Dispatches from Ground Zero

There are two stories to be told of last Tuesdays attack on the World Trade Center. Television anchors and news

There are two stories to be told of last Tuesdays attack on the World Trade Center. Television anchors and news cameras report the most familiar of them. The other is told by the relief workers and volunteers who have seen the wreckage firsthand. Last week, a number of Harvard students went to New York City to do just that.

Volunteers, however, have been turned away by the hundreds as New York has received overwhelming support. There were just too many people to run the effort efficiently. People were getting in each others way, says David N. Huyssen 02, who, like many other concerned citizens wanting to volunteer, was turned away from the rescue effort.

Graduate student Christopher K. Akana was one of the few who was able to volunteer. Immediately after the attack Tuesday morning, Akana contacted a New York City doctor he knew and the West 30th St. heliport at which he used to fly for the latest information on how he could help and where triage clinics were being set up. I know a lot of people that work in or around the World Trade Center. Going to help was my way of staying sane and not freaking out.

With years of medical experience under his belt and a good friend in the passenger seat of his car, Akana left Boston within a few hours and was assigned to a medical team by 8 p.m. Tuesday evening. Late into the evening, Akana and his team converted a Burger King into triage clinics along the perimeter of the wreckage, treating eye and skin burns and heat exhaustion. It was unbelievable how much smoke was in the air, and nearly 40 percent of the rescue personnel werent wearing gas masks. Some nights I must have washed out 200 to 300 sets of eyes, Akana says. No one wanted to stop working, so theyd work themselves to complete exhaustion.

At 1 a.m., Akana and his team headed straight into what Akana calls the pit at ground zero, a gigantic crater of mangled steel beams that looked like curly fries and pretzels. He was stationed in a very dangerous area near 1 Liberty Plaza, a building that was thought to be on the verge of collapsing. Officials would yell at everyone to evacuate, and there would be stampedes to get out. Ive never been so scared in my life, Akana says. In the back of my head, I knew I was probably in a really risky position. But you just dont think about it when youre there.

In the pit, Akana helped set up more triage clinics and worked on not only rescue workers but also corpses found in the rubble. His extensive medical training prepared him for the intense experience, but he was still somewhat traumatized by the horrifying and gruesome things he saw. I was in shock when I dug out a leg from the rubble, he recalls. For the remainder of his time in New York, Akana worked with dead bodies, attempting to retrieve bodies from the wreckage. We would try to get the majority of the body out, so if it was caught under something, Id sometimes have to cut legs away in order to get the rest of the body out.

Akana describes himself as one of the lucky ones, having been able to offer his services to the rescue effort. Others, like David Huyssen and Manhattan native Jordan R. Berkow 03, who went to New York with the anticipation of helping out, understand why volunteers are being turned away. There was just nothing I could do. If I could, Id go and lift rubble and pick up debris, but they just dont need anyone, says Berkow.

Benjamin D. Grizzle 03 was leading a group of about 20 students from Christian Impact and the Catholic Students Association to help with the volunteer effort last Sunday night. After hearing that volunteers were no longer needed, Grizzle decided it would be best to wait and go in one or two weeks when jobs and exhaustion force many volunteers to retire from the effort. I have spoken with the Red Cross and several pastors in New York. Theyre turning away volunteers, food, clothes, and blood donors at this point. One friend, a young guy with firefighting, paramedic, and rescue training from his time in the 82nd Airborne, cant find anything to do now, Grizzle says.

Having worked in the pit, Akana brings a different perspective to the volunteer situation in New York. Almost as upsetting as pulling bodies from the rubble was hearing reports of volunteers who looted triage sites, took equipment from trucks, and stole doctors and firemens uniforms to walk around the site. There was one guy who was actually rapelling off what was left of [the World Trade Center]. There I was, a beautiful sunset in the background, a leg sticking out of the rubble, and a lunatic 100 feet above me climbing like a monkey. It was totally crazy, Akana says. Its great that so many people want to volunteer, but if youre there to gawk and fool around, its totally inappropriate. I kept wanting to tell those people, How would you feel if hundreds of strangers treated your mangled body like a tourist attraction and walked through your ashes?

Still, Akana recommends that if people are willing to sacrifice three or four days, put their lives on the line, and commit themselves to a task that exposes them to an extraordinary amount of toxins and trauma, they should go for it. I think people underestimate how much theyre getting themselves into. I consider myself pretty tough and durable, having seen some of this stuff before, but it was still very hard to deal with.

After active volunteering, donating money, gas masks, bottled water, and batteries are the most concrete ways of helping out. Otherwise, efforts should focus on the issue at hand, supporting those who are dealing with the tragedy and discussing the United States response to the attack. In this intellectual environment, its really important that we discuss the issues. Were at a crossroads in the history of this country and in the meaning of war. Whats being contemplated is a war between cultures, not nations, a war against terrorists, not governments. Its a new kind of war, and we need to approach it with real patience and intelligence, Huyssen says.

Its not a short process of recovery. We especially need to continue sacrificing and reaching out to people in the long term and remember that we cant just return to life as normal, Grizzle says.

Perhaps most significantly, students can reevaluate their attitudes about last weeks tragedy. While the United States considers war and the media bombards people with images of destroyed buildings and grieving families, its important to minimize feelings of revenge and hostility. So many people want to hate Afghanistan and get revenge, but theres none of that in New York City, Berkow says. There were taped-down sheets of paper and crayons, and people had written things like We met hate with love. The whole city is so different; people are so polite, caring, and quiet. There is very little hatred. Everyones just so positive and hopeful.