fires and F-16s: Welcome to Manhattan
By PETER CHENEY, The Globe and Mail
Thursday, September 13, 2001
NEW YORK -- Just a few
blocks to the north, you can still buy a latte and hail a cab,
but somewhere south of Canal Street, you leave that world
behind and begin your descent into the living hell that
southern Manhattan has become.
The once-packed streets thin out as you pass each police
barricade, the air fills with the smell of torched metal, and
orange flames lick the sky.
As you approach the place that everyone is now calling
Ground Zero, the colours of the city gradually disappear under
a thick coat of grey ash. Ruined cars line the street,
flattened and blackened apparitions. Grey smoke boils upward.
Overhead, a colossal, suspended cloud of smoke covers the
bottom end of Manhattan Island, casting the streets in shadow
on one of the otherwise most beautiful days of the year.
The details contribute to the sense of apocalypse: Police
helicopters circle like mechanical dragonflies, and F-16
combat jets scream past. At ground level, you encounter
increasing devastation with each block you travel south: the
wreckage of what was once the World Trade Center, the twin
towers that dominated the New York skyline until Tuesday, when
they collapsed after being rammed by terrorists in two
Now the buildings are an unimaginable pile of debris that
fills the streets below, piled up to eight storeys deep in
places, millions of tonnes of smashed concrete, twisted steel,
and shattered glass and plastic, all mixed with what remains
of two Boeing jetliners, countless vehicles and an
undetermined number of human bodies, some so destroyed that
they have, for all intents and purposes, been reduced to the
That was the scene in southern Manhattan yesterday as North
America's biggest city began dealing with the aftermath of the
most devastating terrorist attack in history. At Ground Zero,
the scale of the situation became all too clear as earthmovers
began clawing at the wreckage.
A field morgue was set up in a building with its front
As rescuers located bodies and body parts,
they called medical teams, who catalogued and bagged them.
Although there were earlier reports that survivors were
calling on cellphones from beneath the collapsed towers, no
calls came yesterday. The ruins were silent.
A police officer who came away from the scene was in tears
as he described the devastation, and the horror he had felt
when he came upon body parts that included a head, a hand, and
unidentifiable collections of muscle tissue and bone: "These
were people," he said.
The hellish scene was occasionally punctuated by the
eruption of flames. "We got a problem with fireballs!" came a
call over a Fire Department radio. Rescue dogs clambered over
the debris and workers readied a dozen 20-centimetre-high
robots to search air pockets.
Only about seven storeys of the north tower remained, its
girders bent outward. Late yesterday, the few remaining
storeys of the south tower collapsed.
"It's horrifying," said Wilson Franco, a 25-year-old member
of the Civil Air Patrol, as he delivered blankets and other
Everywhere lay the paperwork of Wall Street: charred
expense reports, torn memos, ledger sheets, floppy disks.
Cranes removed stones one by one from the rubble.
"I never thought I'd see the World Trade Center pass by me
in a dump truck," said Craig Chester, a volunteer whose uncle
On one dusty window was a message: God Bless the Dead.
After the tragedy, New York seemed to find the kind of
inner resolve that London found during the Blitz during the
Second World War.
Thousands of volunteers arrived in southern Manhattan to
help with the rescue effort. Among them was Stan Mattox, a
34-year-old carpenter who lost five friends in the collapse of
the Trade Center.
Shortly after noon yesterday, he marched to the disaster
scene with hundreds of other skilled tradesmen to help begin
clearing the wreckage and hunting for bodies and survivors.
Mr. Mattox, a six-and-a-half footer with the build of a
weightlifter, was quietly emotional as he explained his
motivation. "This thing hurts," he said. "It hurts really
Frank Puccio, a 37-year-old sales manager with a cellphone
company, walked through the sunlit, near-deserted streets of
mid-Manhattan yesterday morning, taking in the scene and
revelling in the fact that he was still alive.
"Today is different," he said. "I've always appreciated
life, but now I see it for what it really is. I appreciate the
sun, I appreciate the air and I appreciate being here."
It could easily have turned out far worse for Mr. Puccio,
who was standing in front of the World Trade Center when the
first plane hit. The impact stunned him, but he had no idea
what had happened. When debris began raining from the sky, he
ran into the Trade Center lobby for protection, but ran back
out when police began yelling for people to leave.
Mr. Puccio called his cousin on her cellphone as he ran for
safety. She met him a short distance away in her brand new
BMW. Moments later, a giant chunk of flaming wreckage whistled
down from the sky like an asteroid and struck the street just
behind the car.
Mr. Puccio and his cousin stopped a few blocks away and
watched in disbelief as the second plane hit, and as the
towers collapsed into the streets below. "I've never seen
anything like this in my lifetime," he said. "I don't think
many people have."
For many New Yorkers, the attack and its aftermath appear
to have been life altering. Charles Greene, 47, a
building-maintenance worker, was standing on the curb on
Avenue of the Americas when the first jet roared a few hundred
metres over his head and flew into the building. Mr. Greene
was philosophical as he reflected on the attack's effect on
him and his city.
"It feels like it doesn't matter whether you're rich or
poor today. That just isn't important. There were guys up in
the World Trade Center who were billionaires. And now they're
gone. I'm a poor man, but I'm still here," he said.
Indira Shockley, who lives near the World Trade Center,
said she could sense that the attack would change the city
"The World Trade Center is your beacon. . . . When you
looked up and saw it, you could always tell where you were.
Now there's just a big hole in the sky."
At the Church of Our Lady of Pompei, a midday service was
held to commemorate the dead. The service was advertised with
a hand-lettered sign that read: "We wrecked His world? He
still loves us all. Father forgive us!"
Not everyone was magnanimous. "I know nothing's been
proved," said one man. "But I feel like bombing every Muslim
country on the face of the earth. Maybe it's wrong, but that's
how I feel."
Powerful currents of emotion, particularly shock and grief,
coursed through the city. Crowds gathered to stare at the
smoke and to share their thoughts. Almost everyone had a story
to tell. Some more heartbreaking than others.
In mid-afternoon, a 56-year-old bus driver named Jose
Rosado stood on Avenue of the Americas at the corner of
Houston Street and told how his 26-year-old daughter Maria had
been trapped in an elevator when the building collapsed. Tears
came to Mr. Rosado's eyes as he held up his daughter's
graduation photo. She had worked as a receptionist in a
contractor's office, and had recently been engaged.
A growing circle of people formed around Mr. Rosado. "Who
is he?" someone asked. "His daughter got killed," someone else
replied softly. A wave of sighs passed through the crowd, and
several people reached out to pat Mr. Rosado's back. He was
asked to hold up his daughter's photo so a television camera
could capture it. Mr. Rosado did as he was asked.
a report from Associated Press.