The Day(s) After

Click Here

Prostrate the beauteous ruin lies; and all That shared its shelter perish in its fall.”
William Pitt – The Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin. 1803

Deconstruction Materials.

Despite my lack of conviction, the sun did rise on September 12th. I woke up after a curiously fit sleep. I went to bed late and got up early, but between, I slept soundly and nightmare-less. Apparently, there’s only so much nightmare squeezable into one’s head in a 24-hour period. More to the point, what nightmare could compete with the horrors of the real-life daymare we just lived through?

Watching the televised coverage for a few hours, the Roman Coliseum-like images from the site mesmerized me. Having toured the Roman Coliseum some years earlier, I kept returning to a jumbled analogy of the two ruins. I then realized that beyond the visual likeness, the two ruins were opposite bookends of the same evil spectrum. In fact, the barbarity that destroyed the Towers was the building blocks of the Coliseum: terror, murder, and depraved humanity.

You’re So Dope

By afternoon, I ventured out to get a needed change of clothes. My clothes were like dust bags; my shoes were still wet from the standing seawater in the tug and peppered white with dried salt. In short, going clothes shopping was anything but optional. The problem was my truck was parked in the garage of my apartment’s building (stuck there for over two months; later totaled by my insurance company for potential toxic debris contamination), so I didn’t have any means of transport.

I walked down the hill from Noreen’s place to Broadway (Bronx) and about a half-mile to a shopping district. The problem is that all the men’s stores were of the hip-hop variety, not quite my usual look. But, having neither options nor a change of clothes, I bit the bullet and ventured into one of the shops. I got a few glances, but the music was even more out of place than me. They were playing Lee Greenwood’s country-western song “I’m proud to be an American.” Whoa! Not quite a standard on the hip-hop playlist!

So many things in those first days were topsy-turvy that it kept our heads spinning. I shared my story, and they were so kind and helpful. The staff bent backward, trying to find something that wouldn’t look ridiculous on a 44-year-old white male. They only partially succeeded, but at least I had some fresh clothes, although a bit “super-sized.” It was fine.

Different Routes.

Reflecting on my Sept. 11th experience, the main perception that stuck with me was the calmness and quietness of the day. This eerie calm, amidst all the terror, added to the sense of surrealism as the day’s tragic events unfolded. How brave and stoic we New Yorkers were as we struggled on with grim determination to help bring ourselves to safety while providing aid, comfort, and guidance to others as needed. I saw a few cases of people starting to succumb to hysteria, but almost immediately, others reached out and calmed them down. Most of the time, it would be friends doing the calming, but frequently the soothing voice was that of a stranger. The thought of the crowds’ bravery, compassion, and togetherness touched me and makes me proud even now. It was a compelling affirmation of the human spirit and a powerful testimony to New Yorkers’ grit and determination.

A few days later, I talked to my friend Liz, and I heard in her story a much different account of the bravery and calmness of New Yorkers on this day. Liz, James, and Anna had a nightmarish and terrifying trip home after we had separated in Battery Park City. They had made their way down to Battery Park (south of BPC) and then proceeded to work their way up to the Brooklyn Bridge. Their trip was filled with hysteria every step of the way. People were crying, screaming, pushing, and shoving. It was total panic, complete chaos, and utter hysteria.

Rumors ran rampant. The most terrifying one they heard was that the terrorists had taken the Brooklyn Bridge out, and additional waves were on the ground, sweeping through the southern tip of Manhattan, shooting all they came across. Liz’s group was, of course, petrified beyond belief. At first, I questioned why they believed such nonsense, but then it occurred to me it was much less absurd than the notion that terrorists could bring down the twin towers. Take down the twin towers…; even now, it just doesn’t seem possible to be writing that.

The part of Liz’s trip that amazes me is how it was the polar opposite of my experience. I was disappointed that we could behave that way when I wanted to hang on to the heroic New Yorker version that I had witnessed and had been so proud of.

But I guess there are degrees of bravery and cowardliness in each of us. Sometimes our environment morphs us into mini-heroes or at least grim, determined fighters, and other times in a different environment we become scared and hysterical. It’s the same melting pot mixture of people who were on the opposite sides of ground zero. Some turned west and others turned east. The different reactions on the two sides can only be explained by the notion that the behavior of the individual can be contagious and become that of the group. It’s hard to start screaming or giving in to hysteria in midst of a serene crowd. Calmness and sereneness beget continued calmness and sereneness. Likewise, it follows that individual hysteria and panic create and evolve into group hysteria and panic.

I was lucky enough to be on the calm side; for others having experienced the hysteria, the mental recovery from our trauma, difficult to begin with, was made even more so.

Any Photographers Will Be Flogged

On the West side of Manhattan, there’s a twelve-mile recreational pathway, about 20 to 40 feet wide, running perpendicular to the Hudson River for the entire length of Manhattan, the southern tip of which runs through Battery Park City. Away from the convenience of living across the street from my office, the path is my second favorite amenity to living downtown as I frequently ran, biked, and bladed on it. One week after the attack, I’m on the pathway again, but this time as a passenger on a flatbed truck carrying about 20 other residents from BPC.

For the first few days, the only residents given access were pet owners rescuing left behind pets, but now there are ample resources downtown to handle less dire needs. We’re under the watchful eyes of two fully armed U.S. military escorts riding with us, although what they were being watchful of, I don’t know. I couldn’t imagine a less threatening group than this bug-eyed group of traders, bankers, and lawyers, but different measures for different times.

They transported us to a field and staging area slightly north of the Winter Garden (part of Two World Financial Center). South of us was a sea of tents and temporary shelters that transformed an area I knew thoroughly into one that was shockingly unrecognizable. It was here where we received our final instructions, including a stern injunction against taking pictures. The seriousness of the dictum demonstrated by the sergeant’s no-nonsense warning that violators would be subject to a military arrest made a believer out of me.

There was, of course, a beehive hum of activity in the area, now populated with a mixture of every type of rescue personnel you could think of: soldiers, doctors, firemen, charity relief workers, police, construction crews, and clerics. As we were getting off the flatbed, one of the soldiers barked at those not wearing facemasks  (handed out earlier) to put them on. Why some ignored the original instruction, I don’t know. The air was so putrid, the smoky haze stung the eyes,  and from the beginning, these soldiers projected an authority that was purposefully transparent in its no-nonsense rigidity. They would not suffer fools.
They split us into groups of four, with my group under the control of a soldier from the National Guard. We walked to my apartment building by a route that would take us past the World Trade Center site.

The first destruction we saw was a giant corner section ripped out of the 3 World Financial Center building. It was so amazing to see right into this office building. Looking up higher on the building was yet another implausible sight: a narrow 50-foot section of the towers had pierced the building like an arrow to a bull’s eye. It remained lodged precariously there about 30-stories up.

My group of three included a young woman about 30 years old who worked for Lehman Brothers in that building. Although visibly shaken to see her office violated in this manner, she kept her composure and pushed on. Plenty of small acts of everyday “chin-up” courage and grit continued to set the post-Sept. 11th tone and to set an example for others to emulate.

Beyond The Pale

As we came within sight of the Winter Garden glass structure, it heartened us, at first glance, to see the structure looked to be in good shape. But as we got closer, we could see it was such a twisted nest of I-beams inside that I instead marveled that it stood. Repair seemed out of the question. As we approached the final corner, which would put us in full view of the WTC ruins, we were hit full force with a sickly sweet odor not meant to be smelled. It was never discussed, nor was it even mentioned within my group. It was simply too appalling to even verbally acknowledge. Besides, if one of us didn’t realize the source, why further their descent into the awful place the realization brought the rest of us to?

Ten seconds later, however, even this godforsaken smell was forgotten as the ruins loomed into our field of vision. The site was indescribable. I felt a dark foreboding chill come over me as we drew closer and closer. I could see the same Roman Coliseum (ish) ruins seen so often on TV, but I wasn’t prepared for the scale of the remaining ruins as they rose from where we stood.

The skeletal frame towered overhead so much higher than expected. Directly in front of us stood the remnants of the southwest corner of the South Tower. The structure was about six or seven stories in height, although this was difficult to determine because of the size of the debris pile surrounding the structure. The west wall was about 250 feet across, while the south wall was shorter, about 150 feet long. Likewise to my left, I could see that a sizeable segment of the North Tower also remained standing. Here it was the northeast corner that remained and while it was much shorter in width, it soared into the sky. It cascaded up tier by tier, forming a pyramid-like structure, culminating in a single point peak about 120 feet in the air. Strangely, the damn sight of it was as monumental as it was horrifying.

On the ground, the tangle of twisted beams and debris was piled three to four stories high and was spread over acres. The Roman Coliseum analogy seemed inadequate. The term Dresdenesque came to mind as I realized I had seen a similar scene before in the photos of Dresden after the massive Allied fire-bombings. The scope was so far beyond my most horrific fears. You just cannot get the scale of this from the TV camera lens. My stomach knotted up, and my hands turned cold and clammy. Rescue personnel swarmed all over the 14 acres of the site, but it was all too apparent there would be no survivors in the smoky twisted ruins.

Looking to my right, I saw a puzzling image. Here several smaller strands of the wall also remained upright. These sections were about four to five-storied and were no more than 20-30 feet wide. Relative to everything else, the vertical structures here were not so extraordinary until I realized with an accompanying rush of vertigo that the location from which they rose placed them smack in the middle of West Street, only 20 feet in front of my former office. Everything here was wrong in every sense of the word. It turns out that these were sections of the facade that had broken off from the top or near the top (the design of the top and the bottom sections differed from the rest) and had plummeted down 1,000 feet. Remarkably, the strands of the wall remained intact even as they pierced deeply into the asphalt. I stood there shaking my head in utter amazement until the soldier urged my companions and me on. We picked up our dropped jaws and filed solemnly past the site.

When we reached my building, we were told we had 15-20 minutes to run up to our apartments, get our stuff and get back down. The problem was the power was out, so I had to run up and down the 35 flights of stairs. I joked (gingerly, as the soldier had an M-16) with my escort that I would need two 15-minute breaks just to make it to the top and he told me to just do the best I could. I made it back in 25 minutes, drenched in sweat, but with a giant duffel bag of my belongings.

Afraid of the dark

When the stock market managed to reopen the week following the attacks, it received accolades for a job well done. Well, the bond market opened within 48 hours. Individual firms were knocked out, but the band played on for most bond firms. My firm, however, was one of those knocked out a bit longer.

First, although my office building still stood, the office area was destroyed, and with its’ destruction, it follows that we lost our physical files, records, and computer files. Adding to our business woes was the destruction of our primary backup system, located in the World Trade Center (close for convenient maintenance by our network personnel). Knowing the serious implications to my business if our programs were lost, I had uncharacteristically planned ahead. I had backed up all of my crucial files on my home computer (what are companies’ (and SEC) policies for but to be broken). I knew, in theory, we could lose the original, I had doubted very much we could lose the backup, and I had never considered the possibility of losing all three at the same time.

By the following Wednesday, I was trying to work out of my friend Noreen’s place but found it next to impossible to accomplish anything meaningful without my computer files. I would have to try to gain access to my apartment again to get my laptop. So on Friday, I ventured back downtown to the designated area for displaced residents and waited for a military escort. Soon I found myself huffing my way up the 35 stories, but when I reached my floor, I discovered a serious omission, I forgot to bring a flashlight. There were strings of portable lights running up the staircase, but outside the staircase, the hallways were pitch-dark.
I walked into the hallway. The door shut behind me, and I found myself s enveloped in total darkness. This was not going to work. I recalled seeing a small stack of newspapers a few stories down, which I now retrieved and stuffed under the hallway door to hold open. The illumination from the open hallway door extended no more than a few feet, but at least it would serve as a beacon to guide me back if I became disoriented. Praying the doorjamb would hold, I ventured into the hallway, walked about 15 feet to the elevator corridor, and around the corner into a void of black darkness. I felt my way down for about 15 more feet by touching the wall. Then the fun kicked out even more because as I rounded the next corner, the blackness level kicked up another degree leading to total blackout. I put my hand inches in front of my face but saw nothing. I remember wishing I had paid attention to the hallway’s layout during less stressful circumstances. Slowly, haltingly, I inched down the final 10 feet to my apartment door, counting doorways as I passed until I reached my door.

Once inside, I grabbed my laptop, quickly packed a fresh bag of clothes (if invisible asbestos fibers don’t count as soiled), and ventured back into the hallway, flashlight in hand.

A Million Thanks.

The National Guard dropped me off at Pier 20 on the West Side Highway. The West Side Highway isn’t actually a highway but rather is a six-lane divided boulevard, which was now the primary artery used by rescue vehicles going to and from ground zero. I was still inside the cordoned-off section, but after walking a few blocks north, I reached the intersection of West and Canal Streets, which marked the southernmost point that civilians were permitted to and subsequently nicknamed “Point Thank You.” It was here that huge throngs of New Yorkers gathered, cheering on the convoys of rescue people and construction crews as they passed, some in vehicles, most on foot. I joined the crowd and cheered on the workers for an hour or two.

The emotional level of the crowd was as raw as the noise level was boisterous. There’s something extraordinary that strikes you deep inside when you see a strapping ironworker hike past the applauding crowd with a lump in his throat, and a beat-up weathered face positively glowing with pride and determination. It was total intensity.

I now realize there was more going on here than showing support for the rescue crews. People everywhere wanted to do something to fight back, to make a positive contribution, hence, the off-the-chart levels of blood and charitable donations; here was something else New Yorkers could do to fight back.

Additionally, there was psychological reassurance going on here. We were showing one another that it was going to be all right, that we would be able to work our way back to the light of day, even though the darkness seemed perpetual.

Counting to Ten.

I continued to work out of Noreen’s home the following week but reported to work the following Monday at a temporary office space in midtown. Our new office (which turned out to be permanent) is located across the street from the Chrysler Building on one side and across from Grand Central Station on the other, and for good measure, the United Nations complex a few blocks east of us. At least we weren’t relocating next to any likely terrorist-hit sites.

The working conditions were trying at first. One had to walk cautiously through hallways jam-packed with people sitting cross-legged, trying to do their job as best possible. The copy rooms and cafeterias were also converted into ad hoc work areas, leaving the restrooms as the only unconverted areas. Even on the trading desk, we had two people at a desk, frequently sharing a phone.

The conditions at any other time would have been unbearable as we were packed in like sardines, but we held our often significant tempers in check as we questioned who are we to be complaining when so many were suffering so profoundly. This most un-New York axiom became a New York mantra, especially in those early weeks.

It took me several weeks before I felt normal at work. Part of my problem was that I couldn’t focus on anything for too long, but a deeper concern was that I just didn’t care. Work seemed unimportant, almost farcical. I still think of it differently to this very day. My attention span was severely curtailed for many months. The only thing I could focus on was news programs, and only if the subject pertained to 9/11. I was buying books at an unprecedented rate, but they all ended up stacked on the side of my desk, each dog-eared after no more than 40, 50 pages. Everything captured my attention – nothing held it. In time it improved, but it probably took eight to nine months before a two-hour movie could hold my attention all the way through

My Fear Factor Challenge.

My fourth trip to my apartment was for a most decidedly unpleasant task. Before Sept. 11th, I had picked up fish fillets and several pounds of shrimp. Besides the seafood, I had, by my standards, a well-stocked refrigerator, which included several packages of chicken. Typically, the refrigerator would be sparseh, but I had been on a eat healthier at home routine over the months leading up to September.

On my second trip to my apartment, I opened my refrigerator to see if the building maintenance staff had emptied its contents. They had not, and the stench was so offensive that I staggered into the living room, falling to my knees, gagging. I have the worst stomach in the world regarding gross things, and I didn’t know how I would manage to clean it out, but since only tenants had access to the area, I was going to have to do it myself.

So one week later, after almost one month without power, I made my fourth trip to my apartment to clean out my refrigerator. By this time, the entire complex was getting rancid. Even the staircase was pungently ripe with the reek of rotten garbage. The garbage processing machinery was inoperable without power (apparently, every portable generator within a 500-mile radius had been pre-empted), so garbage dropped down the chute and piled up higher and higher. It was stacked and backed up 22 stories high on the day I was there. Nice!

Following a recommendation from my Dad, I took a dust mask, smeared a generous portion of Vicks Vapor Rub on the inside of the mask, and, wearing an industrial-grade pair of rubber gloves, proceeded to empty the refrigerator’s contents. It was a piece of cake, but I realized I was only one broken package away from vomiting in my mask. Following the front desk instructions, I deposited the sealed bags by the fire escape doors and got out of this nightmare. I didn’t return for weeks.