Words fail us. Words, appallingly inadequate, are all we have.
After our collective thirty-five years it was to be our last full day in New York City. My wife was at home supervising movers who already had our sofa on their truck. I was at my studio in Chelsea awaiting their arrival. They had seen the first plane crash into Tower One as they entered the city from Brooklyn. My wife called me and told me what had happened and out in the hall of my building I joined my neighbor Walter Smith. We ran up the stairs to our building’s roof and there it was, ringed perfectly in flames against the brilliant blue sky. I took my camera and began to walk East. This was my last day in the city and soon, I imagined, the fire would be out and this would be another big story in this fantastic city. Thirty minutes later as I arrived at my home the buildings were gone forever. We have all seen the images on television hundreds of times. First one, then the other, concertinering perfectly down into the earth taking with them three thousand lives.
We spent the rest of the day in our apartment, surrounded by everything we owned, now in cardboard boxes. We reconnected the television and got poor reception on just one local station. We made a space for ourselves amongst the movers blankets, rolls of tape, boxes and sat unable to move from the television. My wife, not yet a year after her treatment for breast cancer had worked so hard organising our long planned move across the country to a new life in California. Now with all planes grounded, all airports closed, every bridge and tunnel in and out of the city sealed we were suddenly going nowhere. The inertia of our frantic packing and planning and the shock waves coursing through the city, left her suddenly exhausted. She slept on our bed, thankfully not yet packed. I lay by her side and listened to the sirens that would continue all through the night. Into the evening we watched the television, the same images now being seen around the world. Tower One in flames, the black sillohuette of the jet torpeedoing so surely into Tower Two. Each time we are shocked. Each time I wait to see if the jet might swerve away to narrrowly miss.
The call went out for blood and we promised each other we’d get up the next morning and go to St Vincents where Tracy had so recently recieved chemotherapy. But there was confusion; they’d run out of blood bags, they’d had to throw away much blood that had been initially taken without adequate donor history, you couldn’t donate without a donor card, you could but come back in the following days when the need for blood would continue. On an impulse I jumped in a taxi and rode to the American Red Cross on Amsterdam and 67th Street. The taxi driver, a Pakistanee, was adamant. “Bomb them all.” But no one has claimed credit yet. “It doesn’t matter, kill them all.” What about innocent women and children? “Well then, a warning to get in line with us or then the bombs.” It would become the American conversation. Retribution, revenge, but against who? The country was confused. We must seek out the enemy and destroy them but now we were learning for several years they had been our quiet, diligent neighbors and students in sunny towns by the ocean with lovely names like Hollywood, Daytona Beach, Coral Springs. On the television now images of Osama Bin Laden’s devotees training in the desert. Spindly lines of men marching up and down in the dust againgst the desolate Afghanee landscape.
At the Red Cross it was confusion. Hundreds of people crowded the front of the building. Some were filling out forms. Before I could do that a man asked for volunteers to unload trucks at the side of the building. I was put to work on a human chain passing cases of water, cartons of chips, cookies. For a couple of hours I worked. Periodically someone would come by and ask for volunteers to do other tasks. At different times I carried blankets, stretchers, put ice in metal urns, put the urns on Red Cross vehicles. After some time a request was made for volunteers to get on a van going down to Chambers Street. I never heard the full request. It was like that. Hardly anyone seemed to be in charge or clear on what we were doing. I had to remind myself I was there to help. It required sometimes helplessly standing around waiting for a vague direction. I had to remind myself this was a disaster. There was no precedent, there was no particular plan. We were an odd mix on the van. Myself, a photographer of movie stars, some Ivy League students, a house wife, a Puerto Rican teenager, our elderly black driver. I was still unclear where we were going. No one asked a question. As we drove down the West Side Highway, now empty of all but the occasional emergency vehicle we slowed to have bottles of water and then face masks passed through the windows to us. As we drove past Christopher Street a large crowd with American flags and hand made signs “U are needed” gave an immense cheer. I felt the color drain from my face.
Now inside the citiy’’s ‘frozen zone’ we saw for ourselves. What the television had shown us was upsetting, but too like the disaster films I never watch. Now here it was on our shoes, our clothes, in our throats and eyes, the dust of those two incredible towers, feet thick on the ground. A coffee and donut vendors cart, pastries still piled high, a cell phone in the gutter, a high heel shoe, a stuffed toy. We were put to work much as before, carrying water into a command centre for rescue personel. Our plattoon was quickly assimilated into the crowd of helpers going in all directions. Again there was little leadership. You went unquestioningly were you were asked. I worked along side huge black truck drivers carrying great pallets of supplies. It occured to me many of these men do this grinding work every day. They were better at it than most of us, stronger and more efficient, though I believe we each worked to our best, carried and lifted all we could. Sometimes as a job ended and dissolved into another we might introduce ourselves and shake hands, sometimes you just found yourself in a new crew. At one time I was given an arm load of cold sodas and told to hand them out. As I walked among the filthy uniformed police, firemen, rescue workers asking them if they would like a cold one I had never felt more humbled. We were just 3 blocks North of what is now being called Ground Zero. None of us took much time to look at the immense smoking pile covered in men. Rather the images I will always carry are of those men in uniform, dusty exhausted faces, uniforms like armour laden with equipment, thousand yard stares as they filed past us back into the wreckage. Magnificent dogs, great German Shepards with beautiful faces gazing up at their handlers wanting to be put back to work. Later we would hear about the search dogs depression. The scent of body parts everywhere was confusing to them. There was no one to find.
Another truck, more water to go to the 5th Floor of Stuyvesant High. After 9 hours I could lift no more. I found the man from the Red Cross that seemed be in charge and told him I was leaving. He asked me my name and told me I was a great guy. I couldn’t feel proud because as night had fallen the work continued ceaslessly. I was going home to my wife, a hot bath, safety, comfort. I asked him if he would be here tomorrow and he said “I’ll go wherever they send me”. He was an old man and I felt sure he would work through the night. I walked back up the highway between the huge trucks waiting to be filled with the rubble of the World Trade Centre, past the refrigerated fish trucks now fitted out to be filled with bodies that couldn’t be found. I walked past the crowd still gathered at Christopher Street, still cheering every cop, fireman, workers of all kinds as they entered and left the site. I walked past a fire station, it’s driveway covered in tiny candles, flowers, notes. For a second I thought they’d need to move all that to put the firetruck back in, before I remembered hearing entire companies had been lost when the first building came down.
The next morning the Department Heads at the site requested no more volunteers. I felt lucky to have been able to give just one day. With our lives in a strange limbo, we walked the streets. All over New York handbills were going up with photographs and details of the missing. In death there was the great democracy still at work, black security guard along side wasp stock broker along side Spanish chef. Father, Mother, Fiance, Newly wed, New father. The photographs were of people at company parties, on the beach, on holidays. The words were not joyous like the photographs subjects. “I love this man, bring him back” said one.
We stayed in the city for one more tragic week. The sadness was like a vapour. It could find you anywhere. On September 13, late at night rain came. It damped the fires but I thought of the workers I had seen, still down there. Fires beneath their feet. Rain now in their faces. I thought of all those handbills of missing loved ones, turning to pulp.
A few nights later we ventured out of our apartment to have dinner with friends and their new baby. The infant couldn’t keep down the breast milk, so distraught was the mother. Over our heads, invisible in the night sky, F14 jets boomed backwards and forward over the city. Eight days after September 11, we flew to our new home in Los Angeles. Our plane touched down in the flat, desert light.
Like people all over the world I read everything I could get my hands on in the next few weeks, to try to understand what I had witnessed. The following is from Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. He is their film reviewer but this column took the form of a reflection:
“Thousands died on September 11: but thousands died together, and therefore something lived. The most important, if distressing, images to emerge from those hours are not of the raging towers, or of the vacuum where they once stood; it is the shots of people falling from the ledges, and, in particular, of two people jumping in tandem. It is impossible to tell from the blur what age or sex these two are, nor does that matter. What matters is the one thing we can see for sure, they are falling hand in hand. Think of Phillip Larkin’s poem about the stone figures carved on an English tomb, and the ‘sharp tender shock’ of noticing that they are holding hands. The final line of the poem has become a celebrated condolence, and last Tuesday, in uncounted ways, in final phone calls, in the joined hands of that couple, in circumstances that Hollywood should no longer try to match, it was proved true all over again, and, in so doing, it calmly conquered the loathing and rage in which the crime was concieved. ‘What will survive of us is love.'”