Mimi Gauthier LeBien: Accidental Tourist at Ground Zero | <home>

This page is the first of five chronological "chapters," written in the weeks after 11 September 2001. ...
Four more fortnights on the perimeter: next 25 September to 8 October | 9 to 22 October | 23 October to 5 November | 6 to 19 November ||

... These pages were written after the first shock subsided; my apologies for the time they'll take to load with dial-up--many photos.
Also: link to related reading I've found particularly interesting, especially in the first weeks.
Updates and corrections || ... and after that || Winter Garden photo update || 30 May 2002: Job done? ||
What next? || Greenwich Village park continues tradition honoring fallen firefighters

Rod Bicknell presents a selection of vivid pedestrian-distance photos at his KiwiClub site. Several of the links on this page display images Bicknell shot the first day civilians were allowed near ground zero. The linked 3D architectural rendering is a detail of a "Downtown Manhattan" poster sold by MapPoster.com.

Circumnavigating the frozen zone              

A fortnight walking the perimeter

Notes: 11 September 2001,
before, during, and after

copyright © 2001-2005 Diane Fisher,
except photos copyright © 2001-2005 by the respective photographers.

"There were heroes everywhere."
--young woman evacuated from Gateway Plaza

SOUTH OF 14TH STREET, NEW YORK CITY, 26 September 2001-- Different bogeymen hide under the beds of different generations of little kids. I jumped into bed from halfway across the room so a Japanese spy wouldn't reach out and grab my ankle. Japanese soldiers, after all, were trying to kill my father. That was then. It has been since 1945.

No broken panes are visible, even, from the front and sides. The building is dusty, but the weathervane still swings atop the steeple. The city block St. Paul's Chapel and graveyard occupy is directly across Church Street from what was the northeastern building of the World Trade Center until 11 September 2001. Till the frozen zone around ground zero retreated south of Canal Street the Monday after the attack, I devoted a few minutes every day to worrying about St. Paul's and some nearby stores that were below the sightline of tv news coverage except for the telegenic St. Paul's graveyard, deep in debris, and broken windows above ground level at the Century 21 department store. Civilians could get only as close Monday as Nassau Street, two blocks east of the recovery operation, except at Fulton and Broadway, across the street from St. Paul's (called Trinity Church, I believe, in New Yorker reportage). Seeing rescuers using the space was a relief. From time to time a FDNY ambulance with NYPD escort whizes past, sirens wailing. Another firefighter's body has been recovered. So many will whiz past before this is over I wonder if the occasion will come to seem routine. I don't think so.

Every narrow vista westward from Fulton south to a block or two below Liberty Street reveals a different section of the wreckage, each appalling in a different way and absent familiar references pretty much unidentifiable. (A kiosk on the east side of Nassau just south of Cedar, and another on Broadway just north of Liberty Street, display useful area buildings maps.) Because of the way Maiden Lane meanders, it's impossible to see from Nassau into Cortlandt Street--that's Century 21 and an Odd-Job Trading store I like--my regular route eastward out of the WTC when I wanted to shop the farmers' market or I'd dawdled to admire the immense and immensely graceful ketch Rebecca close up when she was docked at North Cove.

photo: Terry Schmidt 
The tables, the trees, the Winter Garden flanked by 3WFC and 2WFC,
and cumulous north tower, 11 September 2001

Up from the dock

I regularly crossed the Hudson from Hoboken (directly across the river from the Village, one stop on PATH trains), the last time the Saturday before the Tuesday. From the ferry dock at the World Financial Center, in dry weather I'd pause as I did that day to sit a while at a table under the trees next to the upscale boat basin before entering the WFC's best space, the soaring Winter Garden crystal atrium. On a good day the Columbus Bakery at the top of the escalator still would have some tuna salad (apple chunks and cranberries--yummy!), then I'd cross the pedestrian bridge over West Street to 6WTC.

<wtc map>
1 WTC: North Tower
2 WTC: South Tower
3 WTC: Vista Hotel
4 WTC: Southeast Plaza Bldg:
      Commodities Exchange
5 WTC: Northeast Plaza Building
6 WTC: U.S. Custom House
7 WTC: Tishman Center

1 WFC: Dow Jones
2 WFC: Merrill Lynch
3 WFC: American Express
      (north of Winter Garden)


The north bridge was wide enough for prize-winning news photo exhibits without causing foot trafficjams and, at Christmastime, gift stalls on each side from one end to the other. That Saturday, workers were setting up a Quebec-NYC exhibit. I heard a radio announcement the second Saturday after of a Quebec Symphony Orchestra concert, no doubt originally planned in conjunction.

The bridge's collapse a couple of days after the attack allowed in earth-moving equipment larger than had been able to get in. [photo]
photo: Mark Mozaffari
Remains of the north bridge. (Detail: click image to see full shot.)

I never failed to glance out a window to note the Vista Hotel, spiffy after repairs for the fatal '93 bomb blast in the adjacent garage. Starting when it happened, I witnessed that aftermath too from points up and down the river. On the Tuesday morning in 2001, where were the helicopters that lifted survivors from the roof in '93, I kept wondering.

photo: Terry Schmidt
Beyond 3 WFC, fighting the 6WTC fire, 11 September. (Detail: click image to see full shot.)
Turning the revolving doors in all those buildings took the strength of a body-builder. I loathed them. I always hurried in and out of 6WTC and across the plaza, sometimes while a concert was under way. No music I ever heard was good enough to make me want to linger on that vast, sterile plain with its earache acoustics and modernistic fountain as charmless in its way as the monstrosity that has replaced the Delacorte fountain in City Hall Park.
Nor did the view from the top tempt me, having seen it once. The perspective was so remote it turned the city below into a dehumanized map with none of the embracing warmth of the view from restaurants high in midtown skyscrapers.
photo: Mark Mozaffari
WTC plaza, 11 September <update, 6 July 2002> (detail: click image to see full shot).

Visual sanctuary

The only thing in the complex I remember fondly is 5WTC, a handsome visual sanctuary, low-slung and dark-clad, with broadly arched windows on the level above the ground floor. Visible from several cross streets, from a distance and at a quick glance the charred skeleton looks little different from the building intact (the trees at right in the image are on the Fulton Street side of St. Paul's churchyard). The thought of just the books destroyed at 5WTC is infuriating. Signage still is in place for the sprawling Borders bookstore where I watched a friend who's a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist charm the socks off an audience that had come to hear him read from a new novel not long ago, and where I always browsed before I left WTC. I was in a hurry that Saturday but hesitated at a stack of AIA Guides near the front door. Do I feel flush enough today to spring for $35, I asked myself. Nah ... next time. A cousin of that friend's brother-in-law became an ad hoc counterterrorist. No, not one of the desk jockeys who do that job nominally at taxpayer expense, he died bringing down flight 93 in a field southeast of Pittsburgh short of its target.

From 5WTC it was then past St. Paul's cemetery and chapel--up Vesey Street, always, always, to Park Row and J&R, electronic shop-till-you-drop bliss, and my intended destination after voting that Tuesday morning. Half of New York pronounces Vesey Street like vestry less the tr, my half rhymes it with Easy Street. I don't know if anyone knows which is right.

Not spared

The J&R outlets along Park Row are all full of that ghostly dust. A piece of debris that missed St. Paul's apparently ricocheted through one glass door of the new Computer Outlet at the corner of Ann Street, where the gray dust visible through doors that aren't boarded up is maybe an eighth of an inch deep except in deeper drifts against counter bases as if blown there by the blast of the north tower collapse. J&R--doing business now by phone and on the Web, delivery free in the metro area--says it will reopen soon. Cleaning crews can be seen in some outlets.

By the second Friday, sidewalks on the east side of Broadway were open. Still only the narrow cross streets allowed witness, but Broadway places you a block closer than Nassau to, and one block from, ground zero. I walked south on Nassau because it was less congested, and through Liberty Street to Broadway.

<map: WTC and WFC north to Houston and West streets>

Broadway across from 1 Liberty Plaza--not in danger of collapse at all, engineers say now--offers the widest vista of all intersections. After the first shock subsides, the self-containment of the damage is a surprise. If the owner had planned to raze the WTC it could hardly have been done more neatly except for broken windows nearby and the ubiquitous gray dust. Can't see the Liberty Street Amish store, another ongoing concern of mine. The closest building looks ok. The Amish store has relocated before, and I guess must again now. Tastiest sweet butter this side of Denmark.

Where are they?

I tarried, considering the Brooks Brothers store on the ground floor that was being used as a temporary morgue, wondering where they went. Those buildings were so high, and the rubble seems to be at most ... five storeys? Where's the rest of the Trade Center? Where are the missing--as I write this an estimated 6453 entombed victims? About 250 have been recovered so far. There was enough space around the buildings for 110 floors to spread out that low?

It's true that photos just can't convey the scene, and that's not just the unmediated sight. In the first days the smoke smelled like a normal office or residental fire, burnt paper, I guess; then it acquired a chemical taint. Or maybe it was electrical. PCs? (Later, I heard a volunteer tell a radio talk-show host who'd been tiptoeing around the subject, "It's not what you think it is." He probably wasn't the only one who'd wondered. I also later saw a Times piece that discussed the smell permeating various neighborhoods and New Jersey and said it had reached even Greenwich Village, suggesting that the reporter and editor may believe Greenwich Village to be a section of Greenwich, Connecticut.) It's most noticeable in the Village, and my apartment, in the evening, when the wind seems to have a tendency to back to the south. Sometimes on a clear day the smoke's so thick you can't see the Woolworth Building. My eyes sting at night.

Imprinting memories

Among the many smart things the Rudy we hate to love has done are to drag pols up here from D.C. to see for themselves, and to allow pedestrians much closer than I'd have expected this soon. Of course the intent is to get business moving again, but the decision perhaps inadvertently acknowledges that we are at the nexus of a ghastly, pivotal moment in history--the city's, the country's, and the world's; although civilians don't get a panorama of the acres of rubble, imprinting unfiltered first-hand memories is important. Foot traffic is heavy and an enormous police presence moves it briskly. "One picture, one picture," they say patiently but firmly. "Keep moving." From the start, cameras have been omnipresent. If you don't press one to your face, sometimes you can find a spot where you don't impede the flow and can stand a while to use your built-in lenses to record images you're unlikely to soon forget.

"BROADWAY/Canyon of Heroes," the street signs say. A votive candle near me had blown out at City Hall Monday, and a cop directing foot traffic asked me to relight it. "We'll never know how many acts of heroism will never be known because they were buried in those buildings," he said. Before September 2001, for the most part in recent years those signs on Broadway have meant sports "heroes," still so full of self-importance the first week they thought that visiting what a New York cleric termed "ground hero" and interrupting the ironworkers, police and firefighters, and emergency service personnel searching for the remains of friends and colleagues would be just the thing to cheer them up. The mayor finally had to ask them publicly to visit grieving centers instead.

I started up Broadway from Liberty Friday thinking I'd already taken it all in. I hadn't counted on till-then out-of-view Cortlandt Street. The crashes shattered the east side of the Winter Garden. When I looked west into Cortlandt for the first time, I felt the same way myself. On tv you see one aspect or another of the wreckage or a bird's-eye view. At Cortlandt you come upon it all at once in three dimensions, in context, closer than at Liberty--and in a perspective that I have in fact not seen photographed.

East wall blown out

If footage of the attacks brings to mind a movie, what's left of the northernmost buildings looks like massive, demented earthworks art. In the collapse, a section of the east wall of the north tower was hurled whole and apart out toward Church Street. I think you can see that happen in video footage, and that that's probably what now lies in one large obscene piece, gnarled, separate, and near. Then, starting with 4WTC, steel skeleton is silhouetted against twisted steel skeleton is silhouetted against twisted steel skeleton silhouetted against the WFC and the sky over the Hudson beyond. Virtually all windows of one WFC building are broken up to the first setback, perhaps 25 storeys up; some windows are broken up to the articulated roof. <photo update, 2 June 2002> ...

I must have looked as stricken as I felt. A Japanese businessman stopped, put a reassuring arm on my shoulder, smiled, and said to me, "Don't be sad. Everything will be all right." I thanked him, tried to smile back, and succeeded as I have every time in suppressing tears. Before I started home I stopped in a bar off Nassau Street and had a beer.

That moment is indelible and I doubt I'll ever forget other spontaneous kindnesses up at West and Houston streets, in the first days when that was as close as civilians could get. The first time the breeze shifted and we were downwind, I'd hardly pressed a tissue to my nostrils when a woman placed a mask in my hand. Where did she come from? Was she constantly scanning that crowd with a remedy for every practical need? Another woman announced herself as a trauma counselor, then mingled, asking each person individually if he or she could use some help. Despite being warned by strangers three different times that I was getting burned, I fried my legs, arms, and face during those three gloriously warm, cloudfree days mocked by the horror just south of us. I thanked one and said I'd just applied sunscreen and actually had got the burn the day before. "Yes," she said, "I saw you on tv" (in a pan of the crowd).

Same old New York

A parade of Villagers acting individually schlepped over to the pier with shopping bags of sweatshirts and dry socks when they were being called for, as well as gauze bandages and anything else they could think of that might help. (In my hall of shame: the Scientologists who drive around in a van with their little donations; whenever they detect an opportunity they leaflet. <update: "Scientologist's treatments lure firefighters: At a clinic near ground zero, more than 140 firefighters have taken up a treatment regimen devised by L. Ron Hubbard," NYTimes, 4 October 2003>) Don't believe reports that this kinder New York City is a changed New York City. This is New York City as it is when the bridge and tunnel crowd--the people tourists find rude and selfish--stay in the 'burbs. Just look at the drop in the crime rate with them off the streets!

Families, teachers, and counselors will work hard to exterminate the phantoms that will lurk under the beds of the children who live south of the Holland Tunnel. Those kids have experienced the real thing, war at first hand. I never have. I was, after all, safe, about a mile north when it started. Seconds later I hear a WNYC salesman, an eyewitness from his office window about six blocks east and north, on the air describing an American Airlines plane crashing into the north tower. After I watch the second plane crash and the south tower collapse in real time on the tube I grab the nifty SW/AM/FM pocket radio my Vancouver angel sent me and hit the street running.

Clusters of strangers are gathered at every break in the skyline that allows views of lower floors. Nobody says a word. A car barrels out of the parking lot on Hudson at Clarkson Street, the driver's face a portrait of grim determination. I go to the bank branch a block south for cash. The guard's face is a study in misery. As I'm leaving, he says the whole city is going to shut down. Then, after--talk about your denial--I vote and get a muffin and coffee, I hasten downtown, traveling against the other foot traffic, some hurrying northward in tears. No. Talk about dumb luck. If I hadn't done those things, I shudder to think where I'd have been when the north tower came down. I'd've had more than enough time to put myself in its shadow.

I pause momentarily at the already closed entrance to the Holland Tunnel at Canal Street and join a cluster to ponder the ugly black horizontal gash and the floor below, a perfect necklace of furious orange flame, each window a bead framed by those familiar verticals. ...

It is the tower's last moment upright. We watch in proverbial stunned silence--except I hear an awed, low "Oh, my god" coming out of my own mouth again and again. The tape looping in my head is "Oh, the humanity. ..." A boom is audible some seconds later. I can't estimate how many, so surreal is the event in memory, slow motion, time stretched. I thought then the boom was something secondary, but the sound of the crash must have taken that long to travel 15 blocks. I talked an hour later with two women who'd seen it happen from West 18th Street, who also thought it strange they'd heard nothing then and were puzzled by the crash they'd heard a bit later. You naturally take the speed of sound into consideration in a thunderstorm or at a fireworks display, not when skyscrapers vanish from the New York City skyline. In a movie, image and sound are simultaneous.

photo photo photo
photos: Mark Mozaffari            
(Details: click images to see full shots.)
photo: NOAA  
Ground zero and adjacent buildings
from an altitude of just under 3000 feet,
23 September 2001--the day before
my conversation with the Guardsman.
(Detail, reduced. Frozen zone: click image.)


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 coated 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. ...

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 back. [photo]
photo: Mark Mozaffari
After the fall
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.

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 from Chelsea.

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]
photo: Terry Schmidt
Almost obscured by smoke, 7WTC's raggedy top southwest corner. (Detail: click image to see full shot.)

photo: Terry Schmidt
photo: Mark Mozaffari
Another little mystery. (Details: click an image to see full shots and a six-months-later 7WTC update.)
Yet the building was so engulfed the fire couldn't be fought, a cop told one of the women from Chelsea.
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.

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]
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: last 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 is everywhere.

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 Con 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 donated 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. American flags became even more ubiquitous than votive candles--small flags hanging in apartment windows and on apartment doors, huge 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 <update photo>, 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.) <correction, 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 the 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 home crying.

Aspect changes

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 is back.

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.

photo: NOAA      
    Ground zero, 14 September 2001. (Detail: click image to see full shot.)

No heads rolling?

Not pointing fingers at a time like this would be irresponsible. These attacks represent an unconscionable failure. An American killed hundreds of other Americans in a terrorist attack. Did counterterrorist experts believe foreign terrorists were more humane?

How could any American feel secure when the officials now trying to reassure us are the same ones who allowed the attacks? How can it be that two weeks later not one head has rolled in Washington? Hey folks, look: The emperor has no clothes.

My adviser on Three Mile Island options, now in D.C., says that security around government buildings is so tight that the hill where my father is buried, at his insistence, in Arlington Cemetery is where those in the know go to get the best view of the gouge terrorists hacked into the Pentagon. If my father, a World War II combat infantry officer in the South Pacific through Saipan, hadn't already been dead, seeing that wound would have killed him.

Till the administration can come up with an explanation of why we're hated that's more nuanced than those "America the Beautiful" cliches the administration's (s)elected spokesman suggested in his address to the joint session, I, and I think some others, wonder if Johnny and Janie will be marching off to war shoulder to shoulder with Nigel, Yankel, and lip service at most from all the other countries that initially rallied instinctively and strongly. Bomb the Al Qaeda network? Nineteen fanatics died. Osama bin Laden's camps are said to have trained 11,000 more who are all over the world and have made all too obvious that no matter how often chicken hawks call them cowards, death does not frighten them. Wild West slogans may play well in the red states, but presumably citizens there already are patriots. At a time when we need international support, a call for a crusade gives new meaning to the World War II admonition that loose lips sink ships.

War on terrorism?

The hubris was staggering and is ongoing. After our war on drugs, now an equally effective war on terrorism? The administration's announced change of focus looks to me like the G.O.P.'s most cynical move yet, a preemptive strike with 2004 in mind. Nations at war don't switch leaders. An understandably impassioned groundswell is seeking to keep Giuliani beyond his mandated mayoral term limit.

Now we know what compassionate conservatism means. Soccer moms got an environmental bone or two, fat cats got tax cuts, U.S. scientific research and women's reproductive services worldwide got crippled by Catholic/Christian fundamentalist-tilted policy. That done, while we're at war how can anyone discuss domestic issues in good conscience? (But get those wells pumping. We're going to war.) World War II ended the Depression. Can a war on terrorism end the recession Wall Street confirmed when it reopened?

W.'s speechwriters are inspired and when well-rehearsed his delivery is improving. But in an unscripted televised conference call with Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani a day or two after the attack W.'s incoherence, far beyond being inarticulate, was a more terrifying reason for apprehension than seeing the tallest buildings east of the Sears Tower crumble before our disbelieving eyes.

The son of someone who was possibly once a Japanese soldier brings solace in 2001, and the bogeyman I fear is a Yalie challenged by the necessity to construct a simple sentence, who is surrounded by C.E.O.s who haven't had a novel idea in their long lives and foreign policy wonks who--Colin Powell excepted--learned what they know about the rest of the world from other wonks.




Tuesday, 2 October: The city has stopped reeling. Nobody would claim on this three-week anniversary that NYC's back to normal, but it's behaving normally. The energetic restoration campaign is in full swing.

If you stand in Sixth Avenue at Prince Street, the Millennium Hotel (whoops--the owner spells it Millenium) and 1 Liberty Plaza--to my surprise--are prominent in the view south. Like the Cortlandt Street side of the Century 21 building and others nearby, their WTC sides are draped from roof to street in protective international orange mesh--presumably steel, presumably confines falling glass and debris. The smoke from the fires at their bases has subsided noticeably, the mob has been accused of looting WTC dump sites, and con artists have started trying to scam victims' families; somehow the Internet has been implicated. --> MORE
recommended reading

Eyewitnesses, in their own words; heroes; Afghanistan then and now; Israel and the Palestinians; intelligence gathering; on watching what we say; some other politics; periodicals; and archives.

These pages have had a lot of help and encouragement from Rod Bicknell, Jean Crouse, Stephen Morse, Francis Fisher, Don Riemer, Mimi Gauthier LeBien, and William Allen. Thank you! Special thanks to Terry Schmidt for sharing photos freely, and thanks, Yahoo!, for listing this page prominently among terrorism full coverage "Eyewitness Accounts" links.


adpFisher nyc 12 October 2003
copyright © 2001-2005 Diane Fisher,
except photos copyright © 2001-2005 by the credited photographers.