The day after 9/11: The view from Ground Zero
A little more than 24 hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center, I found myself sitting on a grassy knoll with a handful of New York firefighters, about 200 metres from the still-smouldering rubble.
I was a reporter, of course, but wasn't advertising that fact and hadn't expected to get anywhere near the site of what was already being called Ground Zero.
Robert Sheppard is a producer with CBCNews.ca. He has been a reporter, columnist and editor with the Globe and Mail and Maclean's magazine.
But this being New York, one of the most open cities on the planet, if you just show up somewhere and appear to belong, few people are going to challenge your right to be there — even that day, maybe especially that day, amid all the grief and numbing incomprehension.
Many images (and smells like the particular odour of burned carpet and office plastics) have stuck with me over the years from that incongruously sunny afternoon: the smashed cars in trendy Soho covered in slimy ash; the MASH unit for the rescue dogs to swab their eyes and bandage their cut feet before they trotted back into the wreckage; the long rows of dump trucks and ambulances lined up like a string of pearls in the hot sun, waiting, almost forlornly it seemed, to be called into action.
One image in particular keeps coming back. That of a young firefighter I had been chatting with, a slight man like myself, resting on a backpack nearly as big as he was, when a distant whistle blew.
Shift change. Quickly, the group stood up, donned their heavy packs and headed off, two by two, to replace the team that was inside the remains of the once-proud skyscrapers.
There were only a few of us there to watch. But as he stepped into formation, I saw this man throw his shoulders back and, in that instant, I had the thought of what it must have been like, from ancient times on, to be young and patriotic and called off to war.
I was in Toronto when the planes struck the Twin Towers. I was a feature writer at Maclean's magazine and we quickly made the decision that I should drive to New York and try for some first-hand reporting.
The bridges and tunnels to Manhattan island were closed on Sept. 11, immediately following the attacks. The electricity was off in large parts of the city and the phone service and internet were pretty sporadic.
But we had a plan: If I could get there for the next morning, the commuter trains from New Jersey would likely be running again and Maclean's had a sales agent in New York, a woman who lived just a few blocks from the World Trade Center (and heard the commandeered jumbo jets over the top of her building).
She was going to meet me at Houston Street, where police had cordoned off access to southern Manhattan to anyone who didn't live there; and she would try to convince the authorities that I was a relative from Canada who had come down to stay with her.
She was a great salesperson. I was in.
Two New Yorks
I saw two New Yorks that day. Though maybe there were nine million, who could say?
Along Park Avenue, in central Manhattan, New Yorkers were streaming down toward where the towers had been, alive with curiosity and an almost giddy apprehension.
There were no cars on the streets. The roads had been sealed off for the rescue vehicles and out of fear of a second attack, perhaps from a car bomber.
The result was that the bicyclists and inline skaters took over, along with so many families with young children and strollers. I remember an ice-cream vendor on a bike.
Below Houston Street, though, it was a different world. That was where some of the first posters sprang up. Have you seen my husband/son/wife? This is his/her picture.
The denizens — this was the area encompassing TriBeCa, Soho, Greenwich Village, Wall Street, Chinatown, remember — were scurrying about like refugees, carrying jugs of water (the mains having been shut off) and small bags of groceries from whatever corner store was still open
Their clothes were covered in that silt-like dust, bandanas across their faces to protect their lungs.
If you looked up, you saw windows with towels and tape sealing them off, to keep the dust out.
I remember the light, or lack of it rather, as the tall buildings and creamy ash from the combustion of millions of bits of office life obscured the brilliance of that late summer day.
Local residents, however, felt something else that was missing — the sirens. In 1993, when a jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda launched its first attack, a basement truck bomb, on the World Trade Center, "the sirens never stopped," one man told me. For days, police and ambulances kept transporting survivors to nearby hospitals.
This time, he pointed out, "It's been quiet. And that's the horrible thing."
In the intervening years, New York — the entire U.S. — underwent many shocks to the system. The military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, presidential change, the mortgage debacle and the Wall Street crash of 2008.
But on Sept. 12, the day after, it was as if the giant American clock, the one that perennially tilted at a sunny future, stood still.
That grotesquely beautiful lavender plume that rose into the September sky from the remaining half-tower had become a fixture on TV news and magazine covers all that week. But I can tell you that the people who lived near Ground Zero were always looking the other way, refusing to take it in.
My new friend, the magazine's sales agent, knew dozens of people personally that I "had to talk to" about what had just happened. But she needn't have bothered. People rushed to tell their stories.
Everybody had one. Some were horrible. Almost all were introspective, a rare sense, many acknowledged, of the American dream shifting under their feet.
A friend of my son had been working as a security guard at the World Trade Center as he put himself through college. Could I call and make sure he was OK? Turned out he was one of the last people to sprint out of the collapsing building.
By early Thursday, two days after 9/11, New York was starting to regain some of its former bustle.
Like my young firefighter, it had picked itself up, squared its shoulders and was marching off into a decade of uncertainty.