The female heroes of 9/11
Reviewed by Jonah Raskin
Special To The Press Democrat
July 2002
Women At Ground Zero: Stories of Courage and Compassion
Susan Hagen and Mary Carouba
You've already seen stunning photographs of Ground Zero. And you've already read stories about the individual men and women who died on 9/11. Maybe you have seen, heard and read more than you'd like to see and hear and read.

Maybe you've already heard about "Women at Ground Zero," the brand new book that's by two insightful, sensitive Sonoma County women, Susan Hagen and Mary Carouba, who went to New York to write it. Susan Swartz wrote about them in The Press Democrat in April.

Whatever you've seen, heard and read already probably won't prepare you for the emotional power of this book. "Women at Ground Zero" recreates the intensity of 9/11. It describes the chaos and the madness of that singular moment. This book offers a portrait of a living hell, and it provides a kind of healing, too. As I read it, I could feel an adrenaline rush. By the time I finished it, I felt a sense of wholeness and calm.

Some readers might ask why the authors have written a book that's just about the women at Ground Zero. Why not a book about everybody at Ground Zero regardless of gender? Wouldn't that be in the spirit of togetherness that's needed now?

Those are good questions and Hagen and Carouba answer them clearly. As the authors point out, the media didn't acknowledge the crucial role of women in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Women police officers, firefighters and medics often weren't given the credit they deserved. "Women at Ground Zero" puts women were they were all along -- at the heart of the inferno, trying to save lives, including their own.

Molly Shotzberger, one of the women who appears in this book, says, "Down at Ground Zero, I felt that there was no race, no gender, no religious separation. We were all one." In the moment of tragedy, differences did disappear. Men and women worked side by side. People from different cultures worked side by side. But as this book shows, women -- even women whose fathers and brothers were firefighters -- were deliberately kept out of the New York Fire Department for decades.

It was only a class-action lawsuit in the early 1980s that opened the doors to women and made it possible for them to begin to work side by side with men. Even then it wasn't easy. "The men hated us," Marianna Monahan, a firefighter, says. "It was not a secret that they didn't want me there. And the more they opposed me, the more I wanted to be there." Monahan adds, "it's still a problem sometimes being a woman in the fire department."

"Women at Ground Zero" also tells the story of women of color who work as police officers and firefighters. For women of color it was often doubly difficult to break into the ranks. Hagen and Carouba show the changing color, as well as the changing gender, of New York's police officers and firefighters. The authors highlight the bravery of women of color, and the battles they've had to fight -- Latin women and African-American women like Mercedes Rivera, 23; Regina Wilson, 32; and Kim Royster, 39. Many of these women have been promoted because of their heroic role at Ground Zero.

No men were interviewed for this book, but the women talk about men and what they say is illuminating. One woman says that she has seen more men cry after 9/11 than at any other time in her entire life. Even men who never cry cried. Men who were in Vietnam explain that 9/11 was worse than Vietnam.

This book doesn't glamorize or romanticize. It tells the truth and sometimes the truth is painful. Some of the women who survived 9/11 say that they feel guilty about surviving while friends and co-workers died. Some of the women say they have post-traumatic stress syndrome. All of them have intense emotions and they express them honestly.

"I've become very depressed and shut down," Doreen Ascatigno says. "I don't want to talk. I don't want to do anything." She adds, "A part of me died with everybody else that day."

Rochelle "Rocky" Jones, a captain in the fire department, says, "No one has any clue what the long-term effects are going to be on people. No one's ever lost as many firefighters."

Hagen and Carouba provide a helpful introduction in which they talk about themselves and about the women they interviewed. They also provide basic biographical information about the individual women. But Hagen and Carouba are mostly in the background. The women police officers and firefighters themselves are at the heart of this book, and that's the way it should be. The women are courageous storytellers. Their voices make up a powerful chorus. By expressing their vulnerability and their pain, these women offer the opportunity for a city and a nation itself to heal.

"Women at Ground Zero" comes with dramatic black-and-white photos of women police officers and firefighters. Almost all of them are close-ups. All of them show the women in their uniforms, with their badges, their guns and their helmets. Joyce Benna, the photographer, has captured their strength and their fragility. You look at their faces and you feel like you know them and that they're friends and family.

Amy Monroe, one of the women who appears in this book, says she hopes that "Women at Ground Zero" will be an inspiration to young girls. I hope so, too. Monroe says, "I think it's really important for the little girls in this country to read this book and see that women are not afraid to do dangerous things. The truth is that women do do dangerous things. We just do them differently than men do sometimes."

©2002- The Press Democrat