On 9/11, we had disaster, catastrophe, and tragedy. In the days that followed — and looking back as a New Yorker — the living had to find the will to go on. For many, that involved turning to service.
I was one of those people on the scene following 9/11 and saw an incredible resilience up close and personal. The resilience of New Yorkers who did everything to help, from dropping off food for recovery workers and volunteers, and other needed equipment. The resilience of the first responders who had to overcome the shock and pain of losing comrades and family to work tirelessly and, sometimes hopelessly, to find anyone alive in the aftermath.
My 9/11 survival story started like many other New Yorkers; pretty typical. I began my day on a 6 a.m. aboard a flight to Chicago from LaGuardia, taking off right over the World Trade Towers that would be decimated in just a few hours; the flight’s trajectory allowing me time to marvel at the beauty of New York City anchored by those iconic buildings. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d never see them again or the souls they took, including 27 people associated with my company. Yet, my worst fears came true as our plane was escorted into O’Hare by an air force fighter jet, and we saw the pandemonium of the airport in the wake of the news the towers were hit and America was under attack.
With the help of my childhood friend, Ray, I found the strength to take the last car from O’Hare’s vast rental complex and drive through the Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania farmlands and finally, into New York City via the George Washington Bridge, where I saw the continuing plume of smoke from lower Manhattan that made the news even more real — the Towers and occupants and rescue workers were gone. While I was driving alone in Indiana, I had several “miracles” occur, including picking up the 880 news station from New York. I cannot tell you how heartening it was to get reports from a known and trusted news source right from Ground Zero.
During their broadcast, I heard of the setting up of “Volunteer City” at Javits convention facility in midtown Manhattan. I vowed on September 11 and made plans on September 12 to go to “Volunteer City” as soon as I finished my drive home and to the adoring and relieved faces of my children — aged 4 and 7. I will never forget pulling into the driveway of our home that day after such horrible loss, which included some of their classmates’ family members.
On September 13, two days following 9/11, I awoke early, grabbed my steel toed boots and boarded a Metro North train from Croton Falls to Grand Central. I went right to Volunteer City at Javits, which was in a chain link fenced-off area and was promptly told there is no room for any more volunteers. While personally disappointed, I was so gratified to see so many neighbors and friends there to help. I asked what I could do and was pointed to the Red Cross tent outside of Volunteer City where I was instructed to hand out bottles of water to the soldiers in tanks that lined 11th Avenue in the event of more attacks.
Upon one of my first trips to replenish the baskets, I heard the call that changed my life, “we need strong people to carry in boxes of boots to the hardware tent, Volunteer City!” I dropped everything and ran over, grabbed a box and marched in, dropping the load at the hardware tent and asking, “Who’s in charge here?” I was pointed to a man with a clipboard barking out orders and surrounded by volunteers. I went over and said, “I am an executive with management consulting experience. Please put me to work. You won’t be disappointed.”
The man sized me up and said as he noted my name and address, “here’s a yellow volunteer ID badge. Hang on to it as it will allow you to come and go in Volunteer City and make you an official volunteer for as long as you can stand to help us. Now, get over to the food tent, Michael, it’s a fucking disaster!” I was elated that I was in and now able to really help.
When I got to the food tent, it was a sloppy mess following a brief but torrential rainstorm hours earlier. Boxes and boxes of food were every which way. Much of it was withered in the late summer heat or unusable. People were running in all directions. Military convoys were demanding food to be taken down to Ground Zero for tired and hungry rescue workers now on their 48th hour of no sleep or relief. I ran over to a group of people who were trying to figure out what to do. Another man and I grabbed a big cardboard box and ripped off what would become our new organized structure map for the food tent. We designed it like a grocery store and literally created a tented refrigeration-like unit within the tent. Order was planned with everyone executing and soon restored. The resilience and cooperation I experienced at that moment got our little chaotic, unproductive food tent (and the busiest one continually at Volunteer City) under control and shipping out palettes of food to rescue workers within an hour. But it wasn’t enough food out of all that waste.
We also discovered that we needed handheld foods only. The rescue workers at Ground Zero had little time or ability for the frivolities of a sit-down meal complete with utensils and napkins and heaven help us, foods requiring continual refrigeration. They needed things like sandwiches wrapped ice cream cone style to be unwrapped as you eat them, as well as burritos, granola, protein bars, shakes, and the like; all self-contained or in their own wrapper. Literally, foods the rescue workers only have to use one hand to eat. Now, the question was how do we communicate to the eager volunteers to get us the handheld foods the situation demanded and at the volume needed for hundreds of people at Ground Zero searching for loved ones? I looked over at a corner of Volunteer City and saw the news radio stations, 880 and 1010, and walked over to the producers. “We need your help with notifying the public for our food tent. We need handheld foods only that can last at least 12 hours with no refrigeration. We need bottles of water, energy drinks and protein shakes. No food containers. No utensils nor foods that need them.” Immediately, both stations began communicating our requests.
And, within minutes, the resilience of New Yorkers came in the form of boxes of the requested food and drink items being shoved out car windows and catering trucks into our eager hands where we brought back the bounty and immediately started creating wrapped palettes of food for military trucks to take down to hungry workers. We got egg rolls from Chinatown, burritos from Queens and Jean-George sent lobster and shrimp salad wraps (bless his heart). When more requests would come — such as flip flops for rescue workers who were circumnavigating crushed concrete, steel, and glass from the shower tents to dressing tents — once again the call went out from our radio partners. Within minutes, instant deliveries lined 11th Avenue.
For the better part of a week, I was honored to be part of a well-honed Ground Zero worker feeding and equipping operation that was truly a miracle of resilience. New York made me proud and lifted me up; all of the volunteers heeded the call to be strong for our community and deliver the help we needed, when we needed it.
On my final night at Volunteer City, when I wearily handed over the reins to another fresh group of resilient volunteers, I got the chance to go down with a FDNY fireman (who’d I later have a brief affair) on a food delivery truck to see Ground Zero for myself. I walked through the horror as part of a body was carried out in front of me. The destruction was incomprehensible. The pain of loss felt like it was piercing my heart. I dropped to my knees, feeling the shards of metal and glass press into my skin; it allowed me to feel a shred of the pain experienced that fateful day. The exhausted fireman found the strength to lift me up to his level. As I hugged him in the moment, I vowed I would always work to help others.
Resilience is how I remember 9/11 and the days that followed. Love is how I honor those lost and move forward.
Michael Kelley is a TV producer, journalist, editorialist, media entrepreneur and blessed to call both Provincetown, Mass., and Pompano Beach, Fla., his hometowns. His love for Provincetown is like his love for his life partner and children — it knows no bounds.