Reporter Reflects on Ground Zero, a Year Later

Editor's note: On Sept. 11, 2001, reporter Michael Park was among the hundreds of journalists sent into lower Manhattan to cover the attacks on the World Trade Center. He returned to the scene last week to reflect on his thoughts and experience from that day, and what has passed since.

The smell is still there.

It's there in pockets of air around the Pit, just as strong as it was last year -- the acrid, cloying smell of ash and burning plastic and wood and God knows what else.

The first time I smelled it, I was enveloped by the cloud of white smoke and ash that swallowed up lower Manhattan after the first tower came down. The odor stayed in my clothes for weeks. In downtown, it reeked of it for months.

But it eventually faded away, like the posters of missing people that covered seemingly every empty wall space in the city until the first hard rain.

At least, it faded away in most places.

From the ledge where the smell remains the strongest, the World Trade Center site is now a muddy, square pit about six or seven stories down, a yawning and silent gash in one of the nation's busiest and most cramped neighborhoods.

Outside the chain-link fence, it's louder and busier than ever. Tourists wearing brightly colored belly-packs line up to document the visit with their camcorders, or crowd around sidewalk vendors offering CD-ROM slideshows of people jumping out of the towers' windows. An old man with a ratty U.S. flag and a sandwich-board screed trudges toward the subway as if he were heading home from the office.

Looming over all of it, the damaged Steel Building just to the south of the site stands draped in a black, translucent shroud, like a mourning widow. And everywhere, there's the sound of life.

The only sound I remember from Sept. 11 came when I was standing on a corner about three blocks north of the towers. The subways were out, so I had walked from east Chinatown to the site using the two burning buildings as a beacon -- the last time I'd ever rely on the towers to help me find my way.

Not long after I arrived, my interviews with local merchants were cut short by a loud rumbling sound so strong it made security gates rattle. Everyone ran, screaming that we were being attacked again. I recall giving myself a 50/50 chance of making it through the day alive.

Then came the white smoke. Everything else that day was silent.

Nearly a year later, inside the fence that surrounds the World Trade Center and down the long ramp that leads to the heart of Ground Zero, birds soar yards below ground level. The loudest sound is that of running water. Besides three journalists and their police escort, there are fewer than a dozen people here -- all construction workers eating dinner on the base of a gigantic crane. It's the loneliest place in New York City.

Yards away from the northeast corner of the site is the building lobby where I took shelter with a terrified Secret Service agent and watched through the glass door as the second tower collapsed across the street, its antenna an instant earthbound missile. When we went out again, cars were crushed and windows shattered, and ash seemingly replaced air.

It was impossible to see more than three feet away. It was so utterly silent I eventually played my Discman until I left the cloud. I was completely alone.

I’ve been to the site more than a dozen times since that first day. The city has swept away all the memento mori. You can’t find the ash-covered shoes that a fleeing woman threw off. But you can find shoe sales at Century 21.

A year ago, half-burnt invoices and reports from destroyed offices filled the nearby church graveyard. Now, the tombstones are lined with grass. The once-constant grayness has finally faded, helped along by the gradual sureness of the changing of seasons.

The people have changed as well. Nearby bars have filled with revelers who don't reproach themselves for laughing. Every conversation no longer comes back to the towers.

And whether it's a good thing or not, I can't remember how far up I once had to look to see the tops of the towers.