TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11
It’s around midnight, fifteen hours give or take a few minutes since the moment when the city that liked to consider itself the world’s most jaded metropolis finally and forever lost its innocence.
It’s been a long, surreal day of strange sights and sirens, shock and stunned silence.
We’ve come through it – the city, and the people who call this place their home – with surprising decency so far. No looting or riots, no panic buying in the supermarkets, not one of the things New Yorkers’ collective reputation for surly self-interest might have led an outsider to expect.
No real sense of what has happened, either, not yet at any rate. “Numbness” is the word of the day. People are using it everywhere. It is the full stop at the end of every sentence. “I’m just, you know, numb,” a woman told an elevator of total strangers, who all replied, that, yes, they were numb, too.
The figures and statistics, like the Twin Towers that now lie in ruins, are beyond human scale. Two buildings that once stood almost a quarter of a mile high, the boldest and most confident ascenders in the Big Apple’s signature skyline, have been reduced to 50-foot piles of compacted rubble.
As to the dead, they are many, but who can yet be sure how many? Is it ten thousand or twenty? Might the toll be even worse? The mind recoils, reluctant to consider a prospect that refuses to be rendered comprehensible even as it demands to be pondered.
The only element to be grasped, the one thing you could observe and know for sure on a day of tumbled images, is that the low bank of weirdly angled cloud to the south, visible even now at midnight, is the rising smoke of a massive funeral pyre.
The images of the day are a tumbled jumble, so far beyond normal experience and expectation that they insist on remaining a blur even as the mind grapples to order them into a coherent, freeze-framed sequence. There were the phone calls from friends and family that started the day for so many.
“Are you OK? Did you hear that a plane hit the WTC and one of the towers is burning.”
The phone calls spread, and the news, soon amplified by the radio stations, summoned a whole city to gather individually and in clusters around its TV sets, so many that it later seemed that no one missed the live-action instant when the darting, diving shadow of the next jetliner swooped in low and fast at the second tower.
Next, the flames, and the stomach-turning sight of small, cruciform human specks leaping to their deaths rather than endure the flames, some holding hands as they went down together.
The first tower crumbled concertina-like, soon followed by the other. Then came word from Washington that the Pentagon had been hit, and that it, too, was burning. Finally, the news of a fourth plane going down in a Pennsylvania field.
It was just too much, too soon. Absolute overload. As cell phones went suddenly dead all over town after the central relay dishes atop the WTC cut out, the loss of communication was already beside the point.
People stood in knots on street corners, frantically punching dead handsets, refusing to believe that the things they had taken so long for granted – instant communication, the permanence of tall buildings, the routine safety of daily life – was no more.
The fact that cell-phones were dead and ground lines overloaded was academic – by that stage, the mental circuits of an entire metropolis were already fried.
Which is why, at the end of a day sharp scented by the smell of soot, it now seems suddenly important to keep a chronological record – not of the signal events as such, for the TV cameras have recorded the carnage and its causes better than any words, but as a clinical record of how a city’s heart stopped beating and the symptoms of the shock that followed.
The men who laid out modern New York numbered Manhattan’s northern streets and avenues in neat, numerical order as they paved over the tangle of Dutch farm tracks that had been there since the 15th century. Twenty blocks made a mile in their tight, right-angled island. Now that same philosophy, of comprehension instilled through order, might work again: Street by street, block by block, assemble the unthinkable into a coherent grid and use it to chart what will be, we can only pray, the progress toward recovery.
So plot the first reference point on Second Avenue, 90 minutes after the second attack and a good seven miles from the financial district’s Ground Zero. Streaming up the sidewalks and all but closing the roadway, an endless legion of office workers headed home. Many were smudged with black ashes and some limped or were bloodied. A few – surprisingly few, really – sobbed as they walked.
Through the throng, grinding in low gear against the tide came what looked like a wholesale fruiterer’s truck from the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx.
The cops must have pressed it into emergency service because there were officers on its running board waving the crowd apart as the driver, a small, stocky and unshaven man with a cigar, leaned on his horn and steered a slow-motion slalom. The human stream divided and the truck accelerated with a jerk and roar to the south, its progress aided by a motorcycle cop who fell into place ahead to clear the way with a blaring siren and flashing light.
It is only when the truck had passed and the human tide surged over its wake that the sign on the rear door became visible. What was written had been scrawled in thick, uncertain letters on a cardboard panel torn from the sort of oversized box that might once have held a refrigerator.
“Emergency hospital supplies,” said the top two lines of script. And at the bottom, in a more resolute hand, “BODY COLLECTION.” It was chilling, and all who saw it stopped dead in their tracks. The only conclusion that could be drawn was grim indeed: If a market gardener’s lorry has been transformed into an emergency vehicle, there must be no conventional ambulances left to send.
At 28th Street, where the kids at the Epiphany School were being sent home, knots of breathless parents waited for their young by the steps. The uncollected kids were in the basement and you could hear them out on the street, a white noise of small-bird voices pouring up the airshaft from the basement gym.
For the kids, it was an unexpected day off school and they were celebrating. But on the street, where we parents waited, the same thought, unspoken because it was too terrible to utter, was on every mind: How many of those kids’ parents were gone?
Two children in eighth grade had parents who were potential casualties. One, a tall, thin beaky guy called Olli Rasmussen, had given up his weekends for the past three years to coach the junior basketball squad through successive seasons of unbroken losses.
A terrible coach but a wonderful man, he was also a currency trader who worked high up in one of the tumbled towers. God Almighty, if he was dead, that laughter rising from below took on new meaning. It might represent the last true moment of innocent happiness his son would ever know.
The mother of another child, a little girl, worked at a different brokerage in the same building. When her husband arrived to collect their daughter, some asked if he had heard from his wife. He mumbled a choking, “No not yet,” and the audience cast down its eyes like a congregation at prayer.
On the West Side, outside Penn Station, the gigantic subterranean commuter depot that sprawls beneath Madison Square Garden, all the exits were sealed and a horde of anxious, stalled travellers that must have numbered 20,000 filled all of Seventh Avenue. There couldn’t have been more than half a dozen cops to control them, not that they needed controlling.
On any other day, such a critical mass of so many frustrated New Yorkers would have made an ugly spectacle. On this morning, as was the case everywhere around town, behaviour was exemplary.
A short, round fireplug of a lady copy brandished her megaphone from a flight of low stairs and assured everyone that the station would resume operations as soon as the bomb-sniffing dogs were through. The crowd all but nodded in unison. For once, incredibly, an unprecedented assembly of New Yorkers knew what was good for them and acted accordingly. When she read out a list of locations for donating blood, whole sections of the crowd broke away to follow her directions.
As they did, a fiftyish man with a tonsure of wiry ginger hair moved through the mass, stopping seemingly at random here and there to place both hands on strangers’ shoulders, stare into their eyes and say with slow, murderous clarity: “We’ve got to kill somebody. Somebody has to burn.”
The pocket protector and the crisp, short-sleeved summer shirt proclaimed a respectable citizen – perhaps, from the look of him, a stockroom boss or maintenance supervisor in one of the nearby office buildings. Those he approached all nodded and agreed, returned the gaze of his bright eyes.
But he was ahead of the curve. With the culprits as yet unknown and the shock, like the mounded debris at the foot of our Manhattan, still settling in, revenge remains, at least for tonight, a concept of almost academic abstraction.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 12
There is a new game in town. Everyone is playing it, with absolute attention but no enthusiasm. They were at it first thing this morning over coffee and bagels in the Town House Diner on East 38th Street.
“So, have you heard a death toll? Do they know how many have been killed,” a woman asked the counterman. That is, with minor variations, the opening gambit, and it is almost always uttered in a tone that mixes fatalism and hope in uneasy equal measures. No, the correct response comes, but it must be high. And then the grim business of speculating about corpses commences.
Let’s see, the standard dialogue begins, so many passengers in the hijacked planes, plus so many more at the Pentagon, plus godonlyknows the tally downtown.
“They say 10,000,” the first will say, having given up all attempts to divine the mathematics of mass murder.
“I heard higher – maybe 30,000,” the second will respond.
And then, that post-shock silence descends until, across the room at another table, the estimating begins anew.
There are other, newly adopted motifs of daily life as well – the zombie shuffle, for one. Normally (can anything ever by normal again?), the streets of New York are its greatest charm. Move through the crowds with your ears open and it is as if someone has sliced a David Mamet script into disordered chunks and plucked them at random from a hat. Snatches of profanity, snippets of abuse, laughter and incidental affection, all of it blended and vitalised by the churning passage of the crowds.
New York apartments tend to be claustrophobically small, so much of daily life and human intercourse takes place on the streets. Before yesterday, eavesdropping was unavoidable. If you listened hard, the payoff was an aural snatch of life as it is lived by nine million fellow residents.
That, too, is no more. Now the streets are eerily devoid of human noise.
Traffic has all but vanished. So many streets are blocked to facilitate the movement of emergency vehicles that it is almost impossible to get around town on four wheels. Instead, the audible landscape has come to be dominated by sirens that, for the past 24 hours, have never stopped. Some scream in a stuttering chitter like the amplified chatter of squirrels, others whoop and ululate. The air horns on fire trucks simply bellow above the rest.
Human conversation, however, is now muted. The thinned-out crowds – so many cannot, or simply will not, come to work – are silent as they walk. Laughter, when it is heard at all, is obscene.
In Macy’s on 34th Street, when two young office girls in summer florals giggled loudly on an upbound escalator, all who heard them froze. A black man in a three-piece suit caught the peels of mirth and shot the offenders a cold glance as he passed them going down. They fell silent, instantly chastened.
It is the developing decorum of grief, the silence of a town that has become, and remains, a grave for the unrecovered corpses of thousands. So we march about our business like mourners in a silent procession – shoulders hunched, heads bowed, eyes downcast, variations on the same thought tumbling in a million minds.
In what conversation can be heard, a trend is emerging. Surprisingly, unlike the man who yesterday pleaded for vengeance from strangers at Penn Station, it is not yet the full-blown Archie Bunker demand that Baghdad, Kabul, Damascus or whatever be turned into glowing parking lots. It is about how this tragedy could have happened. There was to have been a panel discussion this week at one of the downtown colleges about the CIA and the future of America’s intelligence community. It has been cancelled, like the Broadway shows and baseball ballgames, which is pity because the same question is everywhere and it might have been interesting to hear the experts’ answers.
How could a nation that spends $50 billion every year to defend itself have been defeated by a crew of fanatics armed with nothing more than razor blades glued to plastic combs?
“The Moslems don’t belong here,” the Chinese owner of a Mexican restaurant said as he ladled out the nachos. “They’re not like us.” What is he saying? Does diversity extend to Confucians – and no further?
Some of the city’s cops certainly seem to think so. From Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, the borough’s Middle Eastern quarter, there are reports that officers have been slapping tickets on any vehicle they can find, just as they did when news of the Oklahoma City bombing reached town and Arabs became the immediate prime suspects.
At least 50 of their brother officers are crushed and buried beneath the downtown rubble and the blue legion’s fury matches its frustration. The reaction is easy to understand if not accept.
At a coffee shop near the United Nations building – now ringed after with a barrier of dumptrucks parked across First Avenue to foil car bombers – the Brooklyn-raised son of the Yemeni migrant who owns the place was treading very carefully.
“I’ve been insulted twice this morning. One guy bought a coffee and then saw that,” he said, pointing a framed verse from the Koran behind the cash register. “He said, ‘F*** you’ and walked out.
A cab driver told a similar story, recounting how three middle-aged women paid the fare and then, as the last of the slid across the rear seat to get out, she leaned through the bullet-proof partition to tell the driver that he deserved to be nuked.
“Funny thing is,” he said, “I am Sikh, never Moslem, and I agree. They must be made to suffer.”
While such sentiments remain relatively rare, you have to worry. When the shock subsides and the blood lust rises, how many other innocents will pay for the crimes of a few?
The real process of retribution won’t begin on the streets of a shaken city but in Washington, where George W. Bush has been making the same promises all previous presidents have uttered after other, less costly terrorist attacks. The guilty will be made to pay. They can run, but they can’t hide.
It’s the standard cliches, the etcetera boilerplate, but this time, you know it’s serious and the thought of where things might lead makes the blood run cold.
Earlier, on West 23rd Street, a bum who must have found a discarded black-and-white TV had hooked it up to the power plug inside the base of a lamp post. It was a small screen and the coat-hanger aerial could produce little more than a sheet of snow on which the ghosted image of the president flickered. All the same, a crowd had gathered, eyes glued to the set, which rested atop the supermarket trolley in which its owner’s possessions bulged amid the rags and cans and tattered plastic bags.
Bush was talking, less tongue-tied than usual but far from eloquent.
“Fat chance that moron can do anything,” said a black-clad kid with a nose ring and a blue streak in his hair.
“Shut up . He’s our president,” snapped a black man who, if demographics are any guide, almost certainly voted with the 96 percent of the other blacks in this city for Al Gore.
The crowd agreed and the kid was pelted with a barrage of “Get lost” and “jerk.” So he departed, not even bothering to respond, and the crowd, still growing, listened to the address in silence.
“I wouldn’t be staying in Kabul,” said a young, white woman in Elvis Costello glasses when the address to the nation was done.
And then, at that precise moment, a fire truck passed slowly along the street, the dusty and dented vehicle matching the fatigue of the exhausted, filthy men who sagged and slumped on the equipment in the back.
The black man who had told off the punk raised a fist and cupped the other hand around his mouth. “Thank you, guys,” he shouted. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Everyone joined in. As many as 200 of the firemen’s buddies are said to be interred in downtown’s debris and the surviving smoke-eaters, those poor bastards riding home to see the empty cots of their friends, had been on the job beyond endurance.
When the full history of these days is written, it will be the firemen who – along with the 50-or-so cops who were crushed – lead the ranks of heroes.
So are many are dead because so many ignored orders, and their personal safety, to keep hunting for Trade Center survivors.
As the spontaneous cheers followed their truck down the street, it required great effort not to cry for the sacrifice and memory of the men New Yorkers call The Bravest.
It’s midnight again. The second day is done. New York is still keeping its act together, even as we play the body game and wonder with a sense of suppressed dread at what might come next.
Outside, the lights on the Empire State Building have been turned off – no sense in advertising the landmark’s presence, even though there are no planes left to hijack since every single non-official aircraft in the entire country has been grounded. The Port Authority bus terminal on 42nd Street has been cleared in response to a bomb threat.
The confirmed casualty count is rising, though still in the low three figures, and the authorities’ refusal to give an overall estimate has left a vacuum the city is filling with fear.
On the television no more than a moment ago, one of the talking heads raised the possibility of 50,000 dead. Could it really be that many?
In Washington, the Bush Administration is said to have brought in mathematicians from the local universities and asked them to calculate the explosive yield of a fuel-laden jumbo jet. The answer will be in megatons, atomic bombs. Whatever Bush is planning, surely nuclear retaliation could not be an option?
It’s one more chilling thought to mull as the city that never sleeps settles down to get some rest, the sirens’ ceaseless song a universal lullaby. The city is coping, but the bomb threats testify to a growing twitchiness.
From a clinician’s point of view, the symptoms of the initial shock are fading. The nightmare question now concerns the nature of the response that will replace it.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 13
It has been possible these past three days to be of two minds about what happened downtown, in much the same way that the city itself has been divided into two separate and distinct entities. Below 14th Street and all the way down through the Village, SoHo and TriBeCa, it’s an official disaster zone.
Above the cordon sanitaire that police have imposed along the mile-and-a-half stretch of 14th Street, the widest part of Manhattan, life has been conducted with as much normalcy as possible under the circumstances. Today, the contagion of fear is finally spreading north from the impact zone.
It began at dawn for Bernadette Solum, who switched on the TV to catch the weather report before leaving for her job as a dental nurse and learned that the FBI had “quarantined” Staten Island from the rest of the world. All the bridges were shut, the famous ferry was out of service, and residents were being advised to stay in their homes.
Her first reaction was that it must have been a chemical attack, and her heart skipped a beat at the thought.
“Then the newsman said that four suspects were hiding there, and I thought, ‘Well that’s just normal. There’s no nerve gas, or anthrax, or anything to worry about it’. Imagine thinking it was ‘normal’ to have four mass murders running through your backyard. It shows how these attacks have changed us.”
By the time she opened the dental office, the concept of normal had taken another beating.
“There was a clerk from the city medical examiner’s office waiting at the door,” she said. “He had a list of names and he wanted their dental records so they could identify bodies.”
One set was of a young woman whom Solum had seen blossom from a teenager to a college graduate with an Ivy League degree in finance.
“We did her braces, and she was in two weeks ago to have a crown installed. Her parents don’t have money, they always took time to pay the bills, but she was a great kid who made something of herself. That was when it hit home. It was there in front of me, not just on the TV anymore. I just couldn’t stop myself – I’ve been bawling all day.”
Back at the Epiphany School, the news was good and bad. Olli the basketball coach was unharmed, as was the pushy stockbroker who is always urging other parents to let them handle their portfolios. Three other parents weren’t so lucky. The father of a seventh grader was among the missing firemen, and two other kids in the junior school had each lost a parent.
Three dead out of a total of 400 families. The numbness that had rendered Tuesday’s outrage incomprehensible was wearing off as the bad news – the bad news translated into human terms rather than TV images – trickled past 14th Street.
Arturo Valdez, a daytime doorman at a Midtown apartment building came to work red-eyed and haggard. He had spent the night consoling his wife, whose brother was amongst the missing. “She knows now that he will never be coming home,” he said, then added: “We saw him last at a wedding in July.”
As the day progressed, the face of grief marched north. “I know he’s dead,” Lucy Estaban, a hotel maid said of her 20-year-old son. “We haven’t heard from him since Tuesday.” Sobbing on a bench with workmates, she didn’t mind baring her pain to a total stranger with a notebook. “I know he would have had a wonderful life, he was a wonderful boy. Very smart.”
What worried her in particular, one of her fellow maids explained, was the thought that her son’s body might be laid out on the ice with hundreds of anonymous corpses at the Skyrink skating facility in the Chelsea Piers sporting complex, which emergency officials have turned into an ad hoc morgue.
“Lucy wants to be the one who washes Juan and buries him,” said the friend. “She thinks nobody else should touch him.”
At Grand Central station, grief and paranoia combined. Late in the morning, a husband and wife who had been waiting for a train spotted “an Arab man with a 190-pound backpack and wires from his pocket”. They ran to the nearest cop, who told his superiors, who evacuated the building for much of the early afternoon.
Nobody matching the description was found – truth be told, he was probably nothing more sinister than a traveller with a Walkman – but false reports of a similar nature have been pouring in all day.
Beverley Abrams, for example, works for a company that sells promotional items from a nondescript building on the edge of the Garment District. Her low-rise building is of no strategic importance, nothing any half-competent terrorist would bother to destroy. Yet yesterday, over the course of eight hours, she was forced to evacuate three separate times as other tenants reported suspicious characters.
“It makes you think,” she said. “Can we ever feel safe again.”
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online.