NEW YORK – The gaping, muddy, cavernous pit at the south end of Manhattan is unbelievably quiet.
Standing in the wet silt, in the massive crater where the Twin Towers used to be, I am struck by how small I feel against the stories-high walls of concrete, how few people are here -- a dozen others at most -- and how silent and still the air is.
The minute I catch a glimpse of the World Trade Center site I am overcome with emotion, my mind flooded with memories of Sept. 11 as I stare over the edge into the hole in the earth.
I see the towers crumbling all over again, first one and then the other. I hear the devastating, crashing sound of steel and glass. I smell the stench of smoke and ash that still lingers to this day.
Other images flash through my mind in quick succession, like slides in a projector: faces riddled with confusion, panic, shock and fear; people running in terror through narrow, winding streets; a flurry of papers fluttering madly in the air like snowflakes; gray dust blanketing the ground.
As I descend into the pit of dirt, gravel and soot, I feel dwarfed by the magnitude of it all -- of the structures that once stood here and the tragedy that brought them down one horrible morning last fall.
The details of my own Sept. 11 are still vivid. The shock and grief in the radio announcer’s voice, which broke repeatedly as he delivered the news -- first of the jets hitting the towers and then of the buildings collapsing to the ground. The fear that gripped me after the subways stopped running. The thick, black plume of smoke that drifted from the burning World Trade Center and hovered over the East River. The gridlock traffic that ensnared the taxi I was riding in on the FDR Expressway.
I am still haunted by the wailing sirens of ambulances, fire trucks and police cars, all trying desperately to get downtown to help, and by my own involuntary sobs as I heard the first Tower crumble on the cab radio.
And I can still picture the utter mayhem in Midtown -- with stunned, panicked people running in all directions -- that greeted me once I arrived at the office, after the taxi driver told me he couldn’t get me to the site of the disaster.
I’ll never forget the terror that paralyzed me again when I tried to call friends but couldn’t get through, the agonizing hours that passed before I knew they were all alive and my mother’s hysterical cries once she could finally reach me and hear my voice.
I remember constant announcements of building evacuations throughout the city while we stayed on and worked; reports of the devastation downtown from those on the scene; the powerful smell of smoke and ash that permeated the air; and the black, mournful silence that enveloped Manhattan that night.
I envision the huge pile of twisted metal and rubble left behind in the first months after the attacks, with recognizable pieces of the skyscrapers jutting out. I imagine the scorched, mangled buildings that were still standing after the towers fell -- some which have since been torn down -- and the makeshift banner declaring "We will not forget" that’s been converted into a new sign bearing the same message.
Now, a year later, I look up at the charred Banker’s Trust building cloaked in a black cloth that bears an American flag. I survey the mounds of gravel and dirt, the construction equipment and cranes, the puddles, the burned-out parking garage, the severed Path train track and the high, cracked, rust-streaked concrete walls dotted with large metal bolts.
Standing here on this mass grave and feeling my shoes sink into the silt, I experience those painful weeks after the attacks all over again. The hushed candlelight vigils; the wary visits to the site; the sad, soulful memorial service held at Ground Zero the following month. I see the grieving families clutching flowers, flags, candles and photographs of the dead, and relive my conversations with some of them about the ones they loved and lost.
It all comes back in an overpowering rush. But the steady, soothing silence of this place, save for the faint sound of trickling water and the muted hum of a generator, brings me peace. And it’s peace that I take with me as I turn to go.