Student Tells Classmates of
New York Relief Efforts
When Brendan Butkus came to class last week, he brought a piece of concrete and a magazine missing its cover. The concrete was from the World Trade Center and the ash-covered magazine was pulled from the hood of a truck in Manhattan.
Butkus, a third-semester physics major, had been in Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11. Last Monday, returning to campus after nearly a week of harrowing relief work, he described his experiences to the class.
Butkus, staying with family on Houston Street, checked the TV, discovered what had happened, and went to investigate. He and his friends got within 15 blocks of the World Trade Center and saw dust clouds coming up from the second tower. They took themselves to safety and went onto a rooftop, watching events unfold before them while watching live newscasts on portable TVs.
Butkus is a four-year veteran of the Marines and a member of the Marine reserve corps. The day after the tragedy he helped out as a civilian volunteer. Later, he worked with an Army corps. But of Tuesday he said "that whole day was nothing but disaster."
On the 11th, said Butkus, workers had to wear masks because ammonia from the concrete was in the air. Workers could only begin to see well several days later, when it began to rain. The asphalt was so hot it melted boots and tires.
Two days after the disaster, Butkus went to the Jacob K. Javits Center on West 34th Street, the staging grounds for volunteer efforts. He was attached to the Army's 107th corps support group and became part of a bucket brigade.
Workers "made chains of people passing five-gallon paint buckets, scooping up debris," he said. Each bucket was painstakingly searched for anything with intelligence value or anything that could help identify a casualty. "I remember passing along someone's gold chain, still hot; someone's little plastic watch band," Butkus said. "You could read paperwork that came from people's desks up above."
And then there were the eerie sounds. "I remember hearing the noises of things belonging to people: cell phones, watches," he said. "On the hour, you could hear the watches." Periodically, there would be a call for silence and the workers would sit still and listen for tapping or other indications of survivors.
Butkus said working in such conditions was numbing, the circumstances almost beyond comprehension. "There's not a word for it," he said.
Manhattan's initial reaction, he said, was "complete and total shock. Nobody was on the streets. Manhattan looked like a ghost town." Then memorials sprang up overnight: "graffiti on the walls, candles, stuffed animals, items from missing persons." And flags: "it almost looked like Independence Day."
He said the disaster "brought New Yorkers really close together." Civilians were willing to put themselves in harm's way to help, he said. And he said he regards the way New York picked itself up "as an act of sheer defiance."
The tragedy also prompted "a sense of country," he said, because the United States was targeted as a nation.
Butkus encouraged his classmates to go and witness the city. He said that, without firsthand experience, it is difficult to grasp the scope of the devastation. "This," he said, "is the defining piece of history in our generation."
Brent C. Evans