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Jerry Davich: Anger, grief, confusion at Ground Zero

** ADVANCE FOR AUG. 30-31--FILE **This photitled 'Smoke Rising Through Sunlight' New York's ground zero was taken Nov. 8 2001

** ADVANCE FOR AUG. 30-31--FILE **This photo titled "Smoke Rising Through Sunlight" at New York's ground zero was taken on Nov. 8, 2001, by photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who was granted unparalleled access to the site. The photo is from the Museum of the City of New York's photographic show "The City Resilient," a collection of 73 of Meyerowitz's images. (AP Photo/Museum of the City of New York, Joel Meyerowitz, File)

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Updated: November 9, 2011 1:47PM

Three days after the terrorist attacks in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, I arrived in lower Manhattan to witness the carnage first hand. And also to find any Northwest Indiana residents who put their lives on hold to do something, anything, to help relief efforts.

Surrounding the freshly roped-off Ground Zero site, machine gun-toting National Guardsmen occupied desolate streets littered with charred-out vehicles. It looked like a developing third-world country.

I saw an abandoned police cruiser obliterated by the attack. The car’s laptop computer melted into the dashboard, its tires were scorched to the rims, its windows were blasted out, and its seats burned to a crisp.

Etched into the half-inch coating of dust on the car’s hood were the words “Die bin Die,” an angry message of revenge to Osama bin Laden. The trunk, however, was graced with a bright bouquet of flowers to memorialize the tragedy.

I found this conflicting image an appropriate reflection of America’s feelings toward the kamikaze attacks just a few days earlier — anger, grief, confusion, possibly in that order.

Relentless smoke seeped through surrounding streets, choking anyone who got close. The eyes felt it first, even before they saw any of the death and destruction. Then the mouth, throat, and nose, despite the scrubs-like face filters that were in vogue.

A parade of emergency vehicles rumbled past piles of rubble and debris. Adjacent office buildings housed makeshift relief headquarters amid worries of collapse. Impromptu shrines adorned local fire stations.

Countless posters of victims’ faces and their identifying information plastered walls, fences, street poles, and any other public site. Search teams – America’s newest action heroes at the time – took turns being disgusted, mortified, and exhausted.

“Bodies are everywhere,” said Ray Basri, a cardiologist from upstate New York who had been pulling “bodies and body parts” from the carnage since the night of the attacks. “I’ve never had to help anybody who didn’t have a face.”

Outside St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, a nurse inhaled a cigarette while complaining of too many empty beds. “Injured people we can do something about. Dead bodies we can’t,” she told me.

Patriotism – from
concept to conviction

At a nearby fire station, the uniforms of 14 fallen firefighters hung on a coat rack outside, with their boots neatly positioned underneath. A nearby sign said it all: “They answered the call.”

Relief aid volunteers passed out bottomless cups of coffee and freshly percolated patriotism. Every time a fire truck left or returned from the station, visitors stopped and applauded. Every time. Without fail. Rain or shine.

“Thank you” yelled a teenage girl to fatigued firefighters leaving Ground Zero in the back of a pickup truck.

“You’re welcome,” one of the dog-tired firefighters replied with a nod.

A large crowd of onlookers expressed similar appreciation to exiting rescue workers. But what caught my attention was that it came in three different languages — English, Spanish and Asian, in unison.

Several blocks from the site, just past Chelsea, hundreds of people snaked around the Jacob Javit’s Convention Center to wait in line to volunteer their time. There, I felt goose bumps that lingered for hours at what I witnessed.

An impromptu parade of youngsters singing “God Bless America” erupted during my interview with volunteers. The teens, mostly Hispanic, held signs reading “Mucho Gracias” and “America, YOUR Beautiful” while passing out cups of Kool-Aid and home-baked cookies to the line that stretched a quarter-mile long.

I immediately realized I was witnessing something very special and truly patriotic. It was a genuinely red, white, and blue moment, a rarity for this all-American cynic.

For many from my generation before the attacks, patriotism was simply a history lesson, an idea, a concept. Not a tangible feeling. Not something we could see or touch. But here, I could see, touch, and feel it, block after block, volunteer after volunteer, hug after hug.

I found it odd that New York City, with its cavalier attitude toward the rest of the nation, would be the place where I’d find my own ground zero for a reignited patriotism. A sort of patriotism that would no longer be just a concept, but a conviction.

After several hours of frantically searching for fellow region residents, I was finally introduced to John Novello. The then 50-year-old Schererville man threw some work gear into his 1996 Ford Escort and headed to New York City the same day I did.

Novello, an elevator repairman at the time, told me he didn’t care if he hauled off twisted steel, filled buckets with rubble, or passed out water bottles to strangers. He just wanted to do something.

“I got tired of watching people on TV doing something to help this country. You can’t do anything sitting in your living room,” reasoned Novello, who sported a red, white and blue bandanna, black work boots, and a yellow hard hat.

“I feel I’m at least throwing a rock at those sons-a-bitches,” he told me.

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