Friday, September 12, 2008

Seven Years on

Back to Ground Zero
On September 11 2001, lower Manhattan became hell on earth. The images I witnessed that day are stuck in my mind

Ian Williams, Thursday September 11 2008 15:00 BST

The clear and sunny blue skies of September 11 2001 are on the verge of joining "It was a dark and stormy night" as a cliché. But it was true, and most mornings of the 10 days since I had moved into downtown Manhattan by South Street Seaport, I rode my bicycle briskly round through Battery Park and up the newly-opened cycle path along the West Side Highway. I would normally have been speeding past the World Trade Centre about the time the first plane hit.

That morning, however, I was on deadline to write about the impending downfall of the US dollar. I had just typed a prophetic "The" when I heard the bang. I looked out my window, assuming one of the decrepit old buildings in the neighbourhood had just lost its battle with gravity, but the porters in the fish market in the square below were staring up open-mouthed, looking like gawkers at the alien ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They were staring at the exit wound in the tower, billowing black smoke.

The phone started ringing, and I was stuck on my fire escape talking to radio stations, since all mobile phones were out. On the streets crowds of refugees - covered in soot, dishevelled - filed along South St toward the Brooklyn Bridge, where their silhouettes made it look like an LS Lowry set design for a Potemkin film.

Once the crowds had gone and the phones had stopped ringing, I headed toward the Twin Towers with recorder and notebook in hand. The police manned roadblocks around the site, but I suspected, correctly, that they would not have closed the footpath along Hudson. Trudging through the ashes around the site drifting like fallout brought the revelation that some proportion of that ash was people, leading to even deeper appreciation of the Downtown Hospital staff who had been handing out face masks. Retrospectively, the discovery that there was much more asbestos than human ash made using them seem even better.

Round by South Cove, the firefighters had levered open a convenience store as a supply depot near where their trails of hoses drew water from the Hudson. They were going in for bottles of water and snacks before returning to the site. The road was a surrealist vision of hell. Trucks and cars scattered like a kid's toys, and over all, like thick snow, the drifting ash.

I was interviewing the dazed and exhausted firemen, letting them use my cell phone to call and reassure their families since it was getting a signal from across in New Jersey when one came out, a bottle of water in one hand and a banana in the other. As he wolfed it down, he looked around, puzzled. "I was looking for a garbage can," he explained as he surveyed the ruins and - in a gesture epitomising the new rules - hurled his banana skin into the piled-up fall out.

As soon as our lease was up, a year later, we left. The memories, of the processions of refugees, the military convoys that arrived overnight down the FDR Drive, the ashes and the pervasive stench of the gates of hell as the Towers burnt for months afterwards, all lingered.

Today, downtown Manhattan seems to be booming. The fish market has closed, taking away much of the local colour – and a pervasive cloacal smell and all-night racket. People have moved in, and brought life to an area that used to close down at five – except for the fish.

It also brings a smile that the foreshore in front of the old hotel/brothel that our apartment was in was reclaimed with the blitzed rubble of my hometown Liverpool, brought over as ballast on the Atlantic convoys. But there's little else to smile about. When I wondered through Wall Street recently, I could still see the crowds fleeing, smell the acrid smoke of the world's longest-lasting funeral pyre, and when I looked at George Washington's statue outside Federal Hall, I could still see him, in my mind's eye, with a layer of white ash on his wig.

They have only just begun filling the hole where the Towers were – and they still have not found Osama bin Laden. I don't have to go into a fugue to see that seven years later, the world is pretty much debris-strewn since the current George W in the White House threw out the constitution, international law and pretty much everything else – and it's clear that their social instincts never really minded littering on a global scale anyway.

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