Ten years ago thousands of lives were lost. Think of them.
I was on my way to jury duty that bright September morning ten years ago, and soon became directly involved. My account ends days later where else? On the edge of the ocean. Here it is:
Crowds of people are standing in the street and on the sidewalk as I emerge from the express subway train at the corner of Chambers and West Broadway, five blocks north of the World Trade Center, around nine in the morning on September 11th. It is a brilliant, cloudless day.
A tremendous hole is punched into the side of the usually shimmering, steel-gray facade of the North Tower and another hole bursts out the adjacent side, as if something pierced through. The giant gash is ragged on the edges, black and fiery inside. Flames reach two stories glowing orange in the bright morning sun.
White papers and flat, silvery pieces of the building’s metal skin glitter, flutter, and drift across the sky. They look magical. Larger pieces come off and spin as they fall through the sky. “I hope that’s not a person,” someone says. Such hopes are lost two minutes later. Astonished and appalled – clearly -- that’s a person falling out of the smoke and into the light.
One person plummets headfirst straight down, arms and legs akimbo, almost gracefully. Then another. The last person in a dark blue suit falls feet first, facing the tower. Their legs pump wildly as if running in place. I turn my head away. People around me gasp and shudder.
Someone says a plane hit the building. I think that it had to be some local, small plane pilot who either made some fatal error or had mechanical failure, but I can’t imagine a small Cessna doing such damage. I think that the firemen have a big job ahead, crazy big, but they’ll get it done, and I continue walking to jury duty.
The intact, South Tower, directly down the street from me is fine. Then it explodes. The fireball bursts toward me almost reaching the air above my head and I feel the push of hot wind on my face.
People who were a little closer to the building sprint toward me. They are screaming. I step behind a construction barrier to put a large object between myself and the stampede of panicked people. A woman, her face twisted in hysteria, screams to no one and everyone “Who would do such a thing?” and runs off. Both towers are now burning. Smoke pours into the blue sky.
I figure the tower exploded because of the heat or something related to the other tower still burning. I do not know that a commercial jet full of fuel, the second airplane, sped from the South to slam into the building. I have no information. I cannot appreciate that this is really happening. Rumors abound about planes and terrorists and I am still not buying it. How could they get these planes? These are commercial aircraft, what’s going on?
I continue walking and actually report for jury duty. The officers outside the courthouse are demanding ID from the row of vans parked out front. Upstairs in the courthouse, many people are sitting in a large, quiet jury duty waiting room that has no windows. Several are reading and one woman is knitting, all are oblivious to the chaos unfolding outside. Aren’t they going to cancel this thing?
A guy, also arriving late, breathlessly tells me he saw the second plane hit. He said he saw the airline logo very clearly. A young woman sitting quietly, very composed, her hands folded in her pleated khaki lap, overhears. She jumps up, and says “my husband works there” and disappears. Jury duty is canceled.
People watch the towers burn, standing frozen in the middle of the street, some stagger away puffy eyed, clutching one another. A traffic cop begins to stop traffic moving toward the WTC complex. He vigorously waves only certain vehicles through -- an ambulance with sirens cranked, followed by a cab with a cop in it holding his badge stiff-armed out the window, followed by a beefy guy on a Harley roaring through his gears.
The South tower collapses without a sound. Like an avalanche it tumbles out of the sky in a mass of deep brown brown ash and smoke. The tornado-sized ash cloud billows into the street and moves ominously towards us up and through the urban canyons. It’s coming fast enough that I must walk backward fairly quickly. Finally it dissipates. A cop emerges from the obscurity of the cloud. Ash cakes three inches thick on his shoulders and head as if an thick overhang of snow plopped onto him, as in some playful cartoon. His black face is white with powder.
I know there must have been many firemen in the building, rushing inside to help people, climbing stairs, and outside, opening hydrants, unraveling hoses, and staging trucks at the base. An 110 story building just fell on them. I find a payphone and call my parents in Maine, tell them I’m okay, and then I find a cash machine to make a withdrawal.You never know.
Police keep pushing us back, North. It’s still bright and sunny except downtown. I can’t keep my eyes off the other tower still burning though. Then it crumbles to the ground, too. The large needle-like antenna that topped off the building turns sideways very slowly, soundlessly, and then disappears into the black smoke and monstrous flames. “Oh my God!” surges through the crowd.
A guy moves through the streets taping fresh signs to posts: “The Mission Chapel is Open for Prayer”.
A thin man screeches, “This is war. They took a shot at us. Look at that!”
An Asian man with broken English asks aloud “Hello, anyone is dead?”
The crowd seethes at him “What do you think?! Go home to China!”
Groups cluster around radios and within earshot, heresy flies. “Eight planes in the air surrounded by military jets” “The Washington Monument hit” “White House” “Pentagon”.
A couple takes alternating pictures of each other with their backs to the smoke and ash still streaming into the sky from where the towers stood. I can’t imagine why they would want that shot. Long lines form at every pay phone on the street.
A guy in a blue button down shirt and tie peppered with white ash says he got out of the North tower, the first tower hit. He stood outside and saw the second plane hit. It was “eaten up by the building.” He saw people jumping and falling out of the buildings. When it collapsed and the ash cloud pummeled him, everything went black; he couldn’t see anything for five minutes. Then everyone ran or walked toward the water. He had two big drops of dried blood on his sleeve. “Surreal,” he said.
All subways and buses are shut down. Along Houston, buses full of cops head toward the scene. People appear in front of churches meekly offering cups of water and use of the bathroom.
I walk the two miles up to St.Vincent’s Hospital, the closest hospital to the World Trade Center complex. It sits smack in the middle of the West Village. Empty gurneys sit outside the emergency room on the wide sidewalk, covered in fresh, white sheets and pillows, their chrome handrails glint star-like in the afternoon sun. A large crowd of idle doctors and medical residents mill around in green scrubs. They have nothing to do. The quiet is disturbing. Straight down the avenue a long plume of smoke streams into the blue sky.
I run into a friend of mine who is riding around on his bike trying to locate a friend of his who works or had worked in the first tower attacked. His friend is unaccounted for and there’s no information at St. Vincent’s. He’s on the phone with his missing friend’s wife giving she and her two young daughters nervous updates.
I walk the next four miles to my apartment as the sun begins to set. People in my neighborhood are sitting in outdoor cafes eating and chatting, seemingly like any other day. I don’t like it but there it is.
I make some calls confirming that no one I knew -- at least no one I knew well -- was in the towers. On the news, live, the last building in the complex, WTC 7, collapses live on the TV after burning all day. No one was inside it.
ON my bike now, I ride south in the dark. I ride back into Tribeca getting past a New York City Police Department cadet at a barricade by lying to him, saying my apartment is just there and I need to check on my dog.
Seeing a handwritten sign for a volunteer staging area pasted sideways on a bus stop, I volunteer for search and rescue. I join a waiting crowd of cops, volunteers, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT), and nurses. I sit on a haphazard stack of backboards next to pile of brand new shovels for two hours until the whole operation shuts down. No one’s going in tonight, the area is too unstable. It’s still burning.
Hearing rumors of other volunteer staging areas, I wind my way until I get to a barricade about four blocks away from the wreckage. The streets are dark because the area has no power. Scant shadows make the three-inch thick ash and dust in the street look even more like fresh snow. Every imaginable emergency or heavy equipment vehicle runs through the barricade waved through by cops, into the smoke and lights and tragedy.
This is very close to where I was standing when everything came apart this morning, and now instead of the shiny towers, I see wreckage sticking fifty feet into the air, lit up by floodlights through ever-present dust and smoke, like something out of Stalingrad, or a very angry Calder. I cannot stop staring at it all.
The officer at the barricade has no information of other volunteer centers. While I’m standing there an older man approaches the officer and tells him he is a pastor and he wants to help, a black Bible obvious in his hand. He introduces his teenage daughter who is “a trained social worker”. The officer sends him away. “I understand you want to help, but I cannot let you through.”
At a makeshift “family center” at The New School around midnight, I find daughters and sons and mothers and grandfathers with red puffy eyes holding hands, hunched over, suffering privately in full view. They’re here hoping that their missing loved one will appear on one of the short and precious lists of the few patients admitted to area hospitals. A flowery box of tissues sits on the white table. A few workers have a piece of masking tape stuck to their chests scribbled with the word “Psychologist”.
My friend’s friend is not on any of the lists. They reassure me that this does not mean he’s gone, it means he could be at another hospital or on his way home. I don’t know him, but I’d like to find him.
News churns from a big screen television in the next room. They’re talking about countless cell phone calls made from the towers and the hijacked planes, people saying “I love you” for the last time. I am weary.
Many times I’ve come into the city, maybe driving or riding a train up through New Jersey, and I would see the towers from far off, and I would think “there they are, I’m almost home”, and now they’re gone. And all those people.
The George Washington aircraft carrier patrols New York Harbor armed with 70 fighter jets. F-16s and F-18s rip overhead periodically. They’re the only aircraft in a sky usually dotted with helicopters and commercial jets. Some people are simply fleeing the city and saying they don’t know when they’re coming back.
Everything is different in imperceptible ways. There’s the uneasy quiet. There’s the dust that is almost beautiful. There’s the reality. Few smiles, little laughter. American flags of all sizes are sprouting up everywhere. I heard a rumor today of being able to get access to the devastated area along the East River, near the Brooklyn Bridge, so I’m on my bike going there.
And out of the mouths of babes, a fifth grader said on the radio today about going back to school, “I think I can concentrate on my schoolwork, if nothing else blows up!”
Church Street still ends in a mile long plume of smoke rising into bright blue skies where the towers stood. It’s yet another level of psychological damage this attack brings that we will never be able to measure. Periodic wind shifts cover the entire downtown in smoke and sometimes bring it uptown, you can smell it and feel it in the throat, like a sinister campfire. Some people walk around with dust masks as far North as 34th.
One person walks into Union Square Park about two miles from the WTC with a drawing on some poster board or some words on the poster board. They tape it to the ground and light a candle. Within hours, hundreds of messages and candles spread across the granite stones.
A young woman works very hard to put down more blank paper. She’s got all sizes of paper, markers and packing tape but she has no knife so she wrestles with the strong tape every time she tries to cut it. I bend down and use one of my keys to slit the tape, and pretty soon I’m following her around the park. She puts it down, unwinds the tape, and I cut it. It’s hot in the afternoon sun, and we’re sweating.
She said she was watching TV in her apartment in Brooklyn and just thought “they” could use more paper. She went to Staples and bought some supplies and here she was putting down the canvas. No sooner is the paper down than someone kneels to write or draw. We toss pens across the paper behind us like food for the hungry.
Paper Girl and I stroll through and gaze at the ongoing spontaneous outpouring. The pace is as though we are in a museum. Someone plays the bagpipe.
“Love is still alive”
“1. Osama Bin Laden must be destroyed 2. Palestine must be returned to Israel”
“Thank you NYPD, FDNY”
“Towers are small, love is infinite”
“An eye for an eye equals blindness”
“Listen to Bob Marley”.
I sit with Paper Girl as the sun goes down in the middle of the somber scene. As most conversations in this new city, we talk about where she was and what she saw. She was at work in mid-town when the attack occurred, and later, she walked home crossing the Williamsburg Bridge with a few friends. I ask her if she thinks we should retaliate. She says half of me says yes, half of me says no.
On the way out she shows me one more message. Complete with misspellings and careful, child-like penmanship, She saw the young boy writing it, made her cry spontaneously -- a common affliction these days. “My name is Brian and I am six years old. I would like to tell all the Mommies not to cry. We will pray for your missing children.”
I brought boots and jeans in my backpack, and head South after sunset. I ride through absolutely quiet, blacked out streets in the Fulton Fish Market and the South Street Seaport along the East River, usually teeming with people. The ash coats my tires.
Guardsmen in various states of off-duty occupy the bright, modern lobby of one glass tower that has power. Everyone wears dust masks. They don’t pay any attention to me as I glide past in the dark. Straight up Wall Street I get turned away by a guardsman in front of the New York Stock Exchange, just under the statue of George Washington at old Federal Hall, where he was inaugurated as the first president.
A camouflaged Humvee full of troops cruises past in a blur where I used to see bright red, double-decker tourist buses. Two Metropolitan Transit Authority guys are milling at the corner of a street that leads right up to the World Trade Center.
I ask them directly if I can get to the site. One guy says “you didn’t hear it from me” but they’re walking that way anyway. We walk up the very dark street together, straight toward the floodlights and the wreckage, which make it feel as though a giant spaceship has just landed.
One of the guys says, “there’s bodies on top of these buildings” as he points leisurely toward the tops of the buildings around us two blocks from the site. A guy sprawled half-in and out of his pick-up truck bed, taking a break, hands me a dust mask saying “take this buddy, it gets real shitty up there.”
The MTA guys keep walking. I lock my bike up in the shadows of a building. The ash here is easily three inches deep on the ground and the air is so foul it’s like eating a fistful of dust. I change into my jeans and boots, put on the dust mask, find a glove, then another, and walk toward the light.
Trinity Church, one of the oldest churches in Manhattan, is intact, but the 17th Century tilted and worn slate tombstones in the cemetery and the spindly oaks surrounding the church are dusted with a fine gray powder as if the spirits built a bonfire.
I come upon the scene and stand right in front of what used to be the North Tower, the second one to collapse. Everything I see is new and amazing although I’ve stood on this spot many times before. Liberty Plaza, where I used to sit and eat my lunch under some scrappy maples, is now a flattened rectangular lot of dirt. Bulldozers are parked on it.
On the corner of Church and Liberty directly across from the World Trade Center Plaza, a Burger King’s windows are gone and the mangled sign hangs pitifully on one metal rod. The cops are trying to make the place into a command center but there’s too much disorder.
The previously shiny black, Brook Brothers store directly across the street from World Trade Center Plaza is blown out and the shine is gone. The fastidiously folded shirts on the tables and the racks of jackets are undisturbed, covered in the fine dust as if it’s sculpted out of clay. It appears the towers fell straight down, inward, as opposed to falling over like trees, and that probably saved thousands of lives and many buildings.
And the World Trade Center? Unfathomable rubble. Firemen, cops, EMTs, iron workers, federal marshals, national guardsmen, construction workers, you name it, are on the pile. A grizzled, skinny guy starts talking about how tired he is. He says he came from upstate. Just get out there and grab a bucket, he says.
I walk out into the debris pile and a senior fireman with a white shirt, a chief, stops me, “I don’t want you going in there without a helmet, young man”. I say, “Yes sir”.
I find a weathered Bell Atlantic helmet in the mud, rinse it off and put it on. Pretty soon I’m in a bucket brigade. It’s fifty guys in a line passing full plastic twenty gallon buckets one way, and empty ones the other. Or we’re passing whole pieces of wreckage along the line. Sweating, arms itching from fiberglass, eyes afire, but relieved to be doing something.
We’re picking up or passing in buckets soiled memos, desk calendars, chunks of concrete, twisted rebar, aluminum ducts, insulation, file cabinets, CPUs, crushed desks, a shoe. Sometimes a medium piece of bent, heavy steel comes down the line with “Watch it! Hot!” and you’re sure to grab the end that isn’t smoking. Periodically someone shouts "Bolt cutters!" or "Saws All!" and the shout goes on down the line, and the heavy-duty tools are passed up the line a few moments later.
There are guys crawling around in the wreckage, there are crazy welders swinging five foot torches like long sabers slicing into the massive girders that supported two of the tallest buildings in the world. Everyone keeps a wary eye on these guys because they’re doggedly slicing upright steel a few feet from us.
The New York Fire Department (FDNY) guys are at the head of every bucket brigade. They‘re digging, cutting, picking, and searching on hands and knees for their fallen brothers. One doctor told me he had to force a fireman to take a rest because he had been working for 40 hours straight. When they walk about the site off the pile they stick together, stripped to t-shirts, sweating, and speechless. No one says anything to them.
Sometimes the shout from the front of the line is "quiet!" and everyone stops. EMTs come up the line carrying backboards and my heart soars, but every time they come back down empty handed.
There was a rumor that we had contact with a woman on a cell phone below the rubble so we were quiet for a long time. But it didn’t pan out. Turned out it was a complete fabrication by some sicko. I heard Mayor Guiliani refer to her, whoever she was, as “a nut” the next day at a press conference.
A guy’s taken away in handcuffs on one of our rests from the pile. He was stealing new boxes of film from a busted out store. I said to a guy next to me “why would he do that?” The guy answers, “He’s a scumbag.” I thought the arresting officer must feel good, he’s finally doing something that makes sense to him.
If the horn blows when you are on the pile, you run. That means one of the buildings nearby is buckling or falling. A 60 story steel and glass tower to the east, and a 30 story stone, older monolith to the south with a truck-sized chunk of the WTC stabbed into its side, are the ones to watch.
The horn blew three times that night. Three times everyone ran off the pile like a bunch of terrified ants. We ran to flatter ground, not necessarily a safer place, and stopped. Our hearts pounding. Then guys point at this building or that trying to discern anything in the vague light up past the floodlights. “What’s going on?” or “Did you see it?”
I look to the chiefs but they also don’t know why we’re running either. Apparently the engineers have a laser on the buildings so they’ll know when they are moving. I thought if my Mom could see me now, she’d kill me.
They took us off the pile when heavy rain came near two am. We all thought the rain would be good to keep the dust down but bad for making the debris heavier and for edging any possible survivors closer to hypothermia. I took shelter in the Cortlandt Street N and R subway station right across the street from the World Trade Center plaza.
It was so close to the rubble I thought it must be caved in. It was perfectly intact, just empty. The service gate was open so I walked along the platform, shined my flashlight up one tunnel and down another. Soundless except for the drip-drip of water from the roof of the tunnel. The spontaneous messages and artwork back in Union Square must be soaked by the downpour by now, colors bleeding, candles doused.
When we get back on the pile it rains more but this time we stay on the pile getting wet. We only stop work for the dogs to do their thing. A German Shepherd, a shorthaired German Pointer, and a black collie move around the rubble. They are urged into small crevices and high up onto the pile by their handlers, but it is a challenge for them to climb the steep and often jagged terrain. How they can discern anything from the acrid dust, the smoke, and the general stale air around the rubble, I do not know.
Teams of Federal Emergency Management Agency rescuers shadow the dogs. These people rappel into holes and tunnels looking for survivors. They are the first ones in. They are geared up heavily with ropes, carabineers, medical kits, and helmets adorned with built-in lights and microphones.
One FEMA guy with dark eyes told me he practically guarantees that there are people alive in the underground levels that were once the mall and parking garages under the towers. The concrete can break and stack to form spaces where people can survive. If they have air and water, they can live a long time. He keeps repeating with bold confidence that he knows there are people down there. It starts to bother me how reckless he is with our hopes.
Periodically, even when I’m working, I catch myself staring at the pile. Jaw dropped, eyes open, transfixed. The wreckage is spread over an area of sixteen blocks and one guy who was a property manager in one of the buildings said that’s about 11 acres. And no one knows how deep into the ground the 110 stories pounded, either.
When we come off the pile again, a dry shirt pulled from one of the boxes of donated clothes is a damn welcome thing.
Before sunrise I leave Ground Zero to get more clothes. I ride my bike past countless emergency vehicles and personnel and into neighborhoods where nothing seems different except me.
The next day I put more gear into my bag including a big rain jacket, a knife, extra socks and clothes, and a wool hat. I take the West Side subway as far South as I can and walk the rest of the way in the rain. Handfuls of would-be workers like me are coming back the other way. “Don’t even bother, they’re sending everyone to Javitts. Nobody’s getting in, you got Bush on the way,” said a muscle-bound construction worker in a sleeveless t-shirt and a powder blue hard hat. I know if I go to the Jacob Javitts Center, I am likely to never make the pile.
At the top of Chinatown, they are still turning guys away who look like they are going to the site. In an alley, I take off my hard hat and stuff it into my backpack with my gloves and tuck a newspaper under my arm. I’m just a guy meeting a friend for lunch in Chinatown.
After passing through two checkpoints, I get back in my worker gear and walk right up to a guardsmen standing in front of a police barricade on Wall St, three blocks away from Ground Zero. I pull out my driver’s license before he even asks.
He looks at it and says, “What’s your destination?”
At first there is more waiting than the previous day, but then we get in there with several bucket brigades. When I’m on the pile with 50 guys and we’re making progress, I am as exhilarated as I have ever been. Imagine if we found a survivor.
I wander over to St. Paul’s Church when they take us off the pile. Sitting around the corner from the devastation, unscathed, the church is a welcome peace from the din of the rain-soaked site. Idle is the worst and that’s what everyone is right now but at least the church is sanctuary.
A fireman sleeps in the pew in front of me wrapped in a blanket. I can hear his breathing. Red Cross volunteers working in hushed tones stockpile medical supplies and food in the corners. Someone sneezes and nearly everyone eagerly blurts, “Bless you”. A notion that this thing is almost surmountable passes through me for the first time.
Back on the pile the wind has pushed off the storm and it’s a brilliant afternoon in New York. But the doctors and EMTs have even less to do than the day before. A survivor has not come out of the pile since the first day. When we grow quiet on the pile now, it’s to watch a body bag come out.
Black bags are filled and zipped off in the rubble a good distance from us, with a crowd of firemen standing around. No one watches too closely to see what goes in the bag. One bag came out with two firemen holding each end, drooping in the middle like a sad hammock. It must have weighed only 40 pounds. We remove our hats and bow our heads.
Firemen’s helmets are key. If you cannot find the body, find the helmet. That’s their unspoken rule. Helmets are a combination utility gear, badge of honor, and voodoo shrine. One fireman wore a helmet bedazzled with this assortment: a Rangers sticker, a flashlight, goggles, 8 rusty sixteen-penny nails stuck through a strap, a US flag, and a brass, fierce-eyed cobra head on top of the broad front plate that designates number and ladder company in big, bold font.
Ironworkers wear their helmets backwards with bandannas underneath. They have no uniform. They have no code except to cut huge steel, and stick together. They do not mingle with any other emergency workers or volunteers. They all appear as though they spent too much time on the ground in Vietnam.
Nobody’s untouched, though. A crew of ironworkers refused to go back on the pile last night. They swore they heard voices from under the pile, voices saying, “Help me, help me.”
I walk across West Street toward the Hudson River and the World Financial Center for the first time since I’ve been to Ground Zero. The glass pedestrian walkway that crosses the West Side Highway, that I used to walk through many times, is down and smashed. Apparently, bodies were in there.
Coming into the World Financial Center area, the harbor and surrounding buildings are mostly intact except for a few busted windows. A firemen’s tugboat emblazoned with a large shamrock is docked and guys are all over it. I bet their partying, blowing off some steam. Firemen and emergency personnel sit at the outdoor wrought iron café tables that ring the area along the closed restaurants as if waiting for service.
I sit in one of the outdoor chairs a stone’s throw from the river, facing the Statue of Liberty and Jersey as the sun sets. If I close my eyes, I could be sitting here having a beer at table with friends listening to the fountain.
Crews of firemen and police officers have taken over the whole complex. They’re sleeping in the posh Embassy Suites hotel, they’re sprawled in the polished granite lobbies and the sleek bars. They sit and rest in the atrium or at tables in familiar lunchtime spots.
A long buffet of hot food stretches along the wall. Pasta, ham, sausage, bread, hamburgers, salad, potatoes, soup, fruit, cookies, donuts, coffee, water, juices. Guys shouting another guy’s name. Guys rooting through boxes of socks for their size.
These are the salt of the earth with big hearts. They’ve been digging with their hands hoping to find someone alive, someone to embody spirits that say, “no way we give in, we’re strong, we will persevere”.
A FDNY fire truck on a flatbed waits to be taken away. It’s so twisted and crushed, it hurts to look at it.
Later that night I find myself in a bar back inside the perimeter, within a block of Ground Zero. A fireman commandeered the place. Power cords run in from outside feeding a flickering Tom Brokaw. Candles line the bar. Fine soot coats the etched glass fixtures, the colorful bottles, the gilt-framed pictures and paintings. Handprints in the powder on the bar seem symbolic.
The windows to the saloon are blown out. The view out the window is a crushed and mangled yellow cab placed neatly on top of a totaled van. The rumble of the big cats working the nearby pile is in the air. IV bags hang from the window, used to re-hydrate the workers at the small aid station in front of the saloon. Most guys seek their nursing at the bar.
The writer for a feminist magazine, who posed as an EMT to access Ground Zero, stands behind the bar pouring beers. Firemen and workers come in and out calling her “honey” or “sweetie” as they ask for a beer. I ask if she is bothered by these guys, and she says no. There’s collective laughter for the first time in four days.
This is how I imagined France in ’44 as the Allies chased the Germans across Europe. Soldiers came across a café or bar after a hard battle and took a well-earned respite.
An ex-Marine who drove up from Virginia to help has a beer with me. Like so many here, he just could not sit and watch anymore. I meet a doctor from Georgia, who has lately been rubbing everyone’s feet if they want it. He’s been here since day one, his voice is nearly gone. He was at first demure with my questions and then was willing to entertain a conversation about the unreality of this place.
There’s a photographer from the New York Times whose shots from Brooklyn from the first day will be in the Sunday magazine. She owns a small boat and when she saw the plume and heard the news, she came across the East River in her boat and climbed ashore. She’s hardcore.
The fireman who breathed life into the bar, the closest I’ve seen to anyone looking like a leprechaun, says he is an Olympic Skeleton racer in his spare time. He races headfirst down an icy chute on a small sled, his chin inches from the ice. His face is so bright it looks like he’s always smiling. The feminist journalist is smitten with him.
Another fireman, who crawls into holes looking for bodies and survivors, just like the FEMA guys, characterized firefighters, including himself, as a bit touched. You have to be, he said, pointing to his temple. “To run into a burning building while everyone else is running out, including the rats.” He wore plastic kneepads, and was dirtier than most.
He called the FEMA guys wimps. “Ever notice how clean their uniforms are?” He just surfaced from the subway stop directly under the North Tower. Chomping wide mouthed on a salami sandwich, he said it smells awful down there. He said he saw a subway car pierced through by a steel girder, like a knife into a stick of butter, killing all riders, but no one can verify this.
A lively guy arrives shaking hands vigorously. A big piece of tape across his yellow vest reads “Morgue: Special ID”. He spends his time piecing together body parts in attempts to identify victims, specializing in teeth and jaws. He carries extra body bags in his backpack, and unfolds and re-folds them while we speak. He smokes non-stop.
I pass a notebook around to a collection of firemen and EMTs sitting at the bar with encouragement to write whatever they want. Everyone wants to write something:
“It was two days before I could leave this place and accept the gratitude of others as I walked out of this place. There were so many, wanting to do so much…but no middle ground.”
“Sooty hues smashed from a flattened height. Colored crowns sprinkled in a sea of hues. 20,000 souls gone North to rest.”
“It’s been two days of hell and I meet the nices (sic) people in the world.”
“With such that I was willing to give…I was saddened to know that I was so unneeded for that which I was set out to perform. Any task I completed was never once menial and yet from the distance it quite seemed so.”
“I sit here with these great people. I’m told to write something. I could write a book with what I have seen for the last 2 days. But I will say this, the American people are great people. Everyone comes together as a team. Everyone helping each other, everyone is just so good, so good. And from deep in my heart, there is nowhere else in this world I would rather be. God Bless America. I love you people. I’m so proud to be part of the team. I love my family. I love you all.”
“Through catastoph (sic) comes strength. God Bless other countless who lost their lives and their families. “
“Due to the horrible condition I’ve been forced to see things I should not have seen, heard things I should not have heard and felt, what I should not have felt but somehow it brought me to a place I had to be. Peace and Love. “
I hope we find you. I will never give up to find you. It seems like a lost cause. There is so much steel and debris. You are not the only one. There might be thousands like you. We are looking, searching, digging, and trying to locate anybody. It’s been 4 days since this happened. What happened you ask well I’ll tell you. Some sandnigger decides to hijack 4 planes, 2 of which took down the twin towers. You, and 350 plus brave firefighters went to do your job, and try to help anybody who needed it. But the buildings collapsed and right now you are listed as missing. Like I said we will never give up to find you. You would be proud of the FDNY. Also everyone else is pitching in and doing their part. Everybody is helping. From the cops tot he construction workers tot he ironworkers to the volunteers, even the dogs are working their asses off to find you. Mom is upset. But we will get through this. We have some family. Dad, I love you. And I miss you. We will find you. Love, your son. “
At 3 am, back on the pile where a narrow sidestreet runs into the rubble, we are digging in muck with our hands under low floodlights. Every now and then we peer into the Amish Supermarket through the exploded windows and see the gray ash coating the fruit and vegetables left in situ like a scene from Pompeii.
One fireman sits childlike on the pile by himself holding a bucket in his lap with one hand and filling it with the other very, very slowly. We leave him be.
They clear us off the pile again and bring in a bulldozer driven by a guy who moves his machine frantically in a very confined area with people on either side, their backs against the walls of buildings. He yanks and stabs at the pile. Tangled jagged metal bounces and overflows from the metal craw. He wears an American flag on his beefy shoulder and he is wide eyed in the stark light. Someone next to me says, “He’s a maniac”.
I explore a quiet, desolate aboveground parking garage slathered in ash considering where to sleep in this dreamscape. All the passenger windows of every vehicle are either down or busted out so I can open all the doors. I figure I can put down the seats in an SUV and sleep in there, but the photographer comes around with a flashlight shouting my name. She has word of a comfort station on Wall. She wants me to go with her because she believes in the “buddy system”.
We find a large room full of cots on the second floor of my old gym, in the mirrored room where scores of people used to hop around to aerobics workouts, and will again soon, I suppose, because the place is completely intact. The brand new cots squeak loudly whenever someone moves, but we sleep soundly. The photographer heads out at dawn for more photos and I follow shortly behind. The guardsman I meet on the way at the barricade waves me through without blinking.
The hole in the ground where the South tower once stood becomes clearer this morning. It’s a small canyon, dropping off several hundred feet into smoky ruins. The opposite canyon wall lit up by the sun, all intricate shapes in rust brown rubble, rises into the sky. It would take an hour or so just to scramble up that far canyon wall.
A crag thrusts skyward at the south end of the canyon towering over the whole site. It’s a big piece of the South tower’s steel skin, the side that used to overlook the World Financial Center, the Hudson River, and New Jersey. Since all the glass is long gone it is a steel girder plane of long rectangles reaching into the sky, like a wafer with holes in it. These rectangles are the signature window frames of the towers.
When the wind shifts, the giant flag unfurled on the side of WFC across the way shows through the window frames of the South Tower’s skin, fluttering red, white, and blue. They should leave a piece of the skin, the last standing skeleton, as a memorial. Make it open space. A place where people can come years from now, and lie in the sun.
The pile still constantly compels. Look away and see something else, adjust my dust mask, glance to another place, but invariably my eyes come back to this massive heap of destruction, this testament.
But this day is already different than the previous days. The perimeter tightens. No one is being let in or out of a very small area without a special, laminated ID, which I don’t have and am not qualified for. I must stay where I am.
Several cranes are already assembled and loom over the rubble like vultures. They’re ready to indelicately pick off the biggest chunks of steel sliced up by ironworkers on the top of the pile. Three bulldozers with dinosaur-like jaws grab rubble and steel and load it into long dump trunks.
There are many more military personnel here today, more chiefs, more EMTs, a small group of volunteers. Even the quarterback for the Jets, Vinnie Testaverde, makes an appearance. Almost everyone stands around watching the heavy equipment. Sadly, reluctantly, the word rescue changes to salvage.
Only the FDNY work their own section off to the South with a lieutenant at the end of the line repeatedly turning away extra hands. Most of these firemen were here when the buildings caved in and they still have not left.
Management materializes. Two poles are duct-taped together for a makeshift flagpole. The flag flaps vibrantly in the wind and the morning sun. A table is placed next to it with a map of the WTC complex spread on it, held down by rocks at each corner. Three chiefs in white shirts confer around it. This is a command center.
Chiefs run the command center, lieutenants keep the pile crews organized and finite as they monitor progress and assign tasks using the national guardsmen to effectively keep a pool of workers at bay. Dogs first, then the firemen, then the workers, then heavy equipment.
Three days ago we were all attacking the pile like desperate beasts in the cold rain. Now, we are starting to have order. In order there is hope. The hope for survivors is replaced by the hope for the living.
Firemen in navy blue shirts are finally cleaning up Ladder 10’s firehouse, which is directly across the street from the WTC. Most of the men from Ladder 10 must be lost since they were literally on the scene and surely sent many men up into the doomed towers. They’re sweeping thick piles of debris off the low roof and tearing off a bent railing. They’ve washed the doors and brave red is beginning to come through. A roughly hewn, handwritten sign between the two fire truck doors reads: “We will rebuild”.
I walk out of Ground Zero before midnight along deserted Tribeca streets. I know I will not get back in since the place is now locked down. As I walk away, I also know I will never forget it.
At the Ear Inn, one of the oldest bars in Manhattan, they pour me a Guinness and won’t let me pay for it. I put my hard hat on the bar and try to think about something else. Friends show up and I’m a little happier than usual to see them. A hug holds a little longer.
Spontaneous shrines dot the city, materialize in a few hours, smaller versions of Union Square, which keeps pulsing with candles, notes, and flowers.
The missing are posted nearly everywhere. Thousands of them wrap the city. They look back at us through heartbreakingly cheerful photos copied and pasted on light posts, storefronts, mailboxes, fences, trees.
They all say “missing” and give contact information and personal information like “wears braces” or “has a smiley face tattoo on left arm” or “last seen on the 24th floor of WTC 2” or “a jade elephant necklace” or “wedding ring with writing ‘Elena’” or “bartender on Windows on the World” or “he is a good man, a good brother, a good husband, a good father, a good nephew, a good son”.
Certainly few people posting these photos expects these people to be found staggering around Midtown four days after the attack, unless by miracle. These signs are to say this person is still here, they are not disappeared in a maelstrom of fire and steel, now a hole in the sky. You on the street, bear witness, remember.
The notion to visit my friend who lives near the Long Island coast hit me as soon as I wake up the next day. My gear is still piled near my apartment door stinking like wet cement. I catch up with some of the many calls on my answering machine. I learn that my friend’s friend who I had looked for on that first night is still missing. I barely make the train to Long Island.
The train is quiet and I put aside the newspaper I intended to read and instead watch the view become greener and greener wondering how long a nation can carry grief.
My friend and I walk barefoot on a long beach with beige sand. She says she is in a dark place. Every so often we see planes on their way to JFK Airport. It’s hard to look at airplanes with boyish fascination and the wonder of adventure, the way I used to. We look up and she says, “Does that one seem lower than usual?”
She was one of millions of people who viewed the events from afar, feeling helpless and traumatized just the same. I was lucky to have been able to do something. The sun sets, and the stars come out. We listen to each other’s breathing, while the surf’s ceaseless, ancient rhythm encircles us.