Beyond Ground Zero

Six months have passed since that terrible day in September when four hijacked airplanes changed our lives forever. The World Trade Center, once the soaring gate to Lower Manhattan, was reduced to a giant rubble pile. Today that pile is gone -- more than a million tons of debris have been removed from the site since September 11th, and work continues in the subterranean layers below where the towers once stood.

Lt. Brenda Berkman was off duty when the planes hit the twin towers, but along with many of her colleagues, she rushed to work that day and spent most of the next weeks digging in the rubble for any sign of life or human remains. Thousands of people -- FDNY members, other city workers, FEMA teams, volunteers -- worked at the site during the weeks after the collapse. Firefighters remain at the scene today, although in limited numbers.

Much progress has been made in clearing and evaluating the debris at the site, but unique challenges have remained. "When they did initial work at the site, they built a road," said Brenda. "It's hard to imagine how big this area is. They had to build a road so they could move machinery from one side to the other." The road construction covered areas that are now being excavated. In addition, crews continue to check voids below ground. As the work progresses, firefighters on duty look for any indication of human life: tools, clothing, body parts.

Life at work, post 9/11

Since the first weeks after the attacks, Brenda has not participated in work at Ground Zero. As one of only two regular officers in her station, Brenda has had other obligations. First, there have been the funerals and the memorial services. "Initially we recovered one guy [from her station] early on. He never had a memorial service -- he went right to a funeral." Memorial services were held for the other four missing members. "Then they recovered the bodies of another firefighter and officer from Ladder 12 at the end of November. We had an all day and all night wake and then a funeral, and then another wake and a funeral in four days."

Brenda commented that the work involved with setting up memorial services is largely unfamiliar to those on the fire department. "Usually we don't have memorial services. They recover a body. So we were making it up as we went along." As one of the two regular officers in the station, Brenda felt responsible for making things work. "I really wanted to do the right thing by the families. But I didn't know what the right thing was. You're dealing with such highly emotional things. They've already gone through a big memorial service. And then this comes up [the discovery of the two bodies]. So we had to schedule two wakes and two funerals within four days, all on about two days' notice." So far, three members from Brenda's firehouse have been found. Two remain missing at the site. "We're so much luckier than other companies," commented Brenda, referring to stations where few if any fallen members have been found. DNA identifications continue, but the process is painstakingly slow.

In addition to all this, day-to-day station operations go on. The FDNY continues to run calls and otherwise handle their normal workload. Among other calls that have occurred since 9/11 was a structure fire that led to an explosion and a major building collapse. "It was in Lower Manhattan, just blocks from the World Trade Center site. The same companies were the first responders down there. People were buried under rubble, people were burned."

Brenda observed that the type and frequency of emergency calls changed immediately after September 11th, but has since changed back. "Initially we were going on very few false alarms, very few trivial calls. But now we are again. So people are very busy. But at the same time, people aren't sleeping right, they're not eating right, they're not taking care of themselves." Counseling opportunities exist for firefighters, but real needs remain. Brenda spoke of the problem of survivor guilt. "The people who might have gone to the World Trade Center, but for some fluky reason didn't go, they have all these feelings that are quite powerful, and nobody even recognizes that they have these feelings."

Conflicts and challenges

In the wake of so much loss and grief, it is not surprising that conflicts have arisen within the fire department. There is the issue of the money that has been donated and how it should be distributed. There was the high-profile controversy about the planned memorial statue, which has since been scrapped. Even donated gratuities have caused some dissent. "There were enormous numbers of offers for firefighters to go away on trips -- to Florida for a week, to Hawaii. All of a sudden people just wanted to give, give, give, which was very kind of them, but maybe was not the best thing." Resentments developed between those who took advantage of these offers and those who chose to stay in New York. "People had different ways of coping."

As time passes, crisis management gives way to long-range concerns. Members of the FDNY continue to have health problems, both related to stress, and also in reaction to the site itself. "Now there are worries if there will be long-term health effects, from what was in that dust," said Brenda. Some department members are off on sick leave for stress or other problems arising from the collapse. Brenda pondered, "When a guy gets hurt off duty, what is it that really caused that? Was it really the stress?"

Then there are the management and operational issues. The FDNY lost many of its most experienced members on September 11th, as well as highly trained specialists. It is impossible to replace those people in the short run. In addition, many firefighters have been off on sick leave, and others have requested transfers to stations out of Manhattan. Others have asked to return to Manhattan, in support of the firehouses that have lost members. Hundreds of rookie firefighters have entered the service in the last five months. There has been a change in the fire department administration, including a new fire commissioner, Nicholas Scoppetta. The combination of constant change and unresolved loss has created huge challenges for the department. "The management issues are enormous," said Brenda.

The invisible woman

In the weeks immediately following September 11th, Brenda had little contact with the media. She and her colleagues were working long shifts; they were consumed with grief, disbelief and exhaustion. She had no time or energy to watch television or read newspapers about what had happened. But gradually she noticed a trend. It began at the funerals. "I'd be sitting in the front row, and speaker after speaker would talk about the men, the guys, and the terrible pain of the men. "Firemen" this and "firemen" that. Over and over, the women firefighters were saying to me how upsetting this was to them. I felt helpless to do anything about it, though, because to raise that issue immediately would draw all the hostility of people who were looking for a way to make their point that women shouldn't be firefighters at all."

"This wasn't something just the New York women were saying. It was also being said by women from all over the country. Women firefighters who had come in for the funerals and women who were following the media coverage, a lot of people were upset. We'd see the stories about the rescue dogs. We'd see the stories about women who were going down to Ground Zero in order to get a date with a hot fireman." Columns were written about "the return of the manly man." But nothing that even mentioned the contributions of women at Ground Zero. So Brenda decided to take action through a media campaign to increase visibility of women who worked at Ground Zero, and women emergency workers generally. "New York is the media town: if you can get the New York media interested in a story, other media markets will follow suit."

"We'd see the stories about the rescue dogs. We'd see the stories about women who were going down to Ground Zero in order to get a date with a hot fireman." Columns were written about "the return of the manly man." But nothing that even mentioned the contributions of women at Ground Zero.

The first event that took place was a dinner sponsored by the National Women's Law Center in Washington DC, which invited Brenda as an honoree in October. "That became a huge event." Brenda went to Washington for two days. "I was allowed to give a speech to a room full of some of the most prominent feminists in the United States, in addition to some of the most prominent legal people, including senators and representatives. That was really the first time I gave a public speech about the invisibility issue. I was told that my speech was the thing that people would remember about that dinner. When I said there were 25 women firefighters out of 11,500 firefighters in New York, there was an audible gasp from the audience." Following this event, many attendees approached Brenda and encouraged her to get the message out to others. "A lot of prominent feminists admitted to me that it had never occurred to them that women were being left out of this picture."

Immediately following this event, Brenda met with some congresswomen and judges. "The message was very well received, and it confirmed my belief that if we just told people about women being invisible down there -- not just women firefighters, but all women rescue and recovery workers -- that we would be able to correct that omission." She admits, "I was maybe a little too optimistic."

Upon her return to New York, Brenda was able to generate interest with the media, including "NBC Dateline," which interviewed four women firefighters for a program (their segment has yet to be aired). There was also an appearance on "Good Morning America." Then Brenda was contacted by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDEF). This organization was interested in monitoring the involvement of women and minorities during the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, seeing it as an opportunity for New York to be a model for bringing women and people of color into the effort.

In connection with that goal, the NOW/LDEF decided to make a film called "The Women of Ground Zero," which they showed at their annual fundraising event. According to Brenda, this film "has turned out to be the biggest help to raising the visibility of women's efforts in New York of any single thing that's been done. It's being shown. It's powerful. It shows great diversity of women's efforts. The things the women have to say are really on point."

LDEF decided to take the film to Washington DC and show it to the Congressional Women's Caucus. Brenda joined them on this trip. The congresswomen present were all given copies of the 13-minute film. Several of them have since shown the film back in their home districts. Brenda's presence added the necessary "real person" aspect to the story: someone who had been there and who spoke from her own experience.

Brenda stressed that LDEF is in it for the long haul when it comes to advocating for women in non-traditional employment. The fact that LDEF has a professional communications director has led to increasing media exposure for women firefighters. "When an organization has a person like that in place, they can shape the message to a much greater degree than an organization that does not have someone dedicated to that task," said Brenda. For example, LDEF was instrumental in getting Brenda interviewed on the evening news with Tom Brokaw. This segment received very positive attention. Other national and international media coverage has followed.

The effort to increase women's visibility was succeeding, but it was followed by the inevitable backlash. "The rumor was started in the right-wing media that LDEF was trying to take money away from the survivors' families and use it for job training for women." There was no basis whatsoever to this rumor, but nonetheless some people believed it. "It was a media war," commented Brenda. "It was very stressful. It's a time when you want to be in total solidarity with the people that you work with, because we've all gone through so much. At the same time, I'm not willing to discount the feelings of other women firefighters and women who have been struggling in these nontraditional occupations for decades, just because I want to be liked by my fellow firefighters."

"The rumor was started in the right-wing media that LDEF was trying to take money away from the survivors' families and use it for job training for women." There was no basis whatsoever to this rumor, but nonetheless some people believed it.

"When we were growing up, we did not see any women role models in firefighting and the trades. I don't want to end my career in the fire service with little girls and women have that same experience. Because it's not real. We are out there, we are doing the work, and to insist that we're not and to revert to the word "fireman" -- it's not right. If women firefighters, and women in the trades, and other uniformed women such as police officers and EMS workers -- if they can all be disappeared, then couldn't you say the same about women scientists and women politicians, occupations where women have made inroads but are certainly not a dominant factor? It really was shocking how quickly we went back to the 'Father Knows Best' approach to things."

"Most people believe that women have no problem getting any job they want to have. But women pioneers are still important. It's also important to realize you might have to keep at it for much longer than you anticipated at the beginning. Women firefighters need to take the reins now. They have access to articles, to a video. They need to go out in their own communities and raise the profile."

Looking ahead

As for the future, Brenda says, "It will be very hard. The problems that existed before 9/11 were not corrected by the events of that day; they were exacerbated by them. We lost 89 officers. We lost a large percentage of firefighters from certain divisions. We lost a lot of equipment." It's a difficult time to make constructive change because, as Brenda says, "Anyone who raises a question about what we've done is perceived as criticizing the dead. Right now everyone is in a great deal of pain. There's a lot of anger, and a lot of opportunities for people to get angry at each other."

The challenges that FDNY faces are unprecedented. No other fire department has ever lost so many members in a single day. Few communities have suffered losses on the scale of the aftermath of September 11th. There are no examples to study, no guidelines to follow on how to proceed. The composition of the workforce is changing. New people are coming onto the job. In addition, large financial incentives are being offered to anyone with over 20 years on the job to take their retirement. This includes most of the women on the FDNY.

The pain and damage that were inflicted in one day will take years to overcome. Firefighters will leave the job, and new ones will enter the service. In the long run, the department will rise from the ashes and move on. In the meantime, the work at Ground Zero continues, with backhoes and grapplers pulling apart the compressed debris and twisted steel. The only pause is when someone sees something -- a helmet, a coat, a boot -- and the machinery stops while a stretcher draped with an American flag is carried out, between two lines of silent firefighters.

Note: More than 600 firefighters were hired by the FDNY in the six months following September 11, 2001. This group included one woman.

Linda Willing
Associate Editor
WFS Publications

Copyright © 2002 Linda F. Willing. May not be reprinted without written permission from the author.




© 2006 Women in the Fire Service, Inc.

Site design by Duckhouse Designs, LLC

Online store powered by osCommerce