True patriot works Ground Zero
For Solange Schwalbe, a love for New York City was something she never shook.
Every Christmas, the Meyers resident would pack a week’s worth of party clothes and fly east to see the sights with friends she’d known for 20 years.
This year, she never thought she’d end up wearing a pair of steel-toed boots for three months working at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.
She never thought she’d help carry human remains out of a giant pit of pulverized ash and twisted rebar.
She never thought the seven entries in her purse-sized address book would swell to seven pages.
“I consider my time at Ground Zero a gift,” Schwalbe said. “The people I met were as incredible as the conditions were deplorable. I loved it. I didn’t know I could do what I did. “
Schwalbe, 45, who makes her living as a motion picture sound effects editor, was working at Disney Studios on Sept. 11 when she heard the news. She spent seven hours crying in front of her TV.
“Every year, when I went out there, I’d always say, ‘OK guys, let’s go downtown to the observation deck at the World Trade Center,'”she said. “They’d say, ‘Why not the Empire State Building, it’s right here?’ But I’d insist. So I’ve got 20 years’ worth of going to the top of the towers in me. My personal loss was seeing the towers go down.”
Schwalbe decided to go ahead with her annual trip. She went back to the site of her beloved landmark to see the devastation for herself.
“I looked at all the memorials,” Schwalbe said. “I was taking pictures of basically nothing, as opposed to what used to be there. I became obsessed by it.”
She found out the Salvation Army needed volunteers in January, so she decided to stay for two more weeks and help out.
Schwalbe boarded with a friend in Flushing, across the river in Queens, and started working inside the huge white tent the Salvation Army had set up for crews working 24 hours. She served food, cleared tables and took out the trash. Her customers were New York City firemen and policemen, Port Authority workers and the subcontractors who were operating the heavy equipment.
Always a talker, she would chat with the rescue workers as they came in, to the chagrin of her supervisor, who told her to quit spending so much time socializing.
But a hiring manager at Office of Strategic Services, Inc., a disaster site subcontractor, saw things differently. He called her over and told her he liked the way she interacted with the workers. Then he offered her a job.
“So what got me in trouble also got me a job,” Schwalbe said. “That’s one of the beauties of this story.”
She signed on for a 12-hour day shift at $28 per hour, the same wage every laborer made. She was assigned to work in “the pit,” as the huge hole of debris came to be known. Her job was to sign workers in for the day, enforce safety requirements, and monitor air quality.
Each day she would get up at 5 a.m., get on the Long Island Railroad, then take the subway to get there by 7. She’d walk down a construction road toward the northwest corner of the pit into what used to be Building 6 of the World Trade Center complex. Her required garb was a hard hat, a mask to cover her nose and mouth, safety glasses, an orange vest and her steel-toed boots. She’d stand inside what looked like a concrete bunker while workers filed in. Then she’d go out into the pit with a wand to check for Freon, a potentially deadly gas used in air conditioning systems. She’d check the lights, which all ran on generators. Every time she took a break, she had to decontaminate her boots.
The worst thing was the smell.
“It was hideous,” Schwalbe said. “It was biologically based, a mixture of cadaver dust and chemicals. For 24 hours a day, the sounds and the smell never stopped.”
The best part of the job was the people.
“In the pit, everyone was colorblind,” she said. “It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from. People bonded.”
Because her name was tricky for people, Schwalbe would introduce herself as “Hollywood,” her nickname from her Tahoe four-wheel drive Jeep club.
“I used my handle in the pit, and it became a bright light in a very dark situation,” she said. “To the people I got to know, I was Solange. But to everyone else, I was Hollywood. That’s how people knew me. A battalion chief said to me, ‘You know, Hollywood, everyone knows you.’ I said, ‘Is that good or bad?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.'”
Because the magnitude of the cleanup was so unprecedented, there was no predetermined way to deal with the victim’s remains as they were uncovered, Schwalbe said.
“No one had been trained on how to dig out body parts that were more than 4 months old,” she said. “So everything that happened in the pit was basically created there to begin with. There wasn’t any formal protocol.”
Whenever a recovery was made of someone who had died in the line of duty, everything came to a halt. An impromptu procession would form. The remains, and any equipment found with them, would be placed in a basket and covered with a flag. Then a prayer would be said. Color guards would stand at attention as the body was walked out to a waiting ambulance. Then everyone would be dismissed.
“We had days when there were four or five processions,” Schwalbe said. “Then we’d have weeks where there were none. When they finally were able to excavate under the first construction road that was made, there were about 100 bodies because that road had been built over where the south tower had stood.”
Schwalbe stood as a color guard in two recoveries that involved civilians.
“We knew one was a woman,” she said, “because the recovered part was a hand with nail polish on the fingers. I helped carry her out. And that was the biggest recovery made in weeks, they said.”
Schwalbe came to see her time at Ground Zero as a series of small steps, each coming at a time when she could handle it.
“My first body recovery was a torso,” she said. “It was a defining moment, a baby step. Ground Zero was given to me as a gift, but it all came in a sequence, almost like someone had planned it that way for me. First, I saw the pit as a tourist. Then I saw it as a volunteer and finally as a worker. At each step, I cried. Once I got past that, it became automatic.”
One of her co-workers was Brian Lyons, a construction foreman whose brother had been a New York City firefighter killed in the blast.
“They found equipment with his name on it but they never found his body, so Brian was fighting both doing his job and dealing with the loss,” she said. After each day’s shift, Schwalbe was ready to get out, to the point where she turned down a rent-free apartment nearby for the hour commute out to Queens.
“I didn’t want to hear it, smell it, see it 24 hours a day,” she said. “When I got to Penn Station, that was my reality check.
“It was so hard for everyone down there. From Canal Street all the way down, you were reminded every inch of the way that there was total destruction. Getting to Penn was my way of getting back to normal. When people saw me, they’d say, ‘Oh, you work at Ground Zero.'”
One night when she got off the train in Flushing, a man wearing a business suit walked up to her.
“He looked at me, and then he said, ‘I worked at Cantor, Fitzgerald.’ He’d called in sick to work that day. We hugged each other and that was it. I never saw him again.”
Schwalbe started writing down her thoughts in a small datebook she carried with her. She wrote “Ground Zero” across the top of the page and circled every day she worked. On the page for April 12, the entry reads: “Done. Over. Spent the day categorizing photos.”
Her contract ended when the chilling tanks containing the Freon had been found destroyed.
“All the Freon had probably been released the day of the collapse, but we had no way of knowing that, ” she said.
Leaving such an intense atmosphere so suddenly was a letdown, she said.
But she was able to attend the last church service at the site on June 2. Earlier, two beams in the shape of a cross had been pulled from the debris of Tower I and saved as a memorial.
“They kept it the way it was, with the metal shard on one end,” Schwalbe said. “They mounted it, lit it and had church services every Sunday.”
That last ceremony yielded Schwalbe a memento she wears every day — a pendant that is a replica of the huge cross, with a tiny shard on the left tip of the horizontal beam.
“I don’t belong to a religion, but I’ve always been very spiritual,” she said. “This whole experience has proved to me that there’s something out there.
For every bad thing that happens, something good can come out of it. As devastating as the attacks were, it brought the entire country together. The whole red, white and blue thing is back, as it should be.”