Rebuilding New York: Women at Ground Zero

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Part-time graphic artist Kathryn Carey, 29, spent the late morning of Sept. 11 in her Brooklyn apartment typing the same e-mail over and over to her friend Eric Eisenberg, who was a director at Aon Inc., a risk management and brokerage firm on the 98th floor at the World Trade Center.

"Tell me you are alive," she typed and hit the enter key. "Tell me you are alive," she typed again and hit the key again. Again and again, as her despair rose.

She could not share her anxiety with the man she has been together with for the past 20 months–Michael Lyons, a firefighter in a Brooklyn company. He was at Ground Zero frantically trying to rescue the thousands evacuating the buildings.

She had to do something. The offices of her employer, amFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, were on Wall Street and they were closed.

Grieving and alone, certain that her friend had died and knowing her companion was still searching for survivors, Carey began to look for a way to pitch in. Carey, a small, delicate woman with dark, shoulder-length hair, was rebuffed by the Uniformed Firefighters Association, reeling from the death of more than 320 of its fighters. The reason: She wasn’t a union member.

Estimates on the number of dead and missing when two hijacked airlines rammed into the twin towers were running as high as 6,000, although there is reason now to believe the number is closer to 4,000. Hundreds of others were injured. Probably millions more suffer psychological trauma and anxiety.

‘Don’t Send Me Home–I Need to Be Here Right Now’

"I went into the armory at 14th Street, where the Red Cross was helping with trauma and missing persons," she recalls. "I saw this man working with the Red Cross and I went up to him.

Kathryn Carey"Look, I lost my friend, my boyfriend’s a firefighter and he is down there constantly and he can’t talk to me," she told the volunteer. "I know I’m spiraling, but don’t send me home. I see that people are being sent home, but don’t send me home because it’s too much. I need to be here right now."

Carey was put to work for four straight weeks–with only three-and-a-half days off–one of the 20,000 Red Cross volunteers from all over the country who have provided unstinting assistance to New Yorkers after the attack. She was suddenly in charge of the victim’s service unit at the 94th Street Pier and worked many 12- to 14-hour days, debriefing trauma victims and making referrals to the correct agencies. She worked with hundreds of police officers, firefighters, volunteers and the families of the victims.

"I had people coming in and telling me about the bodies exploding, body parts lying around," she says.

"I’ve spoken with families who just sobbed. They’d given so much factual information to the police, companies, et cetera, that when they finally got to us they were ready to spill their guts," Carey says.

Many Men Feared They’d Seem Crazy If They Saw a Therapist

For hundreds of hours, Carey listened to other people’s stories. "I had a lot of men, and some women, ask me, ‘If I see (a therapist) will people think I’m crazy?’ and I said, this is not about strength, this is not about weakness, your gender or your age. We cannot work through this alone and we have to work together on this."

One woman stood out for her articulate rage and confusion.

Red Cross Respite Tent"I’m pissed," the woman told Carey. "I want to know who was in charge of protecting my daughter. My daughter worked for Cantor Fitzgerald (a bond firm that lost 733 employees) and I want to know who was in charge of my daughter. She was 24 years old, and, without her, our family doesn’t work. I want to know. Nobody’s giving me answers. Nobody’s helping me. It’s not fair."

Carey replied, over and over again: "You’re right. It’s not fair."

She faxed the woman 27 pages of phone numbers, addresses, "anything I could find where she could call and make inquiries. I got a call the next day from the woman’s husband who told me she was finally calm. And it was because of my work–she had hours and hours of phone numbers to call and try to find answers. That made me feel really good."

Carey grew up on Long Island, and has lived in Manhattan; she now makes her home in Parkville, Brooklyn. She worked in event planning before eventually learning the craft of graphic design.

Volunteer’s Craft of Caring for Others Is Compelling

But the craft of caring for others is compelling. For now, she plans to continue her volunteer work. Starting Nov. 5, Carey will begin a new Red Cross volunteer job down in the respite center at Ground Zero. That’s where workers and volunteers themselves go for respite, some quiet time, someone to listen.

She is now prepared to take the time to face her own grief over the loss of her very close friend Eric Eisenberg. They met four years ago at the gym, and now she will attend the memorial service for her friend who was just shy of 33.

Both Carey and Lyons, her firefighter companion, have had trouble sleeping and have been plagued with nightmares. "I’ve also lost weight," says Carey. "I’ve lost a lot, a lot of weight. I try to eat, but … .

"I’m afraid New York will be hit again," she says. "I don’t think it’s going to happen, but that would be the worst thing."

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Maya Dollarhide is a free-lance writer in Brooklyn.