target and you take the target out — one way or the other. I tell the boys that we don't want to risk falling into a trap. "Let's say we have the power to take Afghanistan off the map," I tell them. "Is that any different from what those aircraft did to all those innocent people in the towers?"

It was either one of my freshmen or sophomores, he said to me: "You know, Colonel, I've never seen anything like this in my life." I'm talking to a 13-year-old kid here. And I responded very quickly, "I'm almost 60 years old and I've never seen anything like this in my life."

The collateral damage and loss of human life is the horrendous part of all of it. But the thing that staggered me in terms of magnitude, the thing that keeps sticking in my mind, is they actually suspended all of the air traffic over this entire country. I simply can't fathom that. That's never been done in aviation history, even during World War II. The skies over this huge country have been clear. I can't come to grips with that.

Interviewed by Brandon Walters

Henrico County high school teacher
(Anonymity requested)

Most of them didn't know what was going on and I tried to inform them. I wanted them to write a page about what had happened — that was their journal topic. They got upset with me because they didn't want to write. Some of them said, "This has nothing to do with me." One girl said, "Those people don't matter to me, those people are dead. What do they have to do with me?" I got really mad. I threw one of them out. It's just amazing to me how disrespectful kids are.

I tried to tell them, "This has everything to do with you. Your whole lives will change from here on out. America will never be the same."

The students I have act out a lot. You're trying to talk to them and they're like, "Whatever." It was just overwhelming for me, the whole day. I came home, I was just drained.

Another teacher I know said one of her students was like, "Cool, we're going to war. I get to kill people." Another friend had a student who thought it was cool that the buildings were blown up. I tried to tell them this is not something people are going to forget about in two or three days. This is something that will affect us for the rest of their lives. Rescuers will end up not being able to live with themselves because they'll think about all the people they couldn't save.

When I had my emotional breakdown and started crying on them, they got really quiet and didn't act out after that. I think maybe they realized then how serious the issue was.

I just hope that parents will talk about these issues with their children. I think a lot of people are worried and are afraid to talk about it to their kids. But I wish they would. Kids need to know war is not fun. People dying, thousands of people dying. It's not funny. Parents should educate their children. I know it's our job as teachers too, but we can only do so much. You wonder where they get this kind of attitude about things. — Interviewed by Holly Timberline

Jamie Hickman, 17
Senior, Benedictine High School

At first we thought it was a joke. We turned on the news and found out what had happened. We were all in shock. You see it on TV but it still doesn't seem real. I was in [Mr. Jarrett's] history class watching the news. We were all worried first of all because we knew the planes came out of Boston, and Mr. Jarrett's daughter lives in Boston. She goes to Harvard. They also have family in Manhattan. It had a major impact on everybody.

Americans think they're safe; nothing ever happens here. So everybody was wondering: Who could have done this? Why? We all had our ideas, you know, most people thought it could be bin Laden. Still, why would he want to do this to innocent people? Terrorism, of course, deals with affecting people instead of just the government.

In second period, the assistant headmaster got on [the PA] and we all stood for a moment of silence and said a prayer. We started off with a pretty good message: It was a terrible act but we have to deal with it and move on. We raise the flag every morning at formation and we lower it at the end of the day. We lowered it to half-staff, said a prayer and then raised it up and lowered it again.

That whole day I was watching the TV. There were only a couple of classes that didn't deal with the news. When I got home that was the first thing I went to — I wanted to find out how many survivors, how many deaths. What was the president going to say? My parents and I watch the news a lot, and if something comes up we can talk about it. I was aware of a lot of what was going on. It still took a while for it to sink in that it was real.

I want a career in the military. I've been thinking about that a lot. What is the new warfare going to be like? Will it be hand-to-hand or just technological ideas? So I've been thinking about what could face me in the next 10 years, for one thing, and also the idea that people out there hate us. They don't just hate President Bush or democracy, but just the idea that Americans think they're better than other people. It's been a humbling experience.

It's strange because it seems like this happened five seconds ago. Then again, it also seems like we're way beyond it. As Americans I'm sure that we're strong. I went to [cross-country] practice on Tuesday and I just tried to focus on that. We weren't trying to dwell on the people who were dying. It's important to show that, yes, it impacted our lives, but it's not going to stop everything. They can go after any American, and I think everyone has realized that.

While it's been a couple days and nothing else has happened so far, the idea that they control Americans right now is kind of in some people's heads. But everybody as a senior is looking forward to moving away and starting a new life. I just don't know that they're worried about what's going to happen later on. — Interviewed by Brandon Walters

Rosa Butler, 52
Computer specialist, the Pentagon Commuter from Richmond

I've been at the Pentagon 20 years. It was a typical morning. I get to work at 6:30, start my computer and start my work.

Around 9 o'clock I was talking to my co-worker, Marcie, when our colonel came by and said he needed to sign some papers. We left our area to help him. Then he told us that the World Trade Center had been bombed. We finished with him and went to watch the TV. There were TVs everywhere. Then the second plane came. All of us were asking, "Do you think they're going to hit this building?" Hopefully not, we thought, because it wouldn't have much of an impact. Marcie and I went back to our desks.

My back was to the outer perimeter. We work in D quarter and E quarter is the outer perimeter. All of a sudden, boom! It was this quick. [Flashes light switch off] And everything was black. There was a gust of wind. You could feel things falling around. It was like this light rain with bits of the ceiling in it.

The ceiling was falling fast. Marcie's hair got singed and she lost her shoe. We grabbed each other's hands, 'cause that's what we'd been told to do — grab the person closest to you. I said, "Let's get out of here." And then I said, "Lord, help us out. Lead us, lead us, lead us."

We were blessed because the walls were still there. So we walked around the walls but when we walked into the main hall the firewall had locked us in. People directed us to the other part of the room. By the time we got to the fifth quarter it was like nothing had happened. Marcie kept saying: "Rose, I saw light. I saw sky. I saw fire." But my back was to it and I'm thankful because what she saw was outside.

It ripped through the E quarter and D quarter and maybe a little bit of C. By the time we got to the A quarter people were being told to leave, leave, evacuate!

A lot of people didn't know a plane had hit. They just heard something. They didn't feel the impact we felt; otherwise it would have been pandemonium. We were just walking like in a regular fire drill. There was no panic. We got out of the building and walked to the north parking. Then somebody said, "Second plane!"

Oh no! We didn't know if it was a diverter plane or foe. So some of us started to take off running through Lyndon Baines Johnson Park, across the bridge to one of the highways. A man going to work picked us up. He took us to Alexandria, dropped us off, and we tried to make phone calls. The circuits were jammed.

There was this nice lady named Janet. She picked us up and took us to a priest's house. He tried to take us to the police station but we couldn't get there because it was blocked off. We went to the bus station; the bus station was closed. What were we going to do? Janet picked the phone up and did all the work Marcie and I should have done but couldn't do. She called around to see what time any mode of transportation was going south. She ended up taking Marcie, and I went with these other people at the Springfield station. There were a lot of us. Everything was very coordinated considering this was a terrorist act. The buses were there. We got on the bus and it stopped at regular stops: Leesburg, Quantico, Fredericksburg. After Fredericksburg. we thought a train could take us, but there were no trains.

Fortunately one of the guys in the van pool that I ride with was there. I was thankful to see him and he was just as thankful to see me. He knew that I worked in the new wedge [of the Pentagon] that had been attacked. He said, "Rose, are you OK?"

And I said, "Yes."

He said, "Well how are you going to get home?"

All I had was what was on me. He said he had everything. He had rented a car and would take me home. There were six of us, strangers mostly. We got in the car and came home.

I kept thinking how different people gave us different things to get us on our way. The priest prayed and gave us hope. Some people gave us money. One of Marcie's shoes fell off and a lady had a size 8 to give her.

We were very blessed. When I got home I gave my husband a hug. I am here, I thought, don't ever leave home angry. You may not get back.

Finally I looked at news. That's when I realized our building, our section, had come down. How did I get out? You tell yourself, God can do anything: God cannot fail. But it hurts when you see this reality. We had casualties within my immediate office. The people I reach out and touch every day.

Interviewed by Brandon Walters

Gary S. Creditor, 52
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth-El

I found out about it totally by accident. We had a dead battery in one of our vehicles and the AAA came to jump-start the car at about 9 … and the man said, "Did you hear what happened? A plane hit the World Trade Center."

I've been in the World Trade Center many times. I'm a New Yorker by birth, and I've had pulpits in New York. We would bring youth groups to the World Trade Center because it has a great vista — had a great vista, it's still hard to say that — to the whole bay, a phenomenal area, across to Jersey, out to New York Bay. We would bring my family. The governor of New York used to have offices there. I was president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis … and we would go up to his offices in the World Trade Center. There is wonderful shopping on the main level. There was. So this was not an address to me. This was a place that I personally knew.

The first thing I said, you know, I didn't think terrorism. Because there are these landing strips along the river for helicopters and small planes that have pontoons on them. I thought some craziness happened. Somebody missed the landing there. I couldn't imagine. We came right inside and I turned it on and horror. Disbelief. And then watching the tapes of the second plane hit the building, then the horror of the reality was daunting. Mute. You want to cry and you want to shout, and you want to — like watching a TV movie — stop it. Stop it there. Everybody, I think, is traumatized into deep numbness.

My aunt lives in the city. My son and his wife live in the city. My daughter lives in the city. All three of them are students. They had no reason to be near any of this, but you never know, for some fluky thing. My father-in-law from Queens called me: Did I know what was happening? And so I knew he was safe, and my brother-in-law was safe. My mother lives in Jersey, she sometimes comes into New York. I finally was able to reach her.

Our middle daughter, who is 22, she's a student at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. We knew that she was wanting to offer her help. She does EMT in New York. My daughter's instinctive reactions to these matters, and knowing she's very trained and very credentialed to work high levels of EMT service, I thought that she would have jumped on the first available vehicle to get down there. But you really can't work that way; you have to go with your unit. So I was, at one point, allayed with the knowledge that she really had to go with her unit. And on the other hand, I was fearful that somehow … So until we heard her voice, our personal fears embedded with the fears for all.

We have a daily evening service at a quarter to six, Monday through Thursday, and I added appropriate readings to that service. In that service, people who are mourners for their personal losses say a prayer. … I thought saying the mourner's prayer by all was most appropriate. Between that and the readings that I inserted into the service, I think that we found a sense of — it's not comfort or consolation, it's just something to hold onto when you're hurt.

Interviewed by Jason Roop

Kasey Herrera, 29
Software technician/client-support specialist

For my job I travel to three, maybe four cities a week. I never have a problem at airports, which kind of scares me. The most they do is ask, "Are these tools in your cases?" I offer to show them what's inside and tell them it's just the equipment I carry. It's kind of ironic because these little dials that I carry around look like detonators.

I've been looking through my postcards. I get them from the airports — Boston, Philadelphia, D.C., New York. I wanted to see if I had one with the World Trade Center on it. [pauses] And I do. That skyline is going to be so different.

I woke up [Tuesday] with the intention to go to D.C. I was supposed to go to New York but that trip got canceled. So I decided to see a potential client in D.C. I was getting prepared and I told my roommate, "I just don't feel like going to D.C. today."

I turned on the TV and saw Katie Couric, and she was happy — happy like she always is. Then I went into the kitchen to make coffee. I came back into the living room and I saw that the World Trade Center was on fire. I turned the volume up and thought, This can't be real. And as I'm watching it and it's continuing, I realize it is real, and, Oh my God! It's on fire!

I couldn't believe it. Never did I think the whole building was going to go down. Never did I think a second plane was going to come along. I saw that and my heart sank. When I saw the second tower fall, I lost it.

I had just gotten a call from my father who was very concerned because I'm always flying. He's in New Mexico. He called and right away I started bawling. He said, "Are you OK?" And I said, "Yeah, I'm home." But my emotions were shot. I could have easily been on one of those planes, so easily. Then, in a panic, I realized all my friends and all my clients who work down there on that street. I lost it throughout the day. And I'm not the type of person who's real sensitive like that.

I could not control my emotions. It was a string of emotions: disbelief, panic, terror, and then later in the day, it was anger. Complete and utter anger that anybody would do such evil.

But we live in America and we are spoiled. We think, nothing can happen to us. It can happen over there but it doesn't happen here.

I had friends calling from all over the country. I'm still getting calls today because they couldn't get through. My brother lives in Michigan. He was terrified because he couldn't get through and he knows my flights and where I go. I kept hitting redial to try to leave him a message.

My heart sank again when the company's travel agent e-mailed to say that none of her clients were on Flight 11, but that she would be sending out lists of names for the other flights. I haven't seen that list yet. I hope to God that no one I know was on those flights.

I'm supposed to fly to New York next week. I have a job coming up. But today, I don't want to call people and talk about work. If I do call them, if I do get through, all I want to know is if they're OK. — Interviewed by Brandon Walters

Steve Pak, 20
Emergency medical technician, VCU student

I'm originally from Northern Virginia, and I just decided to head up to D.C. I drove up and found out that the station I used to run with, they weren't at the Pentagon. And in D.C. there were more than enough people there, so I would be more in the way than useful.

So I headed up to New York, listening to the radio the whole time. I just flew. I told myself I should stay just slightly ahead of the speed limit, but by the time I got to Delaware I was just flying. There were hardly any cars on the road. It was the most empty I had seen the turnpike, because by then they had closed most of the exits to the city.

I ended up at a local high school in New Jersey where they had set up a local shelter for about 120 people, all adults. These were mostly people who worked in Manhattan and just were caught out so they couldn't get back home. A lot of frightened people. No injuries, though.

That night I walked across the Palisades Parkway. It was like a three-block walk to the parkway. There's an overlook there, and all along the West Side Highway there were just lights of emergency-response vehicles and DOT, just lining the highway. You could see ground zero. It was out of, I guess, a movie. I don't know what else to say about it. I've never seen anything like that.

Where the towers were was lit up by floodlights. And there was just this immense amount of smoke, just billowing from the area. It was so big it almost looked like clouds had come down and just rested over the area. It was big enough that the smoke, though you knew it was moving, didn't look like it was. It just looked static. It was that big. Along the shore, helicopters, airplanes were moving around. Boats in the harbor.

I headed on into the city. I don't remember what time it was — I guess 4 or 5 in the morning. I went over the George Washington Bridge. They had obviously barricaded every possible checkpoint. I was in my personal vehicle, and the New York cops [chuckles], they're just amazing. I pulled up, and — excuse my profanity — and this one cop was like, "What the f—? Don't you understand? Get the f— out of here!" I pulled out my certification, and he was like, "Oh! Get the f— in there!" And he moved the barricades.

I went down the West Side highway. It was just odd: Everyone you saw was EMS or police or firefighters. It was a heartwarming feeling, just knowing that all these people had come out. But in the air there was this thick tension. Because everyone was waiting for the activity, but they had to wait until the end of the night for it to be like safe.

I ended up staging. That means being close enough to the area where you can jump in there when it's safe, but not close enough where you're in harm's way. It's waiting, basically, but keeping up with the situation so you're ready to help.

[Wednesday] morning I went in there. I got some gear and some O-2. I worked to clear out the rubble of the South Tower. By that point, there were dogs and people with big infrared lights. They had brought in the cranes and the bulldozers and the acetylene torches. I was working for about an hour.

One of the saddest things I couldn't deal with was seeing the families walking around with pictures in their hands, asking if I had seen their husband, if I had seen their daughters. And I had nothing I could say to them.

To tell the truth, I kind of regret going. I mean, I'm glad I helped out, what little I could do. But I don't know if I'm strong enough to handle all that pain and all that sadness. It's going to take me a long while to work out what's happening.

There was just sadness. There was no anger — this event is too confusing. I don't know what to be angry about. There's just sadness. That's the only word I have. The other words don't even fit. — Interviewed by Greg Weatherford


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