After ground zero, a volunteer feels shock, sorrow in spades

New Yorker sorts through experience

`A time ... to be silent'

Brooklyn carpenter there from beginning

Terrorism Strikes America

The Healing Process

September 19, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - After he walked away from the scene, the stench wouldn't leave Brett Parry. "Everywhere I walked I smelled it," said Parry, who spent three days on his hands and knees raking through the debris, metal beams and human remains at the World Trade Center. "I couldn't get it off me."

The odor of death still stuck to Parry's nostrils two days after the 38-year-old carpenter was forced to leave his volunteer post at ground zero because he doesn't have a union card. Beginning on Thursday, only approved personnel were allowed to work in the hellhole created by last week's terrorist attack.

Confused about what day it was and covered with dust from the pit, Parry wandered into a church in Greenwich Village clutching his utility belt filled with tools and his hard hat.

With tears streaming down his face, he asked the priest for help. "I felt death attached to me. I imagined going home and feeling death," he said. "I didn't want to feel guilty for leaving. I wanted a priest to tell me it was OK. I wanted him to say a prayer so I'd feel clean again."

For Parry and others who ran to the World Trade Center minutes after it was hit, leaving the twisted, smoldering wreckage after days of back-breaking work was torture. Parry wasn't allowed to stay and make himself useful, and he couldn't leave behind the terror of what he saw there.

Sitting in church, he was increasingly aware of the smell of death on him, which meant he was feeling some distance from the scene. But his mind could not switch off the gush of adrenaline surging through his body. He was still in survival mode and ordinary life seemed out of place so close to the war zone.

"I feel strange because people are walking around like it's normal, and things are not normal," he said. "You know what's going on down there? The scale of the thing created so much energy. It's like a car idling at 2,000 rpm's."

`I never stopped'

Parry, a native New Yorker, had been there from the beginning. He watched the planes hit, saw the towers topple and rushed over to help. For three days, he was a worker ant on a mound of destruction, his body often bounced up and down off the ground by the vibrations of the heavy machinery.

He took brief naps in the dirt when exhaustion set in. "I was flying, I never stopped in there," he said.

Parry sat in a pew Sunday and gazed at a painting of the Virgin Mary next to the pulpit. He set his hard hat and utility belt by his side, looking as if he were ready to jump back into the rubble.

He cradled his hat in his arms, his belt rested on his knee. He couldn't separate himself from them, even two days later, even in a church a mile away from the toppled towers.

Survival tools

"My belt is what's going to make me survive," he said, pulling it close. "I'm not going to leave my belt anywhere. My belt and my helmet saved me."

In his belt he had a glow stick he used to make his way through the darkness of the debris. On his hat he taped an American flag and an eight of spades playing card.

He found the card his first day at the site when he was on his hands and knees working in the mud. He heard someone yell, "Get out! Get out!" saying the World Financial Center was falling.

Everyone around him ran, but Parry couldn't get up. "Come on!" they yelled to him. But he was a statue.

As he saw the other workers flee, he glimpsed the eight of spades on the ground amid the piles of paper.

`Eight lives left'

"I thought it meant I was a cat with nine lives and I had eight lives left," he said.

He grabbed the card and ran for his life. Then he taped it to his hat to remind himself.

But his problem now isn't remembering. It's processing the unspeakable things he saw, and stopping the horrific movie that's repeating in his mind. "I don't think anyone who read the paper or saw it on TV understands the dimension of it," he said. "If you think it can't be that big, it's that big. It's so big that when you look at it you tremble.

Before Parry walked away from the pit, he said he didn't allow his brain to comprehend the magnitude. He almost didn't listen when he was knee-deep in the mud and someone told him 1,000 iron workers just walked in, followed by 12 monks.

He didn't think about the contents of the debris stuck under his fingernails, in his hair, between the cracks of his lips.

When his hand would discover something horrific, he'd tell himself it was a piece of the building.

"Your brain really takes care of you in there," he said. Finally, when he knew he needed rest, he walked to his van, where he slept awhile. He stuck a note on the windshield: "68 hrs @ ground zero. Please let me sleep."

When he woke up, he couldn't get back into the pit so he left and tried to eat breakfast.

He went to a restaurant and ordered two eggs and sausage. The food hitting his stomach gave him such a jolt of guilt, he went outside and sat on the curb and cried.

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