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In the thick of it

Neela Banerjee

September 22, 2001

Ten days have passed since the World Trade Center vanished. I wanted to write you, as much for myself as to tell you what is happening, how the air tastes, what color the horizon has taken on.

I go up and down, hour by hour more than day by day. This particular moment, at 5 in the evening on Saturday the 22nd, I'm okay.

This is supposed to be the first day of autumn and it is instead one of the last days of summer, warm and hazy. The day the towers vanished was more exquisite than this, a deliriously blue sky, a hint of coolness in the morning.

You’ve seen on television the rage and the patriotism the attacks have tapped among many Americans. But for me and a lot of people I know in New York, what all this feels like is having your heart broken. The same bitterness that coats your gullet. The stone as big as your fist that sits inside your chest. The heaviness upon waking. The desire to scream at people who are in love.

Everything reminds you of what was and can never be. Your senses are your enemies. Days after I had washed off the ash that covered me while I walked around the wreckage those first hours, the skin at my collarbone still itched. The odor of the smoke from the explosions lay trapped in my clothes a week later. I can smell the shrine of candles and flowers 100 feet before I get to a firehouse on my street that lost 12 of the 30 men who worked there. Those casualties, we have come to know, are typical. More than 300 firemen died that day.

A firehouse on my street... lost 12 of the 30 men who worked there. I am left wondering what to do within the small confines of my own life.

The eye wanders. The Saturday morning after the blast, I saw a scrap of newspaper on the sidewalk: it showed a picture of firemen carrying a casket on their shoulders. It was from July, when four or five firefighters died in a hardware store blaze. And we thought that was terrible.

I looked from habit at my favorite church in the neighborhood, and its bulletin board reads “O, Lord, hear our plea/Receive our dead.”

Something tightens in me now when I hear police and fire sirens. The morning of the attacks, it seemed as if every fire company and police car in Brooklyn was heading northwest into Manhattan. I can still remember a firefighter’s blue shirt and his crooked elbow in the window of a truck that sped past. We hear fighter jets and helicopters overhead now rather than commercial airplanes.

Two blocks from the blast site, an hour after the buildings had crumbled, a bunch of firefighters and I heard jets, and all of us stopped and looked up, wondering, what now?

Twice a day, every day, my subway train rises on to the Manhattan Bridge to traverse the East River, and each time, I look to where the towers had stood. One evening, against the amethyst sky, the smoke billowed like a cape around an ornate old building, a skyscraper from 100 years ago. Another night, the smoke swirled in the emptiness like steam above a cauldron. A few days later, it wafted in the bright morning like a curtain in the breeze.

The day of the attacks, the smoke was a small mercy, hiding from view the details of our loss. One day, perhaps even now, the smoke will vanish, and I dread that day.

The first week, journalists rushed like mad, writing everything we could. And there was so much to cover as the ripples of the explosion coursed through people's lives, entire industries, neighborhoods, theaters, schools.

But now, the stories are less obvious, there seems to be less work to do, and a feeling of ineffectuality and helplessness has begun to come over me. Everyone, everywhere wanted to help in the wake of the attacks, and we journalists were lucky in some ways that we could and that the labor kept us busy, kept us thinking about what happened within the bite-sized proportions of our particular stories.

The looming emptiness is frightening: It looks like the sky before you go over the edge of the falls.

The fine silt of daily impressions has already begun to push down and compress in my memory what I saw on September 11, and what I’ve seen since. And so, I should let you know that on Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 9 am, I was about to leave my flat when my mother called and told me two planes had hit the World Trade Centers.

Nearly 10 months after I moved to Brooklyn, I still had no TV or radio. So I walked a block down to the subway, and even before I reached it, I could see a ribbon of scraps, sparkling like confetti, then a plume of ash and smoke, unspool into the sky. At the corner, I had a clear view of the twin towers, each of them spewing smoke from their top thirds.

I called my editor on the business desk and asked if the paper needed reporters at the scene: I don’t write for the Metro section, but I figured that at a moment like this, all hands were needed on deck. And he told me to take my cell phone and go. Traffic was snarled, the trains would go one station or two and then stop, and those who had given up on moving anywhere watched from Brooklyn’s rooftops and sidewalks, stunned.

I took the subway to downtown Brooklyn before the whole system ground to a halt, and decided I would walk the mile or so across the Brooklyn Bridge into the financial district. I knew the Trade Center area pretty well: I’d worked for years right next door at The Wall Street Journal’s main offices.

People dressed in their work-day best were streaming across the bridge, back into Brooklyn, their ties undone, their faces damp with sweat. A group of young friends had torn up a blue dress shirt and were breathing through its scraps. The smoke had drifted south and east into Brooklyn. A fine ash rained and stung our skin.

I had heard that one of the towers collapsed, but I didn’t believe it and was convinced it was hysteria. And on the bridge, it was hard to tell because the smoke was so dense. Then, at about 10:20, as I stopped to talk to a colleague of mine who was caked in ash, the top of the second tower exploded and it buckled towards the earth.

A photographer I spoke to later in the day said he had been right below it and the building had opened like a flower blooming.

The disbelief that gripped me then has yet to let go. I spent the whole first day at the site of the destruction. I went back two other times and saw the leveled plaza, the mountains of rubble, 50-story buildings nearby that had collapsed into the shape of rumpled blankets.

But what is catalogued by my mind has bypassed my heart. I cannot believe that so much has been lost. I cannot bear our diminished silhouette. I cannot grasp what it means to lose 6,000 people in such a vibrant city on such a lovely day.

When I stood on that bridge, I thought how almost exactly two years ago, I was in Moscow writing about buildings being blown up in the middle of the night. I remember going to the site of the first
blast and looking up at kitchen cupboards that opened into the sky five stories above the ground and wallpaper that flapped in the wind. I couldn’t believe that I was watching something like this again. And I wondered what it was about my job or about my own personal choices that brought me to such scenes.

I told myself, you don’t have to go. A lot of reporters won’t. You could say the cops stopped you. From the outset, I felt I had to be there because this is what I’d signed up for, that I somehow had no choice. And I felt sickened by the desperation and ruin I knew was before me.

I took little steps forward, and very quietly, I felt this keening inside and I began to whimper like an animal. This was just the beginning, I knew, and I hated a life that had made such things as a building being blown up familiar to me.

After the second tower collapsed, the river of people coming over the bridge surged a bit. I was among the few walking against the current, and that was probably the moment when I was most frightened.

Most people in the steady stream leaving Manhattan were remarkably calm, but I worried nonetheless about a panic being touched off. I worried the bridge might be a target.

Once across, at the foot of the bridge on the Manhattan side, there is a major street, Chambers, that runs westward. The Trade Center sat more to the west. I walked past cops and a mile-long line of fire trucks. The police passed out surgical masks. A tissue of ash covered the pavement. The stores were shuttered and the busiest triangle of the city was a war zone.

I tried to go south on one street after another to get near the trade center plaza and was constantly reined in by the police. Finally, I went down Park Place and ran into a man who had a vest on that said Bomb Squad. Next to us sat a couple of charred police cars. He said no one had expected the buildings to collapse, and when they did, he and his buddies were in a neighboring high-rise that was badly damaged by the debris.

They managed to scramble out of the mess, but he had gone in with seven men and come out with five. Just then, something exploded around the corner from us. Flames leapt out, and the firemen trudged toward them, dragging a hose.

By 11:30, I made it to West Street, the western border of the Trade Center Plaza. On the other side of the street is Battery Park City and the new, comparatively smaller buildings of the World Financial Center, where I had worked when I was with the Wall Street Journal. It now sat on the edge of Ground Zero.

Most of my colleagues who were on the scene were on the east side of the Trade Center, many of them arriving before anything had happened because it was election day and they were reporting at polling booths. They filtered back to their editors the accounts survivors gave, since most who escaped headed east to Brooklyn.

I was on the west side where I was with the firefighters, trying to avoid the police. Here, the world here was undone, split open and dumped out. The lobby of a fancy hotel was littered with IV bags and towels. At a coffee shop, someone’s large cappuccino stood on the counter, waiting to be paid for.

Outside, tufts of building insulation clotted a chain-link fence. The street was lost under ash three inches deep and the remnants of a normal business day: a voided check, a memo being edited, a business proposal, an investment brochure. Everything we struggle to keep in neat, orderly files had been cast over miles of city blocks and mixed with the ash, like autumn leaves on the forest floor.

Even now, our photographers at the Times are fascinated with still life under ash. They’ve taken pictures of a delicate tea set in someone’s flat, of pyramids of fruit in an abandoned market, a chic, empty living room, all of it frozen and uniformly gray, relics of our own Pompeii.

Near ground zero, drama took on scale. Air conditioning ducts, often two and three meters long, lay twisted like yarn. Sheets of metal were folded into strange origami. Cars had been flattened and burned.

Scraps of the familiar World Trade Center façade stuck up out of the street. A colleague wrote that they looked like a broken picket fence. They reminded me of a jagged reef, the smoke swimming through them. Nothing was behind these pieces of the façade, of course: no fragments of floors, no walls, no stairwells stopping in mid-air.

In the middle of West Street was an overturned fire truck, its wheels melted down to its rims. A rescue worker who came from searching in the rubble said that there were at least three fire trucks and the same number of ambulances within the wreckage.

We saw no bodies. One rescue worker wrapped a charred human foot in a cloth and left it on the sidewalk. That was the eerie part: there were dozens of paramedics and doctors in their turquoise paper gowns and they had nothing to do. There were no wounded to treat. Since Wednesday, no survivors have been pulled from the rubble. There are more body parts than whole corpses, and the remains of most people may never be found.

They will just never arrive home after leaving for work that glorious morning.

I walked back home that night across the Brooklyn Bridge and dreamt of people being pulled alive, walking out on their own, from the smoldering wreckage.

I went back twice for various stories. I talked to oil traders who, the Monday after the attacks, returned to their jobs at the New York Mercantile Exchange, the only building in the closed perimeter of the explosions permitted to open. They stood near the entrance to their building, most of them smoking, and looked east to where the towers had once been. The day of the attack was as sparkling it is today, they said, when we saw a jumbo jet bank at the Statue of Liberty and turn towards lower Manhattan.

It was this clear, they remembered, when we saw people fall out of the towers.

More than the jets ramming the buildings and their subsequent collapse, what survivors remember are the other people.

One stockbroker was coming down the stairs from the 86th floor of the first tower, and about halfway way down, he ran into firemen loaded down with oxygen tanks and tools and hoses going up the stairs. A fireman stopped next to him to catch his breath, and he said to his buddy, “Come on, let’s go fight some fires.” And they continued up while everyone else went down. I have no idea what happened to them, the broker said.

For the traders, schoolchildren, office workers, a friend’s wife, watching dozens of people jumping to their deaths from the towers is the starkest memory, the indelible stain. Seeing the tiny details of human beings, the way a man’s jacket flapped as he went down or how a woman’s dress billowed, made everything so close as to be too familiar.

A different kind of paper covers parts of the city now. They are the fliers of the people missing: I wonder what it must be like to go through photos of your husband or your daughter, trying to find the ones that you will use to try and identify them. What are the traits you remember? Is everything brightly clear or a jumble? Was her mole on the left shoulder or the right? Was she wearing her favorite ring that day or not?

They end up as grainy photos of people laughing at weddings, dancing at dinner, holding their kids. That’s all gone, all done.

There are little ads up for garage sales and jazz concerts to collect money to support the families of the dead firefighters. There are signs that describe how Islam treats its women: “At 10, she is married off to a man who is 32. At 5, her clitoris is removed and her labia sewn shut. If she is raped, she will be killed.” There are other signs that say, “Islam is not the enemy.”

Of course, there are posters of bin Laden with the words Wanted Dead or Alive emblazoned across.

Everyone has been touched by it, though that’s not the right verb. Better to say pricked by it, singed, grabbed by the shoulders. Two childhood friends of my boyfriend are gone. A man he used to walk his dog with. A neighbor up the road from me. The firemen in the fire house next to him. The father of an acquaintance. A man at my gym. The brother of an editor in my section.

Our editors sent a note about all the people at the Times who’ve lost a family member: there are so many. And the list is replicated over and over in company after company in the area.

The White House ponders sweeping action across the world, and I am left wondering what to do within the small confines of my own life. I feel as if I’m fooling with something tiny, the guts of a watch, the thorax of a bug.

That first day at the trade center, there were all these burly cops and firemen grasping crowbars and axes and picks ready to go into the wreckage. As many as they were, as strong as they all looked, they seemed puny upon that wasteland. And the tools I have--language, imagination--seem even smaller, poorer.

Take good care, all.

© Neela Banerjee

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