From 9/11 to the Angora fire |

From 9/11 to the Angora fire

Solange Schwalbe

Six years ago, terrorists attacked our country and assaulted our freedom. I worked as a safety monitor in World Trade Center 6 at Ground Zero. After Tower 1 fell on WTC6, we were forced to work underneath the debris pile.

The risks were so severe that we never knew what would happen each day. Little did I know this opportunity would cost me my personal and professional life for almost two years.

My first day at Ground Zero was on Jan. 2, 2002.

I started as a volunteer, but was then asked to work as a safety monitor and received training and certification to perform that job. I spent four months in the pit monitoring the safety of 40 drillers to make sure they had all the correct protection and their environment was safe.

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Everyday, our hideous surroundings reminded us of mankind’s atrocities.

Now, 9/11 has become Patriot Day. To honor those who were killed that day, New York City has held a ceremony at the site of Ground Zero for the past five years. This year, 9/11 lands on a Tuesday, the same day of the week the towers were destroyed.

On June 24, the Angora fire ripped through the neighborhood of Mountain View Estates in South Lake Tahoe and destroyed 256 homes. One of those homes was mine. Like turning back time, I felt the same pain and anguish I felt on Sept. 11, 2001, but this time it was personal.

When authorities allowed homeowners to return to their properties for the first time, I dropped to my knees at the first site of my home burned down to ashes, twisted steel, charred foundation and compromised chimney.

As soon as we were allowed into the burn area, I started digging through the ashes. I pulled out and collected anything that represented what it used to be. Most of it was metal, all completely destroyed. Tile was broken everywhere. The fire was so hot, most of the glass melted.

After six weeks of digging, the county finally removed all my debris. It was like a funeral to me. I call my keepsakes my “gravesite.”

The experience of digging through the ash and burned metal reminded me of our environment at Ground Zero. The smell of the ash frightened me. The biggest difference was that at Ground Zero, we called it “Zone Dust.” Those ashes were biologically based. The smell was sickening.

At Ground Zero, we never found anything that represented two 110-floor office buildings. No desks, chairs, keyboards, papers, computers, personal effects — nothing. In my personal debris pile, the only collectibles were metal.

At Ground Zero, the cars were metal skeletons.

My jeep is now a metal skeleton.

At Ground Zero, I made friends who will be a part of my family for life.

From the Angora fire, I have made friends who will be in my life forever. We, too, share the same unspoken understanding that those of us at Ground Zero shared.

I’ve stayed with these new friends the past three months: They understand my unpredictable emotions.

Six years ago I lost two years of work because of the emotional impacts from Ground Zero. This summer, I have lost three months of work, and I am on an emotional roller coaster. As a sub-contractor, I feel my ability to return to my profession will be as difficult or more so than in 2002, and I will have to go through the same healing process I did six years ago.

Ground Zero was global, the Angora fire personal.

We all lost personal treasures and keepsakes that cannot be replaced, but we found each other through our tragedies.

We must learn from our losses. Tragedies cause pain and suffering that produce a powerful gift of survival that carries with you the rest of your life.

Share that gift with everyone. Instead of dwelling on the tragedy, share the strength you’ve been given.

I must now move forward to the next step, whether it is global or local.

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