A Report from Ground Zero
By Steve Forbis
October, 1st, 2001
I. Me. I. I. I. This is a story about me and why I (me) am going to go to hell.
II. OK. Bill (Gates) has decided that this is not a story about me (I). What was supposed to be me turns out to be Roman Numeral I in a list. Typical.
The deal is that after 2.5 days of watching and listening to bad reporting of the disappearance of my favorite hometown landmark, I (me) decided see what I could learn on my own.
The main problem I have with the reporting is that I have been to the World Trade Center many times and cannot get a grip on what fell where from the images shown on any of the 10 or so media entities relaying info about what they all (I'm betting) have referred to as the worst sneak attack since Pearl Harbor. This is bad reporting itself, since clearly this is much worse than Pearl Harbor in terms of lives lost and that most of the losses were civilian, not military.
Speaking of military, what the fuck is wrong with ours? It is one thing for terrorists to crash a hijacked jet into the Pentagon without warning. It is quite another for the Pentagon to sit undefended almost a hour after madmen start crashing hijacked jetliners into major American architectural landmarks. I have a feeling that a couple of guys were sitting in an office on the "western" side of the Pentagon (as described in the media, implying that the Pentagon consists of the northern side, the eastern side, the southern side, the western side and some other side) and, while one was holding up a model of a missile defense missile and hailing its perfection, the nose of American Flight 77 came through the window.
Meanwhile, back in Fun City, the TV news reports ran at about the accuracy rate of those emails you get from friends who pass on important reports like how your child could be snatched from Sam's Club by a kidnapper who comes prepared with new clothes and a wig so that your kid will not be recognized by strangers on the way out the door. Am I the only one who heard that at one point there were a total of eight hijacked planes and that one of them was boxed in by F-16s above Washington? And then, and then…not another word!
How about the car bomb that went off outside the State Department at 10:15, a report everyone attributed to the AP. Later on it turned out there is no such thing as a State Department. Or an AP.
Compounding the misinformation were the little text crawls everyone now runs at the bottom of the screen. At one point late in the day, WCBS's crawl kept repeating that explosives had been found underneath Manhattan's George Washington Bridge, even as a WCBS reporter was saying that authorities had merely stopped a van approaching the bridge that supposedly had explosives on it. I took this to mean that we might at most be dealing with some guy who blows up stumps. Sure enough, we later hear that there were no explosives at all.
While speculation and rumor got a thorough reporting, simple basic facts went ignored, like what streets were being shown in camera shots and how many people might have managed to get out of the twin towers in the whole hour available before they collapsed. One news outlet had the manager of the towers explain that the two contained offices for 20,000 workers and there might typically be 5,000 visitors on hand. But subsequently, the only number one heard was that 50,000 might be dead with no allowance for the thousands of people one could see on tape marching across the Brooklyn Bridge even before the first tower collapsed let alone the possibility that the manager of the center might know what he was talking about. Current estimates are that 6,500 tower folk may be lost, which sounds about right given the 25,000 figure, the amount of time for escape, the number killed outright and the number trapped in the parts of the each tower above the impact floors.
Even more clueless is the notion that much of anyone inside the buildings survived their collapse. Sure, in earthquakes where 5, 10 or 15 story buildings, built to inadequate codes that are further ignored, are common, rescuers find folks alive in voids for a week or more. But anyone equipped with eyes and a TV set can seen that the tower fires caused by the jet fuel melted the steel under the top 20 or 30 floors, causing those floors (3000 tons each, supposedly) to drop like a ton of bricks (OK, 75,000 tons) onto the floor below them. That floor pancakes onto the floor below it, and so on, each one adding another 3,000 tons to the juggernaught headed straight down at what I estimate averaged 60 miles per hour (1,300 feet in 20 seconds), slower at first and faster at the end. The result: two 110 story buildings compacted, virtually void-free, into their own basements, with a few stories of rubble on top.
So, last Thursday I got on my bike and made my way down to our gym, which is on a Hudson River pier that used to have a wonderful view of those stoic, lofty towers. I have always loved tall buildings and had a special affection for these two, hated as they were by most members of the architectural community for being "out of human scale" - as if the Great Pyramid would be even greater if it was 10 feet tall. One friend who designed office space in one tower said they were miserable places to work and is glad they are gone. He said the windows were so narrow, 22 inches, and deep that instead of the exhilarating views you might expect it felt like a prison inside. I don't care, though. From the outside they were fabulous: scores of narrow columns that soared into eerie blue haze even on the clearest day. Their bright stainless steel skin contrasted with the dark, equally narrow stripes of glass. The corner columns were wider and angled at 45 degrees to create strong outlines of the simple square box shape of each tower. But best of all is how they looked as you got further and further away. The two boxes were set catty-corner so that they appeared to be twins from almost every angle. This simple feature, as distinctive as a pyramid, made them unique and recognizable from at least 50 miles away - a tiny ditto mark on the horizon out the side window of my plane and ultimately the front window of their murderers' plane.
Our mayor had asked that we go about our normal lives, so I sunned myself and took a swim before I got back on my bike to cruise the perimeter of the disaster area. Its northern extremity on the Hudson side was 14th Street and West Street, the meat district with its perpetual faint slaughterhouse smell that never fails to arouse the amygdala, the brain's fear center.
I went east past southbound streets blocked by police barricades where patrolman checked IDs before allowing local residents to pass. About a third of the way across Manhattan, at the Avenue of the Americas but always referred to as 6th Avenue, the ID checks were dropped and only motor vehicles restricted. I went south to Houston, still a mile north of the World Trade Center before the ID checkpoints reappeared. That sent me as far east as you can go in Manhattan to a housing project where one sidewalk went unchecked. That eventually let to my traveling west on Canal Street just a few blocks north of the disaster site along another ID-check perimeter. Just before West Street and the Hudson was a street with a vacant lot where a pay phone was placed adjacent to a forbidden sidewalk. I parked my bike, made my way to the phone and looked up the end of the forbidden block past some parked trucks to see a cop from behind checking someone's ID. I had only to step past the phone, onto the sidewalk and out of sight behind the trucks. I was in.
As I walked south I started to think how I was going to pass as a legitimate volunteer at the disaster site. By this time I had acquired a white dust mask from the sidewalk and I was tempted to pick up some yellow hose sitting on the back of a truck. Instead, I found a blue rubber glove, some bottled water and, lo and behold: a discarded, white Tyvek disposable coverall! Sporting these items I was almost sure I would not be challenged with the repeated ID checks I had heard were likely. Indeed, there came a point where I could see two police vehicles parked at a corner and I pressed ahead without incident.
By this time it was almost dark and the glow of work lights and the roar of equipment grew as I closed in on the real Ground Zero, as opposed to the view down West Street that TV reporters continually and incorrectly referred to as Ground Zero. I keep a credit card sized map of the unnumbered streets of lower Manhattan and it showed that as I made my way down West Broadway I was approaching the center of the Center. However, the street was blocked by the rubble of what turns out to be 7 WTC, the last of the buildings to be built and the last to collapse. It was a relatively wide and, even at a reported 47 stories, low structure.
This sent me east to Church Street and down along the eastern edge of Trade Center and a wide-open view of the devastation. I crossed Church Street to enter the site but was turned away by a National Guardsman who said only certain workers were allowed; not guys in white Tyvek, apparently. This sent me further south on the other side of the street. I helped a guy shore up some 4-by-4s that were placed alongside a firehose laid across Church Street then joined a line of workers carrying empty, new 5-gallon buckets, some of which bore paint company labels. This led me right up a pile of wreckage along the southern edge of the property and straight into a horrifying situation which was exactly why assholes like myself shouldn't have been there and why I may be destined for hell. Seeing my white suit, some of the workers grabbed me and said, "Oh, good, you're here!" They led me up the pile to a rescuer who handed me a disposable flashlight, said he smelled something and pointed an opening under a girder. I, the imposter, was trapped in a Tudor the Turtle moment: 'Help Mr.Wizard! I don't want to be a disaster volunteer!' Worse, I was an imposter who didn't know exactly what he was posing as.
In this moment of truth, I confirmed the fear that Jean Sheppard used to ponder: deep down I am rotten. In panic, I did not do the even slightly honorable thing and beg off with a, "Sorry, you've got the wrong guy." I feared being asked who the hell I was and beaten to death with debris. Instead, I numbly took the flashlight, got down on hands and knees and peered down into a diagonal opening a foot wide, 6 inches high and about 8 feet deep. Smoke particles lazed up in the beam of light along with a vague odor of spoiled chicken. Did that mean I was figuratively tap dancing on someone's literal grave? I stood, mumbled something about the chicken odor and aimed the flashlight into another opening along another girder, as if I knew what I was doing. We both peered into what looked like another dead end. Nothing human showed. I finally looked at the man - were those eyes blue? - and asked, "What do you need from me?" He said, "We thought it might be one of yours." I didn't know exactly what he meant, but I said what I thought was true even if it was also what would get me out of there, "I don't think so."
I retreated down the wreckage and when I saw other people in white Tyvek I explained to one of them the gist of what happened and pointed him in the right direction. A cop grabbed him and said, "It's over here." I can only hope he went to the right place.
From then on I kept to the fringes of the activity. Thousands of men and the occasional woman - one of whom directed me to change masks, saying, "Use two!" - crawled all over the site like ants. It was truly awesome and heroic. Bucket brigades relayed empty pails up and filled ones down, along with hunks of debris passed along by 5 or 6 pairs of hands. All of this material went into carts that circulated to and away from the perimeter. After helping move a hose at the request of a fireman, I made my way to the west along a street a block south of the plaza then back north up West Street.
From there one could see the full extent of the destruction. The north tower was completely reduced to a mountain of rubble about 5 stories tall. That meant that almost 120 floors had collapsed into 12, including what I now understand is 7 floors of basement. The Marriott hotel, where I had attended an event last spring, remained as a mere afterthought at the southwest corner of the plaza, dwarfed by only remaining part of either tower, the southwest corner of the South Tower - just a 10-story skeletal façade. The pile of South tower debris is shorter, a few stories. This is probably because a portion of the very top of the building slid off to the east, crushing half of low-slung 4 WTC, at the southeast corner of the plaza, into its basement. A small part of the south tower façade impaled itself at a diagonal into the sidewalk along Church street on far side of number 4; this is often shown in photos and creates the impression the south tower once stood there. It is in fact a block west of the tower location. Number 5 WTC is the only building that remains intact, but it is completely gutted and deformed halfway up where its steel started to melt. Only the lack of superstructure above the melting floor spared it from total collapse.
While it may just be the attackers' luck that both towers collapsed, I believe that it all went exactly as intended. The other plotters must have watched the burning towers with their fingers crossed, waiting eagerly, while I watched and thought, "This isn't so bad; the fires will burn out and they'll fix up the damage." I didn't see that the buildings were mortally wounded. Even so, I doubt that even the attack planners could have known that the entire World Trade Center and only the Center (with perhaps the exception of a couple of very small buildings to the north) would be destroyed. All of the notable buildings surrounding the plaza are perfectly sound if somewhat damaged from flying debris.
As for survivors, there aren't any, not since the day before my interference. Of course, I will never know if the few minutes of distraction and delay my presence caused would have made the difference for someone trapped under my feet; that the chicken smell was the rotting arm of an otherwise living person. I do know that as I made my way from the scene of the crime the odor wafting north through the unlit blocks was more than the usual damp, burnt stench one smells after a fire. There was also the reek of the meat district. It's an odor that permeates this room 100 blocks north even now a week later as I write. It's an odor I suspect I may detect in my grave, along perhaps with the faint sound of tap dancing.
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