EDITOR’S NOTE: The following letter is written by a former editor of The Free Press who currently lives in New York City.
To the Editor:
Its been about three weeks since the terrorist attacks in New York and the city is warily approaching a new state of normalcy. The initial shock of the attacks, which left roughly 6,000 people entombed in the rubble of what had been America’s symbol of financial prowess, has worn off and a new reality is setting in. People are returning to work, Broadway is putting on shows, and street vendors are back in Times Square hawking $10 Rolexes.
All this is true, but add to it a lingering sense that New York overnight has become New Tel Aviv, that we’re not immune to horror on a large scale. Even with reports of American and British special forces already in Afghanistan to fight the war on terrorism, it has become clear that U.S. citizens at home have been placed squarely on the front line.
On the morning of Sept. 11 I was rollerblading from my apartment on 79th Street to my office in Times Square, where I work as a reporter and a stream of emergency vehicles cruised by.
I moved to the side of the street before continuing on to my building. Outside the office I changed from my blades to my shoes and noticed everyone standing still, looking up at the sky with frightened looks. I had no idea what had happened and didn’t bother asking. When I got on the elevator, two ladies were talking and one of them said to the other that she didn’t want to die. I asked her what she was talking about and she told me a plane had hit the towers and that there were others still flying.
I rushed into the newsroom and everyone was standing up, pacing, yelling, keeping tabs on the CNN live coverage. Our news editor was getting people on the move down to the Trade Center, down to the hospitals. I took a look at CNN and watched as the second plane came into view, and then I saw it hit. I looked out my 19th story window and saw the cloud rise over lower Manhattan. It looked like high-end Hollywood special effects, only it wasn’t entertaining. Then I heard the Pentagon was hit.
I almost lost it right there. People, very professional news people, were crying. No one knew what was this coordinated attack meant. I picked up the phone and called my mother just to let her know I was OK. It took about 15 attempts because the lines were bogged down. Then I called around to my sources to cover my beat as best I could. I threw together a story about the shutdown of U.S. ports by the Coast Guard. Then the first tower fell…and then the second. I looked out the window again and felt my stomach churn. It was like a post-nuclear cloud that covered everything in lower Manhattan. It was immense. CNN had it all on film, and there it was for real just down the street.
I don’t know how, but my colleagues and I continued to work, covering the financial angles as our jobs dictate. At about five we were given leave and two colleagues and I joined the general news team and headed to “ground zero.” We got within a couple of blocks of the ruins. When we arrived we were told that a third building had just fallen and that we should be careful. We were told that hundreds of firemen were dead, and we saw the survivors fighting through their tears to save other lives. We saw photographers who had been there right from the beginning, covered in thick dust, crying and walking out from under the column of smoke. We saw makeshift triage centers here and there, but they were mostly empty by the time we arrived. The reason, we were told, was that most people that didn’t escape unscathed didn’t escape at all. Many hospital beds were vacant, but the morgues were filling up with small pieces. I walked up Fulton Street, as I used to do for my first two years in New York when our offices were downtown, but it was barely recognizable.
Everything had an even 3 to 6 inches of grey dust on it, and despite the clear evening, the smoke and dust made it almost as dark as night. We all had filters over our mouths. Doctors, priests, rescue workers, were here and there, along with blank faced people hoping for news of their loved ones. We called in our quotes and headed home.
I was so sad, and I still am. But in a way, now that weeks have gone by, I am feeling more optimistic than ever. I look at the streets of the city and I see the enterprising street vendors, the dark-suited bankers, the yellow cabs buzzing around like bees, the balding men on scooters, and the rich housewives walking absurd little dogs in Central Park. They’re all back, in fact they never left.
Everyone’s just a little nicer since the tragedy, a little stronger. These people are fighting a war and winning.
As strange as it may sound, the terrorists were not aiming for the 6,000 people they killed or the buildings they destroyed, they were aiming for everyone else. And that’s a fight they can’t win.
Former Editor of the Free Press