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Monday, September 11, 2006

Remembering 9-11

Dear Readers,

On Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, I was in New York City at my parents' apartment. I'd been there for a few days following Hadassah Lieberman, wife of the Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, for a story.

Because my parents are not TV watchers, and the radio wasn't on, we had no idea what was going on downtown until my brother called from Boston.

"A plane hit the World Trade Center," he told me.

I flipped on the TV and watched for a few moments. Then I jumped into some clothes, grabbed my cell phone, tape recorder, notebook, and a bunch of cash, kissed my mom goodbye, and dashed down to the street.

Five days later, I wrote the following column for the Herald, after filing live from Lower Manhattan every day after the attack.

This photo ran with a story on the 14th, about how people living in Lower Manhattan were coping with the terrible conditions.

I have been in tears on and off this morning, recalling what I heard, saw, smelled, and felt that day and that week. I can still see the grim faces of firefighters massed outside Ground Zero, anxious to get in and save lives after the towers collapsed. But conditions were too dangerous, and it was not until afternoon that they were permitted on the actual site. I went with them, and at 4:30 p.m, began stepping gingerly over piles of collapsed rubble in flimsy sneakers, having no idea what was underneath or how far down the ground was.

By then, the staggering realization had hit us all: There was no one to save.

Through some incredible accident of fate, I happened to run into one of my oldest childhood friends that afternoon, the famed Magnum agency photographer Susan Meiselas, known for her fearless Latin American war photography. We hadn't seen each other in years, and suddenly there we were, together, at Ground Zero. Her dramatic photos of that day ran in publications all over the world.

Search-and-rescue dogs - and cadaver dogs - played a crucial role in the Ground Zero operation, and I remember how late at night, under makeshift shelters near the site, their burned and battered feet were treated. But these brave animals would not give up. In their exhasuted and worried faces I could see the same determination to save lives that was so evident in the faces of their handlers. But once again: There was no one to save.

What I experienced was a tiny fraction of what the heroic rescuers went through that week, but it will stay with me forever, just as the notebooks I used still smell faintly of the toxic dust that now is causing so many of them serious health problems.

So today, as I'm sure most of you are doing, I remember 9-11, praying that somehow, someday, that dreadful event will yield a global consciousness that leads not to more hatred and war, but to peace.

Here's what I wrote:

REPORTERS' NOTEBOOKS - N.Y. RULES CHANGE IN AN INSTANT

BY ELINOR J. BRECHER, ebrecher@herald.com
Dateline: NEW YORK
Memo: AFTER THE ATTACK

A plane hit a building and suddenly, all the rules had changed.

I was on Manhattan's Upper East Side on Tuesday morning when kamikazes slammed into the World Trade Center's north tower. It was rush hour, when it's difficult to get a cab under normal circumstances. I jumped into York Avenue traffic and flagged down a southbound limousine.

The driver - who otherwise would have regarded me as little more than a traffic hazard - motioned me in. By then, the second plane had found its target. He'd get me as close to the blast site as possible, he said. He never mentioned money.

During the next four days, this stereotypically callous city would rise to an unprecedented occasion with empathy and grace, indulging its most generous impulses. I'd hitch rides with school-safety employees, air-conditioning contractors, hospital van drivers, even out-of-town police officers weary after a long-day's shift at the epicenter. The disaster has erased every traditional boundary of suspicion and distrust, transforming a huge city of congenitally wary people into a neighborly small town.

Strangers allowed me into their apartments to make phone calls and wash up. One left me alone while she walked her cocker spaniel, offering ice water on the way out. Rhode Island firefighters let me work from their SUV after they marched into the blast zone.

On Tuesday morning, inching down the FDR drive along the East River, we could see the wounded towers spewing black smoke the way a knife gash gushes blood. A thick band of it streaked the downtown sky, blowing east to Brooklyn, easily visible from the Upper East Side. A radio announcer was talking to a woman eyewitnessing the event from a building adjacent to the towers. In the moment we turned a corner and lost sight of the towers, the woman shrieked. The north tower was collapsing. I leaped from the car, flinging bills at the driver, and ran toward the hole just torn in the New York sky.

On Broadway, 15 blocks northeast of the blast site, thousands clogged the streets. Most hurried north, heads down. Others stood still and gaped at the smoke-and-dust cloud boiling into the air. People wept in each other's arms.

As I reached Reade and Church streets, seven blocks north of the remaining tower, the human wave surged toward me. Joe, a building engineer who had escaped from the north building lobby moments before it came down, stumbled forward, hacking and spitting into his wadded-up yellow windbreaker. Tan mud covered him from head to toe, crusting his hair and eyebrows. His inflamed eyes poured tears as he tried to talk.

``I saw the plane, and I dove into a basement,'' he said. ``Then the building fell and I said: `I'm not going to die in a basement,' and I started running.''

I turned around. Seconds later, gravity joined evil in erasing the remaining tower from the skyline. The building's skin slid earthward, engulfed in a volcanic debris cloud. It sounded like a million empty Dumpsters hitting the pavement under Niagara Falls. Its tall steel mast pitched forward, javelining toward the earth. Police officers screamed at people to run. But I couldn't move. Couldn't take my eyes off the advancing tidal wave. It weakened to a drift as it reached me, carrying a blizzard of singed paperwork and khaki-colored grit. I plucked a May 1997 Bloomberg Magazine page from the ash, an ad for a financial seminar. It featured two flaming red dice, plummeting meteorlike toward the reader. ``Ask yourself,'' the copy reads, ``Do I feel lucky?''

Then it was quiet, as if the explosion had sucked all sound from the world.

Since then I have been to Ground Zero as the fires raged, secondary explosions popped and skyscraper-window shards crashed like shattering ice cubes. I've called the hysterical wives of Brooklyn firefighters to reassure them their husbands are safe. I've sat with hospital workers waiting for the injured who don't come.

I've been with cops on loan from the Miami Police Department manning barricades outside a New York police precinct where grim-faced officers worried about two missing colleagues.

I've been small comfort to frantic relatives distributing missing-persons fliers. I've scratched the ears of exhausted search-and-rescue dogs as volunteer vets bandaged their torn footpads. The sounds of silence quickly turned to sounds of sirens. Now military helicopters chop the sky. Dump trucks haul off incalculable tons of rubble.

Across Lower Manhattan, voices mesh and collide. At a church service, pacificists despair of certain violent retaliation. Outside, pedestrians plot nuclear attack as a medical examiner's van screams past. A boa-wearing Israeli artist/bar owner offers dazed firefighters a bed on her leatherette banquettes. A frightened Egyptian cab driver removes his mandatory name tag from the dashboard. The Stars and Stripes flies from hard hats, tenement windows and car antennas. It begins to rain.

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