September 11 was to be my first day of work at a new job in downtown Manhattan. Though New York was still very new to me, it was immediately obvious that something was terribly wrong. As I climbed the stairs of the subway just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, there was a palpable feeling of panic in the air as people stared, horrified, into the sky. I followed their gaze upward and I instantly understood. Smoke and fire were gushing from a gaping hole in the smooth, silvery surface of the right-hand tower.
I asked someone nearby if he knew what had happened, and he said it was a bomb. Another man walked over and declared, “No, it was a plane, a plane flew right into building. . . .” Then an enormous explosion drowned out his words. Above our heads, an orange fireball swallowed the top of the second tower, as clouds of paper filled the sky above us. Hundreds of people began scattering. I ran across the street to the Municipal Building and up to a shrieking woman who stammered through her sobs that she had seen a large blue and white plane slam into the building. We stared slack-jawed as sections of the building’s metallic facade fell in chunks to the ground. It took a few moments until we realized that some of those falling pieces were not metal at all, but rather human beings leaping eighty or more stories to their deaths-right before our eyes. All I could think to do was make the sign of the cross.
As I stood there in disbelief, a man next to me with a messaging pager said that the Pentagon had just been hit. I grabbed at his pager to read it for myself. Then came the confusion and rumors on the street: “The Capitol’s been attacked!” “The State Department has been bombed!” “The Supreme Court is in flames!” “Camp David is burning!” “A plane is on its way to the White House!”
During all this, the fire trucks had been racing past on their way to the Towers. I must have seen twelve of them rush past our corner. In the coming hours and days, I often wondered how many of the men on those trucks died just minutes later.
Soon the NYPD asked us to evacuate the area. It was only a minute after we began to walk uptown and away from the Towers that the sound of several claps of thunder began to rip through the air just over my shoulder. I turned around and saw with my own eyes a sight of pure horror, as the left-hand tower began to collapse into a massive white cloud. Our walk quickly became a run, and then a stampede.
Eventually, as we got farther away from the cataclysm, our pace slowed back down. I caught my breath, trying to absorb what I had just witnessed, when an olive-skinned man with a mustache and briefcase walking to my right began to intone: “You see what happens! All the Palestinians want is a place to call home, a small piece of land. We continue to fund the Israelis, we supply them with money and weapons, we support the persecution of a people for decades, and you see what happens! It should not have come to this. It didn’t have to come to this! They have had enough, and you see how they respond—they’ve got our attention now.”
Letting him push on without me, I paused with several hundred others at the Manhattan Bridge to watch the lone burning tower. We had outrun the smoke and dust unscathed, but now thousands of others followed behind us. They were in groups of three or four, marching toward midtown, some sprinkled with ash, many others caked with a dust that had hardened on their skin as it mixed with sweat and traces of blood. They passed by like ghosts—grayish-white figures carrying bags, suitcases, and purses. Extras from the set of a horror film, quietly walking home.
As I followed them uptown, a businessman from Atlanta who was in New York on business told me that he couldn’t get through to his wife on his cell phone; he knew she’d be scared as hell. “I was on the eighty-first floor, and we were probably the last to get out, but the firefighters kept coming in, heading up as we headed down. They just kept filing up the stairs.”
Then, a sudden gasp from a group of Chinese men and women on the corner, and we turned to watch the second tower follow the fate of the first. After a few seconds, I continued my dazed trek to my apartment on Nineteenth Street.
I’m not sure why I went back. The morning of the twelfth I heard a homily at Mass imploring Christians not to yield to the pain and evil but to overcome adversity with faith. That message stuck with me.
The van of volunteers drove us through the smoking and dusty streets of lower Manhattan, cluttered with countless thousands of sheets of paper; all around us, cars and emergency vehicles looked like they were made of papier-mâché. Fruit and bagel stands stood abandoned on empty sidewalks, the apples and bananas sitting in undisturbed rows, coated with a layer of pulverized concrete half an inch thick.
For someone raised in peaceful and prosperous America, Ground Zero itself was simply astonishing to behold. In the center, a crater 60 feet deep and 120 feet across. On each side, the mangled remains of the towers themselves. They say that each floor of each massive 110-story building was an acre in size. Spread before me was 220 acres of pure destruction crammed into a 16-acre plaza.
Stringy steel rods cut like irregular staircase steps—the skeleton of the building facade—surrounded two six-story piles of debris. Twisted red steel. Windows. Carpets. Toilets. Bits of copy machines, computers, file cabinets, desks. And of course, hidden somewhere within the mountainous piles, the mutilated remains of over five thousand human beings. And then there was the noxious smoke, streaming from a thousand cracks and fissures in the piles from hundreds of hidden fires beneath them. It was a smoldering mound of hell on earth.
No one seemed to be in charge. Hundreds of firefighters crawled around on the piles in small groups. Several pockets of twenty or thirty of them labored with torches, shovels, wire cutters, jackhammers, electric saws, oxygen canisters, hoses, dogs, and their bare hands. At the fringe of the pile—near the Brooks Brothers store that had been transformed into a makeshift morgue—stood several long lines of emergency workers who handed off buckets of debris, one by one. Spontaneous order emerged from the chaos.
So, for example, a New York City fire captain in the pit who needed forty welding tips phoned a friend in New Jersey who has a boat. His friend calls the local union, and in an hour a couple boxes of welding tips are loaded onto a ship, along with several boxes of food, clothes, medical supplies, and fifteen guys looking to lend a hand. An hour later the captain docks the boat at the Cove, east of the American Express building directly adjacent to the site. Ten minutes later, a motley group of construction workers, police officers, volunteers, FBI agents, and National Guardsmen arrive to unload the boxes and pass them down a 150-man work line. Linda and Jackie, two nurses, organize the unloading at the end of the supply line: “Medical supplies, here! Clothes, there! Construction supplies, here!” The captain radios that the welding tips are off the boat. Twenty minutes later, a retired veteran named Rich makes his way into the makeshift supply store on the second floor of the AMEX building, finds the welding tips, and hauls them in a golf cart across the plaza to an equally makeshift transfer station. Half an hour later, the captain who “ordered” the welding tips from his friend in New Jersey not more than two hours ago walks over to pick up his supplies.
Much of my time was spent directing materials around the site. The supply triangle between the dock, the AMEX building, and the piles ran nonstop for several days and nights. In the days following September 11, similar operations were repeated throughout lower Manhattan, as thousands of people spontaneously found and contributed to the supply chain.
There was much goodness and bravery at the site, but there was also fear, as frayed nerves frequently conspired to induce instantaneous panic. When something shifted unexpectedly on one of the piles, for instance, a firefighter would run, sending the team around him leaping from the huge mound, thereby inspiring hundreds of workers in that quadrant of Ground Zero to scatter. Within seconds several hundred workers would be “running for their lives” down the nearest street, tossing their tools, kicking up dust behind them, tripping over live fire hoses.
Then, as people began to realize that it had been a false alarm, the explanations would begin. “The Millennium Building was gonna come down.” “I smelled natural gas.” “There was a fire on the pile.” After twenty minutes or so, people would slowly creep back toward the site. This cycle repeated itself several times in the first few days, until a system of bells and bullhorns replaced leaping bodies as the official evacuation call.
I would never have predicted it beforehand, but one of the most helpful and generous groups on site were the Scientologists, who, as I learned, take great pride in being the first to respond to the scene of disasters and crises. When you state your need to a member of the Church of Scientology, the entire group enters what they call the “cycle of action.” Anyone who answers a request must do everything in his power to satisfy it and return directly to the person who issued the request to report the results. Ask a Scientologist for a respirator, for example, and your request immediately echoes out from your location in concentric circles. “You need a respirator?” “Respirator!” “We need a respirator up here!” “OK, who’s got the respirators?” “Bring out the respirators!” It was extremely efficient, if also slightly comic.
The Scientologists were not always so helpful, however. They also provided what they called an “assist”—an odd procedure during which a worker runs his hands over your arms and legs in order to “center your energy.” It didn’t so much resemble a massage as a child petting a small dog before he has acquired complete motor coordination.
At a time when so many people seemed to be at their best, it was sad, although hardly surprising, to learn that a few took advantage of the breakdown of law and order in the vicinity of Ground Zero. Some of the looters did their damage in the shadows, late at night, while others were bolder, dressing up as construction or utility workers. They pilfered through the AMEX supply area, filling up bags and buckets with donated jeans, shoes, sweatshirts, socks, and underwear. They made their way into people’s homes and businesses, taking advantage of the mass evacuations in lower Manhattan to take what they wished.
One day an off-duty officer from the Department of Justice took me on a golf cart tour of the businesses that had been looted shortly after being boarded up by the authorities. He was particularly incensed that a nearby National Guardsman had been so ineffective in preventing the damage. Moreover, a number of apartments in Battery Park City—the high-rise residential buildings that abut the Trade Center—had been broken into, and a number of supplies down at the dock had been stolen, both while supposedly under watch by the National Guard officers. A few days later, the military police and the NYPD stepped in to clamp down on the crime.
President Bush arrived at Ground Zero on Friday, September 14—the first day in my twenty-four years of living that I experienced genuine patriotism. When word got out that the president might pay us a visit, eyebrows lifted and smiles cracked on faces. Twenty minutes before he arrived, the NYPD cleared the area at the northern edge of the site, and several work crews that had been on their way to work began to congregate around the area where Bush would arrive. As soon as he stepped out of his black Suburban, the workers dropped their shovels and scurried around to welcome him. Many of us stood on overturned buckets behind a few rows of people to catch a glimpse, and those behind us stood on two or three buckets. Scores of guys climbed on top of the trucks, cranes, and emergency vehicles in the area to watch and listen. Some just climbed higher on the rubble, or stood on an overturned I-beam to catch a glimpse.
I thought to myself that this scene must be reminiscent of some bygone time in America’s political history when a White House staff did not plan every presidential visit weeks in advance. I thought of Lincoln at Gettysburg, stepping out of a train to make a speech, and spontaneous crowds of people, some climbing into trees or on walls, gathering around to watch and listen. Here was our commander-in-chief, faced with unprecedented destruction on American soil, to rally men in hard hats at the center of a wounded city, at the center of a stunned nation.
As he passed in front of our section, his hand met mine, and he looked me in the eye for more than a moment to hear me stammer what I believe was something like, “God bless, Mr. President, we’re behind you.” He was in no hurry to speak to us as a group, but rather took his time meeting us individually. The crowd around the rubble was growing fast, reaching at least 1000. There was clearly an enthusiasm in the air for the first time since September 11.
When the President finally grabbed a bullhorn and began to speak, it was hard to hear him at first. When someone in the crowd shouted, “We can’t hear you!” the president proclaimed loudly, “But I can hear you! And the rest of the country hears you! And soon, the people who did this . . . are going to hear from all of us!” At that moment, a shot of electricity surged through the crowd. Cheers erupted and echoed off the surrounding buildings, each draped with a tattered American flag. “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” It went on and on.
Then—at the corner of West and Vesey streets in New York City, on the edge of a mass grave, at the feet of the commander-in-chief of the world’s mightiest nation—I was overwhelmed with an unexpected sense of fraternity and love of country. Not fifty feet away lay the remains of five thousand innocent people, and here, at their side, a band of their brothers stood before their leader, united in an unconditional love of justice. I really do think that is what it was.
One night at 2 a.m. I was on my way through the rain to pick up supplies in the AMEX building, which, among other things, was being used as a transfer station for the bodies and parts of bodies we had recovered from the site. From there, they were packed onto trucks to be taken to the morgue at Bellevue Hospital. As I entered the atrium of the building I saw scores of workers holding their hard hats over their chests. Fifty yards away a dozen firefighters proceeded slowly in my direction carrying a body bag. I removed my hard hat and stepped to the side. As they approached, I could read their red, swollen eyes. Their uniforms were dark with mud and soot. Raindrops dripped from everyone’s gear. A priest wearing a raincoat, a hard hat, goggles, a respirator, and a headlamp came forward with a book and oils. The men carrying their fallen friend cried quietly as the priest rolled back the bag and anointed the body, administering Last Rites. In the atrium, heads bowed and no one moved. I don’t remember how long we stood there, but time seemed to stop as profane space became as sacred as a shrine. Eventually, the priest stepped away, and the firemen walked slowly forward, out the doors and into the truck waiting outside. Without a word, we went back out into the dark rain to work.
Before the rainstorm, nearly everything at Ground Zero was covered with a layer of dust, which became the parchment for the messages of rescue workers. On windows or walls, you could find short compositions: “God Bless America,” “Engine company 6,” “Give us Justice,” “Revenge is a bitch,” “We miss you Johnny,” and the like. But one message stood out. Written with a black marker on a flier posted on a pillar of the AMEX building, “RIP Fr. Mike.” Father Mike Judge, a Franciscan priest and chaplain of the FDNY, died when he was struck by a falling body on September 11 as he administered Last Rites to a deceased firefighter. In the days since September 11, working around the clock with little-to-no rest, I lost track of time. But this message reminded me that it was Sunday.
Sunday was my fifth day working at Ground Zero. I was exhausted. After making my rounds at the supply area, I walked up North End Avenue to the support center at Stuyvesant High School. I had heard earlier in the day that St. Patrick’s Cathedral was going to hold a 5:30 Mass, and I felt the need to attend it. As I entered the building, I saw a man dressed in a white habit walking slowly but deliberately down the hall. The tip of his Roman collar peaked out of the robe. He looked and spoke like James Earl Jones and his face was very serious. It occurred to me later that he was probably a Franciscan and had likely just come from attending to the dead at Ground Zero.
All around us, the Scientologists and volunteers buzzed back and forth, and police officers and workers passed by. I asked the priest whether there would be an evening Mass around the site, and he told me that the only one had been held at 9:00 that morning. I told him that I was hoping to attend the memorial Mass at St. Patrick’s, which I instantly realized had started six minutes earlier. He then said very deliberately, “I can offer you the Holy Eucharist. Would you like that?” And then, with five days of chaos in my head and fatigue consuming my body, a nameless priest in a white robe, almost invisible in the white hallway were it not for his dark complexion, put his hand on my head, said a blessing, and placed the Body of Christ in my mouth. My eyes remained closed for a long time.
Here, amid the nonstop movement and clutter of bodies and buildings, amid the constant acrid smell of smoke and smog, amid the signs reading “Warning, high levels of asbestos here!”, amid the dozens of workers who seemed always on the verge of breaking down in tears, amid the steady flow of sobbing civilians who toured the place where their loved one lay entombed, amid the constant sounds of machines, crashing metal, and sirens, amid all of the destruction and death—here was a pocket of peace. Here, Christ was present, not only among us, but now, again, inside me. And then this angel in the whirlwind sent me on my way and resumed his slow but deliberate walk through the horror, looking to dispense solace to any and all who would accept it, passing through the tumult, almost as though he were from another world.
Vincent Druding, a former editorial assistant for First Things, was recently ordained into the priesthood for the diocese of New York. This essay was originally published in the December 2001 issue of First Things.