At Ground Zero

Monday, October 22, 2001.

I visited Ground Zero today. Forty-two days since the second day that will live on in infamy the area still resembles a war zone. Witnesses tell me it looks much better now than it did 5 weeks ago. However, that does not make the experience any less dreadful. There is no way that words can describe the carnage. Still pictures and video from the network news does not come close to doing the scene justice.

The first thing you notice is the odor. I smelled it as I drove on the Gowanus Expressway in Brooklyn; a mixture of burnt epoxy (if you have ever burned out a transistor or an IC chip you know that smell) and dirt. Then I saw the skyline. It looks wrong. Buildings I used to recognize instantly no longer look the same. One State Street, One New York Plaza, they are all there but the landmarks that I used for a frame of reference are gone.

Exiting the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel onto Trinity Place, there are dozens of dump trucks lined up; waiting their turn to go to "The Pile". Twenty-four hours a day they sit and move up in a slow procession. Walking Down Church Street, I stopped in front of the Millennium Hotel. Netting covers the facade. Turning left, I walked onto the concourse of what was the World Trade Center.

Five WTC is directly to my right. There's nothing left but the steel skeleton of the building. It looks as if someone blew the contents right out of the building. I see office furniture and personal effects hanging from the window frames.

In the center of the concourse is a ramp down to the basement levels. It is a hard-hat area so I will not venture down. Across the hole is where the north tower (One WTC) stood. There is a section of the steel outer shell still standing amidst a huge pile of debris. Shifting my gaze to the south, I am able to see into the World Financial Center. There is no south tower (Two WTC), or Marriott Hotel (Three WTC) blocking my view.

I next made my way to the intersection of Vesey Street & West Broadway. I am trying not to think about what it is I am walking on. Thick layers of very fine dust cover the street. Who knows of what it is composed.

The building that was Seven WTC is completely gone. In its place, a large lot filled with cranes and front-end loaders. They are lifting huge pieces of steel and sifting through the tons of dirt. The dump trucks sit patiently as their containers slowly fill, then depart for the Staten Island landfill.

Five WTC is on my left now. Draping over the north side of the building are steel beams, easily sixty feet long, from the towers. The sheer force created by that much falling matter pushed them around like sticks of matches.

About five blocks to the north on West Broadway stands a building with a gaping hole in the upper floors. Either flying debris or parts from the plane that hit the south tower caused it.

There are police and National Guardsmen everywhere. Thousands of construction workers cover the site. This particular night the smell of acetylene torches fills the air. The mood is grim. The setting is depressing. Everywhere you look there is destruction. Everywhere, except for one place.

On Broadway between Vesey & Fulton Streets and out of the sight of Ground Zero stands Saint Paul's Chapel. Built before the Revolutionary War it is serving as a tiny oasis in a valley of death. Dozens of volunteer personnel cook donated food to serve, buffet style, to the emergency service personnel working at the site. The menu changes quite a bit but there is never a shortage of food, snacks, candy, or drinks.

From this position of relative isolation you cannot see the place where we lost 343 members of the department (including 2 paramedics), 18 engines, 15 ladders, 2 rescues, 3 divisions, and a host of other vehicles.

After leaving the restricted area at Church and Chambers Streets I noticed that the local residents are going about their usual business; talking on cell phones, eating at McDonalds, taking walks in the cool night air. They are proof positive that the spirit of New Yorkers is indefatigable. Life goes on. It must.