9/11 TO NOW, MY LIFE FOREVER CHANGED
9/11 TO NOW, MY LIFE FOREVER CHANGED.
September 12, 2001
I slowly opened my eyes after a terrible and short sleep. I looked at the graffiti on the wall that I had written in desperation before sleeping, “Stay Alive Uncle Stephen.” I jumped out of bed and immediately checked the answering machine, but no missed calls in middle of the night. No messages. My uncle was still missing. I felt guilty for even having gone to sleep, couldn’t I have done something, anything? I had to come up with a plan, at least for my own sanity.
Uncle Stephen was only 9 years older then me, and spent so much of his upbringing living in or visiting my house. His parents (my grandparents) had him much later then the other siblings and they died young. Stephen was an orphan by age 9.
My first memories of life were very much connected to him, and he remained a force of influence for 25 years. He was such a dominating personality, a hurricane of willpower and gravitas and a salty sense of humor to season it all. He could tear you to shreds and build you back up just to pass the time. And I did my fair share of ripping him back. He will be probably the only person in the world that I tried to punch in the face two separate times (both times he caught my fist in the air. I was like the weak bad guy in a 1980’s superhero movie). He brought out a side to me that not many people ever get to see.
Stephen was also the most courageous, most truthful person I had ever met. There was not an ounce of fakery or falsehood in his whole being. I guess by being orphaned at such a young age he learned how to instantly gage people. He could hurt your feelings in one instant by telling it ‘like it is', but in the next one he would tell you how much he loved you and how proud he was of you. Somehow, maybe because of his brutal honesty, it always meant more coming from him then maybe any other. Quite simply, Stephen was a pure man in an impure world. He had spent his life rebuilding what was taken from him as a child, and now he was being taken from us.
I remember having spent the summer after I graduated high school with him in his own home. I worked with him with a raw juice company he had frivolously started. We would drive around with non pasteurized juice and try to sell it to grocery stores and bodegas before it would explode. The juice would fill with bacteria and swell the plastic container until it became liquid TNT. He would often make me sit on the floor in the back of the truck, where it was near freezing. Driving erratically, he would try to bounce me into explosives just for fun. I would come home smelling like vinegar from the expired bottle explosions. But I secretly loved it. He made life interesting for me.
For me, Stephen was more older brother then Uncle. By 2001, he had built his own family. Stephen was a devoted husband to his love Sarah and was a father to 5 small and beautiful children. He had graduated from juice routes to the FDNY, his dream job and this was actually another family for him. He had wanted this job badly. Even after being hired, he would go out with my firefighter brother Rob in the middle of the night with the scanner and listen for fires to secretly drive to (they call fanatics like this ‘buffs’ in the firefighting world). I still don’t get what they actually did when they would get to the fires, with baseball hats and T-shirts on. I don’t think they thought that part out. Sometimes I would join them late at night in Brooklyn and we would just sit in the car, listen to Bruce Springsteen and wait for an emergency call. It was a great balance for me, as my other life as an actor seemed like a bit of a poser life in compared to fighting fires. I thought of being a firefighter myself, but I got a job acting in a film and that became my best path for a few years.
In just a few short years Stephen would climb the ranks and get accepted into an elite firefighting house called Squad 1 (Park Slope). On the morning of September 11th, Stephen had just gotten off work as the towers were struck. He turned around and went to back to Squad 1. He got his gear and drove to the battery tunnel, but it was already closed off. So he left his truck in the road, got on his 75 pound gear and ran furiously through the nearly 2-mile tunnel to the World Trade Center. Stephen reported into the South Tower and went up into the stairwell looking to rescue civilians.
Waking that morning I decided I could not just watch the news. I had heard from some news report that they were accepting volunteer rescue workers in case they found survivors from the wreckage. My brother Rob would soon be on his way to start what would be a six month tour of duty as a firefighter looking for body parts to return to the families of the victims. But on September 12, we still hoped for survivors — lots of them. I wanted in.
I decided I would sneak into ground zero. I had worked as a lifeguard years before and still had my Red Cross CPR ID card registration. This was definitely not what they were looking for in volunteers, but it was all I had. I walked from my apartment in the Upper East Side and all the way down to the 14th Street boundary they had set up to keep people away. There I found a bus of volunteer workers and when nobody was looking I ran into the bus and quickly got a seat. We drove to rescue center near the the site.
We were supposed to sit in the volunteer center and wait for any mass casualty finds from the diggers. This was unacceptable, and I had to look for Uncle Stephen myself. But all I had was the Red Cross card. I looked outside and tried to figure a way past the makeshift security. I knew the president was on his way soon and security was only going to get more intense. I had one chance to get in and it was now.
Even a few blocks away the streets were filled with dust and debris. I took the toxic dust and put it all over my body, like a dog rolling in shit. I covered every part of my body so it would look like I had been already digging. I kept the Red Cross badge around my neck and filled part of it with dust so that the ‘Lifeguard’ title would be covered and only the Red Cross remain. Then I just walked and prayed to God that nobody would stop me, and nobody did. I looked too crazy, I suppose.
I got into Ground Zero. The smells, the haze, aroma, it’s the kind of sensorial experience that gets wedged deep inside the reptilian parts of brain. I grabbed a bucket and joined the digging. Someone said something about me not wearing a helmet, but I just shrugged it off. I wasn’t doing anything really, just moving rubble and passing it on to the next guy. But it felt so much fucking better to be doing something. I felt lucky. And I felt cursed.
I tried to talk to Stephen, asking him in my mind where he was and how I could find him. But mostly I remember that it felt like it was an “afterlife” location. There was very few things alive or any feeling of physical life at the site, but to me the ghostly and spiritual dimension seemed crowded and busy. Thousands of human lives instantly swished away, it felt like there was a traffic jam on the way to the afterlife. It seemed to be a bit of heaven and a bit hell all in one seen and unseen dimension.
Every once in a while someone would blow a whistle and everyone would sprint away from the rubble. I think people thought the buildings around the site would still fall down, or that the few remaining steel structures would fall on top of us. Other then that the only sound was the occasional fighter jet streaking the sky in what was the ultimate too little, too late. In some spots I could here the faint emergency tones from buried fire trucks and cop cars at the site. It was probably the most haunting sound I will ever hear.
I worked the day digging and praying, and came up empty in every respect. When darkness started to fall, I made my way home, walking the hundreds of blocks with boots filled with Ground Zero dust. I imagined that I had a part of Uncle Stephen in my boots, in my heart, in my soul.
For the nights that followed and months and years, I would have terrible nightmares. Planes crashing and falling down nearby, I was always trying to reach the victims and waking up before I could reach them. It is a PTSD trauma that would take years to unwind, but it always stays with you.
My brother Rob had a much richer dive into the trauma, finding all those body parts for 6 long months. Each time he dug, he both hoped and feared finding something from my uncle. That was his life for six months, until he could not take it anymore and asked to be sent back to his own firehouse in Brooklyn. His heart was crushed, he not only lost his uncle/brother, but lost his firefighting mentor…there would be no more ‘buffing’.
For me, the disaster sent me on a new path. I could not go back to acting in the same way. I wanted to help people still. In a way my failure to reach or save my uncle motivated me to spent the rest of my life making up for this. I would have to serve people and heal people one at time. So I went to graduate school and decided I would be an acupuncturist, but it felt like it was decided for me. There was no going back from Ground Zero.
Maybe part of this is a heartfelt mission, and maybe some of this is some pathological need to feel safe by making others feel safe. But if that’s true, it has been a good deal, a gift to be able to help and feel purpose in my life. To finally make a difference. I’m no longer digging in the eternal dust. But on September 11, any September 11, I can still smell it.
My larger family has made the greatest use of the tragedy. My mother, uncles, and aunts (the six remaining siblings) started one of the largest and most successful charity organizations in the world — the Tunnel To Towers foundation. They have raised millions and millions of dollars to help orphans of rescue workers, fire burn victims, and mostly now wounded veterans who have lost arms and legs. They build multi million dollar “smart homes” that allow the severely handicapped war veterans to be able to live the rest of their lives with more ease. There are annual charity races all across cities in America and even Europe, with the biggest being the run on the last Sunday in September in NYC. 30,000 runners retrace the steps Uncle Stephen made that day, running through the tunnel to the towers. I am always one of them.
Four years ago my father, volunteering at the race, collapsed and cracked his skull open. He was in cardiac arrest and was not breathing or moving. Rob and his wife Eve, a nurse, were nearby and started expert emergency CPR. They took turns for maybe a half hour, keeping breath in my father until the ambulance could finally arrive. I had heard what happened and raced to the hospital, before the ambulance arrived. When they carted him in, he was ghost-white and lifeless with two men on top of him pumping his chest. They were giving him electric shocks but to no avail. They took him into another room and twenty minutes later they came out and said they revived his heart after 45 minutes of not breathing.
The prognosis was bad, even if he survived they told me he would be most likely brain dead or severely compromised. They induced a hypothermic coma to protect his organs from the damage of the time without oxygen. Weeks went by and he struggled to come out of the coma. Every day I treated him with acupuncture at the hospital and tried to wake him up. The doctors suggested to me that we pull the plug. However I felt we were seeing subtle changes and that we should wait. Sure enough soon after he was indeed awake. He thought it was 1984 and had very little body control, but after a few weeks he started to come back together. The doctors were absolutely amazed and stunned. Today he is in possibly better health then he was before the cardiac arrest. His brain is in great shape as well.
The hospital did do great work preserving him, and without my brother and sister-in-law there to start the CPR right away he would have died easily. But I also know that the acupuncture and healing work I was doing also saved him, and this time I was able to make a real difference. Some might say it was a coincidence that he collapsed at the race, but I know different. And I know that my uncle was helping and that it was also no accident that the day he started shifting was the day my Aunt Sarah and the five children came to visit my dad.
My journey is still continuing and the mission I have to heal and live my life to the fullest is just really starting, 15 years later. All of it is in response to September 11, and to my Uncle’s passion to live his life to the fullest and die saving lives. I follow in his footsteps, my whole family really does. Some day we will be together again, and until that time I hope to be my best version of what he was: true, brave, and full of love.
Today (September 11th) I will be representing the Tunnel to Towers foundation at the Jets season opening game during a big tribute for the 15th anniversary of the date. Woody Johnson, the owner of the Jets, has been a huge donator to the cause. I will bring my son Lir, and we will run out of the tunnel with the players and whatever else they plan on doing. I’m sure in some way Stephen will be laughing at me, telling me I am doing something awkward or out of place. But just maybe he will also be in some way proud of me. It’s taken me 15 years to be able to say something like that. That after all this, perhaps I didn’t fail him, his remaining family, or myself. Perhaps I’m just living each day with acceptance, taking each moment as a gift. And that’s a victory.
Thanks Uncle Stephen, I love you always.