Friday, July 13, 2012

An Excerpt from 9/11: Then and Now

On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was back in the States, waking up in my apartment on Claremont Avenue.  In those days I was traveling frequently between the Dominican Republic and the US.  As I prepared my coffee I listened in puzzlement to the news coming over 1010 WINS radio.  A plane had struck one of the Twin Towers at 8:46.  As my mind became more alert and I began to absorb the news, another plane hit the other tower.  It was immediately clear that this was no accident.  I jumped into my jeans, grabbed my camera bag, and ran to my car.  I raced down the Henry Hudson until I was stopped at Forty Second Street by a blockade composed of UPS trucks commandeered by the police, so I parked carelessly nearby and ran the rest of the way down 10th avenue.  Crowds of panicked people ran toward and past me, but I continued against the tide.  It was a considerable distance but I arrived just after the second tower collapsed, enveloping the entire neighborhood in a poisonous heavy dust.  I took some time to catch my breath and survey the surroundings.  The police had cordoned off the area and scores of photographers and journalists milled about snapping photographs and interviewing passersby.  Undeterred by the police barricades and the officers who turned back all comers, with or without a press pass, I snuck around the edge and continued down to the complex of apartment buildings across the street from the western edge of the World Trade Center complex.  The scene was frantic, people were running everywhere, firemen were rushing to the site of the towers, and fire boats were anchored nearby in order to evacuate people and ferry supplies to the site. Their hoses were at the ready in case the fire should spread to the west.

Paper was floating everywhere in the air.  Reams and reams of legal forms and business letters rained upon the lawns.  It resembled a mad ticker tape parade with unruly throngs of directionless people instead of orderly marching bands.  People were shouting, police were blocking off the site, and firemen ran back and forth.  In the midst of this madness, I spotted a woman reclining in her bathing suit on a lawn chair.  She seemed utterly unconcerned except insofar as the commotion was spoiling her ability to tan herself.  I looked at her in stunned amazement.  Was she so self absorbed that she dismissed the whole affair as irrelevant?  Was she oblivious?  Was she in some perversely heroic manner asserting the value of daily routine over the gross inhumanity of this enormous disruptive event?  Was she simply a mad bourgeoise like those in a Buñuel film?  I never could decide and I never knew what became of her.  A cop came along and tried to arrest me, and the need to evade him diverted my attention.  To this day I regret that I did not photograph that woman, but of all the mad things that had happened to me prior to that moment, this was what temporarily deranged me and caused me to forget myself and my reason for being there.

I photographed the ruins from various angles, getting as close as I could, and trying with difficulty to contact my agency, which was not at all cooperative.  I vowed to ignore every impediment and simply get those pictures.  I photographed all the busted cars with their windows blown out, the frenetic firemen, the shafts of water showering onto the pile, the ubiquitous litter and detritus of modern construction, but I didn’t get anything that managed to sum up or even halfway explain or capture the feeling of this event.  That would come much later in the evening of that first day.

I wasted time evading the police who were aggressively clearing people out of the zone, even the reporters who had a right to be there.  A press pass is an illusory thing.  It permits you to enter areas otherwise off limits to the public, but since it is issued by the police, they in turn may deny access.  It always stuck me as odd that the police rather than a civic body should be in charge of controlling journalistic access.  During that day and all the next week they worked hard to ensure that no one crossed the line.  I played cat and mouse with them the whole time.  At one point that morning another cop made it quite clear that he was going to arrest me, and as I didn’t want to interrupt my coverage I made a quick getaway.  Once back outside the cordon on West Street I took a break to recollect myself and chat with some other photographers I knew and some I didn’t.  Everyone pretty much had the same sort of images.  In those days most of them were already using digital cameras so we could review the pictures immediately.  I was shooting Tri X.

One of the photographers there had arrived before the attack on an unrelated assignment and had been trapped in an underground subway station.  After being rescued, he shook off his fear and immediately went to work, though there was little he could do behind the barricade.  I hooked up with another guy who was not a professional photographer but had real energy, which revived mine.  We went along the line testing it for points of penetration, but it was practically impervious.  In the late afternoon at 5:20 while we were standing only a couple blocks away, Building #7 collapsed so suddenly that we were all shocked.

My sidekick and I eventually came to rest a little to the east around Church Street.  The police were using that corner as a staging ground and we watched as patrol after patrol were swallowed by fluid brown fog beyond.  It was getting late and I was getting restless.  I started looking hawkeyed down Church street, waiting for my opportunity to escape the police cordon.  We had been chatting up the cops, making friends, asking whether they might let us pass.  Then I noticed that the ambulance crews were also camped there and occasionally one would enter the zone headed for ground zero.  So I made friends with them instead and one of the crews offered me a ride.  My fellow photographer and I snuck aboard and hid in the back while they revved the engine, called in, and drove down Broadway – circuitously it seemed for some reason I could not fathom from my hiding spot – turning finally toward Church Street near the Millenium Hotel.  We had to get out fast and run because the cops were everywhere and indeed after I took a few photographs, one of them spied me and set off in pursuit.  I eluded him by ducking down a ramp off Cortland Street.  I emerged soon thereafter because the cop was really too busy to bother with me and had given up. 

The rest of the night the cops paid me no heed, and I mingled freely among the firemen.   I learned later that week that many policemen milling about then and afterward had no business being there.  They had not been assigned, they had merely taken advantage of their privileged access in order to see what was going on.  They were tourists just like the rest of the people who came everyday to the barricades to catch a glimpse of something memorable.  For the most part the police and firemen acted with admirable restraint and a sense of purpose.  But the emotions stirred up by the destruction and disorder, along with intense fatigue and disorientation, caused some of them to lose control and become violent.  On a subsequent night, while I was trying to photograph the scene from a distance, in order to capture the eerie mix of light and darkness, a fire chief screamed obscenities at me and assaulted me physically.  I protested, showed him my pass, but he would have none of it.  He had to be restrained by others with him, and I had to leave.

Church Street was an unbelievable mess.    I knew the area well because I had worked in offices near there.  I couldn’t square what I was seeing with what I had known – sunlight glittering off the bits of mica in the sidewalks, throngs of suited workers disgorged from the subway exits, the salty bite in the morning air from off the Hudson, an occasional whiff of eggs on a roll and coffee.  All of that was blotted out.  I felt that I had been dropped onto the streets of some firebombed city during World War II.  Night had fallen quickly on this part of the city.  The world had become black and white.

The area was filled with debris and water.  Shadowy figures moved in and out of the isolated lights in operation.  There were shells of cars and fire engines that had been destroyed by falling debris.  The pile of smoldering metal and plastic and concrete that was once Tower 2 and Building 4 was now only a few stories high and over it the rescuers scrambled like ants looking for people trapped under the rubble. Across the street the Brooks Brothers store at 1 Liberty Plaza had been turned into a makeshift triage center and morgue where masked doctors waited for bodies.   Very few if any turned up; the stupendous weight of floor upon floor had obliterated the offices.  Though people who were on the scene early, while the towers burned and no one could guess what was about to happen, spoke later with horror about the bodies that fell into the street around them, at this late point I saw few signs of the dead, which in a way made it all seem more apocalyptic.  The dead had left no trace; they had been absorbed into the overwhelming destruction.  The only witnesses to their once having been there at all were the families and friends waiting at home who would later testify that their loved ones had never come back.  The fine ash in the air was there to remind us that we were attending a macabre funeral.

The most frightening and disorienting aspect of the scene was its scale.  We have seen buildings collapsed by bombs, embassy buildings, Oklahoma City – but none was as titanic in its scope.  Broad thoroughfares had disappeared; barely passable lanes traversed the rubble.  The vast expanse of the World Trade Center’s plaza had become a wasteland of smoking shattered detritus, like a dumpsite that had long ago overflowed its boundaries and grown out of control.  Shards of the original walls still stood here and there like the ghostly fingers of some ancient behemoth that had tried to claw out of the grave.  Garbage was strewn everywhere.  Firemen scanned the pile with flashlights in hand or search lights mounted on Hook and Ladder trucks, but they could illuminate only little patches of the destruction, the darkness was so thick.  Others were busy with acetylene torches, large jaw-cutters or buzz saws cutting through metal, trying to get down to the people who may have been trapped below. 

I passed a fire engine where a fatigued fireman sat on the bumper, the doctors looking on from their perch in Brooks Brothers.   They seemed stunned by the inert weight of an event that defied the powers of the mind to comprehend it.  Throughout the night these were the typical reactions:  some staggered by the enormity of what they were seeing, forced by fatigue and bewilderment to step away from the scene and try to get a perspective on it; others who sought to forget their fear in frantic activity, so caught up in what they were doing that their minds remained clear for being focused on small comprehensible tasks.  What I took to be a command center was on the corner of Church and Liberty.  I watched the frazzled men struggle to organize and supply all the different outposts of frantic search and rescue.  A tangle of firehoses and electric lines powering the lights and torches and saws covered the surface, making it hard to walk without stumbling.  In spite of all the confusion and the lack of resources, their concentration and efficiency were remarkable.  Watching them work, one could almost believe that the situation could be brought under control.

Further west on Liberty Street another post had been set up giving the teams of rescuers a base from which they could scale the remains of the South Tower.  An EMT truck stood at the ready to receive any victim that would need rushing to a hospital.  For most of the night no body was recovered and the EMT van didn’t budge.  A thick mass of rescuers streamed over the pile, the bulk concentrated on the more level ground nearest the path that had been cleared through what was once Liberty Street.  Toward the north the ground rose higher and higher, and it became more difficult to keep one’s footing.  As each column of rescuers climbed the plateau of detritus, it became smaller and smaller, the line twisting through swaths of light and blotches of inky blackness, gradually obscured by the enfolding gloom until all one could see was the glint of the reflective bands across the backs of their black turn-out coats, and then each point of light snuffed out as the dwarfed column crossed the far rim of steel shards and disappeared into the sink beyond our ken, erasing their existence from our minds, which were called back to life by the commotion of the teeming throng at the base.  The powerful klieg lights pierced a gloom that was more than just darkness. It had a plastic quality, like a cloudy substance.  It was not an absence of light; it was a gaseous soup.  The lights fixed on the pile were like outstretched hands clearing away cobwebs.  Some of the rescuers wore gauze masks, but most of us there were exposed without protection to the poisons swirling in the air.  A couple nights later I met a Con Edison worker emerging from one of the buildings across West Street.  He was dressed in a biohazard suit, the sort that one sees in movies about viral outbreaks.  I asked him why he was suited up like that, and he told me point blank, “man, you have no idea the kind of poison that is out here.”  I knew then that we were all at risk, and that the government had lied when it told us there were no contaminants in the area.

That first night as the rescuers worked frantically to get at the trapped people, no one thought much about the risk.  Everyone was fixed on one sole idea: save whom they could.  As the hours slipped by the firemen tirelessly cut the steel, excavated the concrete, cleared the amalgamated alloy of noxious construction material, fighting against time so that the people trapped below, if any were still to be found whole and hale, might not slip away into the void presaged by the darkness.  The rubble they cleared was like the jagged grains of an hourglass sifting through their hands as they clawed at the bits and pieces they managed to dislodge from the pile, and all the while the sifted jetsam slipped and ran through their hands and meted out the diminishing hours that they could not arrest in their flight.  The search involved more than just saving lives, that prospect now becoming less and less hopeful; it was driven by a desire to retrieve the remains of the dead so that their existence might not be wholly lost to that uncanny gulf into which the workaday world and the daily routines that cleave us to a familiar reality had so abruptly disappeared.  The enemy then was not terrorism; it was oblivion. 

At one point late into the night, the monotony of turning over stone after stone was interrupted by the tremendous good luck of finding a survivor, which sent a ripple of excitement through the crowd.  A column of rescuers extricated the individual and relayed him down the line to the base, where he was quickly stretchered and hauled off in the ambulance.  It appeared that he was indeed alive, and this renewed everyone’s hopes.  They kept at it with admirable determination, even though during the couple hours that I remained there no other bodies were found.  As the end of the night approached I began to feel the kind of fatigue that one experiences only after working long hours at a feverish pitch; the adrenalin I had been feeding on was giving out.  I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything the entire time I was there.  The noxious air was causing my eyes to burn and my nose to run.  My throat was scratchy.  The fine dust had penetrated my lungs and even my lens.  It is still there in both places ten years later.  After shooting my last frame, I realized I should leave, but I lingered a while, unwilling to let go.  

I walked out of there proceeding north along Church Street.  The city by then had acquired an eerie calm.  Except for the streetlamps there was no sign of energy or life.  Such emptiness in a big city is almost entirely unknown and when it occurs, it induces a disagreeable sense of solipsism and extreme loneliness.  I headed over to Chinatown hoping to find an open store where I could maybe buy a drink or something to restore my flagging energy.  I had a long walk home ahead of me.  Nothing was open, but somewhere around Delancey street I heard a ruckus issuing from a sort of storefront underneath the stairs leading up to the main floor of a tenement.  It turned out to be a brothel, and I settled in for a beer and some diversion.  I was just too tired either to continue on my way or to participate, but I slowly revived as I watched a very different kind of scene from the one I had left behind.  Despite a vague mood of cynicism and disaffection, the heat of human desire and the singleminded pursuit of illicit pleasure heartened me somewhat.  When I left there after the beer, I was strong enough to walk the 50 odd blocks to my abandoned car, which thankfully was not ticketed.  I don’t remember seeing anyone along the way, which was punctuated by storefronts with TV sets broadcasting video of the planes hitting the Towers.  A live television in dead space is an uncanny thing.  The image was repeated endlessly up and down the avenues, no one to receive, no one to transmit, a news flash for the end of the world.  I drove up the West Side without encountering any other cars, and when I parked on Claremont I saw no one up and about.  By then the sun had begun to turn the dark into a soft grey, and the first notes of birdsong floated in the air.

The next day I woke up to a very different world, but I had as yet no inkling of the coming changes.  They announced themselves later that winter when I experienced the first of several subsequent respiratory crises and, on returning to the Dominican Republic, I was harassed by airport security.  From then on I would never be at home again either in my own body or the country of my birth.

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