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Last Updated: February 27, 2002
September 12, 2001: By Alex Marx
 

Dear all,

Below is yesterday's diary. I just finished and am too exhausted to check it for spelling, grammar and content. Hope it conveys something...

For those who I just added to this list, I have included my original dispatch from day one of the tragedy. It follows today's endless verbiage...

It's 4:30AM and I have had a day and a half. I cannot wait until the morning (or rather later in the morning) to communicate today to you all. It's a day of ups and downs, and incredible unexpected experiences.


9.12.01

I must remember to always take a camera. Life has an unexpected way of providing experiences that you will always remember but that you can never adequately describe. With any luck, I should be able to prove that tomorrow...

I went to bed the night before falling asleep to something on TV, still swathed in the events of the day. I slept better then I had expected, but awoke early to the telephone and the sound of planes overhead. The phone I might have ignored but didn't as I knew it was you calling to check on me. The planes I could not ignore, for, although a different sound, they triggered the previous mornings events over again. Or at least the fear of them. This time they were our jets, friendlies... Patrolling the skies to prevent a repeat performance. It should have been a reassuring sound but it wasn't.

The calls were great; it's great to be a center of attention and to know that people care, even if I was not really in any great danger. I certainly could paint scenarios of how it could have been the end of 2 Wooster Street and our fair occupants, but the reality is that we escaped all the damage except to the psyche. But it was great to hear from so many of you, some from yearís back, and many lifetimes ago. Tragedy is sometimes a healing and adhesive force for good.

But despite your kindness there was still the need to do something to help, to know that you could contribute anything to the recovery. To the city, of the people and to your own sense of loss and pain.

(I lie, it is now late Thurs. morning and I had to stop as exhaustion overwhelmed creativity and I collapsed in bed until now...)

As an aside, on one of the local channels there was an interview of people on the street who were trying to look at the devastation from one of the farther perimeter checkpoints. One woman, who seemed only to be able to form short sentences, expressed annoyance that she couldn't do anything today and she was not going to ever come back to New York. She must have been terribly inconvenienced by our little incident, it was shocking to see. Perhaps she can find more action in Kabul, say in a few weeks.

We decided to volunteer to do anything; dig, cook, pitch tents, sling hash, anything. And to donate blood. The day was hot, clear and sunny, all belying the tragedy that it enveloped. But today, the winds changed and the smoke, white, thick and continuous now drifted northward, over the apartment and the entire city. And it is the first time you could smell the smell. Burning. Still.

Like Vesuvius, the cloud rose from ground zero in a thick white-gray mass that slowly spread out in to the sky in a white light cloud that extended all the way to mid-town. You could smell it everywhere. It was a curtain to hide the fact that those two towers were gone and we weren't ready to see the sky where there used to be steel and glass.

We walked to West Street, which is the road that runs up Manhattan's West Side along the Hudson River. It has recently gone renovation to provide for more human activities then just driving vehicles from the Battery to 57th Street. They recently built a promenade along the water, all around the residential and commercial development that came off of the landfill from the construction of the Twin Towers. Further uptown it provides bicycle and rollerblading paths, access to the piers and is well planted with greenery. Make no mistake; it is also a major thoroughfare for a lot of traffic.

Today, however, it was the great staging area for the great triumph of humans over tragedy. In less then 24 hours, this road was packed with equipment and trucks. All sorts of trucks. Trucks with massive lights, massive backhoes, massive dump trucks, generators, compressors, lined up for blocks and blocks. All this in less then 24 hours. With the bridges and tunnels closed. Aliens? Looking down the highway towards the maelstrom, were trucks and buses delivering people, supplies, life.

As we walked up along this parade of total resolve, we were passed by trucks hauling the remains of our past, fire trucks, Humvees, motorcycle cops, golf-cartish things, vehicles with flashing lights and screaming sirens. Coming down the road were similar scenes but they were going in to replace what was coming out.

They have sealed off the area in 4 stages. The inner seal is about 4 blocks up from the remains, guarded by police and military units. Only those working the rescue effort can get past them. The next ring at Canal Street, which divides SOHO from TRIBECA is open to residents only on a limited basis, much of that area has no power. From Canal Street north (where 2 Wooster is) to Houston Street is the 3rd ring and it is open to residents only. The 4th and final perimeter runs from Houston to 14th Street. That is the limit to all non-recovery related vehicle traffic and is also only open to residents. No commercial activity is allowed from Houston Street down, but it is allowed into that 4th ring, provided they don't need vehicles to operate.

As we approached Houston Street, the first thing that has moved me to the point of tears greeted us. Groups of people, NYers, were cheering, clapping and waving at each and every vehicle going up and down West St. Some even held up hand lettered signs on the torn cardboard from boxes. It was the best expression available at the time for ordinary people to encourage and thank the other ordinary people doing the extraordinary.

It was the first time since the tragedy that I felt the veil unwinding, I was so proud of those people, those simple human beings for their simple gesture, which meant so much. Real New Yorkers. I can't wait for this crisis to be over so they can go back to ignoring their neighbors and stepping over the homeless like they were invisible. See I'm a New Yorker too! Always see the cynical side of a good deed!

But today they did their reputation a world of good. I wish you could have seen it, I wish I had brought the camera.

Scattered questioning of random people yielded up bits of information, such as they were taking volunteers and drawing blood at the Chelsea Piers, a huge sports and entertainment complex in the mid-20s on West Street. The day was perfect for the walk and we soon arrived with a scattering of other folks with the same idea.

In some sort of random and chaotic system they turned out to be a staging area for trained medical volunteers and some sort of drop off point for donations. No blood, no civilian volunteers. "Try the Javits center, they're taking names and blood." It meant another 15-block walk, but that's OK.

The Chelsea Pier folks had too many medical volunteers too, and they were just taking names, other people brought donations of food, drinks and clothing. How much was donated I was to find out later.

What was so overwhelming at the Chelsea Piers was the endless rows of ambulances parked for blocks along the complex. There had to be a least two hundred of them from everywhere. Many were from little townships in New Jersey, and upstate New York and Connecticut. People who were willing to sacrifice the safety of their town to help ours.

There were also police from Connecticut and Long Island doing guard duty, all somber but polite and grateful to be able to help.

This spirit alone has destroyed the hate wrought by the religious fanatics. It is the triumph of good over evil.

I wish I had had the camera.

We continued up to the Javits Center which was chaotic, but so unlike a normal New York chaos, peaceful and polite. There were places to sign up to volunteer, no blood collection but there were signs posted saying that Bellevue Hospital needed blood. Bellevue is completely on the other side of Manhattan, a good 2-mile walk, for which we set off.

It was more like a holiday weekend then the middle of the week. So few people out, so few vehicles. And it was so quiet, not country like, but quiet for New York. To the point that when an emergency vehicle went by with siren wailing it was amazing just how loud those sirens are!

We walked by the Empire State Building, the last remaining and original symbol of the success of the city (yes, I know there is still the Chrysler and Woolworth building, both predating the ESB but they are art.) It was cordoned off and guarded by sinister looking men in black jackets. It would be safe, though later that evening, a bomb threat was announced for the building, which, of course, was some asshole's idea of a "joke."

Reaching the hospital, it too was fully staffed with emergency, rescue and relief personnel, and we worked our way over to the donation center. But they did not need any more blood, but O type people should return tomorrow afternoon, as they needed that. We decided to get some food and go home, as it was almost 3 PM.

As we started to walk down 1st Avenue I ran in to my Doctor whom I consider a saint for just being a great Doctor in normal circumstances even in this day of (mis)managed care. He cares. And he was off to relieve some Doctors at the Triage center down at ground zero. I wished him the best and thanked him as he and his colleagues set off.

I wish I had had the camera.

I won't bore you with details of lunch, perimeter checkpoints and glory of the day. What I will say is that there is something so incredibly surreal about the situation. I mean, here was a glorious fall day, warm, blue sky (except for the long blot of smoke), a quiet Sunday afternoon in Podunk. People were jogging, rollerblading, biking, pushing their kids in strollers, and there were still a few people on those horrid scooters, which were an awful fad when it was started and even more so now! I wonder if anyone donated theirs to the relief effort...

Anyway, it's in all ways a glorious day in the Big Apple, and yet, not 2 miles away is a scene of such horror and devastation that few can recall except in a battle zone. But New York isn't a battle zone (of the war type at least) and we're out on holiday... The incongruity strains the brain.

Getting home around 5 and collapsing in front of CNN didn't bring any sense of having done anything to help, we had the best of intentions but intentions don't count in soothing the soul. We needed to help somehow, no matter in any small way. We couldn't even give blood.

At least I had the camera.

After killing a couple of hours watching the same blather on every channel, there was knock on the door from my next-door neighbor Phil. He needed some more facemasks, as the smoke was getting pretty noxious. In chatting he told me how he skirted the police line just across the street from us and worked his way down to the inner checkpoint and watched, from a safe distance, the effort. It sounded like a plan.

We changed in to "work" clothes and donned facemasks (which all the police, rescue, relief workers and fair number of citizens carry and many use) and grabbed a set of the fluorescent safety vests I keep in my closet as a safety measure for my motorcycle riding. I just never seem to motorcycle in my closet.

Nor do I seem to ever remember my camera except when I am at home.

Stuffing the vests in a bag as not to be too crass, we set off to try Phil's plan. But we were immediately thwarted by the fact that his route was now blocked by a locked fence and a police guard.

We walked down Canal Street towards the river looking for an out of state cop who wouldn't recognize my address on my drivers license and let me pass through as a resident. We came up to the Holland Tunnel exit and the pedestrian overpass. I took a chance with one slightly distracted NYC officer, flashed my driverís license up in the dark and said, "I live in the neighborhood." Which is technically not a lie; I do live in the neighborhood just not the one he assumed. "You going over the bridge?" he asked, "Yes" I replied. We made it.

Wandering south on deserted streets, normally chock full of yuppies and recently failed dot-comers keeping the recession at bay by spending big bucks in the over-priced Tribeca restaurant scene, we closed in on the inner perimeter checkpoint. We cut left under an apartment complex and to West Street. Large numbers of trucks lay idling waiting for their turn to be called to the front to haul away detritus or deliver some vital supply. Groups of people, construction workers, military and cops, medical personnel, volunteers, all moved quietly and deliberately to and from the site. Several cops guarded the way south.

I scouted around as best I could to see if there was an easy way past the cops. We backtracked a bit and put on our safety vests. As we approached the area again a group of civilian volunteers started towards the checkpoint and we started to attach ourselves to the back. Just then a little golf-cart pulled up and a voice said "Gatorade, take two, you guys are doing a great job." I hate Gatorade but reached out for it, grateful that our masks hid the obvious look of confusion and shock. The other carter handed out the vile liquid to some grateful truck drivers. As I mumbled "Thanks", he started to inch forward towards the checkpoint.

You may know that I am in mid-career time in my life, figuring out the next step. At the urging of several misguided but well meaning friends I went to take some classes in acting and improv. But being more of a ham then Hamlet, I mostly enjoyed myself and tortured my fellow students.

But tonight my friends was Oscar night. In one of those rare and fleeting moments of brilliance I said, "Say, can you give us a lift in?" Layla, even through the mask, looked shocked. He said, "Sure if you can hang on to the back." We stumbled around for a second and attached ourselves precariously to the back of his cart, knees up on many cases of Gatorade. He talked his way past the cops and we were in!

Mind you this is still about 5 blocks north of the outer periphery of ground zero. Trucks of all sorts line the highway and groups of people either wait and talk quietly, sleep or walk to and from the site.

The power is out in this part of the neighborhood and temporary high intensity light trucks light the highway. These cast an intense white-gray light that sharply delineates black from white. It was the appropriate lighting for the drama that unfolds.

We broke open some of the cases and handed out Gatorade to any and all who dared drink it. At some point the cart stopped and the other passenger dropped out and our driver offered us the front seat. We hesitated to go on, worried we'd be caught but once in go for broke, break a leg. Ok, I moved front, Layla stayed in back and fed us bottles.

"You guys medical?" our driver asked. I guess he mistook my green tee shirt for a John Hopkins degree and I went into my best act yet. "Yes, we are, were called up to help from the hospital...um, they called us tonight..." "Great," he said, "going to the Triage Center? I'll drop you there, you guys are great." "Sure, well, thanks, ya, know, we don't have to be there until 12 or 12:30 can we tag along and hand this out, it will be a lot more useful then hanging out at triage." "Sure, but I am going in as far as I can then turn around North so I can drop you back to triage." "Great, thanks..."

We handed out blue, red and urine yellow drinks to all takers. We unloaded some cases at the Triage Center and headed towards the epicenter. Blocked at one point by an unyielding cop, but our driver pressed on, over the sidewalk and towards the promenade and marina...

I must tell you that even at this outer ring, everything was coated with a white powder the consistency of plaster. Papers littered the floor and garbage from the on-going effort was everywhere. The amount of powder and it covers everything, buildings, trees, and the ground as if spray-painted on. Underfoot it is about an inch thick and has been beaten solid. This powder is the cement, plaster, plastic and DNA of everything that was vaporized as the buildings collapsed.

We drove on through the Marina, all part of the new development around the waterfront in the area of the World Trade Center. It includes housing, the World Financial Center, performance areas, restaurants, shops, museums, the promenade, the works. The Marina normally filled with the excess footage of too much wealth, now held only police and fireboats and a large black ship blocked its entrance. Only the powder covered sailboats of the sailing school remained. The area surrounding the Marina is bathed in darkness and white powder. Normally a vibrant area with outdoor restaurants and a large glass atrium called the Winter Garden. It was as if it were winter now, perhaps a nuclear winter. The trees lining the walkway around the promenade were coated white and festooned with paper as if it was the holiday of love and giving.

We turned the corner on the south end of the Marina and there we were, 100 feet from ground zero. It was a site I cannot ever fully describe nor can I ever, ever forget the image. On either side of what was the walkway are destroyed vehicles of all sorts, crushed, burned, smashed beyond believe. On the right an Fire Department Emergency Services vehicle lies upside down and partially crushed, its tires gone, blown off...

Directly ahead of us, in the ghastly glow of the large banks of the temporary high-intensity lighting, sits the remains of the South Tower #2 World Trade Center. A pealed off portion of the shell stands about 30 stories tall, as if we were ants looking up at a picket fence. It is grey and cold in the light and a section of it bends precariously to the right. In front of that lies two "intact" floors of the building, somewhat compressed, but floors visible through the blown out windows. Flame flares up off the top of it from the endless debris hanging off of it.

To the left of that stands a piece of the North Tower, #1 World Trade Center but not where I think it should be. But you cannot tell what's what in this the center of the inferno. Piled high, about 30 stories of rubble slants down towards the center of what was the plaza between the two buildings.

Massive cranes, backhoes and earthmovers tear away at the center of the debris. Cutting torches tear apart steel which itself has torn from it's mate. Large flatbed trucks receive two or three pieces of the steel and move off. A new truck moves in to take its place.

Our driver parks the cart and tells us he's making a quick stop and will head back north if we want a lift. He pulls out a disposable camera and takes some pictures. I think this crass until I notice everyone is doing it, construction workers, police, firemen, and volunteers. Some pose with the wreckage in back of them, like a tourist in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Except these towers lean as the result of blind hate and religious zeal (is there a difference?) instead of bad engineering. In fact, they are there, leaning, because they were engineered so well...

We decide to stay, saying we don't really have to be "on-duty" until later and at least here we can help. We load our arms full of Gatorade and wish our driver well, and he mumbles the same, his mouth full of hamburger from a relief station.

With some tentativeness we slowly move forward the last 50 feet to the actual site. Ground Zero.

We quickly realize that with all the action and people we are invisible and not trespassing. We offer up the Gatorade.

Armies of workers move about. Two groups stand out. First and foremost are the Firemen. Not enough can be said in praise of these men and women, these human mortals who risk their life everyday. They move in groups of about 20 into the debris and dig with their hands, shovels, picks and crowbars. To a one, they have that "1000 yard stare" which is the classic description of the look soldiers get after horrific and long battles. They are all in shock and grief over the tremendous loss of life of their fellow firefighters. The media lists it as 200 but in a conversation I had with a Firefighters Union official at the site he told me that there at least 400 missing.

Just today, a few hours ago, the news announced that 5 firemen were found alive in an SUV dug out of the rubble. Three apparently walked out on their own.

For the most part the firemen don't take the proffered liquids but head back to the rest area. They prefer to serve themselves and keep to themselves. They are joined by firefighters and rescue workers from all over the country. I saw Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and many other firefighters.

The next group was the riggers and heavy equipment operators. They steadily attach steel cables to steel beams and load up trucks. Huge backhoes, some with claws instead of buckets attack the smaller pieces. At some point they dug out a Hook and Ladder Fire truck, lying on its back like a dead bug. Its tires were burned off and the ladder hung off to the side.

Perspective and position are hard to find in a scene like this. All around is destruction and debris; all around endless armies attack the piles, stand and do nothing awaiting their chance to pitch in. Police and law enforcement from all sorts of agencies and states abound. Park police, state troopers, INS, DEA, bomb squad, MPs.

Everyone has a mask, not all wear them. We do, the dust is thick, but fortunately the smoke from the various piles of debris still burning blows away to the north. The area is so vast that you wonder how the ever will get it clear.

Surrounding buildings bear huge scars. Layla recognizes the office building she used to work at year ago, 130 Liberty. She counts windows and finds her old office, intact. But further down the facade in a massive gouge from about the 15th floor to the ground. Apparently one of the jet's engines came down there.

In the distance to the East one can see work in progress. Flashes of light, some flames flicker, but it is another planet away, though it used to be #4 World Trade Center, less then a block away.

I realize we are standing where the Marriott Hotel used to be; now it's a driveway for the trucks and heavy equipment. The World Financial Center that stood across the highway (West St.) has no glass and its facade bears many scars. One corner of the WFC near where the south tower stood looks like someone took a paring knife to one corner and pealed off a piece. Much of that piece hangs on like a flap of skin from a bad cut.

All the ground is covered in white powder, mud and rivers of water. Papers and personnel effects are everywhere intermixed with the waste bottles and wrappers from the endless supply of food and drink. I find telephones, brief cases, a sneaker or two, laptop cases, books, sales brochures. It is everywhere and on everything. No one touches or examines any of it. It is just there.

We grab a milk crate and fill it with cold drinks from a relief station so near this activity. They are volunteers from the Salvation Army. Some are trendily dressed; the women tend toward young, pretty and stylish, almost made up for a night of dancing. The guys are more, well guyish... What you'd almost expect. A bit scary. They are all working hard, covered in mud, even their fashion jeans. There is hope for some of our youth...

Transfixed by the activity, we nonetheless try to keep busy and useful, we are trespassers but finally, finally, feel useful, complete and worthy of being New Yorkers. We are tired and dirty, but don't want to stop. We take a long break around 2:30AM and I survey more of the scene.

One of the large and tall construction lights went off earlier turning daylight into dusk and changing the shape of the scene. It suddenly comes back on and as the bulbs warm up, they cast a brighter and brighter glow on the scene. More reveals itself.

It is so fantastic, so impossible to describe, to a one, everyone I talk to says it is like a movie set. It is too hard to fathom the amount of destruction, and too hard to recognize so much familiar structure now rent free from it's former self. Most say "Planet of the Apes"; it's like "Planet of the Apes." Though I can see Charlton Heston coming through the ruins saying, "You dirty bastards, you dirty bastards. And say, if you let all our citizens carried concealed weapons, this would never happen..."

Life is a stage...I wish I had had the camera...

Somewhere in my act, I take on a new swagger, a bit of a Staten Island accent and I fit in well with the burliest of the workers. A pack of smokes and I would be complete. Acting was never so simple or so rewarding or so helpful.

Around the large chunks of the towers still standing are relatively smaller pieces stuck in to the ground like a fork into a chunk of meat. They are jagged pieces of the skin, reaching up at odd angles like an arm coming out of the ground. One chunk lies where the hotel used to be, another in front of 140 Liberty, an older building undergoing renovation, it's scaffolding bent and torn like a badly mangled ecktoskeleton. The facade is covered with thousands of scars and every window is gone. At some point a small fire breaks out on one of the top floors of this building, and while later water can be seen shooting out and flashlights searching for more fire.

Fire burns in little pockets everywhere. It adds to the surreal lighting all around and the smoke causes strange shadows. Along West Street to the south of the complex, lies a wall of destroyed vehicles, one piled on top of the other, and one, crushed but defiant, adds to the light with the glow of it's still working parking lights, shining through the white powder covering it. I am told that they dug out another car with its lights still on.

Several times teams of fireman and police come marching in; apparently they are the ones who remove the bodies or parts that are found. But each time it is a false alarm. A while later several Search and Rescue Teams start climbing the 30 story pile of rubble sloping down from the chunk of #1 tower. You can see their flashlights reflecting off the metal and glass. A group of students from an engineering school go marching in, a homemade robot crawler attached to one of their backs, it will be used to crawl through the rubble with a camera on board.

So much is going on, there is a cacophony of noise but my impression is that it is quiet. Even the roar of the machines is silent. Groupsí talk, most are silent, few laugh or talk trivia. It's focused and solemn. All are moved, all are in pain, most are civil and all are friendly.

We, well we are tired but fulfilled, our initial fear of being trespassers, of being morbid curiosity seekers are vanquished as we do our little but somehow significant part. To a one, everyone who takes our proffered refreshments thanks us for all we are doing, can you believe it, they thank us. I answer back, in all sincerity and all accent, "No, thank you, thank you." I am never so grateful and so proud to be part of the human race.

We head back offering drinks to everyone we pass, refilling our milk crate at various relief stations. The amount of food and drink, I mean, hot food, sandwiches, candy, coffee, cookies, clothes, masks, you name it, available to these men and women is staggering. Who and where it came from I don't know but in less then 24 hours we are feeding armies and still have more to spare. How can we not vanquish those who don't understand us?

Exhausted, home, to bed. All day to express this, and I don't know if I have said anything or if it makes any sense. We will try again tonight, try to slip in and help. I'll bring a camera. It might help you understand...

Today I did something I would never have contemplated, growing up as a liberal, anti-war activist with not much faith in our country and government.

I put the quintessential symbol of our country, the flag, on the quintessential symbol of New York, my fire escape.

<A>

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All Portions Copyright © 2001 Alex Marx