Gregg Gerson at Ground Zero
By Steve Angelucci
|Significant historical events stay within our consciousness and alter our lives and perceptions with indelible memories. We remember where we were and exactly what we were doing during these "days that will live in infamy," such as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and other political or social figures. Such recollections become points of reference and we recount them to our friends, children, and subsequent generations.
Drummer Gregg Gerson is still experiencing the horror of the terrorist attack on America for he was there, watching in disbelief, as the imposing towers of the World Trade Center became indistinguishable piles of rubble. He was so affected that he stayed and worked onsite for two months.
|Gerson, a former Margate resident and 1976 graduate of Holy Spirit High School, is a respected drummer, having performed with various rock stars like Ronnie Spector, Roger Daltrey, Mick Jagger and Billy Idol. After learning his craft on the Jersey Shore, Gerson traveled to New York City and immersed himself in the music business. He performed with Idol for three years, playing on such hits as "Rebel Yell" and the live version of "White Wedding." On September 11, awakened by screams, Gerson bolted from the bed of his Greenwich Village apartment. "I went up to my roof and there was the North Tower burning like the towering inferno," he recounted.
Gerson immediately returned to his apartment and called his dear friend, firefighter Patty Brown of New York's elite Fire Rescue 1, and left a message for Brown to call him. Brown never returned the call, since he was one of the first killed in the catastrophe. Back on the roof, Gerson spotted the second plane approaching.
"It was coming in from the direction of the Statute of Liberty, over the Hudson Bay, from the Jersey side, heading northeast," he said. "It struck the tower, the southwest end of the South Tower, and I saw a gigantic ball of fire lash out. That's when I knew we were under attack." Gerson immediately dropped to his knees.
He went downstairs to Bleeker and Thompson streets and looked directly at the South Tower. "It’s not far. It’s like from the point in Longport to Lucy the Elephant. Not even that far . . . All of a sudden the South Tower just fell," he said. However, "There was so much smoke and debris that we didn't realize the tower was falling. It just collapsed on top of itself."
Although the South Tower was the second one hit, it was the first tower to fall. "When I realized it fell, I was in disbelief. I got numb," he continued. "I was standing there in a trance, almost a shell shock, and all of a sudden, the second one went. To watch the second one drop was a different feeling because you could actually see the tower fall. The top of the structure just sort of tilted to the right and then slid toward the left side of the building and then it just went. I dropped to my knees and I cried. The tears just started streaming down my face. It was just a surreal feeling. I can't describe it."
Gerson was deeply affected by the human tragedy. "Before the building dropped, I saw people jumping. After you see the first one fall, you sort of turn away. For dignity, you don't want to watch them hit. To give them their dignity to die, you just don't want to watch."
The tragedy brought Americans, especially New Yorkers, together as one people. "We were all Americans, we all were together, we were all united. There were no divisions of any sort. Later on that day you had people, cab drivers, everyone was just helping. Everyone and anyone who could do anything to help, to aid -- from every race, creed, and color -- everyone was there."
That afternoon, Gerson began loading supply trucks to aid the workers on site. The next day he went to St. Vincent's Hospital to continue his loading duties. However, he felt he could do more. "I went right in with a shovel and pick and joined a team and started working and I never left. At that point, it was just mountainous rubble of debris of a scale that's undescribable. Undescribable size -- blocks upon blocks. It was absolutely horrific," he recalled. "The smell of death. You'll never ever forget the smell or the sight -- we were finding pieces and parts of people. They were so viciously torn apart."
Ground Zero workers labored at their peril, often working 14 or 15-hour days. "When I was right down in the center, in the hole, it was all jagged," said Gerson. "If I had fallen, I would have been torn apart. It was all jagged metal and steel and glass and debris. One slip and you're gone. One guy lost his foot. I saw him get his foot sheered off from an I-beam that slipped. It was a very, very gnarly place to be."
In one day, Gerson went from being a professional drummer to being an ironworker. Because he had some welding skill, he was given a torch and was put to work. "I burned through three pairs of boots, that's how hot it was."
With his onsite mentor, Charlie Rouff, he was often put into a bucket, raised 300 feet by a giant crane, and lowered into the hole. "Other times, we would burrow. We would dig and burn, so that fire and police could get in, because they were the ones who would bag and retrieve. But, we would find. You never hear much about the iron guys, but they were doing all the manual work. I know it sounds kind of bizarre, but everyone kind of honors the police and firemen and God bless them -- 343 police and fire lost their lives, including one of my oldest friends, Patty Brown of Fire Rescue 1 -- but the iron guys are heroes, too. And you had them all. The sheet metal workers, the laborers, the dock builders, you name it. Everybody worked together. And it was hell on earth." Because of Gerson's efforts, the Dock Builders Union, Local 1456, later invited him to become a member.
"That first week we worked around the clock, because all we wanted to do was find people," he said. "On one of my shifts, I worked 22-23 hours straight. We were praying and hoping that we would find people, but, there were no people to find."
The doctors and nurses onsite waited, too, but had no patients other than the Ground Zero workers. "We needed our eyes cleaned out -- I had to go back almost every hour to get my eyes cleaned out with saline. The smell was the smell of burning plastic times one thousand. It was so thick and dense, that burning, sucking, miserable smell." Gerson is plagued with bronchitis, even though he wore a respirator most of the time.
Security at Ground Zero was incredibly tight and Gerson had to go through various checkpoints to get to his worksite. "They'd change the passes every week, so they couldn't forge them. It took about a week and a half before things got really organized, because it was chaotic at first. Then they brought in the National Guard with full-metal jackets and clips in their guns and they were ready for a firefight. They took over for NYPD to watch the perimeter so no one could get in or out without being checked."
In spite of his efforts, Gerson doesn't consider himself a hero. "I'm an American. I'm a patriot. I love this country," he said emphatically. "I wouldn't be able to be a professional musician [if I weren't here]. I play music for a living. I do what I love to do. How many places in the world can one do that America has provided me the platform to live a life of freedom."
Gerson stressed that his father was a true hero. "My father was a war hero. He landed on Normandy Beach, fourth wave. He was in the First Infantry division, 16th Regiment. He was on that first beachhead for hours. It was hell on earth. Some people just rise to the occasion. He was one, and I wasn't even thinking about it, I just did what I had to do. I still have nightmares almost every night, but I wouldn't trade it for the world."
His viewpoint on his life and music has changed. Gerson is excited about working with Jason Mraz, who is recording on Electra Records. "My music has taken a whole new perspective. I'm playing better music that I ever played because every note I play is like a gift. It's a whole new appreciation for life. Every day is a gift."