My firefighter fiancé dug people’s remains out the rubble after 9/11. His experience destroyed us

Today, despite all that happened, I choose to remember the incredible random acts of kindness from complete strangers during that time

Dawn J Post
New York
Friday 10 September 2021 17:21
<p>An unidentified firefighter walks away from the rubble on 9/11 </p>

An unidentified firefighter walks away from the rubble on 9/11

I met Mark* in the town we’d both grown up in during Thanksgiving in 2000. At the time, I’d just graduated from law school and my only goal was to become an attorney for children. “For once, follow your heart and not your mind,” my father said when I told him about my new love interest. “Do something for yourself. Don’t think about it — just do it.” I moved to New York City, where Mark also lived, in April 2001.

It was only a few short months after I moved that I exited the subway near the Brooklyn promenade into eerie silence. The first plane had just hit the Towers across the water and I’d walked out into the immediate aftermath. The bright blue of the sky scarred by glittering glass was strangely beautiful as everyone stared up.

Five seconds: that’s all the time that it took for first responders to answer the first call. And hundreds, then thousands, on- and off-duty, poured into the City, as heavy grey dust blanketed everyone and everything. The work that day was devastating and traumatic — but it continued long after night fell on September 11th.

Mark was a firefighter — an FDNY EMT first responder — and remained as a recovery worker for six months after the attacks at Ground Zero, performing the grim task of identifying body parts. He’d been given the training to do so, and he rose to the challenge. During that time, fall changed to winter and then spring without us really noticing. Mark got up day after day and went about his monumental task. Upon returning home, he would immediately step fully-clothed into the shower, doing his best to wash it all away. I numbly kept him stocked in clean uniforms and gear, and baked food for his entire station for months. I did what I could.

So many acts of kindness were extended toward us in those days. When Mark’s gloves became shredded, he went into a hardware store in uniform to buy some new ones. None were available. But the teenager who was working in the store was wearing gloves as he shifted boxes and, with tears in his eyes, took them off and asked Mark to take them.

As crews drove into the site, volunteers and NYC residents stood on street corners and shouted their support. Antonio Nino Vendome turned his family restaurant into a relief center, using hundreds of thousands of dollars from his own pocket to support in the effort in the initial weeks, later relying on public donations. Nino’s served hundreds of thousands of free meals twenty-four hours a day and became a refuge, a place to find companionship and support as well as a hot meal. The restaurant closed permanently after the recovery effort and one of Mark’s regrets is that he could never go back to Nino’s, to sit down in there for a regular meal, and to thank the owner for the environment he provided, and all that he gave, which meant so much to so many.

Trinity Church St Paul’s Chapel was another refuge. A few years after his work at Ground Zero officially ended, Mark went back and sat in the seat that he had sat in during that time. The wooden pews were scarred by the recovery workers’ equipment from when they had visited day by day, seeking peace and prayer among the wreckage.

Children sent drawings and crafts from all over the country, and probably will never guess how treasured they are. Among other things, we had an angel that a child sent to watch over Mark to hang on the Christmas tree. It was made from a lightbulb with the bottom portion forming a skirt and the top the head. Crazy blond, curly material served as the hair. I think it was one of the ugliest ornaments I’d ever seen — but also one of the most beautiful for the sentiment in which it was given. And every year it had a prominent place on our tree.

For all that sense of togetherness, however, the darkness settled in and remained. Fear permeated my daily existence. Just two months after 9/11, an airplane bound for the Dominican Republic plummeted into the water near JFK International Airport. Paralyzed, I watched the news with Mark, convinced that we were being attacked again, and hid in our bed. The Northeast blackout of 2003 inspired the same feelings of panic and loss of control.

The subway also felt increasingly unsafe. Mark’s warnings to look out for a potential biological or chemical terrorism were a constant refrain. FDNY EMTs were armed with atropine and pralidoxime chloride auto-injectors to combat potential nerve gas attacks. Many carried their own personal supply as well.

Meetings with Mark’s colleagues were no less grim as they tallied the body parts found and identified during their work. It was not uncommon to hear, “We now have the lower jawbone, pelvis, and femur that we can give the family,” or, “When do we have enough for burial?” Closure seemed non-existent for those waiting families, with new remains being found every day. Every get-together was dominated by storytelling from that day and in the days following. Some of Mark’s colleagues were lost to suicide as they struggled with the traumatic work.

The city which Mark loved became his enemy. When we walked on the West Side Highway and past the Winter Gardens, he would suddenly remember when a temporary morgue had been set up nearby to catalogue the remains before transport to the Medical Examiner’s Office. He reflected on how silence would fall, and recovery work stop, every single time remains were carried out.

Loud noises became overwhelming for Mark, resulting in on at least one occasion him shoving me to the ground after a car backfired. And even something as simple as a photograph being taken of FDNY employees during their yearly physical took on sinister undertones: The wall of 343 photographs of those who had fallen were all taken when they first joined, some decades old, and so new policies and procedures had been implemented to capture up-to-date images in preparation for future disasters.

While masks were eventually distributed, no one thought to clean the engine blocks of the vehicles that had been at Ground Zero. Mark discovered this the hard way when in August 2002, during a fast and bumpy call, dust flew out of the vents, choking everyone in the cab. Mark’s physical health rapidly deteriorated. I did what I did best, drafting his disability paperwork with legal style exhibits, which was granted a couple of years later.

After full retirement, in 2005, Mark asked me to marry him, presenting me with a 5x5ft mosaic clock that he had labored over. The outside depicted the prongs of the sun with the rays spelling out clockwise: “Will you marry me?” In the interior, night and day was depicted through yin and yang, with oceanic and star-filled scenes. Every part of the mosaic held meaning, such as the red fish which had a blue eye and the blue fish a red one because “they had eyes for each other.” While we tentatively scheduled a summer wedding for 2007, we stopped planning as we silently struggled in our day-to-day existence.

Mark had little to no reason to leave our apartment except for medical appointments, of which there were many. I threw myself into my work and he accused me of caring more about the children that I worked for than him — but deep down, I felt that I could make a difference for my clients where I’d failed to make a difference for him. Frozen, we existed, but didn’t live. Mark couldn’t understand that every step I took returning home each night was slowed in anticipation of the fresh promise of grief. Was this the night I would find him dead?

It took me years to accept defeat – I couldn’t fix Mark. Exhausted, finally I gave up, and simply said, “Then just go.” He did. That afternoon, I numbly watched Armageddon, a global destruction film about a ‘planet killer’ asteroid that’s on a collision course with earth, and the efforts to blow it up from the inside using a nuclear bomb. 9/11 was that that nuclear bomb that blew us up from the inside, but it took eight years to do it. My only hope was that, by leaving, Mark could find peace in a way he would never be able to again in New York City.

We as a nation promised to “Never Forget.” But we did. And Jon Stewart rightly called out our leadership in their absence. The passage of time is no excuse for those we have abandoned to their damaged bodies and minds. And now we are in such a politically divisive time that I look at my fellow Americans in fear rather than solidarity. Now, I worry more about domestic terrorists, guns and police violence, the loss of women’s reproductive rights and the destruction of our democracy. The hatred and vitriol thrown around over Covid and vaccines in the US after we have lost over 600,000 souls is unfathomable to me. After all, we were able to find a sense of unity in trauma after the loss of 3,000 back in 2001.

So, while TV specials are being aired and memorials are being held, I share this with you in the hope that you might also keep in mind on this, the 20th anniversary, the first responders and recovery workers who worked at Ground Zero who still need our support. I also write this to recognize what meant and still means so much to Mark and me. That it was a time in which people, out of love and goodwill, compassion and generosity, sought to practice the art of radical hospitality and kindness. During these tumultuous and frightening times, I choose to hold on to this, and can only hope that as a country we can regain it.

*Mark is a pseudonym