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WTC Journal by Jacques Menasche

Yesterday. September 11, 2001. A spectacular morning. 72 degrees Fahrenheit, cloudless. The air crisp, clean. The kind of day that blesses New York maybe thirty times a year. The sky like blue steel, a bold sky, a sky good for bold architecture. A day to show off the brazen lines of New York City's modern apogee, the streaking explosion of the Sixties and Seventies, the spirited gust that blew the JFK Airport terminal into its low-slung take-off sweep -- and mostly, perfectly, a day made for the sleek metal glass heaven-touching spires of the Twin Towers.

Eight blocks north, at the corner of Jay and Greenwich, a southward glance offers up the full vertical vista of the Centers' proud elegance. The eye is drawn down a thickening canyon of buildings; the space between them bisected by the silver towers soaring up, up, up. So clean, so stark, the gleaming columns seem to have been cut out of a magazine and pasted on the sky. It must have been for a day like this, for a street like this, they were raised.

That's where we were, 8:45 AM on Tuesday, me and my six year-old. We were there because we were late for school. We are always late for school. Emanuel can't be rushed. Despite constant entreaties to "get a move on," along the way he insists on playing "mind games" -- inventing more of the Pokemon creatures that have been battling in his brain all summer. Greenwich street is our Rubicon; when we gain the street we see the school and the game stops; hand-in-hand we wait for a break in the south-moving traffic to cross. Yesterday, Emanuel climbed onto a brown metal riser on the corner, his head rising nearly to my shoulder. That's when we heard the crack of what sounded like a sonic boom and looked up.

It happened quickly. Later, after, time would bend and twist like the wreckage itself; seconds becoming minutes, minutes seconds, and hours swept and snapped into different time signatures like modern jazz. But in that first instant, it was fast. A glimpse. A speeding black projectile, maybe two, shooting from left to right into the side of World Trade Center One. An instant later the sonic noise crescendoing in an enraged screaming roar of explosion. An orange plume bursting from the face of the tower like the blossom of a carnation. The bloom did not last; it grew slowly into its fullness, then passed out of the world like an expired breath.

It was beautiful, you know, heartachingly beautiful. The exquisite orange fireball laced with black, so perfectly toned against the blue sky, the silver tower. A fireworks show. Emanuel was smiling nervously, his cartoon fantasies come suddenly true. Only after the bloom depleted itself, when the gaping wound in the tower began to belch ugly black smoke, when it was certain that this was no ultra-expensive film shoot, did what had happened become clear. "They blew it up!" someone from the faceless crowd shouted.

Now it comes back to me every few minutes; the black projectile, the impact, the roar, the explosion, this first shock cutting me deeper than anything else I saw, this instant of execution, the noise, the plane slicing through the neck of the tower like it was a stick of butter. The fireball. Nevertheless, the next fifteen minutes still held the possibility of containment. I counted ten destroyed floors …all still somehow manageable. The insistence on life-as-normal is overwhelming. How else to explain grabbing Emanuel's hand and taking him across the street into his class? I met his principal on the stairs. She affirmed my decision. "This is the safest place for them," she said.

But I think I didn't want to look at him. He had become hard to look at, his face become somehow unrecognizable, gripped by an emotion I'd never seen him wear before. An unease. A stunned, hollow, unease. "This is like a movie that's too scary," he said quietly.

After two or three minutes, I returned outside and stood on the sidewalk in front of the school with some other parents staring up at the top of the burning Trade Center. A steady flood of people streamed past us moving northbound, away from the explosion. The parents expressed an array of reactions -- shock, disbelief, gallows humor. Simon's mother was holding her head and weeping. Quinn's mother stood silent and determined. Oliver's father dryly asked if Mayor Guiliani didn't have his security headquarters up there -- but to my ears it all sounded banal, all the words already used up on lesser tragedies. Many people were holding their hands to their mouths. To stifle screams? To pat down nausea? Or just to keep from speaking? When anyone spoke, a spell dissolved. The emotions were real; the words phony. At the intersection, a queasy impossibility.

Then the second explosion. This time, I didn't see the plane; the impact took place much lower, which gave it the appearance of being less severe. But it was then, that moment, that emotions became unhinged. For a second blast couldn't help but imply the possibility of a third, a fourth. A great and terrible unknown yowled open. The mind stopped trying to fold the event into itself, to confine it, and released hold of its sanity to allow for the idea that anything might happen. People might be transformed into birds, cars might fly. At the same moment our kids were having "meeting time," people began to leap from the right side of the burning tower. Black silhouetted figures tumbling off the steel side of the structure like lemmings, like part of the debris that continued to blow around the building. With each jump, a sickening groan going up from the crowd.

People came running past our position, some screaming and crying, others laughing, telling jokes, still others with stereotypical New Yorker aplomb, as if to say "Well, that's the Big Apple." Pride mingled with idiocy. A crush of bodies, cell phones, each with its own personal response, a crush of emotions, an emotional Babel, the first suggestion of hell as Dante might have seen it -- not a static mourning and tragedy, but an endless parade of disparity, a nightmare of diversity.

Suddenly cameras -- video, digital, point-and-shoot -- were everywhere. One young woman, face puffed into a red ball, walked about dazed with a Leica taking photos and crying at the same time. Weirdly, I had the sudden vision of her as a surreal advertisement -- "Leica: Our Photographers Cry."

After the second explosion, I felt a growing, gnawing need to get the kid out of school. I wanted to talk with him, but a school administrator wouldn't let me upstairs to the class. He could be brought down, but I couldn't go up. Incensed, I waited. Then, after a few long minutes, I saw him come down the stairs and we sat on the bench in the school lobby surrounded by the kids drawings tacked up on the wall, turtles and self-portraits and bright crayola colors. He was giddy seeing me, a strange treat this being called out of class, taken downstairs to see your dad. I asked if he wanted to go home. He asked -- trying to tailor the new situation to his specific needs -- if we could go home together a little later. "Why, is there something fun you want to do first?" "Yeah. recess," he said. I told him that I didn't think there would be a recess today.

Though it now seems dangerously late, I was -- minus those who upon the first explosion immediately panicked and literally ran down Greenwich Street with their kids in their arms -- one of the first to leave. I held his hand and we walked down the steps and emerged onto the street where the once beautiful south-looking vista was now billowing smoke. Quickly I angled his body away from the view, wanting to shield him. But it was impossible. Every time I turned back to look, so would he. Every time I ran into some parent, some friend, he would turn around. He was asking questions. Six years old. No sense of loss of life. He wanted to know how long it would take to fix the building. "Oh, a long time," I said. "Maybe a year." He wanted to know why they didn't make buildings out of a stronger metal. Educated from Pokemon in metallurgy, he suggested titanium. "Yeah, that's a really good idea," I said brightly. He asked why the pilot hit the buildings, why he didn't turn the plane and crash it someplace safer. "Well, I think he did it on purpose," I said. This seemed not to register with him. Didn't the pilot know he would get hurt? I suggested the man was "crazy," but as the whole idea of crazy is what is beyond understanding, he didn't get it.

And then the first tower collapsed behind us. I spun around and watched World Trade Center One melt sickeningly into the earth. Earlier, I'd wanted to get the kid home, finding the area vaguely unsafe; it had occurred to me that the tower might topple over, and if it did, it might hit us -- but I never really believed it. Now I lurched forward, my body mimicking the collapse, air sucked from my guts like a deflated balloon. Horror mixed with a desire to protect my son from seeing it. Greenwich Street a one-way thoroughfare, a street of exodus. We quickened our step. A feeling of vulnerability, of panic had to be held down. In every direction, people, police cars, sirens. I promised to buy Emanuel an ice cream. He didn't want to look back. His belly hurt, he said. His belly was scared.

We walked, a march that usually takes thirty minutes, but now might have lasted two minutes or two weeks. Even when we got as far as West Houston and entered that safe zone of our own neighborhood, Greenwich Village, Leroy street park, Nanny's bar on the corner, it didn't feel secure. When I opened the door to our apartment, my wife let out a kind of animal yelp. Tears burst from her eyes. Emanuel was behind me and I secretly shushed her. The boy was quickly sent into a room to watch cartoons. Tal and I paced around our four hundred square foot apartment like animals in a cage. People called. Friends came by. Laini called looking for Rick. Rachel called looking for Keely. All the faces in our lives needed to be accounted for. After a few hours, when most of them were, the walls grew too confining, the apartment suffocating,

*

Like the others in this field I have a desire to see. At its worst, it's a prurient thing, something obscene about it, gazing into things that at base you know nothing about, cannot apprehend, inevitably fail to fully appreciate and convey. At its best, and I see this especially in the photographers I work with -- it’s a noble trade. Full of brave men and women, a strange race elected to scour the world and bring back its stories for everyone else to see. At moments it feels important.

I have no idea which sentiment was driving me as I crossed the first barricade. All I really knew for sure is that I went. That I weaved downtown, south and east, wading among the firemen and police who moved about like gods. The catastrophe, the sudden tremendous failure of law enforcement combined with the loss of their own, gave their eyes an enraged glint of impotence.

After passing the last line, I reached City Hall. The streets turned gray. The entire park and everything down Broadway was covered with a film of soot and shreds of papers. The Canyon of Heroes looked like the site of a grim ticker-tape parade on the morning after a Yankees World Series coronation. In fact, parked just in front of the Hall a van was done up in Yankee pinstripes, ridiculous and dusty.

I crossed the park, turned down Broadway, and headed further south. At the corner of Liberty Street it began to get dark, even though it was only four in the afternoon. The atmosphere suddenly changed, too, the air thick with haze, stinking of burning. The streets were mostly deserted, only solitary figures in white surgical masks scuttling over the debris, kicking up trails of dust as they walked. For a few blocks I attached myself to a couple who moved purposelessly south. They gave me a mask. The air was thick with smoke. Staring down the side streets to where the World Trade Centers used to be, charcoal blackness.

At St. Peter's Church the tombstones in the cemetery abutting Broadway were blanketed with a thick coat of debris. All around another world, the new world, an emptied, apocalyptic, smoldering world; broken glass, an unimaginable tour through city land marks: the Post Office, Wall Street, the bronze bull, symbol of capitalist enterprise, now sooty, wasted. One woman emerged from a gargantuan office building and I watched her fumble with the front door, the last to leave, locking up as if it was her house.

Just as Dante's hell can only be gained through circular descent, so I had to make a circle around the tip of the island. I curved with Battery Park to where the air became lighter and cleaner. When I reached the water, I headed back north along the river. Just south of the World Financial Center I met Lori Grinker, a photographer. She'd been on the site of the devastation all day and was covered head to toe in ash. I followed her across what used to be the plaza of the World Financial Center, but which now looked like Mt. St. Helen's. Some months before I had come here to see a Vietnamese puppet show.

"Follow me," Lori said. I trailed behind her into Two World Financial Center. Inside, a hushed quiet, the interior colorless, bombed out, a shell, reduced to its most simple elements: stairs, round walls, shattered windows, dust. Only the ceiling, the blue copula, was intact. The escalators were stilled, covered with fragments of plaster and glass. We took the stairs. On the second floor broken remaining shards of the wrap around windows opened a jagged vista onto the thing itself. Ground Zero.

Through the windows I saw three large spiky remnants of the towers that remained standing, stuck into the mound of rubble helter skelter, tilted askew, surrounded on all sides by charred lonely buildings. Six or seven stories high, they looked like giant sepulchral hands reaching out of the ground. The buildings to the north and south were burning. Chunks were missing from others. I lost all sense of scale. In the funereal mound one could pick out nine or ten fire and rescue vehicles, the first on the scene, blown upside down, looking somewhat shameful with their tires in the air, strewn about like a kid's Tonka toys.

A dozen firemen were standing to my right. A single yellow crane worked listlessly. There was no major effort in progress. It was over. It was all gone. Orange jumpsuits crawled grotesquely at the edges of the debris like ants. I moved left to right, from window to window, scanning the wreckage. The floor we were on was deserted. Only two or three photographers, a fireman. No one spoke. The site was holy. The sound of muffled footfalls on the dust, crunching over broken glass, a church on the edge of the abyss, a church of apocalyptic vision, a church of incomprehensible death and darkness. A church on the edge of an instantaneous, monumental grave, pulsating, radiating with all our thousands of friends.

There were no bodies to be seen, no injured. The devastation was complete. A hole where last week Emanuel and I had watched the Mambo spectacular after reading in Borders bookstore. It occurred to me that my first job in New York had been here, 1982, in a Kelly film lab in the mall beneath the towers. I remembered rush hour, the wave of bodies pouring out of the buildings toward the subway, making it impossible to cross from one side of the mall to the other.

For photographers looking for pictures, there were pictures everywhere: a flag raised by firemen over the ruins, an overturned car with its blinkers still on -- but the entirety no camera could capture, no lens was wide enough to see.

Suddenly, the reverent hush of the inner sanctum was shattered by the shout of the fireman. "It's coming down! Everybody out! Run!"

It's coming down. What goes through your mind? Nothing goes through your mind. You do what you are told. You run. The service is over, the church condemned.

When we exited the building, the firemen were falling back. Two policemen were interrogating a Latino kid who was holding a twisted bit of steel in his hand. "What are you, souvenir hunting?" one asked aggressively. "You know that's against the law, that's evidence. You're tampering with evidence."

The claim seemed preposterous. There were billion of fragments of evidence, blown all over town, evidence rained from the sky like hail. We were walking in it, covered in it, breathing it in.

The next morning I left my apartment around eight AM. At the corner of Bleecker Street and Sixth Avenue I stared down at where the towers used to faithfully appear. The smoke was gone and I realized that even the smoke, that wisping, ghostly approximation of the towers, was preferable to what I now saw, which was nothing. Nothing at all.

All the stores on Bleecker Street were closed. Scattered souls moved about with grim phantom faces. Out before all others, they had come like priests to christen the new day, to sanctify the new life. Serious and ashen, they glided over the altar of Father Demo Square, their cameras swinging from their sides like censers, dancing a choreography of despair, a waltz of death.

How can a New Yorker describe the feeling? A good friend of mine said to me with embarrassment, "You know, I know about the people, all the death, the suffering of it, but the thing that I can't handle is that the towers are gone. I can't look out the window anymore."

Now I forget which streets they could be seen down. Now, like an abandoned lover I think I picture them at the end of all streets, rising up in majesty, glinting in the sunshine. But then they don't; they're invisible, withdrawn, dead, buried. The moment of the first impact unwanted plays in my mind, plays whenever it chooses, the knife of a plane thrusting through the side of the tower, bursting out the front, the roar and fireball. Every thirty minutes or so I break into tears. My hands shake. I tried to watch cartoons with Emanuel, who has been doing little else since, but the attack insinuated itself into the show, every cartoon bang or boom mapped onto our downtown. It becomes unbearable. He breaks a glass, knocks down his plastic leopard with a rubber snake and it's more than I can stand. There's a hole in my heart that looks like the pit I saw, surrounded on all sides by collapsing buildings.


2001 copyright Jacques Menasche, All Rights Reserved for all countries.

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