Published 11 September 05
W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Reflecting on the 9/11 terrorist attacks
Four years ago, like so many of us around the world, I was watching live television when the second plane slammed into the second World Trade tower. Hours later, I was on the road, driving from central South Carolina to New York. I had no idea what I would find when I arrived. I knew that our country was at war, and I felt that one of our cities, perhaps New York, would be struck again within the week.
The following two stories, originally published in The Charleston (S.C.) City Paper, describe my experience – what I saw, felt, heard, and smelled – while covering the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
New York Reels from Air Attacks - Part I
by W. Thomas Smith Jr.
September 19, 2001
[Originally published in The Charleston City Paper]
It's one thing to watch the dramatic televised images of last week's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It's quite another to wade through the dust, debris, and twisted black shells of three buildings, two of which had come to symbolize the dominant economic power of New York City.
Less than 24 hours after the devastating suicide attacks on New York and Washington, I was crossing the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn, and was at once taken aback by the forever altered Manhattan skyline to my left. Gone were the familiar towers of the World Trade Center. Instead, a brownish gray smoke roiled up from the heart of Manhattan's financial district, and a light brown haze covered the entire city.
Overhead, helicopters thundered near the source of the smoke and warplanes from the aircraft carrier, USS George Washington, screamed in wide circular patrols over the city.
As constant emergency reports aired over the radio, I began to notice a foul, acrid odor - similar to the smell of an electrical fire - which still permeates much of the air nearly a week later.
Within an hour, I was on the subway from Brooklyn to Times Square in Manhattan, and there began to witness first hand the disaster's human impact. No one on the ride-in was smiling or casually chatting. Most had blank stares. A woman and a young girl were reading a copy of The New York Post, speaking low to each other, and crying. There seemed to be an unusual sense of politeness toward one another. Men were giving up their seats to women – rare in New York – and total strangers were greeting one another.
For the next several days, I covered the aftermath of the attacks from a variety of Manhattan neighborhoods and street corners, including a makeshift Red Cross facility where victims' families were seeking information and providing samples of DNA for identification purposes. I attended several candlelight vigils where weeping New Yorkers were bringing flowers, photographs, and letters written to Heaven. I strolled the silt-covered streets near the site, ate and drank in nearby pubs with opinionated New Yorkers who were raging against the perpetrators, and toured areas of the site where few were allowed access. The pure story of New York in the aftermath is one of people, emotions, and the ongoing effort to save the missing. Unfortunately, those clearing the rubble where the towers once stood say that few survivors are now being rescued. And the words and images have become increasingly grim.
"At this stage, we're finding more body parts than we are bodies," a construction worker told me as we shared a seat on a near-empty Saturday morning subway train. "Heads, hands, arms, legs, pieces of clothing, I've never seen anything like it. I'm also seeing a lot of pieces of office furniture, chunks of computer keyboards, and telephone receivers." According to the worker, the body parts currently being recovered are most likely the remains of those who were working within the uppermost floors of the 110-story Trade Center buildings when the two towers collapsed.
"The victims bodies were simply torn apart on the way down," he said. "We believe we'll find the whole or intact bodies of the victims who were in the lower floors buried much deeper." Later, while strolling the streets of lower Manhattan, I noticed a fine grayish silt covering roads, cars, windowsills, and doorframes. Closer to ground zero, pieces of burned paper – letters, envelopes, bank statements, clothing tags, and book pages mixed with the silt – littered the streets for blocks. At the Trade Center site, the twisted burned-out remains of the bottom floors are all that now remain of several buildings comprising the Trade Center complex.
The search continues for survivors. But hope is fading as policemen, firefighters, soldiers, and construction workers – most of whom have not been home since the attacks – are coming up short. Only the rescue crews and a very few members of the media are allowed here. Everyone else is either dead or perhaps barely clinging to life in some tight air pocket beneath 450,000 tons of concrete and steel.
Throughout the rest of the city, life continues. Shops and offices far enough away from the site are open for business. Theatergoers are lining up for Broadway tickets. And bars and restaurants are serving locals, tourists, and stranded travelers; all of whom have strong opinions about the catastrophe and are willing to share them. Sporadic looting has been reported in isolated areas of the city. Bomb threats have been made against a number of schools and businesses including, among others, the Grand Central Station terminal, Macy's, and the midtown offices of MTV. A few Arab-owned businesses have also been vandalized or set afire in the wake of the attacks. But, for the most part, New Yorkers of every race, religion, ethnicity, or political bent have united in way never before seen in this city.
Some pray for restraint. But most, by far, look to massive U.S. military retaliation as the only true measure of justice.
New York Reels from Air Attacks - Part II
Ground Zero and beyond
By W. Thomas Smith, Jr.
September 26, 2001
[Originally published in The Charleston City Paper]
Strolling toward the smoldering hulks that once dominated Manhattan's skyline, I realized that it was difficult, if not impossible to glean any substantive perspective of just how devastating the attacks were on the World Trade Center. The flat, narrow, one-dimensional images we've all seen on television and in newspapers were not, and are not, sufficient.
The reality of ground zero from my vantage point was that it reminded me of the film clips I had seen of the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Or, for those of us who saw the movie, Enemy at the Gates, it looked like the ruins of Stalingrad.
But this was New York - America's shining city on the hill which had not seen a direct attack since General George Washington squared off with British General Sir William Howe well over two centuries earlier.
For three blocks in every direction, Manhattan's financial district was covered in a fine, silty ash mixed with singed papers, slivers of clothing, and shards of glass, mortar, and office equipment. And nearly a week after the attacks, New Yorkers were still struggling with the reality of what had happened to their city.
Each day after the attack, I attempted to get as close as possible to ground zero. Few reporters had access any closer than a few blocks from the site. And most of the photographs were shot with powerful zoom lenses from nearby buildings.
On Sunday morning, five days after the collapse of the twin towers, I exited a subway station less than two blocks from the site. Policeman and soldiers were everywhere manning barricades and allowing only rescue and recovery personnel to pass.
From behind one of the barricades, I hailed a police sergeant who was standing in the street which led directly to a black, still-smoking shell of a Trade Center support building which stood near the center of the complex. He agreed to let me cross the barricade and photograph the structure.
As I was snapping pictures, the policeman offered to escort me directly to the site. "You wanna see something," he asked.
Of course I did.
We then moved down the block, and entered through a final barricade beyond which no one was allowed except for firefighters, police officers, and construction workers.
From this position, I was able to look directly through the shell of the smoldering support building. To my left were the twisted angular remains of one of the towers. To my right was a cemetery; the grounds and headstones literally covered in ash and debris. It was a combat zone, pure and simple.
Here, the acrid odor of the smoldering electrical fire combined with the unmistakable stench of human decay was nearly unbearable.
As I reached into my camera bag for a small paper mask, I noticed a police lieutenant quickly approaching me from the direction of the tower remains on my left. My escort was standing about 25 yards away, talking with another officer.
The lieutenant tore off his own mask and let loose a string of invectives in my direction. "What the f___ are you doing here?" he demanded.
"He's with me," the police sergeant said.
"No," shot back the lieutenant. "You're in serious f___ing trouble, and he's f___ing going to f___ing jail."
I was ordered to move back toward the final barricade, while the lieutenant berated the sergeant for escorting me beyond where the media were allowed.
Finally, both approached me at the barricade.
"Here's the deal," said the lieutenant. "Consider this an official warning: If I catch you here again, you will go to f___ing jail. You're also going to give me your f___ing film."
I initially refused, but was again told I would be arrested.
With my most compelling photographs on another roll, and few options from the police lieutenant, I eventually relinquished the film and returned with the sergeant to the initial barricade.
I later discovered that the irate police lieutenant had not slept in days and several of his men were still buried beneath the 450,000 tons of rubble.
For the remainder of the morning, I moved about the streets a few blocks from the complex, as locals hosed off windows and swept the ash from the steps of their businesses.
Later I attended one of several candlelight memorials in the city, and then positioned myself outside of the New York National Guard Armory at 26th Street and Lexington Avenue where victims' families were registering and seeking information about their missing loved ones from the American Red Cross.
Near the Armory; the walls, fences, and light posts, were covered with the faces and hand-written vital statistics of those who were missing and presumed dead. Dazed family members clutching stuffed animals sought comfort from one another in the streets and nearby cafes. I witnessed one weeping Fox News reporter being held and comforted by her cameraman after interviewing a devastated woman who had lost her daughter.
In order to identify the missing from the remains being recovered, the Red Cross was asking families to bring any items which might reveal the victims' DNA: hairbrushes, combs, toothbrushes, pillowcases, and unwashed clothes. In some cases, parents and siblings of the victims were asked to give samples of their own DNA, which was extracted from the family-members with facial swatches, mouth swabs, blood, and hair.
One volunteer said that family members were also being asked to describe the type and color of fingernail polish worn by female victims and whether or not the victim was wearing false fingernails. Families of male victims were asked to describe neckties, among other items that might be unique to that person.
"People, like myself who are single and live by themselves, would be difficult to identify," said Renita Hosler, a Massachusetts-based spokesperson for the American Red Cross. "Despite our efforts and those of the medical examiners, there are families who need to realize that there are people who simply never will be recovered or identified."
Hosler, who says she broke down emotionally at one point, added, "I've worked a lot of disaster sites, including working with refugees from Kosovo in Albania. But I simply cannot wrap my mental energy around the perimeter of this disaster. This is bigger and more horrible than anything I might ever know in my lifetime."
Later that afternoon, I left the Red Cross site and made my way toward midtown. I stopped in Manhattan's famous John's Pizzeria where CNN and ABC coverage blared from two televisions sets and patron conversation was focused solely on the attacks. There, I ate enough spaghetti for three people and quaffed several Bud Light drafts for which the bartender refused to let me pay.
I also shared a few cold ones with Rod Panter, a stranded, Florida-based 737 pilot and former lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps who had strong opinions about the future of the United States.
"Congress must grant the President a declaration of war," barked Panter, conceding that he felt a brotherly connection to the American pilots who perished on September 11. "We, as a nation, must crush those madmen that did this to us, just like we defeated the Barbary pirates of the nineteenth century. The military's hands have been tied too long. (Former president) Clinton gutted the military, and with it our human source intelligence capability. Now we are under attack on or own soil, and they've killed innocent civilians, women and children."
Panter and I discussed the attacks and America's possible response for what seemed like hours.
He left, and I found fast conversation with a couple of New York City policemen who were grabbing a quick bite of pizza before moving back into the trenches.
Like the firefighters, the police were averaging four-five hours of sleep per day, and few had been home since the attacks were launched.
I spent the remainder of the night cranking out stories from the directors desk at the Broadway offices of the American Society of Journalists & Authors, overlooking Times Square. On the street below me, Manhattanites maintained a 24-hour vigil around a candlelight memorial for the victims as a violinist played an eerie rendition of America the Beautiful and a medley of other patriotic hymns throughout the wee hours of the morning.
For hours, a couple stood at the memorial, strolled up Broadway, and then returned. The woman at times was sobbing.
Despite vows from high-tech gurus, company owners, and CEOs to continue business in Manhattan, and at least one developer who promised to rebuild the World Trade Center (an ambitious undertaking which could take up to seven years and $10 billion), one single, unalterable fact remains:
The city that never sleeps, will never be the same.
— W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former U.S. Marine infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is an award-winning author of four books, the co-author of two, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, The Washington Times, and many others.
W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 W. Thomas Smith Jr.