October 14, 2001October 14, 2001
I walked south along the west side of Manhattan from 28th Street. Though I could not see the visible artifact of Ground Zero, the combined smell of burning electrical equipment and decomposing bodies increased in pungency the closer I moved toward it. As it was so late at night, there was a calm in the streets and a dampness from the recent storms, which made the experience of all the more sensory. For weeks we had been hearing about the asbestos in the air and of the smell of dust. But now I knew - after having inhaled the odor of death many times in Africa - that this explanation of the acrid scent was more the collective denial of New Yorkers, convincing themselves that they were inhaling the fumes of toxic chemicals instead of mortal remains.
I crossed Houston Street and continued south along West Broadway. Once I hit Canal Street, I turned and walked east to Church Street where, in the distance, the site finally came into view. More, I should say, the cavity of the site came into view. There, where the monolithic Towers once dominated the horizon of Manhattan's financial district, was instead the aura of a stadium-powered lighting rig. A huge cloud of white light filled the gap between the smaller downtown buildings, illuminating a steady stream of smoke that meandered into the night sky. Two massive crane arms extended into the air, transiting slowly across the horizon as they cleared away the debris and wreckage from Ground Zero.
I remember now that I was totally halted by the sheer grandeur of the site, by the Towers' absence. And though I was still some twenty blocks from the perimeter, the energy of the disaster was so thick in the air that my eyes strained and began to tear. I looked around me and noticed, for the first time, how quiet the usually bustling streets of lower TriBeCa were. Collecting my self, I moved on at a quickened pace toward the site.
The closer I came to Ground Zero, the more rescue workers and support shelters I began to see. There were portable toilets and sleeping shelters set up as far as ten blocks from the site. Police cars and ambulences were parked in lines along the street. And there was the intermittent advance of onlookers, walking toward and away from the site at their own traumatized pace. Some crying. Others with fixed looks of anger and confusion on their faces. I found it hard to look at anyone. I almost felt guilty for being there, as if I was merely accomplishing the goal of satisfying my own morbid curiosity.
Walking down the center of the abandoned street, I approached a police barrier that was erected some six blocks from the site. Since I was walking along Church, which is the Eastern border of the World Trade Center, I could not see the wreckage. Only the distant light and the aforementioned crane masts that criss-crossed the smoky horizon. As I neared the gate, a policeman waved me over. For the first time in my life I actually felt a sense of solidarity and unity with an officer of the law. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. I pulled back my dreadlocks into an elastic and hesitated for a moment. I suddenly felt ashamed to be asking him if there was a place were I could get a better view of the wreckage. But he knew what I was looking for and quickly explained that I should walk east to Broadway and then down to the site.
"Around Fulton and Dey, look down at the site, you'll see the whole thing."
I thanked him and began walking up to Broadway. In the distance, I saw the heavily clad figure of an iron-worker. He was carrying his hard-hat in one hand and his tool-belt in the other. Just behind him I saw another figure, a woman, running. When she caught up to him, he turned and she threw her arms around his neck. As I walked past them I could hear her crying into his shoulder and thanking him over and over again. In the distance, I reached the corner of Broadway as passed a group of people standing on the corner, waiting for their friend to finish her emotional outburst. Everything was becoming totally surreal. The quiet night. The distant sound of construction vehicles removing the wreckage of the most dramatic and deadly terrorist act on U.S. soil. These motion picture-like encounters between total strangers. I smiled incomprehensibly at the group and moved on to my final destination.
After experiencing the erection of a Tower like TD 5 in Toronto, where the perimeter of the entire site was limited to the circumference of the building itself, seeing the actual size of the World Trade Center clean-up was a mind-blowing experience. As I walked down Broadway and was able to peer through the side streets (Park, Barclay, Vesey) at the wreckage, it became so tangibly clear how massive an attack on the city this had been. I have not lived through any form of domestic war experience whatsoever. But I got the feeling that this is what the residents of Dresden must have felt like. Though this was so much smaller in scale.
There was dust on every window and building exterior that I passed along Broadway. The sound of cranes and trucks rumbled and echoed through the building walls and I hurried my pace to reach Fulton Street, where I would be able to look directly west, down onto the pit formerly known as the World Trade Center.
When I reached Fulton there was quite a large group gathered at the intersection, peering down at the site. Scaffolding was erected to hold onlookers to the far, east side of Broadway. Along the walls were hundreds of posters and letters and all manner of mementos left behind for lost family members. Instant teller machines were covered with plastic bags and crafted into makeshift shrines. Flowers lined the sidewalks, their petals covered the concrete under my feet.
I cut through the crowd and looked down Fulton at the charred black edifice of the Tower Esplanade. My first sensation was that it felt anti-climactic. All there was to see was the side exterior of what had been the North Tower. Besides the sheer mass of the structure, and the fact that it was now standing without the sky-scraping elevation of 110 floors, the vision did not equate to the disaster. So I moved on, through the crowded sidewalk, to Dey Street.
Once again I cut through the crowd to get a good look at the wreckage. But this time I was totally struck by the sight that lay before me. Unlike Fulton Street, which cut into the side of the WTC, Dey Street opened up into the courtyard and I could see the side of what had been the North Tower. There were huge I-beams that extended out to the south of the dismantled edifice, but they were bent into sharp 90 degree angles. I have never seen metal that looked so distressed. These beams could only have been warped from the weight of falling buildings. No other force on Earth could have achieved that level of stress. The cranes and trucks, now clearly visible on the mound of debris, were dwarfed by the heavily lit cavity. Moving slowly around the site, they seemed like tiny Tonka trucks in some unlikely sand box. It was a mesmerizing site.
I stayed there for a half hour, peering like a child through the various nooks and crannies of the site, watching as national guardsmen patrolled the street with the machine guns. Suddenly a gust of wind blew through the streets and I smelled the potent strains of death and electricity again. I thought about how quickly I had become accustomed to the smell. I thought about how quickly we had become accustomed to the attacks and the new War that was upon us. How fast we adapted to disaster, we humans.
Turning back to retreat from the site, I could only imagine how many other cities had been attacked by foreign enemies over the course of our human history... and how quickly they must have grown accustomed to the damage in order to find the willpower to build them up again. And I thought and I thought. Until I reached the steps of my Soho apartment. Where I felt safe for a moment. If only, for a moment...
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