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Lending a Helping Hand
An Essay by Craig Childs

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It is by chance that I am now in New York. Normally, I seek to be as far from the center of civilization as possible, working as a writer and researcher in the desert wilderness of the Southwest. In the wilderness, a disaster is a nondiscriminate, clean judgment from the Earth, a flash flood, a drought, perhaps, a rock slide.

I worked for a time with search-and-rescue in Colorado pulling someone out of an ice-climbing accident on a stretcher, going up to dig for bodies in an avalanche. I've had a man die in my hands and there was nothing I could do. In the heart of Manhattan, I'm helpless. I'm staying three blocks from the main triage center at St. Vincent's Hospital, where the gurneys are clean and waiting in the street. I'm on the list, waiting to hear if more rescuers are needed.

In the night, I walked along the Hudson River where maybe a hundred people had gathered. Smoke poured between the buildings around us from nearby debris. Wearing bandanas and dust masks, we applauded the streams of emergency vehicles leaving ground zero, we shouted out thanks and the vehicles kept coming -- ambulances, troop trucks full of dusty rescuers, semi trucks loaded with huge tangles of metal and stairways and window glass. I reached out and high-fived a paramedic sticking her arm from the ambulance window. The workers stared at us in disbelief. Expressions of confused joy began to appear on their faces, as they honked and flashed their lights. In the other lane, a steady rush of replacement vehicles, sirens blaring, headed downtown.

When I finally walked away into the next street, faint with smoke, my hands hurt from all the clapping. If I couldn't lift wreckage and search for survivors, at least my hands were sore from supporting those who could.

Craig Childs, author of The Secret Knowledge of Water, lives in Crawford, Colo.