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By Don Harrison

August 8, 2013 (El Cajon) – In the shock that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., partners Mary Carouba and Susan Hagen sat stunned across the country in California.  After a while it dawned on them that whenever they turned on the television, there were news stories and other acknowledgments about the men who were the first responders at the World Trade Center.  Always the men.  Weren’t there any women there?

Carouba recalled that New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, standing on the rubble of the World Trade Center, asked for a round of applause for “the men we lost” as well as for those other men who helped people to survive the collapse of the Twin Towers.  Later, President George W. Bush came to the site of the tragedy to praise “all the men,” Carouba related to a convocation of classified employees Thursday, Aug. 1, at Grossmont College.

As they watched this news coverage, and later talk shows, including even Oprah Winfrey’s, at which the women who were first responders remained unacknowledged, Carouba said, “I thought the top of my head would explode.”  If anyone felt that she was being over-sensitive, Carouba said to the Grossmont College audience, just imagine if she were standing in front of a room filled with men, and was praising only the brave women.

On impulse, Carouba and Hagen decided to fly to New York City to right the wrong, and write about the women who risked their lives in the service of others.  Hagen had been a newspaper reporter, later turning to institutional public relations before deciding in 1994 to become a firefighter and emergency medical technician in Sonoma County.  Carouba, on the other hand, had no experience either as a journalist or as a firefighter.  Instead, as a social worker, she had investigated cases of child abuse, and pursued a second career evenings and weekends as a stand-up comedian.

However, in the weeks after 9/11, Carouba said she didn’t feel much like telling jokes.  And particularly, she eschewed the kind of ethnic humor she used to like to poke at, her own heritage, which she described as half Arab and half Irish.  She used to tell audiences that with a background like that, she’d want to get angry and take hostages, and then drink so much she’d forget where she put them.  Today, perhaps jokes like that may sound funny again, but they didn’t seem so back then. About two years ago, Carouba said, she received a liver transplant from a Jewish donor, so now when she forgets about those hostages, she is overcome with guilt feelings. 

Hagen and Carouba flew together to New York City about two weeks after the terrorist attacks, having made no advance arrangements, and not knowing anyone in the city.  But they had a strong commitment, and sometimes, she noted, when people commit themselves, the world magically opens up for them.  They asked a New York cab driver to take them to some place where women who were first responders would go after a hard day, and he promptly drove them to a subterranean bar in Greenwich Village.   They walked in and announced that they were from California, and the silence seemed to them the kind one used to see in old cowboy movies, when the desperado pushes open the swinging doors of the bar.  But three female first responders came forward, and they told of their experiences.  One, who was on crutches and bandaged, began crying as she described what her feelings had been at a “photo opportunity” when a male firefighter – who hadn’t even been in the city on 9/11 – was presented with a vacation in appreciation for what first responders had to do.  She, who had been there and had been injured, was required to stand there for the photo and smile.

Female firefighters, police, and paramedics are a small community—of 11,500 firefighters in New York City, said Carouba, only 25 are women.  So when the word was passed that two book writers from California wanted to hear the women’s stories, more and more presented themselves at Hagen’s and Carouba’s headquarters at a midtown hotel.

Among them was Brenda Berkman, who once had been prevented from even applying to be a firefighter because of her gender.  So she went to law school, became a lawyer, sued the state of New York, and when she won the case, put in her notice at the law firm, and became a firefighter, said Carouba.

Berkman used to get death threats, and at one time a mortician actually came to her house saying he had received a call to pick up the body of Brenda Berkman.  Male firefighters used to urinate in the boots of the female firefighters.  Pornography was pinned up all over the firehouse.  Talk about a hostile work place!  But as the years progressed, Berkman won acceptance and rose to the rank of Captain.

She had a scheduled day off on September 11th but like almost every other firefighter she reported to work.  Blocked off roads prevented her from going to her station in lower Manhattan, so she reported to a station where she had worked previously in Brooklyn.  She drove with a fire company across the Brooklyn Bridge, and began searching for survivors.  She learned, to her horror, that among those who had been killed were some of the men who had been under her command.

“For several weeks, we were all in desperation mode,” Berkman recalled in the 312-page book Women at Ground Zero: Stories of Courage and Compassion, which Hagen and Carouba eventually wrote, dedicating its profits to funds set up to help 9/11 victims.

Besides Berkman’s story, the book includes those of 32 other women who were at Ground Zero – including those who were killed that awful day: Moira Smith, a New York City police officer; Capt. Kathy Mazza, a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department officer, and Yamel Merino, an emergency medical technician with MetroCare Ambulance Service.

Because the accomplishments of women were at first overlooked, the names of those profiled in the book have special importance.  In addition to those already mentioned, they were: Carol Paukner, Maureen McArdle-Schulman, Mercedes Rivera, Joann Spreen, Regina Wilson, Lt. Doreen Ascatigno, Sue Keane, Capt. Janice Olszewski, Lt. Terri Tobin, Capt. Marianne Monahan, Bonnie Giebfried, Tracy Donahoo, Tracy Lewis, Lt. Amy Monroe, Lt. Kim Royster, Patty Lucci, Lois Mungay, Maurren Brown, Maj. Molly Shotzberger, Lt. Ella McNair, Lt. Kathleen Gonczi, Nancy Ramos-Williams, Christine Mazzola, Sgt. Carey Policastro, Maj. Kally Eastman, Rose Arce, Det. Jennifer Abramowitz, Capt. Rochelle “Rocky” Jones, and Sarah Hallett, Ph. D.

Hagen and Carouba did not simply write and run.  About 13 months after 9/11, they arranged a trip for a group of 35 that included first responders and, in some cases, their caretakers to visit California’s wine country.   Once again believing in the power of commitment, they issued the invitations, received acceptances and then decided to fundraise.  The co-authors piled up their credit cards, added up their credit limits, and figured that’s a start. But persistent fundraising, with contributions usually coming in small denominations, resulted in a $150,000 fund, for which they paid for the New York heroes’ visit to California, and still had enough left over to create a scholarship fund for future female public safety officers.

After her presentation, Grossmont College employees lined up to purchase the $20 book and to have the book signed by Carouba.  So impactful was her talk that Carouba ran out of copies and had to take the names and addresses of those who wanted a copy of the book.


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