Letter from Ground Zero
By Laurie Nadel


On September 28th, I led a walking meditation of three hours from my office to the ruins of the World Trade Center. We visited the impromptu altars and shrines along the way and cleaned up the altars and sidewalks as an act of service to the city. Went to a firehouse where children from all over the world have written letters to thank the firemen for being brave. A chainlink fence across the street from St. Vincents Emergency Room is hung with several hundred handmade ceramic angels, stars, and American flags, each one lovingly tied to the fence with a purple silk ribbon. Everywhere, a montage of “normalcy” and the bizarre. Couples on Friday night dates in sushi restaurants. Police barricades on West Broadway. National Guardsmen toting gas masks. A bank of four trees against an office building caked with plaster dust and debris, branches and leaves waving in the wind as if the trees were trying to shake off the dust and blood and asbestos and vaporized remains. Life and death, face to face. Inseparable. Two sides of a coin. 

The site itself is beyond description, beyond understanding. A seven-story mountain of twisted metal with eerie blue smoke rising from its innards, visible for about a half a mile as you head towards it from the north. There are 400 degree fires burning inside it and firemen are afraid that if they remove the upper layers of debris, the oxygen will ignite the smaller fires into huge dangerous ones. Rescue workers retrieve the skulls and put them in one area, a collection of sorts. Scavengers were looting the body parts for Rolexes and rings on the first day but fortunately, the area has been blocked off and is well guarded. The firemen were furious at the looters, and some are still insulted by the souvenir vendors on Broadway selling postcards of the World Trade Center along with the American flags and T-shirts saying, "God Bless America." The weird charred smell, like bad barbecue, clings to everything and one shoestore, a block away from the Towers, has a pair of boots in the window covered with concrete powder. The Sarajevo look for fall. Each block shows you perspectives that no one has seen on TV, nor can images convey the immense depth of field--it covers 16 acres. Sixteen acres of dark, smoking, twisted steel. 

With the klieg lights and the sound of Caterpillars and heavy cranes in the background, it's more like a Francis Ford Coppola set for some end of the world movie. It was like seeing the Angel of Death face to face and knowing this is Biblical and greater than we are. Every human in the universe is altered by this. In fact, the recurring images of the Towers being blown up and people jumping out of hundred-story windows will have permanently altered the brain structure of millions of people around the world, the neurobiological fallout of catastrophic stress. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs when, months or years after an event, people cannot escape from flashbacks of recurring images of violence and death stored as molecules of emotion in their own brains.

At one barricade, I gasped at what remains of Number 5 World Trade Center: Angled over what was once John Street, the front wall of the building looks like it has vomited a tangle of steel cables and wires from its top windows, the twisted wires permanently frozen in mid-air. A wall, about 30 stories high, is all that remains of the Towers themselves. It looks like the remains of some Greek or Roman coliseum, making me wonder about the rise and fall of civilizations and whether this massacre was a one-shot deal by a couple of religious lunatics or whether it is the start of something far too malignant to contemplate. This is megadeath. The question is, what happens now? 

The answer, "We don't know," was shattering and strangely liberating at the same time. After all, we didn't know what was happening before this happened. And neither did any of our intelligence experts, on whom $28-billion dollars of government funds are spent every year. If this is worse than anything we could have imagined--and no one except the terrorists had ever thought to plan for this scenario as a possibility--then what could happen that would be worse? Anything that would come after this would be less of a shock, and perhaps stoppable or preventable. At least, we would have a chance to prepare--somewhat. 

For who among us is ever truly prepared to be killed? That's not the same thing as facing death, is it? Being killed by a psychopathic stranger who believes it is his holy mission to wipe you out? I don't know about you, but my mind has a hard time wrapping around that one. Some guy with blank eyes and a scraggly beard is walking around in some godforsaken windswept hellhole on the other side of the earth convincing other people that their purpose on this life is to kill themselves while wiping us out? Hard to believe until you see the end result of that deadly pathology here in what was the financial district. The capital of capitalism, if you will. 

Years ago, before I was afraid of heights, my fiancée and I courted here, taking the elevator to the Windows on the World on Friday nights to celebrate the panorama of lights, like stars in a dark field. We brought our daughter in her stroller one evening and showed her all of New York, as well. During my last visit to the top of the world, on the summer solstice a couple of years ago, I froze at the entrance to the bar, afraid to walk over to the windows. A strange, lurching sensation took over my stomach and I began to shake and sweat at a feeling of what it would be like to be swept over the edge. My companion, the love of my life, found it vaguely amusing, this phobia of mine. I was embarrassed, having brought him to the Windows of the World to see the sunset and finding that I was paralyzed at the edge of the room, unable to enjoy being there with him on the longest day of the year. With 20-20 hindsight, now, I wonder, was that a phobic reaction or a primal, visceral response to a dark premonition?

Standing at the barricade last night, looking into the shredded heart of what was the World Trade Center, tears came again, as they do every day at odd times: riding the train, sailing in the marsh where the Towers could be seen above the trees, reading the papers, looking at people's faces. Last night, overwhelmed by this massive loss of life in front of me, I couldn't help crying for all the misery and hatred in the world that have created the conditions which have brought us, the human race, to this place in history.

Later, at night, I dreamt that I was on the phone ordering prescriptions of antibiotics to prepare for an anthrax attack but nightmares are normal, these days. We all have 'em, don't we? Just like the end of Bob Dylan's 1963 song, "Talking World War Three Blues" in which he sings, "Hey, I've been having the same ol' dream. Only mine was little different you see, I dreamt the only one after the War was me." I don't remember the exact words but he goes on to say that everyone seems to be dreaming the same dream about being the only person left alive, and then, "I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours. I said that." 

And so I will.

Laurie Nadel is a therapist, a writer on the marine environment for The New York Ttimes, and the author of Dancing with the Wind.  Her "Letter from Ground Zero" is an edited version of a personal essay of her impressions which she initially emailed to her friends and family.

Copyright 2001 by Laurie Nadel


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