Stepping Into the Hole of Ground Zero

The Seattle Times
October 7, 2001
By Alex Tizon

NEW YORK CITY — We came here because we were curious. We thought the only way to understand something so enormous was to stand in the middle of it. After weaving across the continent west to east, listening to people all along the way, we found that ordinary New Yorkers who live and work at the epicenter had the fewest words about Sept. 11. For the moment, at least.

They don’t need to speak; the still-smoldering tomb of thousands of people speaks for itself. They don’t want to wax poetic; they leave that to the politicians. The men and women on street level still walk in a partial daze. Their grief hasn’t had time to become eloquent. It’s ragged and tremulous, or buried and stuck. There are people in the city, nearly four weeks after the attack, still clinging to the hope their loved ones await in some undiscovered chamber. You hear them on the radio, or meet them on the street, bedraggled and hollow eyed, passing out flyers: The wife of a firefighter, the father of a stock broker, the husband of a beautiful young doctor — all stubbornly unwilling to concede loss, while we look on, knowing what they refuse to know.

This isn’t to say many aspects of the city haven’t returned to a semblance of normal. The faces of subway commuters again carry their workaday glum. Cabbies have started honking again, even flipping the occasional bird. And the “Naked Cowboy” has returned to Times Square, crooning in his patriotic Fruit of the Looms. “I’m back, baby!” he screamed. “I’m back!”

All over this most compressed city of 8 million, people have forced themselves to go about business as usual, partly because they need to, partly out of defiance for the terrorists who wish them terrified. And because Rudy asked them to. Mayor Giuliani, more popular than ever as he prepares to step down, has campaigned vigorously for a revival of normalcy.

This while heavily armed soldiers and police officers guard the streets as never before, and as armies of workers clear debris and collect the remains of thousands at Ground Zero. Just yesterday, 23 firefighters were honored in separate memorial services held all over the city.

Three weeks ago, on the second day of our journey across the country, outside the town of Potlatch, Idaho, we met a 30-year-old man named Jonathan Stelzer, who showed us his scars. He told us about a devastating car wreck after which he picked up his own entrails and slowly tucked them back in his body as he waited for help. New York City is picking up its own guts while trying to get on with the business of recovering. It won’t be the same for a long time, if ever. It might walk with a permanent limp. The wound goes deep. To know its extent, we need to stand in the middle of Ground Zero.

‘I had to face it’

The World Trade Center rose from the dense, southern tip of Manhattan, where the Hudson and East rivers meet. This is home to Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange, old churches and dingy little discount stores — all pressed together on narrow streets that crook with the shoreline. It’s the oldest part of an old city. Europeans bought the island from the Indians on this site. George Washington attended church here, the original building only a block from what is now a massive grave.

No one has declared it, but the southwest portion of Lower Manhattan is essentially under martial law. Starting at Canal Street, about 15 blocks north of Ground Zero, uniformed men and women stand at checkpoints every few dozen feet. Barricades block cars and pedestrians. A strong smell permeates the air: a mix of dust from pulverized masonry, burning rubber and rot.

Police consider this section of town a crime scene. Even residents who’ve been let back into apartments must show ID once, twice, three times. The police department long ago had stopped issuing press passes, without which we had no chance to reach the true end of our journey. We were turned away at every access point. The closest we could get was Broadway, which ran parallel to the east side of the World Trade Center, a block away. Walking south on Broadway, peering west at every cross street, we glimpsed sections of the wreckage in sequence, like the Stations of the Cross.

At Broadway and Vesey, we got our first good look: a mound of debris, rows of chain-link fence, the arm of an orange crane, workers in white helmets walking with intent. On the street, a man in a dark suit stopped in midstride to stare up at the blue sky.

“Unbelievable,” he muttered. His name was Eric Palatnik, a 32-year-old attorney with a Romanesque nose pointed toward space. “It’s just not there.”

Where the twin towers once stood, reflecting the city in endless glass, was now just sky and sunlight. Imagine living in the shadow of Mount Rainier and waking up one day to no mountain. The sky would feel like an invasion.

“It’s confusing. You can’t get your bearings,” Palatnik said. “It’s unbelievable.”

At Broadway and Fulton, we saw a section of the burned-out hull of Five World Trade Center, reduced now to seven blackened floors. Through the smoke, we made out the sooty entrance of a Borders book store yawning empty at the building’s base. On this corner, street vendors sold tiny flags and twin-tower miniatures and every manner of Go-USA paraphernalia. Patriotism was for sale every dozen feet.

And on this corner, we met Luis Lluberas, 35, a private security guard in a bright red uniform, his face a melting pot of ethnicities. He stood close to where he was standing the day the towers fell. Lluberas talked of looking up that day and seeing dots falling from the sky — dots that became people who “exploded” on contact. A fireman was killed by someone who jumped. Lluberas has been having nightmares ever since. The other night, he ran to his mother’s room yelling, “Was that a plane? Was that a plane?”

The corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane opened to the most dramatic view. The partial skeleton of the South Tower rose from a giant heap of smoking rubble, leaning as if blown by a strong wind. The sun shone through the latticework and gave the feel of dawn. People on the street crowded forward, pressing against the barricades, speechless and transfixed, staring, drawn by the light. Their faces betrayed awe and glaring anger. A few giggled from nervousness. Some wept; many hung on the verge.

Patricia McCall stood among them, leaning her head against the side of a building as if it were a shoulder. She’s 27, with reddish-blonde hair and swollen eyes. An art coordinator, she worked on a project at the World Trade Center for 72 straight days. She spoke of people who were still missing.

“I’ve avoided coming here,” she said in Irish brogue. “But I needed to come. I had to face it.”

As she spoke, a group of elderly men in tuxedos gathered at the barricade and began singing a hymn in a foreign tongue. They were members of a Norwegian choir, made up of fishermen from the village of Berlevåg, above the Arctic Circle. Their faces were weathered and creased, and their voices deep. Onlookers leaned in to listen, feeling words they couldn’t understand. What could have been a maudlin tableau was somehow fitting, the old voices and foreign melody and strange pronunciations adding to the sense of the surreal. A block away, earth-movers rumbled.

Getting inside

Long story short: It took three days, a friend with connections and Ichiro Suzuki to get us to Ground Zero. We were told at every turn that the chances of stepping foot on the site without an NYPD press pass were nil. But we kept asking. Eventually, an intrepid friend put us in touch with a man named Sid Dinsay, one of Mayor Giuliani’s chief aides. We felt each other out in numerous conversations over two days, and like two men expertly skirting the issue, we talked sports. Dinsay, an Asian American, closely followed the Mariners star. You might even say he was a fan.

We unloaded the full measure of Ichiro trivia on him, and even hinted at the possibility of obtaining an Ichiro bobblehead. “Bobblehead?” Dinsay said. Bobblehead, we replied. He laughed at the pathetic attempt at a bribe. The next evening, we were on a boat to Ground Zero.

We joined an entourage that included Giuliani, New York Gov. George Pataki and Mexican President Vicente Fox. As dusk approached, we assembled on Pier 92, site of the temporary Emergency Command Center. We rode an NYPD cutter down the Hudson to the North Cove Marina, at the foot of Ground Zero. It took 20 minutes, with military check points at both ends. We disembarked.

Steely-eyed men with guns led us through a wide path that began paved and ended muddy several hundred yards later. There we stood on what used to be the corner of West and Liberty streets — the heart of Ground Zero. The sun had set, but the site was flooded by gigantic stadium lights.

“Have you ever seen hell lit up like Safeco Field?” said Dinsay, who led the tour.

The site covered the equivalent of 12 city blocks and had the feel of a town demolished. It was destruction on a massive scale, messy and jagged, like no single thing we’d ever seen, and a combination of many things. It felt enclosed like a stadium. One part appeared like the ancient Anasazi cliff-dwellings of Colorado. Another section looked like Smoky Mountain, the infamous towering garbage dump on the outskirts of Manila. A vast portion recalled images of Hiroshima after the bomb, flattened and desolate. Smoke from machines mixed with smoke from the rubble. And all of it was lit up, as if for a show. And indeed, people as small as ants on hillsides performed, laboring in jobs as varied as sifting for human remains and loading gargantuan steel beams, bent like wilted stems, onto recycling trucks.

In the distance, welders’ flames appeared like fireflies against a backdrop of shadows. Above, giant cranes criss-crossed in the sky. At our feet, almost over our feet, all-terrain vehicles carrying Secret Service agents buzzed past. The roar of machines created a deafening silence. Every one of the ants on the hill, and the ants on the muddy path, was in the process of doing something they had never done before. They, and we, were figuring it out as we went. This place was the hole out of which the New America was emerging.

Giuliani gave a statement, as did Pataki and Fox. Their talk amounted only to mouths moving. All that could be heard was the silence amid the noise amid the wreckage. We traveled 4,624 miles across 15 states to this spot on the southernmost tip of an island where everything else was drowned out, crowded out, except for the work to be done. It was all that mattered now.