Charles Cook: 117 Days in 'The Hole'
By Evan Derrick
Charles Cook, proud veteran of the United States Army 299th Combat Engineer Battalion, life-long Harlem resident, and self-described 60-year old “bum” (he chuckles as he calls himself this), would have normally spent that Tuesday in September paying the bill for his beeper at the downtown service provider’s office. His new Verizon cellphone, however, was making the beeper obsolete, so he cancelled the archaic service. “It was a waste of money,” Charles says in a no-frills common sense tone that characterizes the way he talks, thinks, and lives his life. “I’m a realist. Whatever is gonna be, is gonna be. That’s all.” Such salt-of-the-earth talk belies the miraculous nature of that simple decision to cancel his beeper: the office where he paid his bill like clockwork every Tuesday morning was located high within the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Beeper-less Charles was instead looking to rustle up a game of chess or pinochle at the local park. “It was one of the prettiest days New York had ever seen,” Charles recalls. “Very, very clear sky.” That changed, of course. As the news reports began to filter in and it became clear that the initial plane crash was not an accident, Charles’ gut instinct to do something began to kick in. “I wanted to get down there and help people,” he says simply. And so he began walking uptown, pushing against the tide of people fighting to go the other way.
Ground Zero, when he finally reached it, was like something out of a movie. “It reminded me of Planet of the Apes,” he says, comparing the jagged spires of the World Trade Center and the swirling, toxic dust cloud to the post-apocalyptic movie starring Charlton Heston. “Buildings were destroyed. It was surreal. It’s something you see but you don’t ever want to see again.” He pauses, a great hacking cough ripping through his lungs. “You’re making me relive something that I try not to relive…It wasn’t good. Everyone was in disbelief. Anger. Frustration. That’s what it was like. As men you want to strike back. But you can’t strike back…I couldn’t get my hands on the bastards who had done it.”
Charles channeled that frustration into volunteering at “the hole,” as they called it. For 117 days he toiled amid the shifting rubble and dust, which was no small feat considering that he is intensely claustrophobic. Asking him how he managed to descend into the pit of Ground Zero elicits another laugh. “You’re asking the questions I’m still trying to figure out. I’m still very much claustrophobic. I really can’t explain [being able to go down there]. I knew that people might have been in trouble and that somebody needed to come and help. I just pushed my troubles to the back of me and said, ‘The hell with it. Whatever is gonna be is gonna be.’ No one wants to go into a situation where a building might collapse on you or the rubble might collapse on you….[but] if I was going to die, that’s the way I was going to die. That’s all. I had to go.” Coming out of Charles’ mouth, it sounds as if he was making a slightly strenuous trip to the grocery store, not battling overwhelming claustrophobia to risk his life in the deadly wreckage of the World Trade Center.
Another bout of coughing racks Charles’ lungs. It’s as if he can’t clear his throat. It goes on for almost half a minute. This is, of course, due to the extended time he spent volunteering at Ground Zero. Pollution experts say that the thick dust that hung in the air consisted of over 2,500 pollutants, many of them carcinogenic, which were inhaled on an almost daily basis by Charles and the other 5,000 rescue workers. Such studies and numbers would not surprise Charles, however. He knew the second he took in a lungful of dirty air that it was going to make him sick in a very bad way. Most of the other responders knew this as well, but they still chose to stay and help. “There is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer,” Charles says by way of explanation. When asked if he’d do it again, he doesn’t miss a beat. “Yup, I would. I’d be right back down there. [I’d be] trying to find a better way to help, but I’d be right back down there.”
In the years following, Charles has continued to volunteer with the Red Cross and other organizations; he was there for the aftermath of Katrina where he delivered infant formula and teddy bears to mothers and their babies; he continues to take courses in emergency preparedness and relief work; and, according to his doctors, he is doing better than many of his fellow responders who took in lungful after lungful of the toxic dust. No matter whether he has 10 weeks yet to live or 10 years, Charles considers himself blessed. He had the chance to help and serve and sacrifice for others, and despite the physical cost he paid, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I chose my way to go,” he says in his matter-of-fact no-nonsense tone. “Everyone don’t get a chance to pick their way of going. But I’ve chosen mine.”
You can read more about Charles Cook's story in Project Rebirth: Survival and Strength of the Human Spirit from 9-11 Survivors.
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