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Ground Zero Chronicles: The Cell Phone

Smoke pours from the twin towers of the World Trade Center after they were hit by two hijacked airliners in a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York. Nearly 3,000 people were killed after two hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center; one hit the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia; and one crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

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The second week felt like a much longer journey than it was. I found myself assigned to a crew responsible for loading debris, including piles of concrete and twisted materials like carpet, furniture, and railings. The crew chief instructed us that if anything unusual was discovered, we were to immediately stop working, put up a red flag, and call out "halt." I wasn't sure what we might encounter, but we were surrounded by numerous search and rescue squads from various parts of the country, eager to assist.

Rumors were rampant about the discovery of body parts and remains in this area. Our location was beside the hotels damaged by the towers' collapse, surrounded by barely standing buildings that had been ravaged by the onslaught of rubble. The fear I felt being in this vicinity, especially looking at these precarious structures with vertical beams sticking through them, made it impossible for me to handle being in city structures or any heights. It triggered anxiety and fear within me.

9/11 cell phone volunteer call recordings

The task was incredibly challenging, meticulously sifting through the debris and being watchful of what could be found, all while being on edge due to the constant threat of these buildings collapsing. As you follow this story, you can feel what I felt at that moment. I didn't encounter the horrific discoveries the search and rescue crews did, but I found something that brought the harsh reality of the situation to the forefront.

Amidst a pile of mixed office debris, I came across an intact cell phone, a flip phone left open but not powered. I stood still for a minute, overwhelmed by an unsettling feeling worse than the anxiety I was already experiencing. I knew what to do and called out "halt," devastated by not knowing whether this was a victim's phone or belonged to a panicked bystander who dropped everything in an attempt to escape the disaster.

Summoning the strength, I flagged it and called out "halt." The search and rescue personnel promptly examined it, bagged it, and sent it off for further examination. They would call out "all clear," and we would resume our work. This scenario played out repeatedly throughout the shift with all crews on the site. The uncertainty of who found what or what was found was unnerving, compounded by the fact that our clearance level prevented us from asking questions. I emphasize this professionally, with no intention to imply any misconduct. Personally, I was always treated with respect and courtesy, but my demeanor began to change as I grappled with sickness and immense remorse for what was happening.

I mean, the behind-the-scenes work was likely the true quest for heroism that any of us bore witness to. The ironworkers tirelessly maneuvered through the twisted debris, the construction workers and all of us helpers multitasking in any capacity to make progress, displaying resilience in our efforts to restore functionality to this part of the city. At times, it felt impossible, but it was driven by political motivations unbeknownst to us regarding the true consequences that would impact all of us present at the foot of this tragedy.

This is where my struggle lies, some 22 years later. I grapple with the enormity of what we faced and continue to face daily. I raise my glass to all of us who did our part and did what was asked of us. I also offer my apologies for what we are enduring, even though the country hasn't fully acknowledged its responsibility to protect us at that site—not from enemies, but from the destruction itself, which turned out to be their biggest failure.

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