I speed southward. More refugees flee northward. Gray
on gray, the cumulous debris fog rolls outward. Just
north of Chambers I realize that we are about to meet.
Molded sunglasses hang around my neck, forming a dish
the dust settles in. Cars, sidewalks, everything on
Greenwich Street already is
gray, perhaps from the south tower collapse. Or
perhaps the debris fog actually is receding. Gray dust
is inches deep on some squad cars that have been driven
or towed up here. Some are smashed. I pass a deli and
resist an impulse to duck in and pick up a container of
coffee, feeling that I have no time to lose. People from
the neighborhood look and move, if at all, in a daze.
I see some cops. I forget now what they were doing. ...
I'm an editor by trade, not a reporter, and at
that a newspaperwoman with no newspaper or even freelance
contacts. Conditioning? I can't think what else was
fueling that overwhelming, inexplicable drive to get
there--or, for that matter, the urge to write this.
It had to be done, that's all.
Details of what I saw and did in the blocks between Canal
and Chambers Street are hard to reconstruct. When I try,
my heart pounds. I was on autopilot. I have no memory
at all of getting from West Broadway to Greenwich Street.
I don't know what I was doing or why. I felt no fear.
I was riding an adrenalin rush that had no rational goal.
No time to lose till what? I was speeding toward danger,
not away from it, yet I had no illusion that I could help;
I have no skills of value in a crisis, not even a strong
photo: Mark Mozaffari
After the fall
Nobody would want to breathe that stuff. When the
WTC was being built, the dangers of asbestos had
just been established and much hoo-ha raised anxieties
about what was being blown into the air downtown.
When uncertainty surrounding the Three Mile Island
near-meltdown was at its most tense I heard a friend,
an environmentalist expert on the U.S. nuclear industry
and its dubious regulation, interviewed on the radio.
I called him in Boston to ask what to do. "Watch
which way the wind blows," Dick advised. ... With
asbestos blowing around, that seems like good counsel
to follow again.
I turn and walk north to the first street, Harrison,
that will take me
to the nearest pier. At water's edge,
everyone is purposefully scurrying someplace, all directions,
except one black man wearing a green police shield that
entitles him to go where other civilians can't but who
stands long in decidedly unjournalistic immobility. I see
him twice and will continue to regret that I didn't stop
and talk to him. His troubled expression haunts me. Did
he have someone in one of those buildings? Perhaps 10
other people have settled on this pier, the first north
of Stuyvesant High School, to collect wits and watch.
I compare notes with two women who've walked down here
Bunker in ruins
That verbal exchange, the first I'd had with anyone since
the guard in the bank, marks the beginning of after for
me. I spent the rest of the day listening to and sharing
radio news reports--Pentagon plane-bombed, State Department
car-bomb discovered then undiscovered, another plane down
in a field near Pittsburgh and the questions at first
about whether that was a coincidence, while WCBS-AM,
a once-proud New York City news station, couldn't stop
hand-wringing over commuter traffic snarls--and watching
fearsome smoke belch from a fire I couldn't see in a building
I couldn't place.
7WTC was, and 1 Liberty Plaza is, huge yet had so little
presence I'd never noticed either despite seeing them
thousands of times: downtown sliver buildings that raised
neither the eye nor the spirit. Granted, they had some stiff
competition across the street. I was baffled when two tourists
a short walk away once asked me how to get to the World Trade
Center. I pointed up to the towers and said, "Uh, see
them? Well, just keep walking that direction."
The fact that the reddish brown building nobody could
identify and not the fallen towers was billowing the
most voluminous smoke had to be pointed out to other
people watching, even on the nearest pier. Radio news
probably mentioned 7WTC, but we didn't connect it with
the building we were watching. The sides we could see
looked normal except for one slightly raggedy edge if
you looked closely enough at the top southwest corner.
photo: Terry Schmidt
Almost obscured by smoke,
7WTC's raggedy top southwest corner. (Detail: click
image to see full shot.)
So eerie, the fire reaching across Vesey Street to
destroy the one building out of the WTC's trapezoidal
site with a WTC address, leaving the two adjacent
buildings on Vesey sound.
photo: Terry Schmidt
photo: Mark Mozaffari
Another little mystery. (Details:
click an image to see full shots and a six-months-later
Yet the building was so engulfed the fire couldn't
be fought, a cop told one of the women from Chelsea.
Later I heard a structural engineer who'd studied the
7WTC wreckage say in a radio interview that no one
so far had been able to explain that fire: It burned
too hot, too long, for an office fire. No photo I've
seen of the towers while they still were standing
after the attack suggests any involvement of 7WTC.
The engineer speculated tentatively that parts
of the plane may have been projected into 7WTC.
During the many hours that fire raged--till 7WTC
collapsed--rescue operations were on hold.
photo: Mark Mozaffari
Battered engine part three blocks from WTC.
(Detail: click image to see full shot.)
And I was obsessing over forest-firefighting choppers.
A Dutch print journalist who interviewed me the next day
said he'd done the same. (I was interviewed twice simply
for existing.) He and I then came up with several reasons
why cannoning water from the air into 7WTC might have
been hazardous--jet fuel in the WTC rubble, water peril
to survivors, steam, danger to pilots, etc. Why, Viktor
asked, are American publications so squeamish? He said
he had learned more about what was happening and had
happened at ground zero from European than from U.S. media.
A high floor of 7WTC was where the Rudy we loved to hate
insisted on moving the mayor's emergency bunker at great
cost to taxpayers from the unsexy but secure basement
of 1 Police Plaza. You can be sure he was fulfilling a
tacit contract with some real estate industry supporter.
Unsavory but legal; every mayor does it. He barely escaped
with his life Tuesday morning. With the emergency center
in ruins, till he could get back into City Hall the second
week, the mayor's bunker was space appropriated on the fly.
I'm eternally grateful to Richard Haik (?sp), who I
learned later took courageous measures to keep WNYC-AM
on the air. When the rest of the staff were evacuated
from the Municipal Building, he stayed, and later that
day--after officials forced the few people remaining to
leave the building--he snuck back in and resumed broadcasting
news, staying on the air till finally electricity went out
in that part of town. His broadcasts were my principal
source of information.
Pier-hopping up the Hudson
As the fire progressed, emergency vehicles were arriving
from all over the region. Jersey ferries that ordinarily
docked at the WFC started picking up relieved passengers
from downtown piers; police and park rangers shooed us
useless gawkers pier by pier up to Houston Street, the
pier nearest where I live.
<photo update: the views
downtown from Piers 25 and 40, spring 2002>
The women from Chelsea gave
me their bottled water and went off to donate blood;
I knew that I don't meet the weight minimum. I went back
to the pier on the days while Manhattan south of Houston,
then Canal Street, was closed. What else could I do? Watch
tv? Surf the Web? Everyplace I want to go anytime is south
of Houston. Off the grid.
I knew nobody in any affected building, not even friends
of friends. I learned later that a friend had a job in one
tower but didn't go to work that day; that was the closest
I came to personal loss. That "Oh the humanity"
moment totally blocked, I wasn't the only one who by then
expected a few melancholy fatalities and 49,999 tales of
miraculous escapes. The vocabulary of rescue was in use.
A few blocks away, St. Vincent's Hospital--already
world-renowned for emergency services long ago when I moved
to NYC--was in civic disaster mode. Five survivors were
reported rescued Wednesday morning, and for several hours
people asked each other hopefully, "Anyone else saved?"
Later that day the report turned out to be erroneous. To
me at that point the event was a spectacle. When a CNN
reporter asked, I said that the attack meant the loss
of an icon, but that architecturally I wouldn't miss the
towers. Only the shock that flickered across her face,
then quickly was gone, told me how callous that sounded.
The mayor's eloquent warning that the toll would be
"more than any of us can bear" foretold what
was to come. In truth, only when every post and piece of
sidewalk furniture that's embedded in concrete downtown
suddenly was plastered with as many homemade 8 1/2x11 MISSING
notices as space allowed did the reality become
unavoidable. A husband. A mother. A brother. A daughter.
A friend. Always smiling, always celebrating some happy
event in those photos, 23 years old, aged 66, all colors,
all national origins, worked on 102nd floor, worked on
93rd floor, dishwashers and executives, an M.D. (a woman),
brokers and secretaries, worked for. ... Hope still prevailed:
seen wearing blue name-brand shirt, jeans, trophy watch,
designer glasses. ... Then the notices began including identifying
physical characteristics, a mole here, a scar or tattoo
there. Streetcorner obits. Read one and weep, read more
and you'll need grief counseling.
Local firehouses affected?
The fire company nearest my building had a big stuffed
toy Dalmation mascot for a while a few years ago.
Three men from that company were killed in one fire
within the past five years. Local journalists are so
unfamiliar with downtown Manhattan they placed the
street where that happened in the Village, then in
Soho, before getting it right after a few days,
"near an entrance to the Holland Tunnel"--an
area the real estate industry hadn't yet concocted a
catchy name for; it has since. Within living memory,
another West Village company suffered the worst loss
of firefighters in a single calamity before the WTC,
12 men. <12 October 2003--nicely put--update: "A
grievous day, eclipsed by Sept. 11">
I'm afraid to walk past either firehouse to
learn how the companies fared this time. When I turned
the corner once onto West Street, the highway that's the
main artery in and out of ground zero, I almost lost it
when confronted by a nearly unrecognizable flattened hook
& ladder truck on a parked flatbed. Mute evidence
Within 24 hours, block after block of New Yorkers
lined West Street and waved Thank You signs and
applauded everything on wheels that moved--even
Ed trucks, highest utility rates in the country.
Except the cars bearing Donald Trump (not one to waste
time staking his claim) and his escorts on
Thursday--or was it Wednesday?--everything that moved
on wheels was an emergency vehicle from somewhere,
anywhere, coast to coast. At least one fatality was a
Jersey fireman. Not just rescue squads and fire engines.
Convoys of vans and trucks and 18-wheelers arrived with
provisions. Thank you, America! We thought you hated
us. Thank you, World. Who will ever forget the tv images
during that global moment of silence, cars stopped, drivers
standing alongside in the Paris street, Czech firemen
lined up at attention? I've never heard any band play
the "Star Spangled Banner" with more conviction
than the band of the Brigade of Guards in that unprecedented
performance at the daily changing of the guard at Buckingham
Palace. I'm bemused that the bland "America the
Beautiful" has become the anthem of this event and
not the "Star Spangled Banner"; the relevance
of the words is now sadly contemporary.
Flags and flute solos
Then came the votive candles glowing everywhere.
One evening I walked down the block where I lived fresh
out of college, and they lit my way on a street that had
no trees then, when the images on "Naked City"
accurately described NYC's stark streetscape, and that
now is arbored by trees that trap the aura of streetlights
before it reaches the sidewalk. The first two or three nights
were so dark. I thought that was because electricity
was out farther downtown. (MTV supplied the lights that
spotlighted the pile the first night.) When planes started
flying again I realized that all that light that brightens
the western night sky bounces from Newark Airport.
Our flag is still there--and how.
flags became even more ubiquitous than votive candles--small
flags hanging in apartment windows and on apartment doors,
flags hanging from apartment windows and the roofs
of commercial buildings, flags in storefront windows,
flags stuck in cap visors, on vehicles, worn on T-shirts
or as lapel pins or as capes, a triumphant flag on a
makeshift pole on the roof of a smashed WFC building,
a flag in the window of Unoppressive Non-Imperialistic
Bargain ("Bargain" used to be "Women's")
Books (above a beautiful shot of the WFC and WTC, taken
from the water the Sunday night after the Saturday
afternoon that was the last time I saw that view). Across
the street a video rental store showed no flag but a Martin
Amis Guardian piece advising restraint that seemed reasonable
till you got to the preposterous assertion that the plane
that crashed the north tower swooped down Fifth Avenue so
low it had to lift to clear the Washington Square Arch.
Since the arch is maybe seven or eight storeys high
the piece lost some credibility at that point. I walked in
and told the woman behind the counter we must make sure
the radical right doesn't hijack the flag again this time.
Flags glow artfully from an electronic billboard on Canal
Street near where I stood that Tuesday morning and where
now, a few blocks east, every merchant who can get his
hands on a few is hawking them. The factories in China
that manufacture American flags can't keep up with
the sudden demand. But also on one Canal Street corner
the first Sunday: that chainlink fence festooned with
the inevitable yellow ribbons tv cameras understand,
a solitary woman playing hymns as sweetly pure flute
solos. She'd then move to another corner and play
some more. Another woman was handing out a home-printed
poem signed "RN Betty" with a healing message
to passersby on Broadway down in the financial district
during the week.
I read that New Yorkers are jumpy--start at the
sound of a plane kind of thing. Uptown they may be,
and downtown kids and displaced workers and residents
no doubt are. Beyond the strike zone, the rest of us
aren't scared--at least not about terrorists targeting
our neighborhood thrice. Maybe something about being
involved, or about expressing ourselves in ways more
generous than buying gasmasks and hoarding prescription
anthrax vaccine--one East Side matron stockpiled $7000
worth, according to a tv news report--or evacuating to
the Hamptons. I've asked friends and strangers. These
days it's ok to walk up to a stranger and ask a question
like Are you scared? Not only are strangers making eye
contact, they're laying reassuring hands on each other.
My closest supermarkets had no runs on milk or bread.
Back to Hoboken
On the second Monday, day 14, I made my regular run
to Hoboken, the first since the day I took that last
leisurely walk from the WFC dock to 5WTC. I hoped for
a bit of respite, but skies were ominous and the backs
of the leaves showed. Hoboken was downwind and I regretted
not bringing my mask. A sign on one store's door declared
Hoboken a "hatefree zone" and MISSING notices
were as omnipresent as in downtown Manhattan. I saw an
AP list of all ID'd victims that night, and few were
from NYC. Many would have taken the WFC ferry or WTC PATH
train to work from Hoboken. The effect must be terrible
in a small town that's become half Wall Street bedroom
community, at least two depressing real estate offices
to every business-district block.
I'd like to believe that landscape architects had
nothing to do with the design of Hoboken's riverfront
park. A pierful of trees is planted in uniform,
view-blocking rows (in the distance at
right in this shot of the towers' last stand);
one must walk beyond the boring, military-formation
fake woods to see Wall Street. Not that anything is
special about this perspective of the devastation
except: The towers were part of the awesome view Hoboken
and all those Jersey Hudson River towns have of Manhattan.
Now they're not. From each new angle, that's a shock.
(Excuse me if I can't let go of this,
but where urban land meets water, the kneejerk notion that
park=trees is misguided. The only fully realized riverside
park I've seen on flat land was the Battery Park landfill
before building began: sand dunes, much loved during their
brief moment and much used for art events, rallies, and
romping. The focus was the river, and the open vista
through access streets promised infinity. A Tribeca
pier--as I recall, Pier 25, that first pier north of
Stuyvesant High School--also was sand-filled--with beach
chairs already--for a while and also was a delightful
low-key success. In neither case was the sand a natural
phenomenon, but the trees aren't either. People never
can leave well enough alone, but at least should omit
trees where streets reach the water and on piers.)
9 February 2002, and photo, 1 May 2002>
Coast Guard patrols
I found that, like the new NYC ferries, the WFC ferry
docks now at Pier 11--from Hoboken a scenic tour around
the Battery that justifies the recent fare increase to
$3 one-way. The only vessels on the Manhattan side of
the Hudson are those still docked at North Cove and a
Coast Guard cutter. The ferry steers well clear, and
from that distance the only surprise of what can be
seen of ground zero is that the Winter Garden looks
intact till the ferry reaches a point where you can
see the caved-in West Street side and the raggedy
southeast corner of the affected WFC building that
looks from Broadway to be in better shape--3WFC?
From the South Street dock at Gouverneur Lane I walked
northwest to the intersection of Greenwich and Rector
streets to see the perspective from due south. Rarely
seen east and north of the site except while in transit,
National Guard troops are stationed to the south and on the
southern tip of the island camouflage can be seen
in all directions.
When I'd stood a while, getting my breath after the
punch in the gut that intersection delivers, a tall
Guardsman from Buffalo walked over to chat. They're
not finding "anything" in the debris, he
volunteered. It seems unlikely now that anyone will
have a chance to grow indifferent to FDNY ambulance
sirens wailing their way out of the site; first they
stopped being a constant, and you don't hear them
at all anymore. (An old friend told me later that
he'd watched a tv interview with a rescuer: We
understand that you're not finding bodies anymore?
the interviewer queried. Bodies!? the rescuer
exclaimed. There are bodies everywhere. I have
bodies all over me--pointing to the gray ash.)
Firefighter funerals in ordinary times are big,
ceremonial, and familial. One of the most heartbreaking
footnotes to this catastrophe is that with so very many
and the department stretched so thin, the public is invited
to attend individual funerals. The Daily News lists them.
Now when lights flash in the streets, the vehicle
usually is attached to the bomb squad. Except for
my first job, I've never worked anyplace in New York
that wasn't subject to bomb threats. Usually employees
are given an option to stay put. I always have taken
it, from incredulity so far always borne out, not bravery.
The Guardsman told me about an encounter with an Indian
man who lived in Battery Park City (he knew because
he'd carded the man). Taking in the scope of
devastation for the first time, the man said
in disbelief, "How could they do such
a thing? ... I can't bring my children back here."
He shook his head and slowly started walking toward
Proceeding up Broadway, I glanced through the window
of a McDonald's and recognized--barely--the dust-covered
tables Rod Bicknell shot. That McDonald's looks now
as if it had been magically spared. It could be any
McDonald's anywhere. As a reality check I asked and
a security guard at the door confirmed that it had
looked like the photo. Cleaned-up businesses like that
and the Mrs. Fields' farther up Broadway now are open
incongruously next to stores like the jeans store where
a dust-caked designer sweatshirt hung outside plywood
that boarded up the window and door on Monday. Last
week, before the plywood, the sweatshirt swung in space
where the window had been and folks with cameras
wandered into the doorless store shooting dust-caked tables
of merchandise. I noticed that an upstairs window
broken in a two-storey building on the west
side of Broadway at Dey has been replaced.
Blue NYPD sawhorses near City Hall now bear
"crime scene" keep-out notices. (As of
Wednesday, "crime scene" also was being used
as one questionable excuse to ban photographing ground zero.
The law of physics does still apply even if the First
Amendment continues to take a beating under the Rudy
we love to hate.) Lights still were burning in the
mayor's office as dusk turned to darkness on Monday,
and in a swampy little planting area on the lawn
outside his office lightning bugs were swarming,
more than I've seen at one time anytime this season,
which a New Yorker item said recently had been a good
one for lightning bugs. <photo
update, 6 April 2002> As I
completed an unintended circumnavigation of the
perimeter of the frozen zone over the course of
a fortnight, the lightning bugs were a nice lift.
In the first day or two, a friend told me that a tv
interviewer asked Ed Koch how long it would take for
New York City to return to normal, clearly expecting
an answer of years or never. "Three weeks," Koch answered.
Right! I said. After two weeks you can see it happening.
We'll never be the same, but NYC will be itself again. Some
things actually are better, for now, albeit for the
wrong reason--single-occupant autos banned below 63rd
Street, Holland Tunnel closed (if they had to bomb
something, I wish they'd chosen that tunnel, but of
course improving the city wasn't the goal). You see
folks forget for a moment and smile. Then they remember.
The fires still burn. Victims' families who want to
see are being escorted to the pile, and death certificate
paperwork has been streamlined. But the debate over
what's to become of the site is churning and so are
mayoral politics. The familiar Rudy we love to hate
has reemerged. The aftermath is in gear. Contention
For almost two weeks, the Rudy we hate to love had perfect
pitch. A friend who worked closely with him for a few years
used to lament how different the public Rudy was from the
private, who was a very decent guy, my friend would insist
to listeners who simply couldn't imagine such a thing was
true. Too bad it took a disaster seven and three-quarter
years into his term for what I take to be the private Rudy
to emerge publicly. The most striking aspect of the new
Rudy is the abrupt absence of belligerence. I've heard
not one word about revenge or retaliation escape his lips
when he, perhaps more than any other single American, has
just personal cause for rage.
Two votes, two candidates
There's a lot to be said for voting twice. I'd been
unable to decide between two mayoral candidates. The
rescheduled primary Tuesday gave me a chance to vote
for the one I'd had to slight the morning of the attack.
And after I voted I again got a muffin and coffee and
started south. When I'd walked a block I asked myself,
Why are you doing this again? ... I
reversed direction and headed to Union Square. To shop.
With a favorite FM station off the air and my favorite
entertainment tv network not broadcasting to downtown
Manhattan and no working VCR or CD player, I needed new
a/v equipment. Time for some music and rental movies
from simpler times.
I never crossed 14th Street, around the Jersey
barriers--"U.S. out of the Middle East" graffiti
in dayglo orange no less--to the park, George Washington
statue with LOVE painted all over it, much-publicized
candles and peace paraphernalia, much milling. Been
there, done that. At first it seems like deju vu all
over again. It's not. I objected vigorously from early
on to the U.S. putting American lives in harm's way
in Vietnam: The Vietnamese had done nothing to the
U.S. I managed to persuade a few people to reexamine
their support. This situation is not parallel. New York
City and D.C. are now Vietnam, the terrorists have
assumed the role the U.S. played then. Please send
"Give peace a chance" messages to terrorist
training camps, not to me.
But I wish someone would explain the people who chant
"U.S.A."--even at prayer services--as if
this were a sports event. I can't. Behind the bar in
that joint off Nassau Street hung a reprint of the NYPost
"Wanted: Dead or Alive" front page.
<pix, summer 2002>
Well, Texas was where News Corp. first studied
U.S. culture. What next, Al Qaeda-trained killer bees?
So the NYPost continues to be a vanity publication,
a freak gnat in a national fringe-right sideshow,
and the Daily News and the Times are in the NYC
circus's main ring--which might come as a surprise
to anyone familiar with NYC only from tv or the
Rupert-obsessed U.K. press.
Those chants and charges that any dissent represents
a betrayal of "our boys" or even treason--I've
already seen that happen--give me a very uncomfortable
sense that I'm in a time warp. The central issue is
different, the issue of free speech is not. I fear
we're about to revisit the era when the maximum leader
so eager to charge into a war he has no sons to fight
was ducking a war he was himself eligible to join
and in some parts of the country anyone who wasn't an
Okie from Muskogee had to think twice about speaking up.
I feel we have a duty as citizens to do so. Disney
affiliates and advertisers who dumped ABC's stupid
"Politically Incorrect" for the reasons
they did are sunshine patriots. If a show where even
twinkies can't express themselves freely is yanked,
I hate to think what lies ahead. The White House
press secretary has already cautioned watching what we say,
then the press office excised that quote from the
official transcript of that press conference and
denied that the rewriting of the record was intentional.
Follow the money
When all is said and done, policy defects led to 7000
or so deaths on U.S. soil. The U.S. devotes a huge
portion of the taxes we send it to something called
"defense." What the hell are they spending
that massive budget on if they can't defend even the
Pentagon and the World Trade Center? Dammit, I want my money back.
Fighter jets get scrambled but can't take out even
one of four toxic airliners? A bunch of thugs can
think up this diabolical scheme and it's excusable
that the experts we pay to keep us safe from monsters
under the bed and overhead lack the imagination
to anticipate them? From here, U.S. counterterrorism
specialists look like a bunch of family-oriented
suburban Virginia bureaucrats concerned primarily
with their barbecuing skills and the quality of
Junior's school; if paid less than they think they're
worth they switch sides. The people left to do the
dirty work are people like the rugby players and
Lucian's brother-in-law's cousin, all now dead along
with 40-some others on flight 93. Now the FBI
is begging for people who know Mideastern languages?
The world is abstract, a topic for discussion on tv
talk shows and amongst themselves in the oak-paneled
meeting rooms of think tanks to the wonks who drive
foreign policy in this administration whose (s)elected
spokesman before 11 September could barely come up with
the name of any country whose leader isn't also a ranch
owner. Gullible voters were assured Colin Powell would
make everything ok. Nobody mentioned that political
animal Karl Rove and think tank star Condoleezza Rice
would eclipse his influence.