9/11 10th anniversary
Facing the reality of 9/11 in the days that followed, for better or for worse
The Police barricades stopped us in our tracks. They were preventing all traffic from going below Canal Street, and we expected—perhaps even hoped—that the police officers would stop people on foot as well, or at least question our intentions for heading downtown. But they did not, so we kept walking south down Broadway.
At City Hall the burning smell hit our nostrils, very much like the smell I had experienced last Tuesday, September 11th, in Brooklyn Heights when I stepped out onto the Brooklyn Promenade. It was a suffocating smell, similar to burning rubber, cloying and pungent. A smell I'll never forget.
On 9/11, I was in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, at 8 a.m. as part of my primary day campaign duties for a candidate running for Public Advocate. Stationed in another candidate’s apartment, I was awaiting further instructions from our campaign office in downtown Manhattan when someone received a phone call informing us that a plane had crashed into one of the Trade Towers.
We turned on the TV to images of a gaping, fiery hole and instant replays of a plane flying into the first tower. I shook my head at the sad incompetence of the pilot, assuming it was a small private aircraft. However, 17 minutes later, the magnitude of what was happening became all too clear when the second plane hit the tower.
Even now when I see the news footage of the second plane slamming into the building, I am filled with the same emotional turmoil, reliving the same dread that gnaws at the pit of my stomach. It was then that we realized this was an orchestrated, coordinated attack and, surely, the work of terrorists.
Chain smoking Marlboro Reds, we watched in disbelief, and then in heavy silence, as the first tower, and then the second one, came crashing down. At some point the Pentagon reports came in, followed by reports of other unaccounted-for planes in the skies.
I could not take anymore of this news sitting in a stranger’s apartment in an unfamiliar neighborhood. My only instinct was to get to familiar territory and find a familiar face. We heard that New York public transportation was indefinitely suspended, but wandering blindly out onto the street, I managed to locate a bus heading to Brooklyn Heights where I had previously lived and I knew I’d find my ex-boyfriend.
I took one more look at the frame of the towers and committed the image to memory. I knew this was something I had to hold onto, no matter how painful.
Together we headed out to the Promenade, bandanas covering our faces, trying to prevent the swirling ash and debris from entering our lungs. Everything was covered in thick dust…cars, people, trees, sidewalks. And then there was the paper. Even before we got to the Promenade, which is only a couple miles from ground zero, I noticed the rain of paper. Office papers and documents of every size silently drifted down on us, ending their flight from lower Manhattan.
The strange debris, ash and thick black clouds of smoke were frightful and eerie. But what I found even more unnerving was the lone jogger running along the Promenade through the dust and papers, as if this apocalyptic scene wasn’t unfolding in our midst. Then again, I think we were all in shock at that very moment. And the shock would permeate our lives for the days, weeks and months to come.
Several days later, a friend and I decided to walk down to Ground Zero. We debated whether this was a morbid thing to do but then decided that, in order to fully grasp what had happened in our city, we needed to see it for ourselves.
As we headed south on Broadway, we saw police blockades, national guardsmen, emergency workers and volunteers. The presence of the thick dust that clung to surfaces was inescapable. Although we expected stores to be closed, some were open and displayed hand made signs stating as much, trying to entice someone, anyone, to come in and provide them with business. But as my friend pointed out, with that deadly odor clinging to the air, who would be able to eat or drink near Ground Zero?
By 7:30 p.m. on our journey it was already dark. But as we approached Ground Zero, our hearts nervous with apprehension, the sky grew lighter—illuminated by the bright spotlights focusing their glare on the mass of destruction. Upon approaching the rubble and “skin” of the World Trade Center, I had to stop dead in my tracks. No matter how much footage I had seen on TV, nothing prepares you for the reality: the unearthly light, the smoke, the enormity of the area that was impacted, the jagged, burned bits of building, the silence.
White smoke rose from the ruins, ghostly like graveyard mist. The buildings still standing directly next to the impacted area were charred beyond recognition. The Century Twenty-One department store, which takes up the whole block and faced the Towers, was covered by a big red tarp. This building and others still standing, were draped in huge red sheets, like victims at the scene of the crime before being taken away.
At Liberty Street we saw rescue workers and rescue dogs lined up in the streets, waiting for their shift to start. The first worker in line clutched an American flag. Once they were given their orders and started their march toward the rubble, the crowd who had gathered to watch this somber changing of the guard burst into applause. The rescue workers acknowledged our applause with a solemn nod.
The amount of debris was so substantial that I could not take it all in. It was so horrible, and yet you were completely consumed with it. I could not place this scene within the New York City that I knew and had lived in for seven years. It was all too abstract. This scene was more reminiscent of a war zone.
I thought that seeing the destruction with my own eyes would help me process the event, but it had the opposite effect. I was still not able to digest, process or believe the enormity of it all. I felt hollowed out and gutted to the core. It was still so easy to envision the towers there—to close my eyes and see them. To see the bustling streets that made up downtown and hope that all of this was make believe. That over 2,700 people dead and buried beneath the rubble was just some sort of movie magic that would soon reveal itself.
My friend and I eventually turned away; we had seen enough, but had hardly absorbed a thing. Somehow our minds would not let us. I took one more look at the frame of the towers and committed the image to memory. I knew this was something I had to hold onto, no matter how painful. We felt numb and somber and emotionally drained.
We walked awhile with our arms around each other, squeezed tight to remind ourselves that we were real, that we were still alive, that we could walk away. Trying to tell ourselves that we would soon cross back into the old familiar New York City. But also realizing that we would probably be scarred for life; as one ought to be after witnessing such sheer terror.