In the months following September 11th, thousands of firefighters, police, and other volunteers descended into ground zero. It was one of the most difficult and dangerous search efforts ever undertaken.
The Reverend Louane Frey lives in Cary now, but on September 11th she was a school teacher in New Jersey. She also was a hospital chaplain and counseled victims after traumatic events. So when the call came for people of faith to provide comfort and counsel to those working at ground zero, she quickly stepped forward.
They called it the pit, and they didn’t let you go down into it alone on your first day. That was the case no matter who you were or what you’d seen before, and The reverend Luanne Frey had seen plenty. But nothing prepared her for what she saw in The Pit in the days after 9-11.
The Rev. Louane Frey: "I thought I was pretty well prepared. I’d been in morgues. I’d been in autopsies. It just overwhelmed me, the amount of devastation that was there. You just, you see it on TV, but you don’t really see it. It’s like watching the grand canyon on TV. You don’t really see the depth and breadth of everything until you’re there. And that just floored me to no end."
That first day was the hardest. When Frey came out of the Pit and drove home, she took everything off in the garage and spent hours in the shower, trying to get clean.
Frey: "My husband says what was it like. I said I can’t talk about it now. Just leave me alone. Let me absorb what I did. And that’s unusual for me."
The next morning, Frey was driving to school. And Bette Midler’s wind beneath my wings came on the radio as she drove over a mist-covered bridge.
Frey: "It just all caved in on me. I pulled off on the road in a little park over there and just sat in the car. Cried. And cried. And then I said OK. I wiped my face. And went to school. And after that I was OK."
And she kept going back, as did the firefighters and police searching for fallen colleagues.
Frey: "They were on a mission, plain and simple. A recovery mission. And of course they got frustrated, because they couldn’t find what they wanted. And I ad been sometimes with the 13th precinct, the one that lost the only woman. And they were desperate to find her. Desperate, desperate to find her."
They never did find Officer Moira Smith’s body. But when they did find someone – or a part of someone – Frey was there to make sure he or she was treated with honor and dignity. Frey also provided whatever comfort she could to those who were searching. She’d chat with them in the Pit, or eat lunch with them back at Saint Paul’s Chapel. Amazingly, the Chapel, just feet from the World Trade Center, came through the attack unscathed. It became the headquarters for the search teams – part staging area, part refuge,
Frey: "The Chapel itself was their place of solitude, freedom. We fed them, we clothed them, because they’re working with water, they’re working with this, they’re working with that. They needed dry socks. They needed this."
Musicians played. Services were held. The pews were lined with postcards, sent by children from around the world. But while Saint Paul’s was a safe haven, the Pit was anything but. Despite what then-EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman said days after 9-11…
Christine Todd Whitman: "As I say you know asbestos was in there, it’s in those buildings. Lead is in those buildings. There are the VOCs, however, the concentrations are such that they don’t pose a health hazard."
Frey: "And Christy Todd Whitman, she kept saying it was safe to be there. But it wasn’t safe. There had to be asbestos in some of that stuff. There was chemicals in the furniture. There was the diesel fuel."
In December, Frey began to have a persistent cough. She was told to stay out of the Pit and worked at Saint Paul’s until Palm Sunday, when her chest began to hurt.
Frey: "My husband took one look at me and said you look horrible. You’re pale, your lips are getting bluish. I said my chest just hurts a little. Brought me to the hospital emergency room and I was admitted right away upstairs, and I was in for 14 days."
Frey was diagnosed with critical asthma. Her days at Ground Zero were over. She was in and out of the hospital for several more years, until the bitter cold winter of 2007. That’s when a doctor said a warmer climate would help her condition. So they packed up and came to North Carolina.
She was surprised to find others here who had similar experiences during and after 9-11. They’d sometimes get together at the Food Factory deli in Cary, owned by a former New York city cop and firefighter.
Frey: "You’re just not alone and isolated. That other people know what was there and can relate to it. It’s nice to know that."
Two studies released this month show that 70 percent of those who worked at ground zero have respiratory problems, and that men who were there are also 19 percent more likely to get cancer. Frey gets treatment at Duke, and hasn’t been admitted into the hospital since moving here.
Frey:" I’m lucky. I have something I can take care of and maintain it with care. But there are people who have lung cancer, a few of the policemen and firemen have already passed. They kind of ignore that."
Frey works now as the Deacon Associate at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Durham. She keeps a box on the shelf near her desk there. Inside are the shoes she wore into the Pit, still caked with gray dust. She’s tried to wash them, but they won’t get clean.
Next to the shoes is a children’s book. Frey has read The Little Church That Stood during children’s chapel before, and she will do it again this Sunday – the tenth anniversary of 9-11.
Frey (reading): "Just like the chapel of old saint Paul. Hear the bells of freedom and what they say. Terror may come, but it will not stay. It will shake our world, but we will not sway. It will block the path, but we will find our way. Free beneath the stars that shine, both night and day…"
Frey hasn’t been back to Saint Paul’s or Ground Zero since she got sick. She says she knows she needs to go, and she’ll get there, when the time is right.