Issue Thirty-Six - Summer 2020

The Smell of Angels Burning

By Kendall Johnson

All structure fell away in that 9/11 early morning dusk. We gazed frozen with disbelief and then our eyes took it in and we felt our bodies awaken from our toes to our guts to the piled rubble and stink. We forced our brains to function and our bodies to move.

My school crisis team members, psychologists trained to work with small groups, had to go to thirty-two schools. Working solo. Four of the schools were found evacuating through jammed streets, clouds of smoke and dust and falling concrete and dead bodies. No time for grief groups here.

My team members were alone in the chaos. Acres of hurt and confusion and none of the careful plans we’d made and beliefs we held prepared us for anything like this. The communication center had fallen with the second building. Goliath kicked David to the curb. A site Principal’s last orders were to take his children north into the maelstrom. But there was no more north.

“What should we do?” asked the Chancellor’s office and abruptly ended mid-sentence. Looking up at the t.v. screen set up for monitoring news and watching the tower fall away. A month crawled by to regain that contact, to cut the snarls of red tape and continually fragmenting communications and traumatized decision makers and competing aid agencies and security blockades to get to my team.

Subway doors open
nearest station to the site.
I stand to get off;
passengers look away
as the smell slides on.
The smell. Burnt wire and plastic
bodies and hair.

To sit in that dark early morning basement room to meet with my team. To debrief their worst moments as if that would heal, to calm their recurrent fears as if they were safe, to give them direction when north was missing. To explain why half of them were missing, too afraid to leave home.

Eighty teachers packed in a nice midtown hotel. I speak of healing and hope when a disturbance begins in the middle of the lecture hall. Teachers knocked over chairs as cockroaches poured from a cealing vent as they fled the construction next door. Hundreds more tiny terrorists falling from the sky.

Xray tech tells me stories
of endless body bags
mixed body part masses
two spines, one tiny, inside
dark carbon tracks of sentient beings

“Hey! Time to move.” A strong hand grabbed her collar from behind and moved her along. She realized she’d been standing for some time staring at the faces. The long bulletin board propped up among gifts of teddy bears and flowers dominated the center of the cavernous pier 94 warehouse along the Hudson that had been commandeered by FEMA as a one-stop shopping center for victim and family support. Hundreds of faces. Pinned messages: “Have you seen this girl?” “Jeanne, call this number. I’m with friends.” “Daddy, please come home.”

A child reports: “The birds are on fire.”
A teacher saw the angelic iridescence of a billion
tiny shards of glass against the morning sun
another, Satan in the billowing smoke.

Walking up to hotel in Midtown, exhausted from working 7am to 10pm, the only diner available turned out to be signed “Singing Waiters and Waitresses.” Professional singers and dancers, too, had to eat between gigs on stage. Broadway communion with star-studded choir.

Agencies fought for position. Outsiders wanted in as much as insiders wanted out. This was the big one, the event to have been to, the resume gem. Firefighters slugged it out with police at the bottom of Ground Zero. FEMA pushed the city around. Homeland Security pushed FEMA around. Psychologists showed up on their own offering free advice from street corners. Established outfits like the Red Cross elbowed church groups. Preachers and seers shouldered out secular relief. Distribution of service contracts was a cluster and weeks went by as one agency challenged the adequacy of the other to be the one to serve groups in need of support. One teacher told me it was a month before any counselors visited her room.

Informal test on trauma symptoms showed my team members scores to exceed those of the staff and students they served. Most of them were in Lower Manhattan when the towers fell, most went into the impact area soon after, and most have been exposed to countless unanticipated and intolerable stories of others’ suffering. The stories were radioactive, gifts that kept on giving.

Once in a while an angel would appear, though. You’d know: frazzled look, tired, often frumpy, slight smile perhaps and a subtle but definite light in the eyes. Often profane. Sometimes smoked and usually drank. Mother Theresa in emergency gear.

Trinity Church with scented candles burning, darker, quieter, less acrid inside. Priest and three choir members rise to packed crowd. Rescuers, workers, a few neighbors gather against heavy equipment dirge just outside in the night. “Let us pray, now for all of us . . .”

Copyright Johnson 2020