Albie and I watched a documentary the other day on the History channel called "Inside 9/11." It took us through the events of that horrible day, and I remembered in detail as I heard about the first plane crash on the radio just as I was about to get out of my car at a Quinnipiac University parking lot.
At first, they didn't know what was going on. As I got to my classroom, a few people were already watching CNN. Our journalism teacher said, "let's just watch this today. We'll discuss the coverage later." Then, as a few more people shuffled into the room, we saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Then we all watched the towers crumble to the ground.
Perhaps it hit me extra hard because I had been inside Tower 1 less than two weeks before the attack. I had lived less than 30 minutes away. I knew people who worked in the city. I later found out that my host father's friend, Dave Campbell, died there (see another post about him here.)
Then I found out that a friend from my previous school, Westchester Community College, was missing. He had recently taken a job as a firefighter in New York City, near the World Trade Center, and hadn't been seen since the attacks. He eventually showed up at the college - frazzled, distraught and with a new respect for life.
I felt an immediate need to go down there. As soon as I had a day off, I hopped on a train. This is what I wrote a few days later and had published in the student newspaper, the Quinnipiac Chronicle (and also on Swedish travel site Jorden Runt):
One month ago the trip down to the city would have been regular, and the goal would have been to see the "Top of the World." A few days ago, the trip was filled with rubble, dust, and security guards, and the destination was called Ground Zero.
Already at Grand Central changes had been made. The voice over the speaker did not only encourage passengers to make sure they didn't leave any belongings on the train, but this time also added that any luggage left unattended would be subject to search by police.
The previous day, a firefighter friend had described the smell at Ground Zero as "a mix of smoke and corpses." It did smell worse than in the dirtiest subway station, but it had something else to it as well. Maybe it was the dust that made the whole southern part of Broadway smell burnt, or maybe it was the white smoke still lingering around the top of a white tower south of Wall Street.
People everywhere covered their mouths with cloth or facemasks, especially closer to Wall Street, where a cloud of dust and ashes was still flying around in the air.
Houses as far as seven or eight blocks away from Liberty Plaza and the World Trade Center were still covered in a thick layer of ashes. Cars were abandoned on the streets, shop windows were smashed and stores had shut down. Some restaurant employees were desperately waving signs around showing that in spite of everything, in spite of the street outside being closed off to the public, they were still open.
Every side street to the west of Broadway was guarded heavily by military and police. Signs were posted asking people not to take photos, and guards personally threatened to take away cameras when people from the crowd still took pictures, saying it was an order from the President.
Battery Park had been turned into a military camp. Tourists who would normally have stopped at the bull on Broadway to take photos now stopped and asked to be photographed together with the uniformed soldiers guarding the entrance to the park.
Outside the "100% ID-check zone," workers were flushing every street with water or washing windows and buildings. Everywhere signs of missing people were placed. Flowers, letters and poems had been delivered to the local fire station, Engine 7, where firefighters are still waiting for a sign of their missing friends.
Turning around corner after corner, block after block, there is one sight after another: a totally burned out building turned black by smoke, a pile of rubble, building cranes lifting pieces away from the mess, and from the south, finally, the one arch-like piece of a wall still standing. With the sun slowly rising from behind the wall, it appears as a lit up shadow.
There are no more words to describe what was left at Ground Zero. The meaning of the images came slowly at first, and then it was clear: Everything shown on TV was true. It really did happen.