Tens of thousands of stunned, dust covered office workers--most in
clinical shock--sure knew why they were getting across the Brooklyn
Bridge as quickly as they could that September 11 morning. The second
World Trade Center tower had just collapsed twenty minutes before
turning the streets of lower Manhattan into something out of John
Hershey’s Hiroshima. According to radio reports, as many as 6 other
planes had been hijacked. No one had any idea what was next.
But I was at a loss to explain why I was “going the wrong way”,
as someone shouted and still haven’t really figured it out six
months down the road. The shock wave from the second crash had rattled
my windows so violently I thought they might break. Within minutes I
was upstairs on my Brooklyn rooftop watching in horror as the towers
across the East River---towers that I had looked at every day for the
5 years I had lived there---burned from the mid-drift, then fell.
Boiling smoke from the first collapse had blotted out everything in
sight. The smoke had cleared just in time to let us see the second
tower go. Its falling steel and shards of glass caught the glints from
otherwise glorious late summer sun, as a low volcanic roar crossed the
On the bridge, there were people of every race, ethnicity and
social class, but somehow everyone was wearing the same look of
terror. Meanwhile the inbound lanes were filled with a wailing torrent
of emergency vehicles--police cars, fire trucks and ambulances---
setting off dust swirls as they raced to the scene. The closer I got
to the other side, the darker and more smoky it got.
A neighbor had warned that someone on the radio had said something
about poison gas. But as I got closer I just kept going, pulling my
tee shirt up over my mouth so I could breathe. It was as if the
smoking hole in the skyline was sucking me into it, almost
I had been a war correspondent for a few years in South Asia.
Although I had thought I had outgrown the often-less than noble
impulses that propelled me then, I realized I still felt what
Sebastian Junger has called “an amoral sense of awe” in the face
of destruction. But at another level, there was something
else--something deeper, more reflective of my core identity, though I
had resisted acknowledging that for years.
Memory kicking in as I passed Police Headquarters , I recalled the
day my father had been promoted to Detective Captain in 1970. We had
gone to dinner en very large Irish Catholic famille to
celebrate in the city, but on the drive home had come across a violent
car crash right by Yankee Stadium. After pulling over, my father
jumped out of the car; he and I pulled the man at the wheel from his
car shortly before it caught on fire. “A cop is never really
off-duty, even a captain," I roughly recall him explaining to me,
my mother not exactly thrilled with the course of events. “I’m not
allowed to pass by something like that.”
New York may be a big city, but for me, a member of a family with
four generations of New York police detectives in it, it was basically
a town like many others, and I was a townie. A force as strong as any
I’d felt before to witness tragedy as a correspondent was making me
want to change spots and help out, townie humanitarianism trumping the
City Hall looked like a perverse Currier and Ives, the scene dusted
with four inches of ash. But the side streets off Lower Broadway were
mean, the sky blotted out by menacing tornado clouds, black at their
center. A couple of loud “BA-BOOMS” shook the air. A police
officer I asked said he thought they were burning cars exploding. I
would later learn they were various ordinance in the arsenal the US
Secret Service kept in their World Trade Center bunker.
As I stood dumbstruck across Broadway from the Woolworth Building,
a weird manic guy in his late 20’s or early thirties emerged out of
the cloud of ash and dust. Pushing some kind of cart loaded with
bottles of drinking water, he looked for all the world like something
out of Mad Max. He had office shoes and trousers and a button down
shirt, and had pulled a red tee shirt over his face, completely
obscuring it but for his outsized aviator glasses. I asked him where
the Red Cross had set up its command center and where volunteers
should report. Just pick up some water and hand it out, he replied
handing me some water bottles, and a paper face mask. ”God Bless You
sir, “ he shouted over his shoulder, disappearing into the mist
again. “God Bless You.” *
Just after he disappeared into the clouds, another man, this one in
late middle age, staggered from them, wheezing badly. He was wearing a
smudgy brown suit, and carrying a preposterous, bulging brown leather
briefcase. Grabbing him beneath the arms, I walked him up Broadway
where an oxygen station had been set up. The man said he was a senior
manager from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “I dove
behind a truck, he explained, in shock. That’s the only reason I’m
alive. There were people behind me, but I don’t think they made it.
There was seven feet of debris on the street.”
After helping him into an ambulance, I lingered. Some of the cops
regrouping in the area were completely covered in dust. Along with
battered helmets, they were wearing the proverbial “thousand yard
stare.” They had been first responders and had gotten hit hard when
the buildings fell, officers right next to them buried in cascading
concrete and steel. A few, like a kid who couldn’t have been more
than 22, had been blinded by the debris and were having their
dust-caked eyes washed out before going to the hospital.
A nurse and doctor in scrubs were waiting around and explained they
going to a triage center that had been set up at the Staten Island
Ferry. Since I had First Aid and CPR training from my days as an Urban
Park Ranger just after college, they said they could put me to use.
Escorted by a Fire Department paramedic supervisor we headed to the
Ferry. The side streets--Vesey, Liberty, John, Fulton--were dark, the
air more noxious. As we double-timed it, the supervisor took a quick
survey. “What skills do we have? Who can do what?” he asked. “
Who’s a doctor? Nurse? RN? PN? Paramedic. EMT?” First Aid and CPR,
I volunteered, sheepishly.
We passed the Federal Reserve Bank, home to a few billion dollars
in US gold reserves. There, the smoke so thick we literally bumped
into a phalanx of guards with snub-nosed assault weapons at the ready.
The adrenaline level was very high all around.
Some on our crew ran ahead. Trying to practice “active
detachment”, which used to work in landmine areas or sniper alleys
in Sri Lanka and Burma, I tried to calm myself by focusing on small
things, almost unconsciously. At one point I stooped to pick up a
piece of paper, one of millions of pieces of paperwork that went
flying when the towers fell. The irony of finding a doctors order for
labs tests for someone involved in a Maritime Compensation insurance
claim case was distracting, as was the crunch of debris beneath our
At the ferry terminal, the Chief of the New York Fire
Department’s Emergency Media Services gave a briefing. Ours would be
a standard triage center, with three different zones: green for minor
injuries, yellow for the next level and red for really serious cases.
“There will be no freelancing,” the EMS commander made it clear.
“If you don’t know something , ask. “
As we raced to assemble blood pressure cuffs--and blood plasma
trolleys, a couple of thirsty firemen used their emergency crowbars to
try to open a couple of soda machines standing against a wall. As they
whaled away, they dented the machines but could not open them. Someone
just brought down two of the worlds biggest buildings and somehow
these soda machines were impregnable.
I was assigned to keep patients hydrated, to help wash out eyes and
to keep track of names. “Got any scotch?, asked one shaky elderly
man when I handed him a cup of water.
Almost all of the people we treated spoke of ducking or diving into
doorways to avoid debris and choking dust. Most were not injured too
seriously. People either got away from the towers or they got killed.
But the screams of the few in the red zone were desperate. A middle
aged woman wore a badge identifying her as a “Loss Prevention
Officer” at American Express, whose headquarters had been severely
Around 12:30 PM, no one yet having an overview, I saw two EMT’s
whispering to each other, not realizing I was in earshot.
“We lost a lot of guys,” one said out of the side of his mouth.
“They set up the command center right at the base of the south tower
and a lot of our guys got hit when the second plane went in.”
“How many we talking about. How many unaccounted for?” His
colleague asked, blank faced.
“Don’t know,” the first one said, grimacing. “But we’re
talking whole companies, whole squads. Rescue One. Ladder Three.
Ladder Four. A whole bunch of chiefs.” he kept on going. “Some
companies, they can’t find anyone. Nobody at all. “
Four EMT’s brought in a fire chief, his usually bright white
uniform shirt soiled and blood-stained. An older man in his sixties,
he had been found buried in some debris on the edges of the site. His
face was bright red, and he looked on the edge of cardiac arrest.
realizing this, , the medics who brought him in wheeled him back into
an ambulance for a hospital. As they were doing so, I noticed a couple
of men with blue jackets from the FBI/NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force.
They were scanning the scene, probably looking for colleagues with
offices in the Towers or buddies or brothers on “the job” who
might have been injured in responding.
Any numbers yet? I asked one of them wondering if anyone had any
casualty estimates yet. He looked right through completely stone-faced
and walked away. “No, no numbers yet,” shaking his head.
In a corner, talking to a clerical counselor, a Russian woman in
her early twenties was hysterical. Her younger sister, a very recent
immigrant who had been working in the south tower was missing. “I
just feel like going there and digging, digging, digging with my bare
hands to find her,” the Russian woman sobbed.
The girl explained that her sister was habitually late for work and
that her boss had put her on probation. Maybe she was late today, I
comforted. The first plane had hit shortly before nine. They had
stopped letting people inside both towers at that point. If she was
late--even if she was on time--she might still be alive. The Russian
girl turned back to the pay phones, calling around to see if any of
their friends had heard from her sister.
Hardly anyone came in after 2:30. I decided to walk to another
triage center, where I would make inquiries about the Russian
woman’s younger sister. It was actually quite easy to get around.
Once inside the police perimeter, and with an official looking mask
and blue surgical gloves, I looked like part of the scene. When cops
did inquire about what I was doing there, they steered me west. Pretty
soon I was moving up the very bottom of Broadway, passing the Merril
Lynch Bull, which looked odd in the desolation and covered in dust.
Pretty soon I was deep inside Broadway’s “Canyon of Heros”. I
had once seen a ticker tape parade there honoring Norman Schwarzkopf
and Colin Powell after the Gulf War. But the scene had been
transformed to look more like an image from the losing side of that
war--the infamous “Turkey Shoot” when US warplanes strafed
retreating Iraqi armored columns. Everything around me was destroyed.
It was a pumicey hell, with millions of pieces of loose paperwork from
the towers incongruously blowing through it.
Overhead, a few skyscrapers were on fire, with burning debris
sailing fiendishly through the air. The buildings that were not on
fire wore ugly gashes, their windows blown out. One the buildings on
fire was #90 West Street, an old architectural grandee. I remembered
that when it was dedicated in 1907, my grandmother, who was 12 at the
time, had walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with her sisters and
friends, for the ceremony. It was the first time they had been allowed
to go to Manhattan by themselves.
At street level, the scene was equally apocalyptic. Ambulances,
fire trucks and police cars were scattered around, many crushed,
without glass. A few of the fire trucks had their noses stuck in the
debris with their backsides raised in the air, like a seesaw. A few of
the overturned cars on the side were still burning, flames licking out
of windshields and passenger windows. The sirens on some of the cars
were still squealing, though in that weird sonic environment, the
smoke muffled everything. What would have been piercing barely made an
impression, as if it all was happening underwater.
Without the towers as markers I was feeling lost. The I looked up
and saw a familiar pedestrian overpass that I had used many times to
go into the Wall Street Journal. It only dawned on me then. I was on
the corner of Liberty Street and West Street: right at Ground Zero
itself. The smoke was so thick, and the scene so surreal I didn’t
There was only about 100 feet visibility. Every once and a while
though the wind would shift. Then, like an iceberg breaking through
the mist, the towers’ jagged facade would emerge. The break in the
smoke would also allow a glimpse here and there of antlike rescue
workers working on the rubble--still flaming in some spots. Some of
the rescuers were roped together like men on the moon might be and
were carrying powerful searchlights. Still, there was no sense of the
scale of destruction, the acres of devastation we would all see in
coming days. Just as eerily, the wind would shift again, the the
white-out would resume. The mood was bizarre, a weird intermingling of
creational energies those those of utter carnage. It was like being on
top of a Himalayan mountain, the slag still cooling and shifting from
volcanic forces below.
Shell-shocked firemen were sitting on piles of wreckage, legs
spread apart like uncomprehending five year olds, staring into the
dust and glare. Others had taken refuge in a darkened grocery store,
sitting dazed and hollow-eyed in the dark. One exhausted fire captain
with a silver crew cut said they had found a few guys from Rescue One,
and had heard they’d come across some guys from Ladder Two. Trying
to match the good news, I told him about a fire chief who’d been
pulled from the rubble and treated at the triage unit, though I did
not mention he looked on the lip of cardiac arrest.
The edge of the scene was just as surreal, still bearing scars of
the brutal force that had moved through. Rescue vehicles churned up
muck as if it were snow in a blizzard. Huge padlocks had been placed
on expensive, now evacuated, co-op buildings--some with palm trees
stenciled on their shredded awnings--to secure them from looters. And
a klatch of baby carriages was still chained to trees in from of a
Starbucks, with a lone pram blown into the branches of a nearby
Trying to get to the other triage center, I encountered a young
priest, sitting on a park bench, exhausted. He held a Last Rites kit
in his hands and stared across the Hudson River into New Jersey.
“You all right, father?” I asked. “I’ll be OK. I just
needed a break,” he responded in a very low voice. “We lost a lot
of people in there.” Around the World Financial Center marina,
firemen were sprawling on outdoor chairs at tables where bankers and
brokers usually sipped cocktails or checked out boats.
Unable to get up to the other triage center, I made my way back to
Ground Zero, handing out water bottles from a stash delivered by the
same motley character who had given me God’s blessing earlier in the
day. Even when he disappeared into the mists again I could hear him,
the wheels of his cart rolling along and his voice booming out hearty
“God Bless You’s”.
Ultimately unable to get up to the other triage center, I made my
way back to Ground Zero. More of the jagged facade of the collapsed
towers was visible from this new angle, as was the burning hulk of #7
World Trade Center, flames roaring sideways out of that 50 storey
building before curling toward the blackened sky. The fire here now
officially out of control, and fire supervisors were trying to clear
the area before the now-inevitable collapse. “ Get out of Here! Go
Now!” one ordered. But some of the fireman hesitated. They were
worried that some of their comrades were trapped inside. A chief
reassured them. “We’ve got all of our guys in that building
accounted,” for he explained. “Everyone who went into #7 is out
Drifting over to a staging area along the West Side Drive, I found
myself in a sea of firemen and rescue cops. Some who had been there
all day were cooling off, their overalls rolled down. A few of the
latter were wearing The Stare, some of them having seen people throw
themselves from the 105th floor to escape the flames, their bodies
splattering two storeys high like water balloons.
Others were readying to go in, keeping the anxiety and stress at
bay with jokes and verbal jabs, the air thick with New York accents.
Although I did not know it at the time, among these rescuers were
several cousins, still on the Job and my brother, a retired sergeant
who had gone in too when he’d seen the towers go. He would not go
home for three nights, joining the bucket and shovel brigade trying to
dig survivors out.
Always feeling a bit ambivalent about my townie side, in the past
these kind of guys made me often feel like a groom might felt at a
wedding, steering his bride from the table of loud uncles she had not
yet met. But that day I felt nothing but pride both to be among them
and to be one of them. I also felt curiosity about the workings on
fate: What if I had become a cop? If I was hard working and lucky,
I’d be a captain or an inspector by now, with a command in lower
Manhattan, if my generational hooks did the trick. I might be standing
there formulating orders -- or I might be buried somewhere down the
street, along with the first responders under my command.
At one point, a half dozen FBI agents in blue nylon windbreakers
walked through the scene, the crowd hushing. “And the feds had no
clue?,” one sarcastic firemen muttered loud enough to be heard.
“Give me a break.”
A few minutes later, just on the far lip of the restricted zone, a
young cop stood looking into the chaos. “I’m not supposed to be
down here,” he explained, admitting he had left his assigned post
further uptown. His dusty face was creased with sweat and maybe tears,
and he stabbed his cell phone for what must have been the thousandth
time that day. “But my brother’s a firemen and my mother just
called me and said he might still be in there.”
On my way home, the crowd of spectators on the other side of the
barricades in Tribeca seemed right on the edge between anarchy and
order. In a bar, people were cringing and yelping as the news anchor
announced that the third major building of the day was about to come
down. Outside, it was like watching a science fiction film as the
building collapsed and its roaring cloud of smoke and dust chased
panicked people up the street. For some though there was significant
denial. At the Tribeca Grand Hotel, a fashion model/doorman was trying
to calm some out-of-town tourists. “Everything will be back to
normal in a couple of days, don’t worry.”
With the Brooklyn Bridge shut down now, and no trains running, I
had to walk across the Manhattan Bridge. My feet were aching from
about 10 miles of uneven footing, with irritants of all kind working
their way into the blisters.
On the bridge at sunset, high above the city, I recalled the 1976
Bicentennial. Friends and I had gone downtown to watch the Tall Ships
and the fireworks that followed in Battery Park. We’d stayed out all
night, closing the adventure with a beer-soaked conga line around
lower Manhattan, to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
It had been one of the best days of my then-young life, filled with a
spirit of profound unity, good cheer, and democracy with a small
“d” among people of every race, color and creed.
The sky that evening was similar: a beautiful aquamarine streaked
with red and purple. But now the skyline was gouged, in a way that was
almost human. It was as if someone had had his nose ripped from his
face or teeth smashed from his mouth. A blood-orange sun sank into a
black cloud of soot.
An African American police officer standing guard on the Brooklyn
side of the bridge had disturbing news. Gangs of roaming toughs had
started attacking some Arab-owned stores up on Atlantic Avenue, the
officer reported. “But what can you expect?” he insisted.
“People want something done.”
Later that night I looked into the mirror and saw a guy standing
there with the same thousand yard stare I’d seen all that day long
on the cops and firemen and medics I’d been with. I would have that
expression on my face for more than a week.
“You look like you’ve been in a war zone,” one of my
“I guess I have”, I answered, my eyes still red-rimmed and
© 2004 William McGowan
All photographs Copyright © 2004 William McGowan unless otherwise
Reproduced with permission
While I have not confirmed it yet, I have every reason to believe that
this was Cosmo. Lovisa called
me on the morning of September 11th, extremely upset because Cosmo had
gone down to the World Trade Center to help. The buildings had just
come down and she had been unable to reach him. - Joseph Pierson
Square, New York City, September 2001 Copyright
© 2004 Mary Louise Pierson