David Friedman is a senior analyst with the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. UCS educates and works with the public to advocate for environmental solutions based on the best scientific understanding. The Clean Vehicles Program develops and promote strategies to reduce the adverse impacts of the U.S. transportation system.

Monday, 8 Oct 2001

NEW YORK, N.Y.

On a normal Monday, I wake up in Oakland, Calif., go to my office in Berkeley, start up my computer and sift through any emails I missed the previous week. But today is a holiday and I woke up in New York City after coming here for the long weekend. My work brought me to the East Coast, but I came to New York for myself, because I felt the need to make the events of Sept. 11 more real to me. I live and mainly work in California, and those 3,000 miles have felt like a million this past month. I had hoped that going to New York would give me an opportunity to close that gap and somehow better understand what took place. Before you think otherwise, the answer is no: I did not get what I was looking for. I don’t feel that I closed the gap or am better able to come to grips with what happened. What I did get, however, were some glimpses of the tragedy, and of the lives of some of those who were most directly affected by it.

Some of what I saw represented the contrast between life moving on and life standing still. Broadway, Times Square, and Rockefeller Center were abuzz with life. Some people stopped and stared at the news tickers wrapping the buildings, announcing that we had just begun bombing Afghanistan. But most chatted and walked, continuing on with what looked like, to an outsider, the typical hustle and bustle of New York. My cab trip to the World Trade center site, however, provided a stark contrast. The closer we got, the fewer cars we saw, until finally there were nothing but police cars and empty streets. The cab driver let me off about eight or 10 blocks north of the site and pointed to the empty space above the rooftops. The towers used to be there, he said, twice as high as any of the other buildings in the area. Now there was simply nothing but open blue sky.

Near the site, crowds formed. They were not the large, noisy crowds of Times Square, but smaller clusters, hemmed in by scaffolding and police barriers. The people were subdued, moving slowly, looking at the gray dust that still coated windows and awnings. All around us, storefronts were closed and dark, the internal lights shut off and much of the sunlight blocked by dust on the windows. One store in particular struck me. It was a shoe store, perhaps two blocks from the site. The floor was still covered with dust and all of the shoes and chairs had a thin coating of debris. Life had come to a halt here instantly, and in the corner lay a pocket book, dust-covered as well. Perhaps it had just fallen off a shelf, but I could not shake the feeling that somebody heard the explosion, or saw the tower falling, and simply dropped her bag and ran.

The next sight is difficult to describe. It was the wreckage itself. In most respects it looks like what you see on TV, and seeing it only two blocks away did not make it any more real. At first glance, it looked like a construction site, or perhaps a movie set for the latest Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Looking closer I could see broken windows in the buildings surrounding the site, some turned a dark blue by the heat of the flames. Steel twisted in and amongst the shattered concrete, the charred skeleton of one of the remaining buildings, and finally the one piece of the World Trade Towers that is still standing. It was hard to shake the sense that this was a movie set. I suppose that in a way, that shows how lucky I am; I’ve never seen such horror up close, just the intangible images on a flickering movie screen. To be honest, I hope I never have to see such things for real (and wish that others didn’t have to either).

As I walked from the wreckage, I began to notice the chill that had settled in the air. It felt like a classic northeastern fall evening: the sun going down, the wind picking up. I walked by a corner coffee shop, and decided a warm drink sounded too good to pass up. The cashier described digging the store out of the dust when shop-owners were first allowed to return to the site. She likened the effort to an archeological dig, discovering in the dirt pots and pans, cups and utensils — relics from what felt like an ancient time, before things changed so drastically for this country. She also described the many people that came to the shop and offered help. The place was cleaned up and opened within a few days, thanks to complete strangers who just could not sit at home and do nothing, and were determined to make sure that life went on.

My last stop before returning to the hotel was one of the local fire stations, which had posted a list of the firefighters fallen in the tragedy and was accepting donations. Strung up on one wall were a few dozen white T-shirts that children had decorated and sent to the firehouse. There were some pictures of the fallen from nearby stations, and a guest book to sign your name and leave your thoughts. What struck me the most was a white board, sectioned off to show the coming week. Under each day were the names of those whose memorial services would be held. While I watched, one of the firemen came out with a piece of paper in his hand and began adding names. Life does move on — but it will have to stop many times during the coming days to bid a sad farewell to all who died.