Out from Ground Zero
September 27, 2001
The reverberations of the World Trade Center disaster pass out from Manhattan with a rippling
effect. Part of it is the instant access media provided, giving the world an intimacy many
disasters of the past lacked. But a large part is also the human chain reaction resulting from the
spread of people over the last few decades, people settling along the main highway corridors
and commuting great distances to and from Manhattan. Many of these people carried their
first-hand accounts back from the event.
In some ways, the pain of the disaster seems more acute here as I drive west, as if a delayed
reacted created by the wake of the attack has not finished with these souls. We near ground zero
saw it all from the initial crash, flame and smoldering, through the second strike and final
collapse of each tower. We lived with the days of smoldering, the smoke plumes seeming to
replace the towers, standing as high if not as straight at the original buildings. For a time, it
seemed as if they were still there.
Close up, we gradually saw those columns of smoke collapse, a slow motion replay of the glass
and concrete version, and we got to see the vacancy of that space, growing as gradually used to
the lack of towers in our lives.
Out here, the image of the attack and its aftermath come in fits and starts. They have no gradual
getting use to things. They cannot step outside their doors and stare across the river to study the
latest development. While the TV has ceased to broadcast the endless repetition of the disaster
itself, it is that image that remains most vivid in the minds of the people I encounter, store clerks
asking me about the site when they discover the point of my origin.
The TV sets show no more smoke-filled skylines. Yet they show no skylines free of smoke
either, instead panning in for close up shots of the wreckage, sites largely invisible to us who
stand staring across the river from Pier A in Hoboken.
To people out here, we present contradictions of terms. While we assure them that life has
largely gone back to an unsettled normal, they live with the media portrayals of body parts and
moaning loved ones, of FBI raids and war reports, of presidential promises for justice and
refusals to cooperate from leaders of Afghanistan.
During the first 48 hours, they received nearly non-stop reports, but now get only brief headline
flashes, leaving them with only the highlights of the aftermath, not the reality.
The 1950s vision of an enemy attack was misleading, presuming that the most damage to
America would be closest to Ground Zero. Strangely, the opposite is true. While we get on with
our lives on the rim of the crater, people well beyond the range of the blast still live with the
fear and consequences, shuddering with each new ripple of reports.