Friday, October 06, 2006

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The first time I visited the World Trade Center was with my father when it was being built back in the late sixties. Dad worked for an engineering company at the time. One of the products the company sold was a powder actuated rivet gun used to anchor steel to concrete. He wasn’t involved with the Trade Center project himself but had a friend who was a construction supervisor on the project.

Dad’s friend gave me a hardhat to wear and we rode the elevator together up beyond the finished floors. Most of it is hazy now. I’m not even sure which tower it was. I think it was the north tower. I do remember that there were occupied offices in the building though it was not yet finished.

Dad would take me on outings like this every now and then. An airplane factory on Long Island, the nuclear sub base in New London, mostly aerospace companies though since that was his specialty. This time it was to the World Trade Center site for a look down on Manhattan. I think he took me on these outings to make up for the hell he put me (and the rest of the family) through all the other days of the year. The memory of those trips is among the few happy memories I have of spending time with my father.

That particular day, I met my first real Native American seventy stories above Manhattan: a Mohawk steelworker. A little tidbit, Mohawks from upstate New York and Canada were instrumental in building the skyscrapers of New York and other Northeastern cities. Even as a child I could sense irony lurking there. Their fearlessness on high steel was legendary. They were called Skywalkers long before Luke came along.

He didn’t look like the Indians I’d seen on TV. This Indian had blue eyes, grey hair and a bit of a paunch. If he’d had a red nose he could have been one of my uncles. His forearms looked like banded steel and were covered with watery blue tattoos. He told me his name was Big Chief Running Mouth. I’m sure I was about the thousandth kid to whom he’d told that joke. But he was fearless the way I imagined an Indian warrior would be. He demonstrated this by walking over to an open edge and spitting. He said I could try it too if I liked.

The Chief said that they didn’t let skinny guys like me work the upper floors because they kept blowing off the building. I kind of believed him. The wind wanted to push me closer to the edge. The weight of my spit might be the difference between life and death. I held on to it. It was drying up in my throat anyway.

I’ve never been afraid of heights but that wind up there and the feeling of the building swaying put me off trying to copy him. I got as close to the edge as I dared and looked at the building narrowing into the ground below. I had nightmares afterwards. In the dream I’d be on a tilting surface like a bridge or something and I’d slide out into empty air and fall until I sat up in bed sweating.

The Chief let me scratch my initials on an I-beam using the point of a nail. He showed me how, if I sighted along two points, I could see the building sway. Up there where you could see forever, I felt free from the city below.

The buildings never had any real significance to me in and of themselves. They were just buildings. They were without a doubt the ugliest buildings to look at. But I never lost my awe of them, the sheer audacity of their size, the hubris it took to construct them. They dominated the New York skyline and in the morning light their shadows reached far across the Hudson


***


I’m probably the world’s worst employee. Somehow or other I’d ended up entrenched in middle management at a big telecom, I couldn’t even tell you what half the people in my department did to justify their paycheck. Hell, there were days when I wasn’t sure why I was being paid. I wouldn’t pay me. I’m a lousy employee, remember? I’ve never been a joiner or a team player. The money was OK and I liked most of the people I worked with so all in all it was tolerable.
I usually found some aspect of work to make things tolerable. Something that made up for all the silly team building exercises that my company came up with to try to turn me into a good employee, a good corporate citizen. I liked the people I worked with. They made it tolerable.

It wasn’t exactly the career I’d dreamed of as a kid but I’d had worse jobs.

I was trying to think about the work day ahead as I walked across the plaza. Meetings with clients, phone calls to make but it was a beautiful morning with a light warm breeze blowing off the harbor. I checked my watch. I was late for work anyway so I decided to cut across to the Krispy Kreme over by Borders Book Store and get a donut. Then, I’d find a cement planter to sit on somewhere to people watch and daydream about being a forest ranger. I’m really very unreliable as an employee.

Just ahead of me, I spotted a familiar bright red head of hair, Tara, a friend from my office, hurrying to work. I picked up the pace to try and catch her to see if I could corrupt her into a donut. Tara is a big brassy Irish redhead and good company but I had an ulterior motive. It’s always easier to walk in late with someone else. There might be a legitimate reason to be late if you’re with another person. It’s a big company and no one ever asked.

I was just beyond the revolving doors of the Customs House entrance and half way to the fountain when the first plane hit the north tower.

There was a thunderous concussion and fire ball overhead followed by a hail of falling debris. A twisted mass of metal, an office partition or a window frame, landed on a man thirty feet away. He lay there unmoving. I was on the ground. I don’t remember whether I fell or ducked. My hands were scraped raw and I must have hit my head on the pavement. People ran by.

The force of the impact was tremendous. Some of the debris rocketed clear through the tower hitting the buildings across Liberty Street a block south. I could hear noises from the direction of the Deutsche Bank building. It sounded like cars crashing 40 stories up. Burning paper and insulation swirled around like confetti and the air shimmered with pulverized glass.

It didn’t register. Some of that debris scattered over the plaza – some close enough to reach out and touch - some of it was bodies and parts of bodies. My brain couldn’t make that jump, the incongruity of it all, from normal to this in the space of a few moments.

Tara was on the ground. I ran over and got her into a sitting position. “Let’s go.” I said. I grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet and we ran with some other people for the overhang of building 4 by the Italian restaurant. It was the closest shelter.

A fireman came running around the corner from the Liberty street station.

“What the fuck was it?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I just saw an explosion.” I said.

“Look. You can’t stay here.” He said to the group.

Debris was landing in the plaza propelled out of the building by secondary explosions. Bright red flames against the cloudless blue of the September sky.

“You’ve got to make a run for it. Just stay close to the building and go.”

I watched him sprint across toward the fire. He had no equipment with him. He wasn’t even wearing his jacket. If I had to guess, I wouldn’t have put his age at over twenty-five.

Tara was hysterical. She had just left her husband Chris by the elevator banks at One World Trade where he worked as a financial analyst on one of the upper floors.

“I have to find Chris. We have to go get Chris” She said.

“We can’t go that way. Let’s get over by Liberty Plaza.” I said. “We’ll wait by the front. He‘ll probably look for you there.”

We ran down the steps and crossed Church Street to the Liberty Plaza building. Taxis and cars were racing down the street like maniacs. I’m surprised no one got hit because there were hundreds of people like us running through the speeding traffic. A taxi rear ended a car stopped at the light at Liberty Street.

I was right about one thing. Five minutes later Chris came jogging up the steps, out of breath but unharmed. We stood on the steps outside the Brooks Brothers store unsure where to go from there. Emergency vehicles were coming in from every direction, sirens and horns blaring.

Crowds gathered on the sidewalks. I saw some more people from work down the block by the Church Street side of Liberty Park so the three of us joined them. We did a quick head count; eight of us out of forty or so unaccounted for. We decided to wait and see if anyone else would show up.

I saw the second plane banking into the south tower like a jet fighter. It was probably only for a split second, but I got an impression of seeing the windows on the plane and the colors on the tail section as it disappeared into the south tower. I knew beyond any doubt that it was some kind of commercial jet.

The crash sent out an explosion bigger than the first. The fireball rolled overhead. I could feel the heat of it a block away and ninety stories below. It doesn’t seem possible but I did. Metal and glass zinged into the crowd at high velocity dropping people up and down the block.

It’s impossible to describe that cacophony of sounds. I felt it in the pit of my stomach. The people, a hundred fire trucks horns blaring, things crashing down.

Police cars and fire trucks all along Liberty Street were covered with burning debris. Thousands of people were running up the street, out of the PATH entrance, away from the Trade Center. I saw a group of firefighters pour out of the Liberty Street fire station, pulling on their jackets as they ran across the street.

Flights of pigeons took to the air moments after the second plane hit, spooked by the explosion. They fell to the ground around us.

It rained dead pigeons.

Within minutes I heard people around me exclaiming, “Oh my god!” and the like. I looked up. You could see people hanging out of windows above the fire. Then one dropped. And then another. And another. People chose to jump instead of burning.

People falling – arms pin wheeling – falling – hitting – I will never get those images out of my head. Not ever. I don’t gawk at accidents. I didn’t want to watch but I was rooted there.

I felt sick. Were they still hoping for some miracle as they fell? I kept looking for helicopters or some rescue effort but nothing. They kept falling.

I was in and out of those buildings every day visiting friends visiting clients in various offices. At least three co-workers were in a network operation centers at the top of 2WTC: Ken, Ed and Frankie. Above the burning floors.

An Asian man, a tourist, had his video camera out pointed up at the buildings. He kept taping as he walked out into the street to get a better shot. A cop grabbed him and shoved him back toward the curb.

“Get out of here you idiot! What d’ya think, this is Disneyland?”

An EMT came over and asked if I was OK. What? I had blood on my shirt. There was so much going on. I didn’t feel a thing. A cut on my arm bled all over my shirt. It didn’t hurt at all, just scraped. The EMT gave my arm a quick look and then told me to get out and have it checked at the hospital. Taxis were taking people over to St. Vincent’s if I wanted to go there. Then he was off across the street.

Tara and Chris invited me to stay with them at their apartment in Brooklyn. I could go see a doctor over by them. I declined. It really was only a scrape and I wanted to go home. We waited a bit to see if more people from our office showed up but none did.

The way home was blocked. No taking the PATH. I would have taken the ferry but the way to the World Financial Center pier was blocked by emergency vehicles. The most direct route there would take me through the World Trade Center and then across one of the walk bridges over the Westside Highway. Not an option. I could try the Staten Island Ferry and then take a long cab ride home. Whatever. I just wanted to get away.

I called my wife on my cell phone and told her I was OK and where I was. She was watching the news at work. I was about to tell her my plan to get home, such as it was, when the connection went dead. I couldn’t get a signal after that.

After a few blocks I found the way south completely blocked by emergency vehicles. I could forget the Staten Island Ferry. I decided to take a route south and west to get to the river walk along the Hudson, then I’d come back north to get to the Jersey City/Hoboken ferry.

I was around the corner from the Marriot on the Westside Highway when I heard what sounded like a giant door groaning and creaking shot through with cracking booms. I looked up between the buildings and saw the top of the south tower bend.

A cop came running down the street screaming. “Go, go, go, go!” We were only two blocks away from the Trade Center. Not far enough. If it came down sideways the East River wouldn’t be far enough.

I ran toward two parked cars till something hit me in the back of my head. It sounded like the crack of a bat hitting a baseball inside my skull. A homerun. The wall of debris overtook me within seconds and I was lifted up and tossed I don’t know how far. It was far. I landed hard and rolled toward a doorway. Over the roar of the collapse I could hear chunks of concrete and metal ricochet off the street hitting cars and breaking windows. It sounded like boulders and crowbars being heaved down the street. The ground shook like giant fists were pummeling the earth.

I pulled myself into a ball and stayed there. I couldn't see a thing. My head hurt. I put my hand up to my forehead and it came away sticky. My ears were ringing with a waterfall sound.

One of my shoes was missing. Each breath hurt. I undid my dress shirt and pulled my undershirt up over my nose and mouth. It’s like when you swallow the wrong way and you can’t catch your breath. I had an allergic reaction once. I woke in the middle of the night with my lungs full of fluid and my throat constricted gasping for air. This was like that.

Then silence. No sounds near by except my own raspy breathing and something that sounded like crickets chirping.

Just before the collapse I saw dozens of people. Now it seemed like I was alone. No one on the street that I could see. The street was littered with piles of paper and garbage in deep drifts. Further down the block I could see trucks and cars under the rubble.

The first sign of life was a cough that wasn’t mine. I walked toward it. I saw a woman stumbling down the street. I caught up with her and we sat in a doorway and shared half a bottle of water from my sling-pack. I’d managed to hang onto that somehow. She gargled some of it and coughed out wet cement from her nose and mouth.

We saw a cop. Maybe the same one that had been yelling “Go!” earlier, weaving back and forth across the street.

“Are you two ok?”

“Yeah, are you?” I said.

It looked like he had blood coming out of his nose and mouth.

“I’ve been better” he said.

“Let’s get out of here.”

The three of us headed away south. We saw more people gathered around a police van. A pile of rags moved. It was a man in a business suit shredded down the back. His suit looked like hell but he was OK. He was still holding his briefcase.

“Holy shit!” I heard that from more than one person.

Looking at the faces, wet eye holes starring out of grey chalky soot, was like looking at a black and white photo from WWII. No color not even the color of skin was distinguishable. Black, white, Asian.

I wasn't quite sure which way was which but moved in a direction I thought was away from the Trade Center. The woman who I’d shared a bottle with asked if it’d be OK to join me.

Sure, I told her. You live in Jersey too?

No, but her parents did. She just wanted to go home. She told me her name but I’ve forgotten it since.

She sneezed.

“Gesundheit.” I said.

“Gesundheit?” She laughed. “You’ve GOT to be kidding.”

Off we went.

A cop told us not to bother trying the ferry by World Financial. The boats wouldn’t put in there now. I’d have to walk up to 38th Street to catch a boat across the Hudson. The subways weren’t running so foot power would have to do. We headed east first and then turned north when we hit Water Street. After we’d put enough distance behind us we angled back west and then north again.

Emergency vehicles screamed south, going the wrong way down one way avenues. The bridges and tunnels out of Manhattan were sealed by now except for foot traffic. We saw thousands headed over the Brooklyn Bridge as we approached One Police Plaza.

We were many blocks away when the second building collapsed. I heard the rumbling and people stopped and turned around. It went down like an elevator – just slipped down behind the buildings of lower Manhattan and was gone.

Just like that.

We walked together for a few hours making our way uptown, talking in little bits and pieces about what we'd seen and what we knew. Quiet more often than not. A group of us formed by ones and two's. I don’t know how or why but we somehow gathered this little group together. None of us had ever met before that day and I can’t begin to figure out the rhyme or reason of how we all decided to stick together. There were about a dozen of us traveling as a group in that exodus of thousands.

The day was getting hot. Store owners along the walk gave us water.

A bike messenger still wearing his satchel but without his bike joined us. He was with a woman in her seventies. She lived up in Spanish Harlem. He was going to walk her home 100 blocks away. We took up a collection and gave them some cash in case they found a taxi.

We passed a group of people escorting a wheelchair bound man. I watched them carry him in his chair up a flight of steps.

A young Latino named Rafael joined our group. We were both covered head to foot in dust and looked like twin gray ghosts. Rafael told me that worked in 2WTC and he didn't think anyone else in his office made it out. "They were too high up", he said.

Rafael looked at my shoeless foot and handed me a pair of new sneakers out his backpack. They fit.

"Hey! Size 12 right? Lucky for you we both have big feet," he said.

I threw my other shoe away in trash can. I still have that pair of sneakers Rafael gave me in the trunk of my car. It reminds me of something I don’t want to forget.

There were few working telephone lines out of the city and cell phones were useless. Lines formed where ever there was a landline. We still had no idea what had really happened or what was happening in the world. Every few blocks we'd stop by a truck or a taxi cab that had a radio on.

Terrorists had struck in Washington. Some reports said that there were 3 planes hijacked. Other reports put the number at 5.

At one point, jet fights screamed overhead leaving a sonic boom in their wake. People hit the ground.

The group began to thin as we got near Penn Station. Thousands stood outside the station because of a bomb threat. That's what one guy told us anyway. Rafael left the group at 34th Street when we turned west to try the ferry. Rafael walked north to try to get to his family uptown. We shook hands and wished each other luck.

Thousands of New Jersey bound commuters were lined up along the Westside Highway waiting for ferries. A flotilla of boats waited in turns to transport us across the Hudson. Ships from NY Waterways, Circle Line Tours and even US Coast Guard vessels were taking people across. The injured and the disabled were taken to the front of the line to go first.

It took two hours to get on a boat – a NY Waterways ferry. They didn’t charge anyone for a ticket. People were bantering back and forth.



“What’s that smell?”'

“It’s the sweet smell of Jersey.”

“I think I’ll kiss the ground when I get off this boat.”

“I don’t think you want to kiss the ground in New Jersey”

“Yeah, not without tetanus shot.”

“I don’t care. I’m going to kiss it anyway.”

There were 4 or 5 ferries waiting to dock including ours. There was some problem. Over the loudspeaker, the ferry captain asked if anyone had been in the area of the collapse. People who had been near the Trade Center when it collapsed would have to be de-contaminated and they couldn’t dock until the facilities were ready. Everyone turned and looked at me. I hate attention.

It was 3:00 PM when we arrived at Hoboken Station. Six and a half hours had passed since the first plane hit. Those of use who were near the Trade Center were lead through the back of the station into the train repair area.

People in Tyvek haz-mat suits hung cards around our necks, marking off body parts on a butchers chart. Red, green or yellow cards. I got a green bordered card and a paramedic in a moon suit made a checkmark in red marker by the head on the picture. Whatever it meant - I got to leave under my own power.

The National Guard and the Hoboken Fire Department used high pressure hoses and decontamination showers to clean us up. They let me put my cell phone in a plastic bag first. We made weak jokes with the Firemen about the unplanned bath. They probably heard the same lame jokes several hundred times before the day ended. Thousands of people crowd the street next to the station. I just can't convey the scale adequately. It was surreal. Behind us across the river a mushroom cloud towered a mile high over the New York skyline – a skyline that now looked broken, all wrong, like it had a missing tooth.

The woman I had met right after the collapse said good-bye at the station. She was taking another train. She hugged me and said thank you. I never saw her again.

On the train home I sat in a car all but empty but for me and two women a few rows back. The train should have been standing room only with homeward bound commuters at that time of day. The conductor came by and asked me if he could get me anything; a drink of water, a towel. I took the towel – I was soaking wet and puddling on the seat. He didn’t ask me for a ticket. I had it in my hand. My monthly pass – the ink running and blurring inside its plastic case. It bothered me that he didn’t ask to see my ticket.

The train stopped at station after station along the Bergen Line. Just my luck to catch the local instead of the express. At each stop I saw volunteer firefighters at makeshift aid stations waiting with blankets and coffee and bottled water. Everyone wanted to do something. One or two people might get off the train at each station, but at most, no one got off the train.

The two women behind me got off the train at Fair Lawn station. I had the car to myself now. I took my cell phone out of the plastic bag and tried it again. Still no service. I must have fallen asleep because I awoke to the conductor shaking my arm. He recognized me and knew my stop. Ho-Ho-Kus. Funny name huh?

A woman was sitting on a bench outside the station with a little girl in her lap. The little girl had a mass of frizzy brown hair and looked to be about five or six. The woman stared at me as I walked over to a pay phone. I was the only one getting off the train in Ho-Ho-kus.

Helen answered the phone on the first ring. I told her I was OK and that I was on my way home. I listened to her quavering voice for a moment before telling her not to worry, that I was coming home.

“I’ll stop worrying when you’re home.”

The woman with the little girl was still staring at me as I hung up, like she wanted to ask me something but didn’t know what to ask. I wouldn’t have known what to tell her if she did.

I found out later that 28 people who took the train from the Ho-Ho-Kus Station had been killed. I knew six of them. It’s a small town, only a mile square. The rest I probably would have recognized if I saw them again. You know so little about the people you see every day. But it’s a small town.

Three of my co-workers died in Two World Trade Center: Ed Saiya, Ken Lira and Frankie Serrano. We called Frankie 1010 WINS Frankie, after the local news radio station. He was always full of tidbits from the day’s news and would certainly have had an opinion to express about this news if he weren’t part of it. His brother Angel worked for the company too. He came up from Florida hoping to find his brother. He never did. Not a trace of him or Ed or Ken was ever found.

Plenty of cars still in the parking lot. It should have been empty. I got into my car and sat there for a few minutes not knowing what to do. I pulled out of the parking lot and turned in the opposite direction from home. I don’t know why. I drove a few miles up the road to a diner and pulled in. I was still soaking wet and looked like hell. I went in and ordered a coffee to go. The wait staff were gathered around a TV watching news. A waitress stared at me and asked if I was OK.

“Yeah. I just need a coffee to-go, please.”

I paid and then left the coffee on the counter and went to the men’s room. The side of my face was swelled and starting to discolor. I had blood stains on my shirt and looked like a crazed escapee from a mental institution. I cleaned myself as best I could but the shirt was ruined. I dumped it in the waste bin and put my jacket on and zipped it up.

When I got home Helen was waiting for me outside with the dog. She hugged me and was crying. She had watched the towers fall on a tiny TV at work. I found out later from people at her work that she fainted when she saw it on TV. She went through her own hell that day. She hadn’t heard from me since just before the towers fell till that call from the train station.

We went inside and I sat down on the couch. Helen wanted me to go to a doctor but I was just too beat. Just tired and scratched up. My Golden Retriever Barney came over and put his head in my lap. I fell asleep that way, sitting up in the same clothes I had worn all day.

I stayed on the couch for the next day, sleeping mostly and not watching TV. My wife answered the phone and passed the word that I was OK. Work called, friends called, my sisters called. Helen called my father. He didn’t remember as he watched the news on TV, that place was where his son worked. It didn’t connect. For that I am grateful.

Helen convinced me to go to the doctor to get checked out. I don’t have a regular doctor so I went to a walk in clinic. The head wound looked worse than it was – they cleaned it up, just a few scratches – a piece of concrete or glass had hit me in the cheek. I still have a lump there so maybe there's abit they missed. The worst was the glass in my eyes. The doctor put in dye and flushed and swabbed out tiny slivers of glass. It could have been a lot worse.

I needed something to do. Helen’s brother Robbie is a member of NJ Task Force 1 Search & Rescue – the FEMA dog team first into the World Trade Center site. He was going in about the time I was waiting for a ferry out. The dogs were getting horrible injuries from scrambling over the wreckage. So we went out and bought some rubberized canvas booties for the rescue dogs as well as dog food and bottled water. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to find enough of those booties.

We went to the staging area down by Jersey City and handed off our supplies. Stacks and stacks of supplies were coming in unloaded from trucks and private cars. There were firefighters from all over. I saw one with White River Junction Vermont stenciled on the back of his jacket. I used to live in the next town over from White River Junction. It was barely organized chaos, everyone wanting something to do.

I had to go in to the restricted areas of Lower Manhattan within a few days. I don't know why I had to go. It's not like I was a critical part of anything. Happily, all of my duties were well out of the immediate zone around the site. I had the job of go-between for my company and Verizon in restoring services for the NY Board of Education. In other areas, my company and a few others were working to restore communication services to the downtown area. The task was daunting not only because of the chaos and terrible conditions but by the sheer size of the task. If someone wanted to cripple communication in New York, there is only one other location that could have done more damage to it. It was bad enough as it was.

The telecom building at 140 West Street by the foot of the Trade Center was destroyed knocking out over 3 million circuits - including most of the city government, part of the 911 system, and all of Wall Street. Hell, the commodities exchange was across the street in the World Financial Center and NASDAQ was in my building: One Liberty Plaza. The side of that building facing the WTC was mostly gone.

Crews laid cables right on top of the streets and covered them with bent steel plates to protect them. Within three days Wall Street was back in business – so to speak.

My company had another office directly across town a few blocks away at 100 Water Street. That’s at the end of Wall Street. I moved my base of operations there. Every day I’d take the new ferry route to pier 11 by South Street Seaport and walk to work showing ID at the army checkpoints. The streets were filled with National Guard in combat gear. 100 Water Street was the only building for blocks with any power and was therefore the only occupied building for blocks. The power was supplied by a mobile generator in a tractor trailer with the electric cables snaking down into a manhole outside by the Starbucks on the first floor. At least we had coffee even if it was over-priced. You might get electrocuted getting it though.

A steady stream of dump trucks unloaded twisted steel girders from the site into barges docked just below Pier 11. I couldn’t help but wonder if one of those twisted hunks of metal had a pair of initials carved by eight year old hands on it.

Gusts of wind blew insulation and computer printout paper off the surrounding buildings. The streets were covered in dust and the whole area smelled like burnt plastic. I hated every minute I was there.

The company generously provided us with grief counselors. Group encounters to let it all hang out. I ducked all of these sessions. The counselors looked fresh out of school… all fresh scrubbed and chipper. Even in the best of times I hate chipper. I’ve killed people for being chipper in the morning before I’ve had my coffee. Chipper people should read more Russian literature. Most of these counselors looked like they needed more hugs than we did. Than I did.

I have to admit it. Some days I just wanted to surrender to it. Soak up the suckiness and wallow in it like a hippos caking on the mud in a fuck-it fest. We Irish have our cherished Celtic gloom interspersed with moments of manic glee. That’s life. We understand guilt and tragedy on a genetic level rivaled only by the Russians and the Jews. Russian Jews have us beat hands down. My Jewish friends drown their sorrows in Dim Sum take-out where we Irish traditionally turn to Black Bushmills Whiskey and maudlin music. I only do the music part so what the hell did I have? I don't like Dim Sum either.

But as to the counselors - nothing good ever came of making yourself vulnerable at work.


***


On a Sunday evening Twelve days after the towers fell, a memorial service was held in Liberty State Park for the seven hundred New Jersey residents who died. My wife and I attended along with two friends.

At the entrance, the Red Cross handed out little “grief kits” complete with aspirins, contact info for counseling and Red Cross brand tissues. If not for the somber mood of the day I would have found this funny. As it turned out, that kit contained many useful items.

Toward the back of the fenced in area, a 50ft long memorial wall had been erected of white painted plywood. The wall was filled with pictures and stories and poems. One end was filled with pictures of the 37 Port Authority police officers lost in the attack. There were magic markers for people to leave their own messages.


"Dear Tom -
We love you and we miss you
-Love Mom, Dad, Terri & Erica"

In a child’s scrawl.

"Daddy –
I miss you and I will always love you.
Your Kitty Cat"


There’s no way to read these things without being moved yet I was feeling empty. Like there was something left that needed to happen. I couldn’t think of anything to write.

Politicians gave speeches and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra played. I have to say that the politicians behaved themselves for a change – like they suddenly realized that they live there too. The leader of NJ Task Force-1, the FEMA search and rescue dog team, spoke. It was obvious he was not someone comfortable giving speeches and he spoke with a thick Jersey accent, yet what he said resonated.

He said that everyone he knew would have given their right arm to be able to take one shovel full of dirt off of that pile. That you do what you can until you can’t do anymore.

We do what we can.

A young man who lost his father talked about his dad with humor and sorrow. His mother and father would have been celebrating their 33rd wedding anniversary that night.
Christopher and Dana Reeves gave a brief memorial and then introduced Ray Charles. Ray, looking frail and in obvious pain, was guided to his piano.

On a stage with the Statue of Liberty and the still smoking ruins of the World Trade Center across the harbor in the background, the first notes of America the Beautiful drifted out. He sang it in voice that praised the promise of America in a cadence heavy with the burden of history.

As the last notes faded I was glad for the anonymity of the gathering dark.


***


I went back to my office in Liberty Plaza to clear out records sometime in mid October. There were four of us making the trip including myself, a security officer, Tara and another close friend, Sunitha. The building had an orange net shroud over the side facing the pile where all the windows and framing had been blown out. Even though the building was listing to one side the city inspectors had graded it safe enough to enter. The Brooks Brothers Store in the lobby was a temporary morgue so everyone wore masks with Vicks to cover the smell and not breathe in the thick nasty dust. Our offices were on the 20th floor, level with the top of the pile. We rode the service elevator up.

I emptied the contents of my desk into a cardboard box - personal files, pens, stapler, dumb company chatchkis – the others were off in other parts of the building doing the same. I sat down in the opened window ledge to get away from the stiffing heat and dust for a moment and to feel the breeze off New York Harbor on my face. Really, I’m not afraid of heights.

I sat in the window sill with my legs dangling, 20 stories up, across the street from that enormous smoking pile where so many people I knew had died. The orange shroud rippled in the breeze and I wondered where it was made. Who makes these enormous plastic shrouds that could cover a 40 story tall building? With those inane thoughts and that stupid paper mask on in a dusty, broken glass covered office cubicle I bawled my eyes out. I don't really know why I had waited until that moment. I can count the number of times in my life I have done something like that on one hand. You learn young not to let things get to you - to move things to the side and move along. Yet there I was losing it. Above the cranes and dump trucks and the new view of Hudson River beyond which should not have been visible.

I took all of my collected crap out into the hallway and dumped it into a big plastic garbage can by the elevator and left Liberty Plaza.

As we were escorted out of the area by police officers, I looked at the people on the other side of the barricade fence, staring, snapping pictures. I put my arm around Tara and Sunitha. I didn’t want to share anything with those people taking pictures.


***


Things went along like that for the next few weeks as the fall progressed toward winter. Mercifully, the rain and snow held off and most of the funerals were held on perfect crisp fall days. I lost count.

Just when I thought I had some kind of handle on things I'd be walking by the site and every thing would stop. Another set of remains uncovered and another flag draped coffin would make it way through rows of firemen, policemen, construction workers, hats and helmets removed. It was like being kicked in the gut repeatedly and I can't begin to describe how much it sucked and how much I did not want to be there any more.

The sights, the sounds, the smells. That smoldering pile that burned for months and the season of funerals. I’d hold things together during the day and then go for drives all night listening to loud music and then return home at 2 or 3 am. Then get up at 5 am and do it all over again. I could only imagine how hard it was for the people working the pile. I talked to many of them about it.

Around Christmas time I was behind the barricades by Liberty plaza – the park across the street was now a plowed up patch of dirt used to store construction equipment inside a chain-link fence enclosure. The food vendors were gone from the park. The bronze statue of a man sitting on a bench with his briefcase opened was gone. No more old men playing chess on stone tables or secretaries eating lunch on the steps to the park. Some spirited soul had placed a Christmas tree with lights on top of a bulldozer. Its lights twinkling in the grey gloom between Trinity Church and Liberty Plaza.

I’d had enough. The next day I told my boss to let me work from New Jersey or I would quit.


***


The company had a data center in Carteret just off the NJ Turnpike. If you’ve ever driven that stretch of highway it’s the part that looks like the land of Mordor. It was a vast improvement and my mood instantly lightened among the smokestacks and giant propane tanks of The Garden State.

The inside of the data center was cavernous – a converted warehouse the size of two aircraft hangars. Inside, it was divided into two areas. On one side was the data center itself with all the switches, servers and arcane communication equipment behind a giant smoked glass window. On the other side, there were a few desks in one huge room. My nearest neighbor was nearly 200 feet away. There were only four other people from my company there in that gigantic space, none of them people I knew prior. I’d go for days not talking to anyone other than on the phone. There wasn’t much for me to do. I’ve never been what you’d call a driven person and now my work ethic was officially in dry dock.

The neighborhood was pure Jersey featuring warehouses and swamps. The nearest place to eat was a little dive called the Lunch Box; a squalid little no-cover strip club with semi’s parked out front. They served a sort of food there. The Lunch Box wasn’t the sort of place that catered to special dietary requirements of any kind. Tony Soprano would call the place a shit hole.

After a month of Cajun curly fries and tonic waters my digestive system felt like the Lincoln tunnel at rush hour. I was ready for a high colonic and a noose. It was about this time that I picked up cigarettes again.

I went back to the City once or twice a month for meetings but never went below Union Square. It’s not the real estate I miss anyway.

I’m not working for the same company anymore. That company didn’t survive long after 9/11. It failed partially because of the attack but mostly due to fin de si├Ęcle greed and hubris. It was sold off, broken up and my last act was to fire all my friends and then fire myself. The plaque in the hallway at 100 Water Street dedicated to Frankie and Ken and Ed ended up in a box. I don’t know where it is today.

I wrote about the day several times and posted anonymously on the Internet. I tracked back and deleted everything I could find one night and I wasn’t even drunk. I've talked about that day with a few friends who were there but we're already drifting apart. Time has intervened. My friends and my family have not brought up the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in my presence in years. I don't know whether it's out of concern or because they don't think about it. I think I prefer it that way but I’m not always sure. I think about it a lot.

Other than reading the Commission Report I have avoided coverage of the attacks. I’ve done a pretty good job so far considering the media saturation. But in the winter of 2002 I was in a Barnes & Noble drifting through the magazines section when I came across a photo in one of those special 9/11 edition magazines. It was a medium distance shot of people walking down a street. It would have looked like a typical day in the life of Downtown except for the four people in the center of the shot covered in grey dust. I recognized the backpack and missing shoe on one of them. There I was fading into the background.

I’ve never been able to nail down everything I feel about 9/11. Sorrow for the families left behind. Anger. Sure. I don’t like the anger. Today, the loss I mourn is that feeling of family just after the event. In the worst hours and days after the towers fell there was still that feeling of pulling together that is gone now.

We lost my dad in August of 2002 to a stroke and in December of 2005 we celebrated the birth of our first child, Moira. Life goes on as it should and must in denial of the alternative.

I’m not unhappy. I’ve never thought of myself as an unhappy person. I just got caught up in events. I’m grateful for many things. Helen and I have traveled the world and have had many adventures. If not for chance and a donut I never would have got to meet this little critter sleeping by me now or hear her laugh or be around for her first words which I am hoping will be “daddy” if I win the competition over “mommy”.

I’m not above cheating. I told her that there’s a pony in it for her if she comes through for me.
So in the end I didn’t save the day but I got the girls.

This morning as I finished up writing this or more accurately abandoned the process, Moira fell into the edge of our coffee table: unsteady little feet attempting a new skill. Bright red blood flowed briefly from her mouth and my heart skipped a beat. I scooped her up and rushed her over to the kitchen sink to grab a washcloth. No, no, no no! I begged and I pleaded for her to be OK. I dabbed at it and hummed reassurances as I hugged her to me. It flowed for another minute leaving a red bloom on her terry cloth jammies and then it stopped.