Streams

Beth's Diary (Part 3)

Sunday, September 16, 2001

In the days following the attacks, reporter Beth Fertig kept her friends and faimily informed through an e-mail diary. She writes candidly about her fears and experiences covering the collapsing towers and the aftermath.

I'm home after another long day at work, and I've decided not to watch any more television. I realize it's making me more anxious. And I haven't listened to music since it happened. So it's time to take care of myself, put on the stereo and decompress.

What do I listen to? Do I play something loud and angry like the Stooges or P.J. Harvey? Or do I play the blues? Sad pop tunes? Anything is likely to make me cry. Finally I settle on Patti Smith's album. It just feels right. She has enough pain in her voice and a good writer's pen to make sense of this crazy world right now.

I think I hit the wall today. It's Sunday, so I was sent to cover a memorial service this morning at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I began by interviewing people who had come to observe. They all just wanted to be part of a community, and many were very worried about the huge and deadly potential for war. As I stood outside, the civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel passed by. Just a week ago, he was running for Public Advocate and campaigning in the streets. Today, he looked at me and I looked at him. His eyes were red with tears and we just nodded at each other and didn't say a word.

Nearly 4000 people attended the service. Maximum capacity is 5000, so folks were saying it resembled Christmas mass. I thought about how the number of missing was just a little more than the crowd that filled this Cathedral. Inside, people had placed tons of flowers and candles at a memorial sculpture for a dozen firefighters who died in some deadly blaze back in 1967. A dozen firefighters seemed like such a small number now. We've lost more than 300 in the past week.

The deacon asked the congregation to say a prayer for those in mourning. Then he read off a list of 7-8 names I assumed to be parishioners. He asked them to pray for those who were missing, and read 9 names. Next, he asked them to pray for the dead, and recited three more names. Finally, he asked them to say a prayer aloud for anyone dead or missing. Several people shouted out names and a woman broke down sobbing for a good 2 minutes. I started shaking and sobbing as I held out my microphone to tape the sounds, which echoed off the walls of the vast Cathedral.

Later, I went downtown and got about 3 blocks north of the former World Trade Center - which is now being called Ground Zero. The Governor held a press conference after touring the scene and visiting Port Authority police officers. Seventy-four P.A. employees are missing - including 34 police officers. They had risked their lives to save people, and to get the executives out of their headquarters high up in Tower 1. The executive director is now missing and so is the head of security who ran in to save him. Governor Pataki started crying as we interviewed him.

This is all too much pain for the city to bear. And yet, life goes on in the strangest of ways. Yesterday, I saw a whole market in Chinatown filled with folks selling flags and photos of the burning towers. They claimed they were raising money for the families of the police and firefighters and turning it all over to the 5th precinct. I went to the precinct and the cops checked it out. They determined it wasn't a scam, just a bunch of clueless but well meaning folks. They offered to set them up with legitimate organizations. But others are selling the photos for a profit. A friend - who knew 21 people now missing - saw someone selling polaroids of people jumping out of the towers. You know NYC is back when people start figuring out ways to make money off a tragedy.

But there is also so much kindness. Everyone has draped a flag on any available stationary object - light poles, parked vehicles, windows. People are being extremely helpful and tender. Companies are calling all of their employees and offering grief counselors. Storefronts in downtown have become spontaneous collection bins, with people dropping off donations for the rescue workers - clothing, shaving cream, and food. And throughout the city there are xeroxed photos with descriptions of the missing posted all over subway stations, walls and parks. We saw votive candles outside every building in the Village on Friday night.

Tonight, our radio station assembled a meeting for the news department, producers and engineers to speak with some crisis workers from the Red Cross. They were really just facilitators for us to talk about our experiences. Other people in this city can try to get back to normal - if they don't have any missing loved ones. But for us, our job is to keep talking about this and reporting about it. We are vessels for everyone else's pain and it's taking a toll. I am blessed to work with a fabulous group of people. They are all true professionals who kept the radio station going in daunting circumstances (an evacuated building, an FM transmitter that went down with Tower 1, a relocation to NPR's tiny midtown bureau). They're also wonderful human beings. And we are all alive and well, despite working just 6 blocks away from the disaster zone. It's a miracle.

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