Through the Eyes of the Families
My name is Luz E. G. I am 65 years old but on September 11, 2001, I was 45 and working on East 42nd Street between 5th and Avenue of the Americas. I always went in early because I loved the quiet of the office before the hustle and bustle of phones and calls. I recall I was also reviewing my notes for my upcoming Crim class at John Jay. I had a clear, unobstructed view of the towers since our offices were on the 44th Floor and I remember taking a sip of my coffee and wondering why that plane was flying so very low. One of the paralegals stopped in and we both watched in horror as we realized that a plane had struck one of the towers. We watched in disbelief, not knowing that it was a terrorist attack. It was only until moments later, that we witnessed another plane hit the other tower that we realized that life had changed. We both said a quick prayer, and I called one of my professors at school to see if anything was being planned to assist downtown. John Jay (JJ) is the school of law enforcement, forensics and fire personnel so I just knew those emergency responders were going to be needed.
I wanted to know what else was needed and if I could help. With my professor, we got together a group and began gathering gallons of water. Why we decided I cannot remember but later it became apparent that our decision was sound because many of the first responders were using the gallons to flush their eyes out, to drench themselves from the dust and just try to gulp down some moisture into dry throats.
On September 12, my professor called and said the Armory needed bilingual translators with a fluency that could cross the various Spanish dialects. He knew I was just as comfortable speaking Spanish from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands as I was in speaking Spanish from the South and Central countries. I was also fluent in Castellano and knew some rudimentary Basque.
I thanked him and reported to the Armory.
What struck me immediately was the many people swarming the Armory with pictures pasted on to them, carried by them, on placards, on posters.
Anywhere they could make it visible. As I made my way to the front door, a military guide, stopped me. I presented my credentials from school and told him I was a certified court translator and provided my qualifications. He whisked me in and after a brief debriefing and a quick intro, I started to work.
I think I worked mechanically. I had to or I would become consumed by the total sadness of it all. Mothers searching for their daughters, their sons, their loved ones. Wives looking for their husbands, husbands searching for their wives. I distinctly recall a woman who showed me, with trembling hands a picture of her husband, who worked at Windows on the World. Her words will never leave my heart. She said: "He's only a dishwasher but he's my husband....what will I tell the children." He's only a dishwasher. I felt bad that I had to ask her if she had anything we could use as DNA--a toothbrush, a comb, hairbrush....anything that might have a tracer. She said yes but quivered that it was at home. I asked her if she could go home or get someone to bring it to her. She said she would leave immediately. That she lived in Brooklyn but was afraid she might not get back in when she returned. I wrote my name out for her and gave her my beeper number and told her to have the guard at the front get me. I promised her I would wait. And I did. The look of relief was worth the 5 hours but they were hours that passed incredibly quickly as we processed family after family. Trying not to soud mechanical with the questions we needed to ask in order to determine identification. Cross referencing with the morgue right next door. We would get debriefed, take a quick nap and hit the tables again.
I think what most stays with me after all these years is their eyes. As a translator, you are trained to look directly into the interviewee's eyes to establish contact and confirm you understand. You repeat their statement all the while looking at them. It's very hard not to get wrapped up in the emotions of the moment. It is hard to hold their hand, willing them strength to continue to speak to you, even though they are sobbing uncontrollably.
And all the while, looking into their eyes and seeing the depth and pain in their soul. That's what I remember the most. The eyes that would try to exude strength and would ultimately give way to the sobbing. It was difficult not to show tears, and I don't believe i was successful a whole bunch, but I believe it showed them that I understood their pain and while I could not imagine it, I wanted them to know it was okay to show it. So, yes, their eyes is what I remember.
A few days later, I looked up and there stood my husband. He looked at me, grabbed me and said, it's time to let go and come home. I had no idea I had not really been home. I looked at the multitude of people waiting to be served and I said, I cannot leave. To which he said, yes, you can and you must. We need you too.
So, I was debriefed, walked out to a bright day but all I could see was that at every point on the streets, wherever there once was a blank walk or building facade was not covered with photographs of people lost in that attack.
When I got home, my husband told me to go to bed but I insisted on staying up and watching the news. I insisted I was not tired. Then all of a sudden, I must have fallen asleep because I remember waking up a couple of days later and in bed.
So that's my story. I am not a hero. I did not perform any heroic acts like so many workers who helped their colleagues escape. Or the First Responders who lost their lives. We had a number of them from John Jay who died in that attack. I pray for them not just on the anniversary, but always.
More importantly, I hope I was able to help someone for whom I took information. I hope they were able to see that I cared and prayed with them and hope that they have found some semblance of peace. We can never forget.