I went to Ground Zero

This was written in September of 2005. I have made a point to republish this every 9/11.

I arrived in New York City on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The arrival into Newark was anti-climatic after the relatively brief 4-1/2 hour flight from Seattle. I had departed pouring rain and 44 degrees and arrived in pouring rain and 47 degrees. Had I not a sense of space and time I could have easily been convinced I just flew in a big circle and had returned to where I had started. Everything moved quickly for me and in moments I was off the plane, at the taxi stand and on my way to midtown Manhattan. Traffic was light, and a run through the Holland Tunnel got me to my hotel in little more than thirty minutes.

New York City, if you have never been, is overwhelming even for a repeat visitor. You leave the relative quiet of your taxi to be assaulted by sight and sound and a crush of humanity. Even in the pouring rain on a late Saturday afternoon, 42nd Street was awash with people.

That night the temperature plunged, the wind picked up, and the rain turned to stinging sleet and then blinding slow. Reeling from the time zone difference, I found myself wide away at 4:00 AM staring out from the 27th floor into a sea of purple-yellow haze, the lights of the city reflecting off of the swirling curtain of white falling past my window.

On Sunday, I awoke to the blue sky; the first blue sky I had seen in thirty-seven days, with my Seattle home gripped in a miserably wet winter. After completing work at the Jacob Javitz Convention Center, I braved the icy air once again back to my hotel and to make my way to Ground Zero.

I went to the 42nd Street Station and got onto the E Train, which ends at the World Trade Center Station. The subway station was a welcome relief from the chilling wind above with the sounds of soulful Motown blues being sung on the platform by an old man with an alto voice as smooth as warmed brandy worthy of a jazz club.

It is amazing how events like 9/11 crystallize things in your memory. Most Americans can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard of those awful events. I can remember what I was doing in the days that led up to 9/11.

It was Sunday that I remember vividly. Not an icy Sunday on a New York subway but a warm Sunday in the Cascades along Highway 20 by Lake Ross. I had taken the family out for a weekend camping trip at Diablo Lake. The night before my son and I walked down in the darkness to look up into the night sky and stare at the Milky Way while some owls decided to get into a noisy discussion right over our tent, keeping us up for most of the evening.

We hiked down to Ross Lake and used the phone at the dock to call for a water taxi. Taken across the lake in a spectacular vintage boat we rented a motorboat and headed east and then north up the lake to marvel at the Cascades thrusting up around us. We were the only people we saw that day while on the water, and it was a fantastic weekend trip.

The Subway in New York is an experience in itself. Although much has been made about New York being cleaned up, the smells of humanity hit you from all directions in the dirty cars covered in graffiti. The gentle rocking motion of the subway lulls the passengers to sleep while the homeless curl up in the corners. They pull their jackets over their heads, looking for a shred of privacy from the sea of people around them.

The E Train runs south passing under Tribeca as it makes its way to the Washington Square and ultimately the end of the line at the World Trade Center. As the subway makes successive stops, the number of passengers continues to dwindle until it comes to the Canal Street station. Now there are maybe twenty people on my car and the conversations and laughter suddenly become muted, and as we get closer, the car goes silent. Just the train and dispassionate faces staring out the windows.

I remember the morning of September 11th. I had been working late, and to my wife’s chagrin had ended up sleeping on the downstairs couch. I was up surprisingly early and got online to check my work e-mail. The weather was spectacular in Seattle that day. A warm, cloudless day that felt more like summer than the pending fall that was around the corner. I was finishing reading e-mail and getting ready to wake up my son when the phone rang.

The arrival at the World Trade Center Station is hard to describe. The sign says World Trade Center, but the World Trade Center that was thrust up into the sky has been gone for more than four years now. No one speaks, and everyone shuffles off the train in silence. You immediately notice as you go up the stairs that this area of the subway has been repaired, restored, and then ultimately built anew. A lump forms in your throat, your body gets heavy, and then you are there. It is no longer a clear winter day in New York City; you are suddenly taken back to that moment when you first hear the news, and it is September again.

While the west coast was waking up, the east coast was already reeling from the events unfolding before them. I answer the phone, troubled on who would be calling me at 7:00 AM. There is a madwoman on the phone. She is yelling and crying, telling me the country is under attack. They’ve bombed the World Trade Center, and they’ve attacked New York City. They’ve struck the Pentagon. She is frantic, barely understandable, and it is surreal. “Who are you,” I ask?

“It’s Ruth,” she wails, “turn on your TV.”

“OK, OK, give me a moment,” I tell my mother-in-law still sleepy and in an indifferent tone, my mind not comprehending what she is telling me.

I go into our den and turn on the various components so I can get the TV on. I change the channel to MSNBC just in time to see the first tower come down. I’m stunned. I flip to CNN, and the same surreal scene is playing out there too. I change to Fox News to find the same horror unfolding before my eyes. ABC, NBC, CBS, the local Fox affiliate, and then back to MSNBC, this is on every channel.

“David? David? Are you still there?”

I have no idea how long I’ve stood there in stunned silence with Ruth still on the phone.

“Yes, I’m still here. Who, who is doing this,” I asked her.

“They think its terrorists; they’re saying there may be more planes or other attacks, they just don’t know.”

I just want to get off the phone and tell my wife what is going on. I cannot think of many times in my life where I have ever felt so vulnerable and exposed. I get off of the phone, and I race up the stairs.

As you walk to the fence that stands at the edge of Ground Zero, you look down into an antiseptic hole in the ground. You are filled with profound emotions that before there were two spires of almost a quarter-mile of steel, glass, and concrete reaching up to the sky. You can’t help but notice as you survey the scene in front of you the gaping jagged hole on the opposite side where the old subway station or parking garages use to be. It hits me that people died where I am standing now. Desperate people who woke up to their ordinary day and their bright morning now finding themselves in an extraordinary situation faced with the impossible decision of whether to burn or leap to their death.

As you turn to your right again, you go up a sweeping stairwell and then you are out on the street. Standing at the tip of Manhattan Island, the air suddenly feels ten degrees cooler. A massive American flag waves in the breeze in front of you and ground zero is before you. Saint Paul’s Chapel is across the street, and you are immediately amazed when you realize just how close this chapel is to Ground Zero. The chapel sustained no damage, and only one statue had a single finger broken off. A quarter-mile of manmade pinnacle came down across the street, and no photo and no map does this miracle justice.

I fly across my kitchen and down the hall to our bedroom. My wife is still asleep as I throw the door open, telling her she needs to wake up. I tell her the country is under attack, the World Trade Center has collapsed, and the Pentagon has been hit. Suddenly I’m the madman trying to explain the unexplainable. I turn on the TV in the living room, and now she stands in stunned silence.

I hear a giggle from across the hall. It is my daughter, and she is up, standing at the edge of her crib, waiting for someone to come get her. I open up her door, and she dances with delight and flashes a bright smile. It is too much, and I envy her innocence. I break down and cry, “my God, how bad could this get,” I think to myself and hold my daughter and soak her in.

The overwhelming sights and sounds of New York City are numbed at Ground Zero. You hear only low voices, couples might lightly laugh, but you soon realize the significance is not what you hear, but what you don’t hear. You don’t hear a single car horn, and as you approach the fence that surrounds this hallowed ground, you barely hear a breath, only the sound of the wind, the flag slapping the pole in the breeze and the occasional bus that passes by.

The walls of handmade signs seeking out lost loved ones are long gone. Yet scattered along the walls emblazoned with the words, “Post No Bills,” you find the occasional photo or poem dedicated to a lost loved one or to New York City itself, and your heart aches. As you look from the south side you can see the old E Train tunnel, jutting out of the concrete bulkhead and going nowhere, icy tentacles hang from the end of it reaching down seeking out what is no longer there. The city still feeling the pain of this open wound, like an amputee writhing from the phantom pain of a limb no longer there.

It’s Tuesday again, September 11th in Seattle. My wife and I wrestle with what to do with our son. Should we send him to school? Will he be safe? Will they have school? Should we tell him? We decide that life has to go on, and for me, my personal war on terror begins. I will not live in fear, and I will send my son to school, my daughter to daycare, and I will go to work. It is all moot. At school, the TV is set to the events happening in New York and Washington D.C. as it is at work in our cafeteria. Management closes the office at two in the afternoon, and I go home on the empty highway.

On the south side of Ground Zero on Liberty Street, you will find New York City Fire Department Ten House. It was from here the first men rushed across the plaza and up the North Tower to what at the time they thought was a horrible aircraft accident. As the men of Ten House moved through the lobby, they found horribly burned victims trying to make their way out. The jet fuel from American Airlines flight 11 raining down the elevator shafts and igniting in the lobby. In less than two hours, the men of Ten House would be gone, along with over 300 of their fellow firefighters, and more than 2,200 people trapped in the two towers. The Bankers Trust Tower is still covered in scaffolding and loosely wrapped, fatally damaged from flying debris. I stand on my toes to look into the window and there on the west wall is a small memorial to the heroes of Ten House. New fire trucks fill the bays waiting for another call for help.

My heart is heavy, and I’m drained. I would have thought after four years that I would not have had this profound feeling weighing me down. The shadows have grown long as the sun is setting, blocked by the New York City skyline and it has become colder. Or maybe the temperature hasn’t changed, and the chill I feel is the pain of the city, of a nation, of this author.

I went to Ground Zero, not knowing what I would find. What I left with was a realization that 9/11 is the defining event of my generation and that this hole on the New York skyline may be filled, but the pain will always be there. Like the memories will always be there for the rest of my days. The memory of blue skies, checking e-mail, a frantic phone call, stunned silence before absolute horror and melting in my daughter’s arms.

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