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Determined drummer goes into belly of the beast

By: Jennifer Jensen
October 03, 2001

Gregg Gerson in the gear he wore while working at ground zero.

When Gregg Gerson picked up his first set of drum sticks at the age of six and later while touring with Billy Idol, he never imagined that he would one day put them down in favor of an acetylene torch.

In many ways, he represented the quintessential New Yorker. In 1978, he moved into his two-room studio on MacDougal St., "a dump," as a young, struggling musician. Though a successful artist - he's also played with the Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger - he still lives in the modest walk-up, with the shower in a closet in the living room. But on Sept. 11 he briefly abandoned his drum set, compelled to help in a long and grueling rescue effort.

Later he would say the event transformed him - into a real New Yorker.

From the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker Sts. he watched a ball of fire erupt from the World Trade Center's south tower, and continued to watch in disbelief as the giant fell, and still his eyes were glued to the sky as the north tower pancaked, in an eery, almost graceful manner, 110 stories to the ground.

"I was in shock. It was insane. Then I stood there and I had this void. Later on, I saw the south tower drop...and I'm watching this, and I just dropped down on my knees and started crying," said Gerson.

That night he went to the Salvation Army headquarters on W. 14th St., hoping to help in the rescue effort some way. He was told no volunteers were needed, but Gerson wouldn't take no for an answer.

"I said, 'tough. I'm here,' and I just pushed this guy aside and helped some guy that was unloading supplies. I said 'I'm not just going to stand here.' "

He went back the next day, and found himself on a van, seated next to Kathleen Turner, and headed down to "ground zero."

He returned again the next day, and the next day, and the next. By day three, he "wanted a shovel." The scene was a "war zone," he said, the atmosphere "chaos." Understanding of the difficulties, but tired of waiting around, he decided to take the initiative and walk onto the rescue effort himself.

"I just walked into the supply area and got dressed in all the gear you would need for a recovery and search and I just grabbed a shovel and started walking south... I just went," said Gerson. "It was chaos down there. I was looking for a crew to work with."

He walked into a crew of steelworkers and dockbuilders, an elite crew of metal workers and welders, several of them Ecuadoran immigrants living in New York City. He would spend the next 10 days cutting steel I-beams and delicately removing debris in a bucket brigade. Nevermind that he didn't know how use a blow torch, or that he knew virtually nothing about steel or excavation.

"I just started working with this crew and never left. I worked that day for about 22 hours. A foreman came over and said, 'you can leave, your shift is over,' and I said, 'no this is my time.' He gave me a pat on the back and walked away. We were on a search and rescue operation. My attitude was I'm on a search and rescue. In my mind, in my heart, I wasn't ready to accept that the majority of the missing were gone. I came back the next day. I didn't even sleep that night."

Gerson soon befriended Charlie Rouff, a dockbuilder who took the drummer under his wing. They worked well together. Gerson would follow him for most of the next week, cleaning off steel with a shovel so Rouff could burn through it with a torch. Riding in a bucket attached to a giant crane, he had an awesome aerial view of the mountainous pile of debris, a terrible mess of twisted metal and smoldering rubble.

"When I said I wanted a shovel in my hands, I got it. We went right into the belly of the beast. I stayed right with Charlie. He took me under his wing, and that's how I stayed," said Gerson, who was later invited to join the dockbuilders union, Local 1456, which he will probably do. "I was basically learning as I was going. I was a real quick study."

He worked nearly 144 hours in "a week and change," and still has blisters on his feet from the work. The will of all remained strong, and he called everyone a hero, from the Red Cross volunteers and E.M.T.s to the teenagers from Kansas City who massaged his tired feet during breaks. Even friends far from ground zero helped out. One did his laundry. Another fed Alexander the Great, his cat.

He's uncomfortable, however, with being called a hero himself.

"I'm not a hero. I'm a drummer. That's what I do. But I'm a human being first, and I'm an American, a New Yorker. I just did what came natural to me. I would do it again," said Gerson.

Although the prospect of finding survivors dwindled as the days passed, it did not affect the resilience and determination of Gerson and other volunteers.

"Everybody down there was motivated. Morale dropped as we realize that we hadn't found anyone. We were finding remains. As it was diminishing, morale had definitely dropped, but it didn't slow the effort."

Now that he is no longer, as he put it, "in the belly of the beast," Gerson has had a chance to process the experience, and although he still is not sure he understands the ramifications of it all, he's certain he'll never be the same again. Mundane things like a flat tire that used to bother him now seem "minuscule." He's more patient, and he's a tenant activist turned - gasp - Giuliani fan.

"I think Giuliani is amazing. I love him," he said, adding that if the Mayor were to finagle a way onto the ballot despite term limits, he'd vote for him. "Giuliani is really, truly...," he paused, "I love the guy."

Coping with the terror has been difficult. Although not a packrat, he's been unable to throw away a letter announcing the funeral of the wife of an acquaintance, a World Trade Center employee who was killed in the attacks.

He left the interview to meet a friend's therapist for a little assistance.

"I saw some pretty horrible stuff down there. I can't even describe it," said Gerson. "I haven't had a decent night's sleep since [Sept. 11]. I just keep tossing and turning. I'm emotionally, physically and spiritually tired."

©The Villager 2001

Reader Opinions

Name: Jamie Anderson
Exactly what I should have also expected from my Gregg. His heart is a strong one and he follows it well. Proud to hear of a person and a story like that in such a tragic time. Thoughts are with you all over there. Take care, find strength in yourselves.

Name: Susan (Gregg's Sister)
Gregg is my younger brother. I would expect nothing less of him. Our Father fought in the D-Day Campaign on Omaha Beach THE ENTIRE day, and left WW-2 with 2 purple hearts, 2 purple stars and 2 bronze metals with clusters. He is a chip off the old block. If he were younger he would enlist! I pray for all of souls that perished on September 11, 2001, and their families. I pray for the United States of America.

Name: Victor R. Garlitos II
Gregg and I have been best friends forever, his actions on that tragic day and the days that followed do not surprise me, he is a man among men, he was taught well by his Parents, his father Bernie is my Hero, and His mother Phyllis has always treated me like one of her own boys. Gregg, your an inspiration to a Nation bowed but not broken by a longshot. I've always been proud to call you friend and brother, but never more so then at this very moment! If there is a need, for anything, you'll find them there at ground zero or on that beach in Normandy "the Fightin Friedenbergs ." My heart cries out to all who have lost a loved one or a friend, may God help you to find Solace in whatever way you can, and may he continue to Bless America.

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