9/11's Multilingual Interpreter

Madison art conservator Tony Rajer happened to be in New York City working on the new American Folk Art Museum on 53rd and Fifth Avenue when the World Trade Center towers were hit by two hijacked Boeing 767 jets.

As the initial shock of the attack passed, Rajer sprang into action, acting as a volunteer for the Red Cross. Fluent in five languages, Rajer knew his bilingual skills could be put to good use constructing signs and speaking to those who wished to pitch in at Ground Zero.

“I remember the first night we were distributing food to employees tasked with getting the New York Stock Exchange back up and running. There was such a variety of people. All the languages that I know — Italian, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese — I used them all,” Rajer said.

After working in the museum by day, Rajer headed to the Red Cross headquarters at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn to pick up a rescue vehicle.

“What surprised me about New York volunteers is that so few of them knew how to drive. After all, many had just used the subway all their lives,” Rajer said. “When they asked if I could drive a truck, I told them I was from Wisconsin and could even drive a tractor!”

While maneuvering the truck across the Brooklyn Bridge, Rajer recalls the sight of hundreds women’s high heeled shoes littering the bridge deck.

“Then it hit me that they had been abandoned by the women fleeing across the bridge from lower Manhattan the morning of the attacks,” Rajer said.

Haunting images

In the two weeks following the attacks, Rajer worked on the night crew responsible for distributing food to Army and FEMA personnel, city of New York employees and rescue workers and later workers that had been hired to clean up at Ground Zero and adjacent neighborhoods.

“I never knew from one night to the next if we would be sent to FEMA headquarters, Staten Island or Ground Zero,” Rajer said.

Long after the last sandwich has been given out for the night, Rajer would sit with his sketch book in the wee hours of the morning, capturing images of rescue workers laboring in the twisted, smoldering mountain of rubble under the bright search lights.

“The smell still recollects in my mind,” Rajer said, along with the ingrained images of human carnage that he refrains from speaking about. “I just can’t understand how people can be so mean-spirited to their fellow human beings.”

Rajer also recalls the thousands of flyers bearing the photos and vital statistics of World Trade Center employees, that had been posted around Ground Zero, in hospitals and in churches by family and friends looking for loved ones who had been working in and around the twin towers that fateful Tuesday morning.

“They were all looking for loved ones, hoping that they might have survived and had gotten lost or disoriented after the attack,” Rajer said. “In time, those notices transformed into memorials. It still bothers me 10 years later. These were people — many of them young — whose lives had been totally taken from them in the cruelest kind of way.”

Taken from: fdlreporter.com: 11.09.11