Drawn To Ground Zero

Drawn To Ground Zero

Every New Yorker has a 9/11 story, and mine is rather unremarkable.

I was driving my kids to school and turned on the usual pop radio station, but there was no music. A plane had struck the World Trade Center. By the time I dropped off my son Zack at school, the second plane had struck. By the time I dropped off my youngest, Jacob, then barely a year old, at my in-laws, the first tower fell. By the time I reached Yeshiva Of Flatbush to drop my daughter off, the world was in full-blown terror-attack panic.

My plan was to drive to Manhattan that morning. Covering the primary election until late in the evening, I’d need the car to get home. Had I not stopped to drop off the kids, I would likely have been emerging from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel just as the World Trade Center was being transformed forevermore into Ground Zero,

I never made it into Manhattan that day, or the next few days, as the transit system was shut down. I spent that awful day watching New York 1 and CNN and frantically working the phones to contribute my small part of the paper’s 9/11 coverage, which would later win first place honors from the American Jewish Press Association in a one-time, coverage of 9/11 category. Later in the afternoon, when 7 World Trade Center was the last of the buildings to collapse, a cloud of singed paper blew all the way from Manhattan to Flatbush, and a few shreds landed in my backyard. I still have them in a Ziploc bag.

For days I, like millions of other Americans, walked around in a haze, wondering if life in America would ever be the same. On top of that, as a journalist, I had a burning need to bear witness. Seeing the destruction on TV wasn’t enough.

So on my first day back in Manhattan, I grabbed my Minolta (still about a year from owning a digital camera), put on work boots and casual clothes I didn’t care about and headed for Ground Zero, foolishly thinking I might actually get close to the rubble. Even with my press identification, I was kept about a block away. (You needed a specially issued security clearance to get past the guards. "This is a crime scene," I remember one surly cop yelling at me as I tried to get in.)

Even as I circled the perimeter I could easily see the destruction, a huge pile of debris perhaps six stories tall. Looking down one street (probably Centre Street) I could see the broken steel frames that were the only part of the towers still standing, bent toward each other in a sign of submission and looking like ruins from a science-fiction movie set.

As I walked around I stepped over power cables juryrigged to keep stores and restaurants in business as Con Edison labored to restore service. On West Street, just outside the Borough of Manhattan Community College, I found a MASH hospital — for rescue dogs. An ASPCA vet there told me that animals that returned from searching for survivors, or remains, came back each day with cut-up paws from climbing on the wreckage but, like their human counterparts laboring 24/7 to find their lost brothers and sisters, never hesitated to go back.

I watched a street artist do an oil painting of The Pile. I found Curtis Sliwa of the Guardian Angels standing guard — over what, I’m not exactly sure. I walked up Broadway to City Hall and found it deserted, as if the city government had been exiled. The Brooklyn Bridge was closed. There were soldiers and military vehicles in the streets, something I had never before seen in Manhattan.

With my zoom lens, I shot a roll of film, the pictures from which I’ve kept in an envelope on my desk at home for years, though I did make one enlargement of the shot you see here and for a time hung it in my basement with a photo of the unharmed towers taken from Ellis Island probanly a decade or so before 9/11.

Two of the pictures from that roll appear in this week’s issue of The Jewish Week, including one on the cover. You can see the rest on this Flickr page.

A few weeks after that visit, I returned to Ground Zero, this time on assignment for The Jewish Week, to interview Rabbi Meyer Hager, whose Wall Street Synagogue is a stone’s throw from the towers and served as a prayer center for many WTC employees, as well as being a neighbor to the first fire company to respond to the disaster. A while later, on Nov. 30, 2011, I made a third visit to Ground Zero, this time with those special credentials, to cover the visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It was only later I would begin to worry about the toxic dust I may have inhaled during those three visits. As those lawyers on late-night commercials can tell you, just a single microscopic asbestos fiber can give you mesothelioma. I wore a mask on the second visit, but not for very long.

What I remember most about those days was the fear that this was somehow the End of Days, that destruction on this kind of scale had to herald something much bigger. I wondered how I could raise kids in this kind of environment, with civilization at war with the uncivilized. But as time went by and there were no other attacks, that sense of doom faded for me, as it did everyone else.

Not directly touched by 9/11, with only a few vague connections to people who were (though I spoke to many of the Jewish victims’ families) I had the luxury of being able to resume a pretty normal life, raising my children in a world that was changed, forever, but intact. Presidents Bush and Obama deserve credit for keeping another attack from our shores.

But not half as much as the troops overseas, fighting there so we don’t have to fight here. As I wandered around Ground Zero that September day I saw the leaflets and fliers and posters hung by so many broken souls clinging to hope for a miracle. As Bruce Springsteen would later brilliantly put it:

"Spirits above and behind me
Faces gone, black eyes burnin’ bright
May their precious blood forever bind me
Lord as I stand before your fiery light"

No matter how sad and traumatized we all were, the full brunt of 9/11’s blast was bourne by a precious few — thousands, whose hearts and lives were shattered, in a nation of 330 million. Today, still, the cost of our freedom and our ability to live any kind of normal lives is still being paid for by a precious small percentage of America whose loved ones are on the line for us.

Sometime next week, when I repeat my journey to Ground Zero and take stock — and pictures — of how it’s alll changed since then, my heart and soul will be with those exceedingly noble Americans, and their families.

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