Journalist remembers day of terror

New York Skyline

Five years is a long time and no time at all. It’s hard to separate my feelings about everything that’s followed that beautiful late summer day from my initial reactions, from the moment I saw the buildings fall on T.V. to the time I returned from New York the night of Sept.13, but certain moments from those 48-hours are impossible to forget.

I knew I had to be there. Four of my best friends and fellow photography students had already come to the same conclusion. I had approximately $60 to my name but as I talked to my friend Virgil all practical concerns fell by the wayside. We had to leave Morehead City. Now.

Fourteen-hours later the smoke was clearly visible above the lights of New Jersey. Twenty-minutes later we were looking across the Hudson River into the smoke-shrouded skyline of Manhattan, at the strange empty space where the towers stood mere hours before.

We waited by the waterfront in Hoboken with local EMS workers, anticipating the arrival of survivors from across the river. I’m not sure how long we waited, an hour, maybe two. No one came. They were still waiting there when we made the decision to walk the waterfront in hopes of finding a ferry to take us across to Manhattan. I’ve often wondered how long they stayed.

It was nearly dawn by the time we found a small, locally owned service still running on a somewhat normal schedule. The ferry operator greeted us like long lost friends. I had expected hostility towards outsiders, invading the wounded city like vultures, and found instead a sense of genuine interest and even concern.

The others onboard seemed drugged. No one spoke much, all of us watching the sun rise on another terribly beautiful day, watching the smoke and ash pour across a gaping hole in the city’s heart.

The silence of that city as we made our way closer to the site was horribly unnerving, so unlike anything I’d known of New York before. It reminded me of nothing so much as a small, sleepy town just coming to life on a Sunday morning. There were few people on the streets, here and there a shop owner hosing down a sidewalk, a young couple walking a dog. I saw no tears, no strangers reaching out to one another in horror and despair. I think, by the time we arrived, that had all passed into a sort of numbed, mute shock.

This surreal sense of restraint pervaded the area around the police barriers as well, some ten blocks from ground zero. A steady stream of firefighters, rescue workers and cops were shuttling towards the site while their clearly exhausted counterparts made their way slowly back towards a small village of volunteers waiting with food and refreshments. I recall thinking that to come this far and never get within viewing distance of the crash site would be a failure, one I wasn’t prepared to contemplate.

As it worked out, I managed to get another five blocks closer. It might as well have been fifty; papers, ash, discarded bicycles, the smell unlike anything I could even begin to describe. Everyone’s seen the pictures, the videos, heard the eyewitness accounts. I saw no body parts, witnessed no firefighters crying on the sidewalks. The overwhelming sense was simply of people doing what had to be done at that given moment.

My friend Virgil, however, had quite a different experience. Through the help of a local police officer seeking a few photos he managed to get down to the actual site. Like myself he saw no bodies, no broken souls. His photos spoke volumes even as he remained relatively silent about that day.

Still, six-months after we returned he made the decision to reenlist in the Army. At 30-years old he had to do a considerable amount of begging, but they eventually conceded. He worked for a newspaper for a few weeks before making his decision, but he was clearly uneasy, guilty even, I think.

My other friends were affected in their own, less overt ways as well I suppose. To this day, we’ve never discussed it at length.

My own feelings are so convoluted and tainted by all the events that followed that I’m not sure they can ever be sorted in any coherent way. Never forget! goes the mantra; no one has. But I do know that this country hasn’t been fully honest with itself about the core pit of their reactions and feelings left from 9-11.

I know there’s a small, dark space within myself, a space I’m almost certain exists within many other Americans as well. Within that space I’m simply sick of hearing about it, of being forced to relive that damned horror year after year. Within that space, where I haven’t forgotten anything, I simply want it to end.

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