Rollerskating through the Rubble

New York City, September 12

I realize now that on Tuesday morning I must have been awakened by the sound of one of the low-flying planes. I turned the radio on shortly after nine. I could not comprehend what I was hearing. My hands were shaking as I strapped on my Rollerblades (my main mode of street transportation) and left the apartment. I don’t think my wheels touched a single step of the five flights of stairs before I found myself outside. The Village streets were ominously quiet. People were standing about, dazed and speechless. All eyes were riveted on the sky. I turned to look.

I have sought many words to express how I felt in that moment, but each falls short, each sounds lame and superficial. Where the two familiar forms of the World Trade Center had always stood, I saw a single, orphaned structure, engulfed in fire, perforated by deep charred, black rifts. I thought I knew the meaning of the word “horror,” but I didn’t have a clue before Tuesday.

A huge pillar of smoke poured into a clear sky otherwise untouched by clouds or smog. The contrast between this monstrous pollution and the perfect autumn day was indescribable. When I could catch my breath, I began skating downtown through SoHo into TriBeCa, my old neighborhood. The air felt thick with the experience of communal shock. Eventually, I encountered a police blockade on West Broadway, not far from my former loft, five blocks north of the WTC.

I stood in the street in silence with thousands of others, aghast as the building burned. Then, to our shared horror, the remaining tower began collapsing. Even though the first monument had been suddenly erased from the skyline, the thought that its twin would also fall never crossed my mind. As we stared, dumbfounded, the north tower seemed to implode in slow motion. A giant cloud of bright, opaque roiling smoke and dust began to mushroom, engulfing street after street, moving toward us like some sort of unstoppable Old Testament plague or living organism. People screamed as they turned to flee. I was knocked down, regained my balance, and braced myself against a car as the panicked crowd pushed north around me. The cloud, which had continued to pursue us, left us dusted with a coat of fine ash and a mysterious, fibrous gray substance.

I skated throughout the day, staying out of the way and helping where I could. These are some of the few memories I can describe: debris landed as far north as my old loft at Duane and Greenwich, where the acrid dust, thick and yellow, hung in the air. I stood across the street from the studio where I had lived and worked for 20 years (I was there at the 1993 WTC bombing). Thousands of police, firemen, construction workers, and medical staff hurried in every direction. Hundreds of ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks, sirens blasting, moved through streets otherwise emptied of cars. Pedestrians, great ragged herds of the displaced, moved uptown. Stray tour buses, out of context with their signage of holiday pleasures, periodically pulled up along West Street, volunteering to take anyone uptown to safety. Weak and relieved, stragglers climbed aboard. No traffic was allowed to go downtown, only to leave. I helped a dear, shaken, middle-aged worker who had escaped the 70th floor of one of the buildings. Like some sort of tribal mudman, thick gray ash covered his clothes, hair, and bearded face.

Suddenly, I found myself in a second stampede. Hundreds, including police and emergency workers, began running up West Street. The officers shouted, “Move! Now! Go north! Major gas leaks downtown!” Simultaneously, a high-speed caravan of what must have been more than 50 ambulances and paramedic vehicles burst out of the dust in a single-file race to clear the area. The sirens were deafening.

When evening came, Lower Manhattan looked even more like a war zone. Huge generator trucks, cranes, and earth-moving machines, waiting to be called into service, lined larger streets as far north as Houston. They reminded me of the maneuvers I had seen in southern Germany before Reunification, when lumbering tanks moved through peacetime streets. ConEdison trucks were parked under gigantic floodlights, illuminating utility workers as they popped in and out of underground holes like oversized ants. Police, quietly reassuring residents and answering questions with genuine patience and respect, gathered at every intersection. Before climbing the stairs to my apartment, I looked to the sky where the towers had always shined in the night sky. Only a devastating emptiness defined the space, glowing in the distance from yet new fires.

Now, 36 hours later, my apartment on Thompson Street is filled with foul smoke. The windows are closed, but the smell seeps in through the chinks in my old building. Everything south of 14th Street is shuttered. The streets are blocked. Police barriers guard nearly every crossing. Small cafés serve as community hangouts where both neighbors and strangers connect, swapping stories and information. Every bar’s television is tuned to CNN. Residents without cable have little reception. Many cell phone and television channels, routed through the now-fallen Twin Tower transmitters, don’t function. Normal phone circuits are overloaded. I cannot easily call out.

Despite the stress, the shared sense here is that New Yorkers are truly pulling together in this brief time (which seems a lifetime). Stories of small and large acts of kindness abound. Volunteers pour in to help with every aspect of the relief effort. Letters to the missing and pictures of loved ones, creating impromptu, moving memorials, appear everywhere. Small groups of strangers openly pray together. The city’s (and country’s) response to this catastrophe, despite the confusion and initial pandemonium, is, for the most part, orderly and effective. Even with gaps in commerce and travel and in the midst of national grief, Uncle Sam stands. I have unearthed one treasure in this disaster: a new appreciation of the Rule of Law. I thank God I live in such a country.

The tragedy moves me to consider who I am (and who we are as a people) and what, in spite of recent losses, I have taken for granted: my family and friends, my calling, my health, my safety-and I stand with those who lost these things yesterday. Even though I am an eyewitness, I cannot begin to comprehend what has taken place here. I know only this-that the reason “Amazing Grace” is being sung here so often is not just because it’s a catchy tune.