REFLECTIONS FROM GROUND ZERO
Reflections on the World Trade Center massage therapy intervention
by Liz Pasquale, LMT
Copyright 2001 Elizabeth Pasquale
The planes hit the towers on Tuesday, September 11, at around 9 A.M. I called my friend Dr. Antonio Abad at 11 PM on Wednesday and happened to catch him at home. He told me he had gotten down to the towers by 11 AM Tuesday and had been working to create a triage center close to the site. I asked if he needed help, and he said, “Yes, come on down. I don’t know if you’ll be able to get in, but if you can, we could use you.”
He told me he had been asked to set up a triage center at the Stuyvesant High School on Chambers and West Side Highway, about 2 blocks from the site. I should meet him there.I was hesitant to head down there; scared might be a better word. It was a bright sunny day and I walked toward a black mushroom cloud. Emergency vehicles were passing. I thought if I was meant to get there, I’d have no trouble. I was somewhat wishing for guards to stop me. The scene was overwhelming.
At 23rd and West Street, they asked me where I was going. “At the request of Dr. Abad, I’m going to the Bellevue Hospital Health Clinic at the Stuyvesant School,” I said.
“Where’s that?” the police officer asked. “Ground zero,” I said.
He gave me a surprised look and then there was a back and forth between them about I.D., then, “Stand over there. A bus is going down in a few minutes.”
I stood for a moment and watched a file of men in hard hats go by me to a van. I followed. As they filled up the van, I said, “Are you going to Stuyvesant School?” “Yes, get in,” was the answer. There was no room, but one of the guys slid over on the bench seat about 2 inches and I made myself fit in the nonexistent seat.
It was a ride of only 3 or 4 blocks and we got out in an atmosphere of billowing dust, the smell of smoke, and people rushing about wearing protective clothing. It no longer seemed like New York at all, or any other recognizable place. It was a separate place, a war zone and I felt like I’d left my home state light years behind.
The side door led us into a large new high school building. The first thing we saw were tables of food, sandwiches, fruit, stacks of soda, water, coffee, snack bars, brownies. The wind carried the billowing dust in with us and everyone and everything carried the dust over them, like all were wearing the same color uniform–gray. Signs said, “Asbestos levels high. Please wear a mask.”
The only masks in evidence were surgical masks and those paper ones held in place by rubber bands. Most everybody was wearing one but only a few people actually had it in place over their mouths and noses. Generally, people preferred to have the mask casually hanging around their necks.
There were boxes of them available, all the paper ones. None with filters. I placed one over my nose and mouth, suspecting it was no good at all for asbestos. I found my friend, Dr. Abad, and he explained that my job would be to try to ferret out workers showing signs of extreme fatigue and stress. He gave me a print out from the hospital, describing signs and symptoms. I was to get them to lie down for a massage and then, if I thought they were really bad and needed looking at, get him or one of the nurses to check the person.
It was pretty chaotic. On the same floor was the food, a central chaotic area of communications, and then a long hall behind it where cots were set up with I.V. units, medical supplies, doctors and nurses. The police and firemen were setting up in the little student theater also on that floor and everything was covered with that dust and with each step the dust billowed and clouded around us.
The communications area had no phones because the electricity was out. People would just come into the center of the room and ask for what they were looking for. The person behind the desk would shrug. Somebody in the crowd would overhear what was needed and point the person in the right direction, to a police or army person or emergency vehicle parked out front that could help them.
The lights we had were from recent generators set up. The toilets had just gotten up and running again, the first time since Tuesday. That was a relief. There were maybe 200 people milling and rushing about in that cloud, eating, organizing, talking, medicating. And always a few search dogs. I couldn’t imagine getting anyone to lie down and get a massage. After a while, it was apparent help was needed in the food service area so I went over there and worked.
Dr. Abad came by and said, “I have someone for you to massage. Get set up and I’ll bring him to you.”
There was a dusty massage table there in the midst of everything, so I took it upstairs, found a quiet, clean room with school desks and historic pictures showing a barricaded village on the tip of Manhattan island, and set up. Dr. Abad brought me a middle-aged fireman. We’ll call him Patti O’Flannery.
This was the beginning. Patti was covered from head to foot with the asbestos dirt. He was wearing not just clothes, but fireproof gear. He took off his boots. A moment of doubt. How was I going to feel anything under fireproof clothes? I elected to start with lymphatic drainage and started at the clavicles. I could get my hand on skin there. After that, it was easy. The lymph rhythm actually came to me through all the gear. I was in it.
Patti was a chatty guy, but in a short amount of time the significance detector indicated we were in deep stuff. He said he had been home when he saw the TV report shortly after 9. He got over there right away because he knew his guys were there. That was his home turf. His guys were right there. He wondered if they were dead already.
He was so glad to see they were all there when he arrived. Just then Ray Downey walked over to them. “Ray Downey is god,” Patti said. “He’s got a chest full of medals. I’ve been in this business 15 years and I got 2 puny medals. He’s got a million of ’em. And he went to Oklahoma. Everywhere there’s a big fire, he goes.”
“So he walks over to us and says, ’Hey, why don’t ya’ stand back a bit. This is looking pretty sketchy. So, my guys start to walk back, we turn around and walk back and the other guys next to us, they walk to the right. All those guys, my buddies who walked to the right, they all got it. All gone. And we, my guys, we were running for our lives cuz just at that second, it comes down. And Ray Downey is gone. 30 seconds after he told us to get back, gone. He was god to us firemen.”
Jake had just gotten back from his work as a conservationist in Papua, New Guinea. He stepped off the plane the morning the tragedy occurred. He was in Maryland, so he went first to the Pentagon. He is what is known as a “cellar rat”-one of the few people trained to climb into the most difficult places. Unfortunately, there weren’t many to rescue at the Pentagon. They all died. He came directly here; hoping things would be different.
When I came out after those 2 sessions, the whole place had metamorphosed. The food distribution had been moved from the first floor to the second floor. The dust wasn’t so thick up there. They had taped off the medical area so people weren’t walking through it constantly and they could keep it cleaner. They were kicking me out of my quiet room cuss they said we would mess up the new wood floor.
I saw a couple chiropractors had set up on the landing between the first and second floors so I joined them. We were between the front door and the food, so everybody saw us when they passed. As we worked, there was a never-ending stream of people passing, carrying supplies, talking, kicking up the dust, just everything.
Yet, even in all this chaos, people would get up from the table after their session and say, “That was the most relaxing massage I’ve ever had.” (If they had had a massage before) or “I feel like I’ve just slept for a week.” It was downright eerie.
After that, for 3 days we treated overworked, traumatized firemen, policemen, rescue workers and debris diggers. Some of them were brought there by their bosses and slumped onto the table wearing whatever they had on, including bunker pants (the firemen’s fireproof protective clothing), harnesses laden with clips and ropes, gun belts, flashlights, and pockets filled with tools.
All were covered with that gray dust. I started working on Thursday and when most men reached my table, it was the first break they had allowed themselves since they began on Tuesday morning. I got into the habit of starting with the lymphatic drainage because it immediately relaxed them. Working over their clothes was no problem. I’d then switch from lymph to cranial to visceral as we went along.
Other massage therapists soon joined me. They were all Swedish Institute graduates, like myself. There were many doing chair massages. Eventually, we had about 6 or 7 chairs. Most were doing Swedish over clothes with no oil. Acupressure and some shiatsu were also being done, with some people working on mats on the floor. All of it would be considered deep tissue massage. After four days, it grew to be 12 to 15 massage therapists on the stair landing and 2 or 3 chiropractors who moved to the 3rd floor.
A kind of schedule evolved that went something like this: It became busy around 9 or 10 PM. However many therapists we had, they were all busy. The first night, there might have been 6. By the 5th day (my last) it was about 12. It stayed busy without a let up until dawn. Most of us worked right through without a break, as long as there were men waiting. The funny thing was, I never felt tired when I was working like that through the night. When others looked tired, we would badger them to go take a rest.
Then in the morning, we’d have nothing to do, so the “night shift” would leave. I’d go have breakfast, shower, sleep. The others would do the same or go home. Fresh faces would appear to man the dayshift, which generally wasn’t nearly so busy. I’d work on and off during the day when I wasn’t napping. In the evening, we’d be ready for the all night massage marathon again.Ordinarily, in my office, maybe 20% the time, an SER evolves, (somato emotional release: emotion stored in the body is released, often, but not always, accompanied by a traumatic memory and crying) most often with clients I’ve seen a few times before. On those 3 days, 80% to 90%, of those men I’d never met before, most whom had never had a massage before, had S.E.R.s.
It often happened in the first 5 to 10 minutes. The way it usually worked was like this: I’d give them some water when they arrived. A quick examination 100% the time pointed to restrictions of the thorax, compromised lungs. Not surprising since they had been inhaling smoke for long hours. An intense feeling I experienced as grief was omnipresent at the heart level. If I checked the cranial rhythm, it just seemed shocked. It was extremely faint or completely stopped. So I got into the habit of starting with lymphatic drainage.I’d start at the clavicles and proceed up the neck and do the face. Then, the sudden presence of tears rolling down the man’s face alerted me. Only one policeman cried in silence, not telling me his thoughts. All the others related some traumatic event, usually involving searching through the debris.
After relating the trauma, the person would continue to process quietly in what might resemble a deep sleep. I would continue following his body, doing visceral and cranial work. By the end of the session, the cranial rhythm would have revived somewhat and maybe even approach what one might consider normal. I might end by enducing a few still points or return to lymphatic work.I had just returned 2 weeks prior to the crash from the Upledger Institute course, entitled “BioAquatic Exploration”. We spent 4 days on the Upledger yacht, the Dolphin Star, and had 2 sessions swimming with dolphins. During that time, we spent our days doing body work in the warm shallow water at remote beaches. The movement of the ocean became integrated with the cranial fluids and lymph fluids we were palpating and facilitated healing.
As I worked on that crowded, noisy, dirty balcony, I drew on that experience. I imagined all of us at the beach, immersed in water, and used the imagined water to access the person’s internal ocean. I imagined the dolphins assisting us and, as I did, I gained entry into the person’s fluid dynamics and we moved toward healing.
I worked on Michael who was there with his dog, Max. They had driven up from Mississippi in record time. “I saw it on the news at 9A.M. And by 11 A.M. I was 300 miles away, headed here,” he said. “The police in my home state gave me an escort, changing as I crossed each county line. After I left Mississippi, each time a cop stopped me and I told him where I was going, he waved me on.”
He had trained Max himself. More than that, Max was an extension of himself. They ate, slept, worked and lived together. Michael told me they talked to each other. And they had had a good day yesterday. But today was Max’s best day. He found 17. “Most were parts. Confused the bejesus out of Max,” Michael said. “He’s not used to this.”
“Neither am I,” Michael continued. “That’s why I don’t do this any more. I usually train. Just come out for the big stuff. Like Oklahoma. But this is the biggest. Today, we found a kid’s hand. I can’t take this anymore. I lost a kid myself, so I just can’t take it.”
After I finished working on Michael, I worked on Max.Paul told me, “I walked into 5 World Trade. It’s all messed up. Structurally damaged. They’re going to have to take it down. When you walk in, everything inside has been pushed up against the far wall. Everything, Desks, furniture, steel. Accordion style. It’s weird. And there’s this strange noise. Then I figured it out. It’s beepers. All these beepers are going off from under there. I got out of there fast. Probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It could fall at any time. But they’re working their way in from the back. They’ll get to them.”
Dr. Abad and I met privately. He wanted to know how it was going. When I told him 80% the men I was seeing were having emotional releases, he was shocked. I told him it was the nature of the work. The lymphatic drainage moves the fluids and tends to dredge stuff up. Emotions come out of places they are buried. Especially when the events are so recent and so overpowering. The cranial and the visceral work have the same effect, I told him.
He said, “Keep doing what you are doing. The others are only massaging for 20 to 30 minutes, doing muscles. What you are doing is different, very helpful. Keep it up.”At 2:30 Friday morning there was no sign of it being the middle of the night. All the massage tables and chairs were full and everyone was moving about just as they were all day. Outside, it was raining and the floodlights were on. As I gazed out the window, I was continually struck by what wasn’t there. I never thought in my lifetime, there would not be the twin towers. I remembered 30 something years ago when they were built. People said they were so tall, they might just fall over.
James is a volunteer from Connecticut. His boss’s daughter was on flight 11. He was working in the rain. Lasers are trained on the buildings that are standing so that they can tell if they’re going over. When the buildings move, they trip evacuation alarms. The rain had made the buildings heavier and the alarms were going off. “Scariest thing I ever heard,” James said. “I heard that alarm and I ran as fast as I could. Everyone began to run in a panic. People got trampled. I saw a girl get trampled. They just knocked her down. I saw a fireman stop and help her out. I just had to take a break after that.”
Mario began to shudder during his session and then his body jerked and the tears streamed down his face. “It’s not right,” He said. “I pulled a young woman out of the rubble today. She was in terrible shape. She was dead. She had red fingernail polish.” He sighed deeply and then said, “and no head.”
Then he saw a fireman trying to operate a backhoe. He said, “I yelled at him, ’What are you doing on my brother’s truck?’ Because it was one of my brother’s trucks from his company. The fireman said they were leasing it. I told him if he wanted, I’d drive it for them because I’d driven that vehicle a hundred times before. So he let me and I started doing the clearing and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I go where the firemen want me and I clear.
Then, at night, I drive it off the site, up to Chelsea, where I can breathe and I been sleeping in it. That way, I know they’ll let me in in the morning because I come back driving the backhoe. But one guard didn’t want to let me in. I don’t have a pass. I used to be in construction, but now I’m an actor. I live here, so when it happened, I just came down.
So when the guard didn’t let me in, I just drove to the next guard, and he let me in. But this morning I got a flat so I called the leasing company. They say they’ll fix it, but then they’re taking it away because that backhoe, they say, was stolen off their worksite. I tell them the firemen are using it at ground zero and they can’t take it. They ask me what union I’m in and I know they’re gonna give me the Teamsters stuff. So I say I’m with the Screen Actors Guild. I tell them they’ve got to let me drive and help the firemen, and eventually, they do.”
So it goes on like this one night after the next. Generally it seems to slow down during the daytime, pick up around 7 or 8 PM and then get really busy around 11 and stay busy till 4 in the morning. By the fourth morning, someone actually made a 3 A.M. appointment with me.
By the third morning, I had a real respirator with a charcoal filter that filtered asbestos. I worked with it on and I slept with it on. I took a cot into a back, quiet room and would sleep, usually during the day, when we were slow. Sometimes I’d sleep for 4 or 5 hours. Usually just 2.
Supplies were plentiful. On the second floor, one hallway was packed with donated clothes. I could go in there and pick up a brand new pair of Calvin Klein jeans or Gap or whatever my favorite was. New socks, underwear, T-shirt, even boots. Go up to the 5th floor and take a shower, on the 4th day, even a hot shower. There were boxes of shampoo, soap, towels, toothbrushes, deodorants, anything you could imagine. People’s generosity was impressive.
Get out of your dusty clothes, shower, sleep, clean clothes, good food and back to work. They had added tables and chairs to our hallway food service and they eventually got the 7th floor kitchen operating again. Food was being made right there instead of being trucked in from the city’s great restaurants. Now the restaurants were sending their chiefs down to our kitchen to cook. The food was really good. And continuous.
Hundreds of workers kept coming in everyday and the food never stopped. Awesome. Volunteers manned all of it; many were people who lived right there and just walked in when the trouble began. Many came from states all up and down the East Coast. “The Department of Health people were in here today,” Suzie said as I worked on her. “They say we all have to leave because we’re not health department employees. So I asked them, ’Who’s going to feed all these people?’ So they’re letting us stay.”
It must have been quite a picture. I’m wearing my respirator and working on people wearing flak jackets, bunker pants, harnesses, and gun belts. Most aren’t even taking their boots off and they’re covered in dust. One of them asks me if I’ve had a lot of marriage proposals this week. I reply that I’ve had more this week than ever in my life and, I say, my voice contorted by the respirator, “The funny thing is, they haven’t even seen my face!”He laughs and says, “We’re not marrying your face! We’re marrying your hands!”