By Ann Cipperly
On Sept. 11, 2001, Susan Jackson was watching television at her loft apartment in downtown Opelika when the jets flew into the World Trade Center towers. Like everyone else in America, Jackson was horrified that such an attack could occur. She had just finished her requirements for Red Cross disaster training. When a call came across the country for volunteers, Jackson signed up.
After filling out paperwork at Red Cross headquarters, she was told she would be going to ground zero immediately before registering at her hotel. Before Jackson realized what was happening, she found herself in a taxi with the FBI and OSHA speeding through abandoned streets in New York City.
Jackson told them she had just finished training and did not feel qualified. Jackson said she didn’t know at the time that in order to volunteer at ground zero, nurses needed a passport. So, she was one of few. She had gotten a passport to go to the Holy Land with her church in Opelika, never realizing it would change her life forever. A passport was required at ground zero since it was a crime scene.
As the taxi drew closer, Jackson noticed empty taxis lined up along the streets. New York was a ghost town. She didn’t see anyone or another car. The trees were covered with debris and millions of pieces of paper. Up ahead was a dark cloud.
The hair on the back of her neck began to stand up as a chill ran through her body. She had seen the planes fly into the towers on television, but she was not prepared.
The closer they got, the dirtier the air became, the wind was blowing and trees were full of debris and paper. When Jackson arrived at ground zero, there were pieces of metal sticking up, no concrete, no furniture, no computers, no paper, nothing. All that was left was metal.
“The air was oily and scented with burned flesh,” she remembered. “You felt so dirty because it stuck to you.”
She was handed boots to wear and given instructions on what she was to do.
A walking path went around hundreds of small flags with numbers where human remains had been picked up and marked.
In her role at ground zero, Jackson watched firemen to see if they were becoming exhausted or overwhelmed. She would tell them to leave and rest. The dogs had to be watched to be sure their boots were not burned or that they were not becoming dehydrated.
At times workers would break down and cry. Jackson had a circle of chairs where she would listen and cry along with them. There was a great deal of praying.
When anyone left ground zero, they went through five checkpoints to have their boots washed to be sure any cells remained in honor of those who had lost their lives.
What Jackson saw at ground zero never made it to television. She took pictures until they were forbidden. Some were printed in newspapers.
“The first three weeks I was there we walked around with white gallon buckets picking up human remains that were dehydrated,” she said. “The machines continued to dig up things.”
While Jackson said she did not originally wear a mask, she began to wear it all the time when she realized air quality reports were inconsistent.
Jackson said her most emotional day was when she found a tightly closed hand and felt it was important. “The hand was wrapped up and tightly closed. I felt it was significant.” She put a flag with a number where it was found.
She took it to the mortuary.
“I told the coroner I felt it was something special. He looked at it and put it on a metal tray with a light over it. He got a scraper and gently peeled the fingers back.
“They were holding on to a child’s hand with a tie on it that had melted into the skin. On the plane the terrorists had tied people’s hands together in flight. I knew the terrorists had severed the hands because it was a clean cut.
“I looked it up, and there was a lady with a two-year-old daughter who had flown. That was my most emotional time. I can’t see a white paint bucket now without thinking about that.”
Being the nurse at ground zero would haunt her, Jackson said. In meetings that she can’t reveal, Jackson said she heard so many details that she began to picture the scene on the planes before the crash. She began to feel that she was on a plane headed for the towers. Images flashed during the day and in dreams.
She was on 12-hour shifts from 9 p.m. until 9 a.m. and in meetings from 9 to 11 a.m.
Jackson was told the World Trade Centers were built to be earthquake proof with rubber dams going around the buildings. Manhattan was built on a landfill. When the fuel hit the buildings, it ran down the buildings to underground floors igniting methane gas.
With fires burning underground, the ground remained hot. Water from pumpers would hit where the buildings were and go straight down.
“You would look up in the sky and see images of the towers from the steam,” Jackson remembered. “It was just a very eerie thing. Up to two and three months later you could still see the images of the twin towers because the methane gas was still burning underground.
“People would report seeing ghosts. They were seeing the steam hitting the methane gas that was on fire. The steam went straight up and made it look like a tall block where the buildings had been standing.
“One of the many reasons they had such tight security was there was evidence for grand juries and the FBI, and the nation’s gold was stored there along with banks’ money.”
Although they were told it was hopeless, the workers were intent to find someone alive in the underground floors.
Jackson became close to the families who had lost loved ones. She went to 83 funerals on her off time. She was interviewed in the New York Times and other papers across the country. She was on the nightly news.
Jackson met many famous people. She had been in the news so frequently that her face was recognized around New York. After weeks of eating in the cafeteria set up for workers, one Sunday afternoon she decided to go to the Russian Tearoom for a change. She sat in the restaurant with an expensive house salad and cup of tea trying to find a moment of living a normal life.
Michael Douglas and his wife were at the next table. He came over, touched her on the shoulder and asked her if she was a nurse at ground zero. He asked if she would mind having dinner with them. She sat with them and chatted all evening. Their photo ran in the newspaper.
Jackson began working on fundraisers to assist victims’ families. She arranged for “This Old House” television show to redo a house for one of the families.
Jackson stayed at ground zero for three months. She never took a day off.
She was presented with two helmets, one signed by the fire department and the other from the police department. The FBI wrote “thank you,” as they could not sign their names. She has many pins and Care Bears of firemen and policemen.
Jackson returned home to Opelika in January 2002. She said went through a time of depression. In 2003, she underwent surgery for a mass on one of her lungs. She has a mass in the other lung that is being watched. She now has asthma.
When the anniversary of 9/11 rolls around Jackson said gets sick at her stomach. Red Cross would send letters asking if she needed support.
“It was more than working with the firefighters, police and FBI. I have memories from many people.”
Jackson received the Volunteer of the Year award from the local Red Cross. The following year she received Nurse of the Year on a national level.
For a long time, Jackson couldn’t talk about her experiences.
“It was something that changed my entire life. I relived much of it in bad dreams and scenes.”
After returning to Opelika, she volunteered to help with the California wild fires and during Hurricane Katrina. She is one of 41 nurse managers in the country and ready to help regardless of the disaster.
“I do what I can to help people,” she said. “I think that is what I am supposed to do.”
Jackson later moved from Opelika to North Carolina. After the memorial was built, she said, “There was a beam like a cross that was part of the trade center after the building fell. It was a sign from God for those that believed, and it stood over ground zero until the end.”