Ground zero, day one

A trek into the heart of chaos

“We had lived in a time and place in which exactly nothing would explode. Now everything ticks.”

—Colin Dodds

A sobering yellow-grey smoke rose from the earth at Ground Zero, the kind seen smoldering in war movie battlefields the morning after a particularly fierce or important battle. Strangely absent were the blood and teeth, the blurry sobs of the lone trumpet, the empty moans from the wounded. Ground Zero seemed more junkyard than graveyard, nothing more macabre than a few stray shoes or a box of office stationary, making the holocaust that occurred just hours before and seemed so fresh in the mind feel like something out of ancient history.

Hours after Mayor Guiliani ordered everyone out of Lower Manhattan, Ground Zero was haunted only by machinated hums and crashes, the heavy equipment of the living. Tractors, backhoes, fire trucks and support vehicles. A stinging incense of disintegrated glass and debris blew as thick as sand among the silent fires and flashing lights. Generators groused and grumbled; floodlights glared into the stink and rubble of the darkness but illuminated nothing. Fire hoses and electric cables ran along the ground like disgorged innards. Two thousand ghosts lay buried in the mud and rubble below, while above, thousands more scurried about with pick-axes and steel-cutters—roving ghouls, their faces full of the blank stares of the dead, men and women who’d seen way too much too be able to blink. These were the heroes.

I watched the television replays of the first plane hit from my office in Midtown. My friend Kevin called me from his cell phone in Battery Park, outside his girlfriend’s apartment, just a few blocks away. He was on the street, holding his cat, describing the scene—"People are jumping! Ouch! Quit it, Jakob! Damn. There’s a hole the size of … Ouch!"—when the second plane appeared. I could hear the engines increase thrust as they roared overhead and homed in on the second tower. Kevin clicked off and I ran to the TV, where I watched petrified for the next hour until both the towers had fallen.

Out on 42nd Street, there was screaming, laughing, crying—every range of emotion. Like the millions that would make the pilgrimage down to Ground Zero in the year after, I was moved by a driving, perverse sense of duty to get down to the site, to be a participant, to bear witness.

Getting past the “frozen zone” south of Canal Street was the toughest part. The entire southern tip of Manhattan was officially closed. One cop didn’t want to let me in, with or without my press badge. Then there was confusion as to where I was supposed to go. Finally, he gave in and told me to head over to the press area but he didn’t know exactly where it was. Heading south on Broadway, there were fewer and fewer people on the streets, fewer lights in the windows, fewer bodegas open. Past the empty triage sites, I saw doctors standing with hands in pockets, others sipping coffee and waiting. They would wait like that all night. An officer at the second checkpoint pulled aside a blue sawhorse and let me past. I was getting closer. I passed the broken windows of a discount store on Broadway, a place where the merchandise ranged from video cameras to discount dresses, a place I had passed just the other day and thought, who in their right mind would go into that place on purpose.

As I walked, the soot got deeper, the smoke thicker. I followed a group of recruits from the police academy, the kind you see late at night on the train with nightsticks and gym bags. We came to another checkpoint. Two Long Island cops let us pass, then called me back. One examined my credentials in the flashing lights, then shrugged. “Be careful,” he said.

I walked forward through a few blocks of sludge, twisting my foot coming off a sidewalk into a knee-deep puddle of ashen mud. Paper singed around the edges floated against me. I pulled myself up and kept walking, feeling more like a trespasser the closer I got to the center. Police vehicles with melted tires and broken windows, their doors still wide open, layered in ash, lined the streets. Others were perfectly intact but impaled through the roof with sleek steel girders.

I walked back and forth, having no idea where I was or what I was looking for. I was lost. I didn’t see anybody else from the press. Without the familiar guideposts of the twin towers, I had no idea where I was. I walked through the necropolis talking into my tape recorder trying to list everything that was on fire, everything I saw, trying to make sense of it or sum it up in some new kind of way. It was impossible. It was what it was. Holding down the record button, I fed words onto the tape, a new alphabet, a new language. I passed a subway entrance so covered in debris that it looked like something from the Blitz. A dusty sign for a talk show was posted above it: “So real. So Ricki.”

Walking through a thick firestorm cloud, I came to a man sitting in an upholstered chair in a tranquil light, a scene like something from a Tarot deck. The light was coming from inside a hotel, the Millennium. Little round emergency lights still shone inside. A pair of hiking boots sat on the floor. The windows were blown out. On top of the well-stocked bar sat an oversized bottle of champagne, covered in dust. Even the shadowy-chic Millennium lobby wasn’t designed to look so dramatic.

The man in the chair was staring across the street at the burning top floors of WTC5, where hoses threaded from fire trucks to little dark figures on ladders and cranes. Spouts of water arced across the sky above. I sat in a chair next to the man. He was the only person I had seen down there without a paper mask. As he turned and acknowledged me, I could see different sets of words form in his mouth. One pair finally made their way out.

“Holy shit,” he said.

I nodded. We had to talk over blasts of fire hoses and windy, rattling grunts from a nearby generator. I tried to stomp out a small fire that started by my foot. Even fire was on fire down here.

“It’s like one of every 500 people in Manhattan died today,” he said. “That’s one way of figuring it.”

I spoke into my tape recorder, remembering a description of hell. “Neither shall their fire be quenched …”

“Is that from the Bible?”

“I think so.”

We sat there and watched fire eating through the roof of the building. We talked about George Bush and going to war and how everything was different now.

“Man, I helped build these things,” he said, changing tones. “Real steady work.”

I got up and peered around a bit. The now familiar site of the pointed waffle husk of Tower One was sticking out of the ground no more than a few hundred yards away. In the shadowy light, it was the most menacing thing I’d ever seen. I stared at it until I couldn’t look anymore. “The crown of hell,” I said into the tape recorder.

The man squinted, listening. “You ever smell burning steel before?” he asked.

As I made my way out, many more were on their way in. Red Cross. Salvation Army. Hummers full of Special Forces troops in fatigues, their guns poking out of the windows. More teams of fireman, some resting on the ground, breathing oxygen.

On a shoulder of the Westside highway, a platoon of volunteers stood in a circle around their leader, an old general type. The men had been waiting all day, since the first tower fell. Tension was high. Occasionally a truck would come by, someone would hop out and ask for engineers, specialists. Most of them were construction, day laborers with their own equipment. Some of them wore ties, had run downtown from their offices when they heard the second plane hit. They’d all been directed to a long line of volunteers waiting on North Greene Street. They had been waiting for the opportunity all day. They were eager to get in there and do something. Help someone. Fights had even broken out when people had cut in line.

Finally they were here. They were needed. The old soldier continued the briefing. “You will be scared,” he said. Smoke and dust rose behind him. He instructed the recruits how to use scraps of cellophane to stop up a sucking chest wound. “Most importantly,” he said, “if a body should wake and ask what happened, you must say you do not know. You do not know what happened. You don’t.”

Peter Thompson, formerly a magazine editor in New York City, now lives in Reno. On the night of Sept. 11, he tramped through the fire and mud with his press pass, cutting through buildings and police barriers to get to the heart of Ground Zero.