When the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, most people streamed uptown.
But Charles Cook, a 60-year-old retiree living in Harlem, pulled on work clothes and headed downtown. Ground zero was nearly 10 miles from his home on West 146th Street, and all public transportation was shut down. So he walked.
Mr. Cook was outraged by the attacks and wanted to help. An Army veteran and former conductor for the New York City subway system, he was familiar with chaos and was not afraid to see dismembered bodies.
When he arrived, he was put to work, digging through the rubble by hand in search of people who might still be alive. With hundreds of other volunteers, he spent a total of three months at ground zero, sleeping on the floor of a nearby Brooks Brothers store.
Mr. Cook died on Aug. 19 at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He was 79.
His brother, Dan Cook, said the cause was complications from pancreatitis and gall bladder disease.
Charles Cook had respiratory problems from his extensive time at ground zero, and he had also recovered from Covid-19, his brother said, but neither appeared to play a direct role in his death.
Mr. Cook often said his respiratory problems after 9/11 were a small price to pay for the deeper meaning he found in helping other people. And, in 2005, that experience inspired him to volunteer in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest storms in American history, left that city in ruins.
“But I don’t regret that,” he added. “You come in this world to go. It’s a matter of how you go. Do you make a difference, was your life meaningful?”
Charles Gilbert Cook Jr. was born on Oct. 17, 1940, in Harlem to Charles Gilbert Cook, a laborer, and Catherine (Thomas) Cook, a bookkeeper and proprietor of a theater promotion company.
Dan Cook said that his brother, who was four years older, was always looking out for other people. “He was the guy who always protected people in the community,” he said. “When we were kids, if someone messed with me, he went out and fought five or six kids by himself.”
Charles graduated from Commerce High School in 1959 before joining the Army and serving in Germany. He returned in 1962 and went to work for the United States Postal Service as a mail handler at the Morgan processing and distribution center in Manhattan.
In 1964 he married Anna Perkins. In addition to his brother, she survives him, as do their three children, Sharlette Victoria Cook Everett, Charles Gilbert Cook III and Duane Christopher Cook.
That same year, Mr. Cook became a conductor on the D train for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He retired in 1976 with a work-related injury.
He spent much of his retirement playing chess with his buddies in Mount Morris Park in Harlem or playing pinochle. He also learned to ride a motorcycle. On 9/11, when the planes crashed, he sprang into action.
When he arrived at ground zero, he worked the buckets, scooping up debris.
“We were digging and looking for people,” he said in the film interview. “We were sifting, looking and finding, and looking and finding.”
After the second day, he said, he realized that he was breathing and ingesting material that he could not clear from his throat. Soon, his voice dropped an octave or two. Years later, when he was being interviewed for the film, he used an inhaler to help breathe.
He worked at ground zero on and off for a total of more than 100 days.
“When I came out, I was embarrassed,” he said in the film. “I was embarrassed because people were hugging me. And I was trying to get them to stay away because I had the smell of death on me.”
But afterward, he said, he realized that he liked contributing to the greater good, and he dedicated himself to doing just that. He became a Red Cross volunteer, among other things.
When he headed for New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, he told the filmmakers: “I wasn’t really doing anything with my time. But now I have purpose, you know. When I’m helping someone, I have purpose.”