About a half hour after the Twin Towers disappeared on the morning of Sept. 11, I was with survivors and rescue workers wandering in the streets about a block north of the World Trade Center when I stumbled upon one of the most horrible and beautiful scenes I have ever seen.
The ash and white dust swirled everywhere, as if I were standing inside a snow globe. Above, a ceiling of white smoke was tinged with the cerulean of the gorgeous late-summer sky. Shafts of pearly light reached downward with a reassuring illusion of solidity. Fluttering everywhere like doves were expense reports from Morgan Stanley and Cantor Fitzgerald. The whole street became a cathedral of light and ash.
At 10 a.m., the bells at Trinity Church began to toll out the hour. The sound was too solemn and creepy for the few there, and people shook themselves out of morbid reverie. Looked at up close, the expense reports edges were burnt brown and black. On the sidewalk, the water inside a sealed plastic bottle had turned milky white with ash that pervaded air, cloth and skin. A phalanx of dazed firefighters who had stood staring at the amputated skyline began walking north again, while small groups of young men heading south asked where the best place to see the most dead bodies was.
Two blocks north, a battered jet engine sat on a cracked sidewalk under an advertisement that read "New York’s Most Romantic Corner."
At an apartment complex on Greenwich St., people climbed over a fence to get to West St., where there was a better view of the building. A teenager in a dust mask eagerly collected ash into a Ziploc bag and trotted to the towers. Every third person had a disposable tourist camera or a camcorder.
Two hours later, a few blocks to the northwest, EMTs and volunteer doctors milled outside the courtyard of the Travelers Building with nothing to do but wait, steeped in the increasingly depressing feeling that it could be hours—or days—before they would have anyone to treat. When a firefighter came in with a minor gash, eight doctors pounced on him until someone in charge called a meeting and asked that patients not be crowded.
Most of the other doctors and EMTs had to wait on benches or take short strolls in the grassy square or wait in line for a buffet of scrambled eggs and hash browns. Firefighters and rescue workers passed around casualty numbers from 20,000 to 50,000, but with every hour that passed, my friend Edgar, a doctor at the NYU hospitals, shook his head and said that initial estimates of the dead could turn out to be low. On the street, a paramedic told a group of non-medical volunteers not to go to the site to look for survivors.
"They ordered me to go into the building and I said no," he said. "That building came down five minutes later and killed everyone who followed the orders. I’m not going anywhere near that place, and if you don’t want to get killed, you won’t either."
The most excitement came when someone on a balcony on the apartment building across the street pelted the workers below with eggs. A little later, some medical workers nearly trampled each other rushing for the safety of the office building when Seven World Trade Center collapsed with a whoosh.
At about 6:30 p.m., the doctors were told that it would be another five or six hours before the rescue operations could even begin, and that everyone should go home. Edgar and another doctor friend, Matt, and I trudged north and looked back at the skyline every few minutes, just like everyone else.
But the thing I will remember most –more than the EMTs being pelted with eggs, more than running away from what everyone thought was another plane attack, more even than huddling with Secret Service agents in a lobby and watching One World Trade Center collapse through a door window—what I will remember most from that day is the moment of clarity just after the collapse, the absolute serenity that doesn’t seem will ever return.