Ground Zero Across from the World Trade Center September 22, 2001 photo by Robert Gillisby Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter 9/2001

(Note: My editor said that this was the best piece I’d ever written, and ran it on the front page of the Reporter with the rest of the 9/11 coverage. I am very proud of this piece.)

Ground zero.

Until a few weeks ago, this area was called the World Trade Center.

New York City. Corner of Ann and Broadway, one, maybe two blocks from where the planes crashed into the World Trade Center.

“I have to help,” my wife Sue said. “I have to do something. I have to be there.”

So we drove down Friday night, listening to the telethon concert on the way, both fighting back tears at the stories of heroism and sacrifice.

New York is different this time around; there are cops on literally every corner. Although life goes on, the city seems subdued. Broadway and 5th and 6th Avenues are buzzing, but the entire atmosphere had changed. People move a little slower. The frenzy is gone. Only the cabs still beep and drive like crazy. You can still hear the subway rumbling and clacking through the grates, but many of the stations are closed.

The Empire State building — once again the tallest building in New York — is beautifully lit in red, white and blue. It seems somehow reassuring.

Police barricades to all but rescue workers stop cars, but people are still allowed to walk the fourteen blocks to this spot. You can’t get to Ground Zero and that’s probably a blessing; the images we’ve all seen on television are probably even more visceral in person. Two blocks away, what you can see defies description.

Across the street, a block away from where the towers came down, are more police barricades. I’ve never seen so many police officers. They all have the same look on their faces — it’s like they’re on automatic. There’s no New York arrogance, there’s no indifference. They just stare, so sadly.

You meet their eyes and they just nod. So many of them, their eyes are red. What has happened here is unthinkable. Two weeks later, no one can accept the reality.

The fire department guys are moving like robots. They just do their work. They look so tired. They probably haven’t had a real night’s sleep in weeks.

There are huge construction lights, shattering the night in a harsh blue-white glow. The sound of heavy machinery from trucks and bulldozers is overpowering.

The air is harsh — not exactly acrid, but heavy. Sort of like when you cut drywall and the dust gets kicked up.

The gray gypsum / concrete dust is everywhere. It covers the entire sides of buildings, the ground, the storefront windows, the doorways, and the telephones. Designer shoes, clothes and boots, safely behind store windows, are covered with the ash. In many stores, counters and displays are scattered and broken.

It’s like a giant hand threw down a fistful of dirt onto a miniature city.

Everywhere in the dust, people have written something. There are little hearts, profanity against bin Laden, the names of loved ones, “God Bless America” and just the numbers 9-11-01.

I ran my hand respectfully through the ash and looked at it clinging to my skin. It’s like blood — something that you’re not supposed to see if the body is healthy. This ash was inside the World Trade Center. It should never have been seen.

A crowd has gathered on each corner that offers a vantagepoint, but this is not people gawking at a car wreck or fire. This is a wake. People have come to pay respects.

No one says much, and when they speak, it’s in whispered tones, like the respectful hush of being in church. A hand-written sign on the wall says, “You are looking a hallowed ground, respect those around you.”

I turned to one man, just staring. “They dominated everything here,” he says, his hand spread in the sky. “Can’t believe they’re gone … My brother was in there, got out and was on the Ferry.” His eyes are watering again. Another woman is crying.

Sue walks over to one of the officers. His badge is covered with a piece of black tape; his nametag reads, “Montgomery.” I shake his hand. Sue says how sorry we are. “There has to be something we can do to help,” Sue says.

He shakes his head. “There’s nothing anybody can do. It’s all steel. It’s a mountain of steel. You can’t get at anything. Anyone. We’re gonna get that the bastard who did this.”

Sue hugs him. He hugs back, hard.

We follow others down alleys and around ash-coated buildings. There are flowers tied to poles. There are hundreds of hand-made flyers with the word MISSING on them, each containing pictures of people not seen since the attacks. On another wall are what look like thousands of little index cards, each with a name on it.

Ground Zero Across from the World Trade Center September 22, 2001 photo by Robert GillisTaped to the NYPD mobile command center are dozens of cards, most drawn by children, with drawings of the World Trade Center and crayon-written THANK YOUs.

I see a woman with her head buried in her hands. A couple is hugging, crying softly.

We cross to Maiden Lane and another barricade.

“Oh, God.” This is unbelievable.

It looks like one of those old Irwin Allen disaster movies of a city after a nuclear war. You can clearly make out the twisted steel skeleton of one building — probably building 5. There’s a massive pile of rubble, and a large steel girder hangs obscenely from another steel mass. Both are shredded and twisted. There’s another building damaged, and another structure, distorted and blasted apart.

A woman hands me her binoculars. I can’t believe the devastation. It’s a mountain of steel and rock.

I think about the telethon the night before, and Springsteen singing “My City’s in Ruins.”

We’ve seen it on TV, but this is so much more real.

It’s much too real.

The bulldozers and cranes are so loud, the lights are so bright. Everyone seems so vacant, like they’re all cried out. We just stare.

A water hose constantly fires into the air, trying to keep the dust down. Street cleaners pass by constantly.

Everything is so dirty. So violated. There are little flecks of glass in a corner, more ash on the subway sign.

It’s absolutely overwhelming.

In front of all of it, a church still stands proudly. Defiantly. A reminder that God’s grace is still with us, I think.

Some people are taking pictures or video taping. We spot a family taking pictures and approach them, offering to take a picture of all four of them. One woman thanks us and adds, “We lost our sister in there.”

Ground Zero Across from the World Trade Center September 22, 2001 photo by Robert Gillis

We don’t know what to say, so we just hug her and then take the picture. Her brother looks at the two little flags I’d purchased a few minutes before and says, “Fly the colors proudly, man.”

We’ve been here for almost two hours. The air is getting very heavy, and our lungs feel like there is increased pressure on them. The smell is pungent.

Trucks pass us. Sue talks about how she saw the steel and realized it was part of the World Trade Center.

We walk back to the car. Everyone we pass by is quiet or speaking softly. There’s no laughter, no animation, no yelling. We’re all leaving the funeral parlor.

As we drive back to the hotel, Sue tells me she felt happy that she could provide even a little comfort. She prayed with some people. She talked to others. She made sure to spend money in New York, to help them even a little bit.

We took our exit, and on the bridge, came upon a beautiful memorial. There were literally hundreds of candles and a memorial to many of the victims. We pull over.

There were prayers, pictures, crosses, sports team shirts, and a large cross with a torn American flag. One picture shows a man holding a baby; the caption reads, “Steve we miss you.” So many people had written on the papers under the candles. One person had even welded two small World Trade Center towers out of metal and even attached a little communications tower on one.

There were at least 200 candles. We lit some that had burnt out. Mostly, we just stared and prayed. Other cars also pulled over and people joined us. We just nodded to each other.

Tonight, no words were necessary. Tonight, we were all family, all united.

Ground Zero Across from the World Trade Center September 22, 2001 photo by Robert Gillis

 

Ground Zero Across from the World Trade Center September 22, 2001 photo by Robert Gillis

 

Ground Zero Across from the World Trade Center September 22, 2001 photo by Robert Gillis

 

Ground Zero Across from the World Trade Center September 22, 2001 photo by Robert Gillis

 

2001 Sep 22 Ground Zero 11

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