At exactly 8:47 am on the morning of September 11, 2002 the New York Metropolitan Area fell silent. The choppy waves of the Hudson could be heard slapping against the rocks on the windward side of Battery Park City, and across the river scads of construction workers in Jersey City, busy building the new Financial District, halted all work and lined up together along the highest concrete rim of a building under construction, their white hard-hats tucked uniformly under their right arms. For one moment the breathing of 28 million souls permeated the air, and then on the back of that rising current began the wind.
As the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America unfurled as another immaculately beautiful day, far to the south a hurricane in the Carolinas was taking a hard right out to sea, throwing north a torrent of 60 mph storm winds. At Ground Zero, while the families of the victims crowded deep in the pit around the Circle of Honor while all 3,000 names were read aloud, the wind slipped over the sides and whipped the dust into a thick cloud that billowed all through the complex, eerily replicating the smoke that hung in the air a year before. You could not help but think that the angered spirits of one year ago had returned and were spiraling through Lower Manhattan, screaming their anguish to the millions that had gathered lest we all forget the absolute horror of their deaths. Sand and gravel pelted the mourners on all sides, and the giant United States flag affixed to the black screen on a still-abandoned office tower ripped in half, at precisely the moment that the last of the names was read.
At 10:27 am, the time the first tower fell, amidst the reading of the names, all the ships on the river and all the cars on the island began to sound their horns. The silence that had warmly embraced the early hours of reflection were suddenly shattered by a resounding chaos that rolled over the city like the rumble of the falling structure. Little did any of us know that across the Hudson in Newark a Liberian freighter was being moved to a military quarantine 12 miles off the coast by Coast Guard gunships because radioactivity had been detected inside its hull.
A member of the NYPD heads down the West Side Highway to the ceremony
The city had been expecting approximately 7000 family members to attend a ceremony scheduled for early in the morning before the 8:47am Moment of Silence called the Circle of Honor, which lay at the bottom of the pit. At midnight the night before a five-borough march had begun, which was to culminate at the 7:30am ceremony. When the bagpipers finally reached Ground Zero, turned the corner on Broadway, and began the march down into the pit, they were met by an overflow crowd of 28,000 family members and an inconceivable amount of press lining the roofs of all the nearby buildings. Family members had been bussed in from all the surrounding towns and neighborhoods under screaming police escorts, and moved about within heavily guarded barriers inside the actual site.
Later that afternoon I had lunch with them and the Police and Firemen at the Red Cross tent inside the site. The mood was indescribable, and I could not bring myself to disrespect them by taking their photograph. I sat and choked down a small tomato and mozzarella sandwich in silence, barely able to look them in the eyes. The pain still hung about them like a malevolent vapor. In the corner a widow stood above her two year old daughter seated in a stroller pointing at the space where the towers used to be. How could anyone violate that moment? It made me wonder what she planned to tell her child when she was old enough to understand what had happened to her father.
For the general crowd of mourners, made up largely of international journalists, and city residents who lost friends and acquaintances, the mood was very pleasant amidst the sorrow. Time crawled ahead calmly and everywhere was a look of compassion and concern. The Church of Scientology had dispatched dozens of "volunteer ministers" to console the inconsolable, but remarkably their was little outward shows of emotion. People hung their heads and closed their eyes and thought the many things we all were thinking that day. For most of us, it was a commune of closure.
Mourners stand for the Moment of Silence, 8:47 am.
Mobilized, the Scientologists hover with ready smiles and words of comfort
Fears of further terrorist attacks seemed ridiculously overblown when you witnessed the level of heavy artillery brought out. SWAT, snipers, Blackhawks hovering, fighter jets doing 30K foot high pass-overs, and every cop in the New York area present either as police or participant. Lower Manhattan was a ghost town, as many had not bothered to show up for work. When I had visited in January it had been busy with people, and cramped with the construction and removal crews that populated the many sites in the area. Despite losing 10 buildings worth of office space, people still had to go to work. Now, many have fled-Jersey City, Connecticut, Chicago-and those that remain have forever shifted their priorities. It became abundantly clear that what was the fastest growing area of New York a year ago is now a soon-to-be wasteland. It makes the redevelopment plans for the site so much more important, as it seems to be the only thing that will save Downtown.
And yet, despite the downgrading in importance given to one's occupation, what has not been downsized is the level of humanity that pervades the island of Manhattan. People were just downright decent with one another, non-confrontational, welcoming and friendly. The Great Pink Elephant was stomping all over the city in a rampage of conflicted feelings and rumination, and yet each individual person respected the fact that every other person was going through exactly the same thing. This is the Spirit of New York, the Spirit of America, and the élan vital for the Western World, still a place of wonder and possibility.
The families of the victims march out of the pit
The New Financial District in Jersey City
Built in one year to house the displaced firms
What can possibly be said about this day that hasn't been said in every media outlet in the world? And despite the vast orchestrations by governments and media to make the day a collective and common experience for the whole world, the truth was that it was intensely personal and inner-looking. What had we done with our lives over the last year? What was different, what was changed? Had things gotten better? What lay in store for us? Could it ever happen again?
Amidst what was a genuinely transformative experience, I have to admit to my fair share of jitters. Each plane that flew overhead, seen or not seen, was Pavlovian. Each cop that passed by a blue-light special announcement. "Welcome to the New World Order 2002." When President Bush arrived at 4:30 to pray with the families of the victims, his arrival was heralded by a fleet of black, tinted SUV's, a pair of Secret Service Agents clinging to each brandishing automatic weapons. All week was the peculiar juxtaposition of World Security and World Community, the rhetoric of Peace amidst the threat of War, the progressive thinking that has always been indigenous to New York grappling with the reactionary need for a return to a status quo that can never again be. The frustration you feel in the streets is each person's individual battle to accept once and for all that the New York they once new, the city to which they moved their lives and their dreams, had left them and was not to return. Never again would we have an invincible playground, would we rise to the pinnacle of one of man's creations to gaze out at God's creation. Because, we discovered one year ago, it was still in the nature of Man to destroy.
But still, the spirit that is New York lives on, and a new city will rise, different, changed, but still unique in this world. This hope lives on in the simple things, like a handmade sign hung on a tree in view of the WTC that reads simply…
New York City, 9/11/02
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