I originally posted this essay on September 10, 2010, on my Goodreads blog.
On December 3, 2001, I visited Ground Zero at night time. That evening, when I got home, I quickly typed out my thoughts. Being a writer, it is my habit to try and polish my words so that they shine. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to put my impressions of Ground Zero down, immediately, because I knew that I would always want to remember what I saw…as painful as it was.
Here is what I wrote that day in 2001:
We got down to the World Trade Towers about 8 p.m. Ground Zero is blocked off for about five blocks or so with wooden fences so you can’t really see it at street level except for one break in the wall. The fences or “temporary walls” are covered with all kinds of tributes. People are still putting up fresh bouquets of flowers on a regular basis; we were both surprised at how fresh and pretty the flowers were. There were several wreaths with Teddy Bears inside, letters from children and adults, and in one spot I noticed a policeman’s badge — which really hit me in the gut.
On a telephone pole, someone had written a letter to NY saying something like, “I’m very very sorry that you are so hurt. I love you so much and I feel so bad for your pain and your loss. I know I am only one voice, but I am praying for you. I love you New York.”
There were letters from children in the windows of local stores. At one spot on the sidewalk, I noticed a grouping of about 12 small candles. Only one was still burning. There were all kinds of shrines. Photos are always the most difficult to look at because you’re seeing just one person; one person who was real and now is gone. But there’s something about that policeman’s badge that really struck me. I just expected someone would have taken it because despite all the very good people around, there are still the nuts. But nobody had.
All of this, was right at the base of where you were allowed to stand. What we did see ahead, looming down the street was horrid and grotesque — the kind of sight that forces you into deep introspection and silence. I remember feeling very much the same way when I stood alone in Anne Frank’s bedroom, looking at her movie star photos on the wall, and it was also the same kind of quiet that comes over you when visiting the Holocaust museum.
Anyway, you can see GZ from many vantage points (even in NJ) because it is SO very lit up. It IS surreal, just as you’ve heard many say. There are these huge and hideous piles of twisted wreckage that looked as if they had been there for hundreds of years. It was hard to imagine the World Trade Towers and other buildings in their place. It looked exactly like the footage you see on TV of the war torn villages in the Middle East. To look at this devastation, one couldn’t help but translate the images into thoughts of hate and ignorance that brought this to be, of the lives lost, and of the way the world will be changed forever. Everything looked chillingly quiet. The entire area was in a sepia-like color, which made it seem like you were looking at old war photos in a dusty old book that you’d just found in the attic. Only the image had come to life; but at the same time, it was dead. It was all so dead.
To the left of where the towers had stood, was a Liberty Place building that had a huge hole in it but is going to be fixed. It is draped in a black cloth with a large American flag at the top. That flag, and the large red and the large yellow cranes at the sight are the only real splashes of color. The entire scene is lit up like a movie set, but there is eerily little action that one can see from such a distance.
At one place in the makeshift walls, there is a break where you can see the ground level. I could see lights placed in different parts of the wreckage and maybe a few figures in bright yellow coats moving about. I knew there were many, many people down there working, but I could not see them. The entire site seemed to have been abandoned. The entire scene rather transfixes you. You go into another zone and just find yourself staring and staring, almost as if you’re going to keep on staring until it starts to make sense to you. Only that doesn’t happen and so eventually you have to walk away. I did take a deep breath and could smell the smoke, but luckily, I was too far away to smell that “smell of death” that so many talked about.
This is what I saw on December 2, 2001. To see this, and then imagine this same site two and a half months ago, well, that literally defies comprehension. I had not been in downtown Manhattan for 15-20 years, and incongruous to Ground Zero and in shocking contrast to the site, I was amazed by how built up lower Manhattan was. Very close to the site were so many absolutely gorgeous buildings that I’d never seen before.
When you look at it, the one thing you are amazed and grateful for is that such an amazing number of people (something like 25,000) managed to escape. There was a man there with his family who was a rescue worker of some kind. He said that all of the wreckage was supposedly to be down by January 1. Hard to imagine, esp. as they are taking it all down piece by piece. It seems as if that chore alone could take years. I also heard the man say that the mayor didn’t want people to stop working on Christmas.
As you walk away,
you can’t help but keep turning back to take one last look, to burn it all into your brain, to make it real in one sense because in another it will never be real.
Note: 9/11/2013: Every time I have driven into New York since 9/11/2001, not seeing the World Trade towers in the lower Manhattan skyline has never gotten easier. And I don’t want it to be so.
Please share your own memories of 9/11. I would love to hear them.