WESTON, Conn. As Diane Carter drove to Canal Street in Manhattan on Sept. 16, 2001, she remembers seeing people holding thank you signs and one person handed her a Gatorade. As her driver went through the blocked-off road, he turned to her and said, "Welcome to hell."
"Everything was blown out. There was ash and dust everywhere. To see New York City deserted was eerie in itself," said Carter, who was a volunteer firefighter in Pleasantville, N.Y., at the time and captain of the hook and ladder company. "I had a sense of fear after the driver left. I thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?'"
She said the sight was similar to photographs in history books of Europe during World War II. Carter said it took more than 20 minutes to walk around "the pile," which is what the debris field at Ground Zero was called before it was cleared and called "the pit."
"Despite the driver's initial comment, to this day, especially at Ground Zero and Freshkills, I found God more present than I have at most churches. The love, the passion, the selflessness that's what I think of as God working through people. It may not be the religious part of God, but the real love of God. It gave me a lot of hope in the midst of tragedy and sorrow," said Carter, who has been a minister since 2005. She is currently an associate minister at Norfield Church in Weston but has been called to a church in Ohio, where she will relocate Monday, Sept. 12.
At the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, Carter's emotional distress "came to a head."
"I had a hard time coping with everything I had seen and experienced," she said. The chaplain of the fire department encouraged her to go into ministry. "I had trouble making it through the day without breaking down and dissolving into tears."
Carter said she had shoved all of her thoughts and memories to the backburner until it was "too difficult to function." She suffered from flashbacks and realized she needed to share her experiences to get them out of her head. "It was so awful. I know how it made me feel I felt like nobody else needs this in their head yet it's important to get it all out. ... If you keep it in, it will only eat you up."
Though she said she does not believe God caused the attacks on Sept. 11, she believes God turned the bad into good. "I think I stand as living proof of that. Any life I touch is a result of that tragedy," said Carter. Inside her robe, she wears her World Trade Center ribbon as a tribute to the lives lost that day. "It shouldn't have been for nothing."
In the days after Sept. 11, Carter spoke to firefighters from around the country while serving downtown. One man flew from Canada to the closest border to the United States and drove the rest of the way to New York. "The sense of brotherhood was really unbelievable," said Carter.
At the Pleasantville Fire House, a 5-5-5-5 announcement would come on every time a life was lost. The bell would ring for five sets of five.
"While sitting there waiting for a call, the announcement kept coming across as bodies were found and identified," said Carter.
She worked to support those who did the digging by preparing flashlights, helmets, shovels and batteries as well as by filling generators and air tanks before the next shift came on.
"I listened to their stories. They got off their chest what they had seen and heard," said Carter. She worked three overnight shifts in downtown before the mission switched from rescue to recovery. Using her carpentry skills, she worked at Freshkills Landfill to build two canopies where the remains could be sifted through in rain and snow. While downtown, Carter sensed "the enormity of the tragedy," and at Freshkills, she saw everything close up.
Before going downtown, Carter was deployed to the Bronx, N.Y. Carter heard of the attacks while she was working at Fordham University in the theater department. She was paged to go to the fire department and rode there on a motorcycle. She worked at tech services Saturday and Sunday after the attacks and became the FDNY electrician. She completed 150 electrical adaptors in two days.
"In a large measure, everybody wanted to do something. There were long lines of people giving blood so much so they had to turn people away. There were stacks of water so high the water on the bottom was being crushed all donated," said Carter. Children drew pictures of fire trucks, suns and faces and wrote thank you notes, which were put up where the first responders took breaks.
In the next 10 years, she hopes we will "continue to move forward."
"I've learned that moving forward is different than moving on. Moving on connotates leaving behind what was. Moving forward we bring in our hearts what was," said Carter. "Memory gives us the wonderful ability to take the best of who they were and bring it forward into the next 10 years. To honor their memory and to continue what they loved, held dear and what was important to them."
What do you think the next 10 years will bring? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org .
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