Local authors give 9-11 women heroes their due

April 23, 2002

By SUSAN SWARTZ
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

BOOKS

Like everyone else, Mary Carouba and Susan Hagen were transfixed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But as the two friends watched the news accounts and follow-up stories they noticed something missing.

Where were the women?

Hagen, 46, who lives in Sebastopol, is a Graton volunteer firefighter and freelance writer. "I noticed right away that it was all men who were being interviewed, and there was all this talk about 'our brave guys.'''

Carouba, 44, a Santa Rosa investigative social worker, said, "I kept thinking how the children and husbands and partners of the women felt, whose mothers and wives had died or were down there going through the rubble and wearing gas masks.'' So the two decided they'd go to New York City and find the women. "It was one of those inspirations that if you wait too long you'll think of all the reasons you can't do it,'' Carouba said.

They took vacation time and pooled their credit cards and flew to New York in mid-October and began asking around. They found plenty of women who told stories of being there that day and after. Carouba and Hagen returned two more times with photographers and put together Women at Ground Zero, a book to be published in mid-August by Alpha Books.

The two women turned out to be as good at collaborating as writers as they were sleuths. Neither had ever spent much time in Manhattan, except as tourists. But Carouba is experienced at finding people. She works for Sonoma County investigating cases of elder and child abuse. Plus she's a professional comic on her off-hours and knows how to put people at ease.

Hagen is used to talking with firefighters and cops and, as a former reporter, is good at asking questions. "That first night in New York we found a bar where cops hung out and went in and asked for women officers. There were four, and we immediately connected," Carouba said. She said the fact that Hagen was almost always wearing her Graton uniform and duty boots helped establish rapport.

The book will focus on 30 women, including firefighters, police officers, paramedics, a Port Authority worker and a Salvation Army counselor. They range in age from early 20s to mid-60s. The book is dedicated to three women rescue workers who died that day -- a New York police officer, a member of the Port Authority Police Department and an emergency medical technician.

After talking to a variety of women, from bartenders to postal carriers who were on the scene, they decided to focus on uniformed emergency rescue workers. Their subjects welcomed the attention and said they had been feeling invisible. "One firefighter told us she sat in the front row of a funeral for a colleague while people talked about how bad the brothers felt,'' Carouba said.

The National Organization for Women put together a short documentary with a similar title, The Women of Ground Zero, which focuses on six women rescue workers. Three of the same women are in Hagen and Carouba's book.

The invisibility of women firefighters in Sept. 11 news coverage also has been addressed in firefighting magazines, and New York firefighter Lt. Brenda Berkman spoke about it before the National Women's Law Center.

Hagen understands why women appeared to slip into the shadows of news reports after the attacks. And she suspects a lot of it was unconscious. "There were an overwhelming number of men on the scene, so the cameras saw men," she said.

The official death count of emergency service workers is overwhelmingly male. The number of confirmed dead emergency service workers includes 343 firefighters, 23 uniformed New York police officers, 37 Port Authority police officers and eight paramedics and emergency medical technicians. Those numbers include 11 women dead or missing.

"Women have never been in these roles before. This might have been the first national crisis when women were involved in this way," Carouba said.

The women lined up to talk. "Once the word got out that we were asking questions we started getting phone calls from women saying, `I was there that day,''' Carouba said.

"There were a lot of tears, from them and from us. A lot had never taken the time to tell their story to anyone," Hagen said.

"Everyone had her moment, her snapshot of that day -- of someone falling from a building, of seeing a family portrait partly burned and lying in the street,'' Carouba said. "Some of the women we talked to are tough cookies,'' she said. "Not the type who are normally interested in sharing and hugging, but they would talk to us.'' They include a 20-year firefighter with three children who was called to the first tower to check out the water pumps in a sub-basement when the building started to collapse. And a 19-year police veteran, a media officer, who evacuated people from an apartment building with a shard of glass sticking out of her back and wearing a helmet that was half-crushed by falling concrete.

"She told us the explosion blew her out of her shoes and so she was running around in her pantyhose," Hagen said.

The two Sonoma County women said that after each interview they felt the need to offer more comfort to their subjects. "They were so raw. We would say what we'd really like to do is wrap them in a blanket, rent a bus and bring them to California and put them in a hot tub and take them for a balloon ride.'' That became their second inspiration. "We invited all 30 and now they're coming,'' Carouba said.

This November, the 30 women will visit Sonoma County for a week of rest and relaxation and to meet with local rescue workers. To raise funds for the visit, the authors have begun meeting with community leaders, and the Graton Firefighters Association has opened a fund.

Contributions may be made to ``Women at Ground Zero,'' c/o Graton Firefighters Association, P.O. Box 2641, Santa Rosa 95405.

For more information, contact the authors' Web site: www.womenatgroundzero.com.

You can e-mail Susan Swartz at sswartz@pressdemocrat.com

©2002- The Press Democrat