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Smoke and stench of death after 9/11

Smoke and stench of death after 9/11

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I stared, trying to comprehend the blank space in Manhattan where the World Trade Center towers used to be. The towers were simply gone, as if someone took a pencil and erased them. It was Oct. 27, 2001. My twin sister, my cousin Betsy Vershay and I visited Ground Zero that day, six weeks after the towers fell.

Betsy recoiled at going to Ground Zero. Sept. 11 was still too vivid for her. She was a teacher at P.S. 199 on the upper West Side of Manhattan on that day. She still saw the blank faces, “like refugees” coming from the horror to the school to get their kids. She still heard the frantic sirens. At her school, the secretary’s son, who worked in the tower, was still missing.

But Martha and I wanted to see Ground Zero, so Betsy led us from the subway into the charred hell on Chambers Street. High padded fences shut out the Ground Zero site, but we walked to the fences and stared up at the hole in the sky. A crowd stood with us. We all stood like stone, like mourners at a wake. Nobody talked.

“Come,” Betsy whispered. We walked one block east, to bustling Broadway, and peered down side streets like peering down the aisles of a supermarket, but high barricades blocked the site.

Soaring glass and steel were toppled Sept. 11, but Trinity Episcopal Church withstood the man-made earthquake. The church was now a sanctuary for rescue workers, offering meals, massages and cots for naps.

The stately iron fence surrounding the church had become a makeshift memorial. It bloomed with flowers, balloons, “I love NY” T-shirts, posters, photos of the missing and enormous white bedsheets on which people had written messages. A volunteer stood nearby, her mittened hands clutching a little can of markers for visitors. As I selected a pen, she said, “It is such a privilege to be here. Everyone is so kind.”

I didn’t know what to write. On the sheets are messages from Calgary, Yorba Linda, Rome, Iowa and Paris. Nearby, a young man sobbed into a friend’s arms. Nobody talked. I heard only the bulldozers, the buzzing of generators powering the cranes. I smelled only the razor-sharp acrid smoke. I felt the dust that scratched the air like sand.

We walked on to Fulton Street. I saw the skeleton of the WTC 1. I remembered wandering into its plaza on a sunny afternoon in July 1999 and buying a few trinkets at souvenir kiosks. Now, 10 blackened stories are all that remained. They were charred like firewood, their guts dangling over the obscene cavity where WTC 2 was. White smoke belched from the abyss. A few steel girders jutted up like reeds of a basket. The necks of cranes poked up like giraffes.

Nearby, building windows were swathed in boards, like Band-Aids. A few were draped in black gauze like mourning veils to protect them from debris.

At a camera shop on Fulton Street, the owner said he ran outside when the first plane hit and saw 20 people fall to their deaths. When the second plane hit, “The sky went black.” He closed for three weeks. His regular customers still hadn’t come back. Outside, street vendors sold $3 red, white and blue scarves and NYPD hats and postcards showing the burning towers.

We returned to Ground Zero. A white trailer marked “field mortuary” was parked inside beyond the fence. This is where they brought the arm of the son of the secretary at Betsy’s school. They knew it was his arm because of its tattoo. Betsy was dry-eyed, but she was appalled by people taking photos here. She said it was like photographing an open casket.

On Sept. 12, the wind had sent pink-and-white smoke drifting knee-high across the Hudson River and into her Roselle, N.J. neighborhood. Her neighbor said the pink was human remains.

Heading back to the subway, we passed a shop window. Someone had written “We love you NY” in the dust. On the door hung another sign: “We survived World War I and World War II and the Korean War, and Vietnam. We will survive the World Trade Center, too.”


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