Tragedy Strikes New York
September 12th, 2001
By Simin Javad
I was in class when the planes exploded into the buildings, several miles north of downtown. As soon as I found out what had happened I began making my way downtown. Manhattans streets were chaotic. Smoke was billowing on the horizon, people gathered around deli television sets. All the buses and subways were shut down and people were lined up for blocks to buy phone cards and use pay phones. Eventually a bus began to run downtown. I climbed in the back and got down to Times Square before I frantically got out to watch Arafat address CBS camera crews on the big screen. Hundreds of New Yorkers were gathered outside the CBS studios. People were crying and fixating on the screen for the next bit of information, cringing as the network repeated the footage of the Twin Towers Crumbling, glancing down the street to the hole in the sky where the buildings had been replaced by black smoke.
After the news cast became repetitive, I began walking downtown. After a brief stop to the IMC, on 29th street, I made it to a downtown bus on fifth avenue. No one knew where the bus would stop, not even the bus driver. Everyone was distracted by the beret wearing, national guardsmen guiding traffic with riffles all along fifth avenue. At eighth street we were kicked off of the bus. From that point and that location, until we made it to the foot of the buildings later, we were dumped in the midst of total chaos. We were basically trying to get to ground zero by any means possible, and the police were trying to keep us out by any means possible. Needless to say, the adventure was exhausting and lasted for four gruelling hours.
At every street corner a different group of cops told us to take off in the opposite direction we wanted to go and at every street corner we tried to convince them to let us in. Eventually we made it to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge where frantic crews of volunteers in street clothing hauled two-by-fours and plywood to the park to make hundreds of make-shift stretchers. They probably made one stretcher every minute. These crude devises were then packed into empty garbage trucks and hauled along with a crew of volunteers to the foot of the buildings. The real urgency of the situation was not apparent to me until I watched the hurried way these people worked and the number of stretchers they made. It was here that I met Paul and Jose. Paul, a 23 year-old white kid came up to me and asked me for a cigarette. When I told him I didnt have one he began to talk out loud, so I listened. He told me that his father works in the North Tower, which tumbled first, on the 76th floor and that he hadnt heard from him since the buildings collapsed at eight this morning. His mission was to find anyway he could to get into the building area and find his dad. He was determined. Jose was his younger friend who presently looked like he was eighty years old. He walked up limping, pulling his bike along with him. His hair was completely grey as was his ten speed. He told me he was thrown several feet off his bike when the first plane hit. He was going with Paul to find Pauls dad.
After I watched Paul almost get clubbed and arrested by a group of cops at a near by barricade, I couldnt help but try to calm him down. He was telling the cops that someone should have attacked their precincts. The coppers werent responding well to all of this. I was also interested in getting as close as I could. So we joined forces. As we got closer and closer to the foot of the buildings, the air got thicker, our skin and eyes dryer, our lungs weaker and our shoes and clothing greyer. The landscape of lower manhattan was surreal. A thick grey dust covered everything. It reminded me of a post-bomb scene or walking on the moon. The streets were deserted, except for a few business people and workers covered in dust with masks over their mouths and eyes, looking for a way out of the area. We were still a quarter mile from ground zero. The grey soot was mixed with hundreds of pages of charred paper, mostly financial reports and an occasional grey apple core and some half-eaten bread. Venders had abandoned their fruit and bagel carts and people had looted them for sodas and water. Red and Black smoke covered the skyline. Cars covered with dust had messages written on them. One said You Cant Stop NY. Another read: Revenge is the Only Answer. We found a few water bottles, a couple of masks and marched on.
Repeatedly we were turned back by the cops and fire department personnel. We lost track of where we were, but we kept moving, we tried every street that we could. Soon we were walking down Wall Street toward Broadway. You could hardly see even one block away. Within minutes we heard a rumbling. The third building was falling, Seven World Trade Center, a forty-seven floor building near the towers. The dust and smoke which ensued left us kneeling on the ground coughing and covering our eyes.
We decided to take a different route. Taking advantage of the dust and confusion we were able to get close enough to see the once 110-floor building at an undaunting four-floor height. Medics and volunteers, including many activists were standing idly. The fire and excessive debris made it impossible for them to get to possible survivors. Ambulances couldnt get in to pull people out. Besides, most people knew that the majority of bodies they were searching for would be lifeless.
We were quickly discovered and escorted out of the area. Itchy, exhausted, slightly blind and short of breath. We decided to get out of the area before another building fell or we got arrested. It took us at least an hour to find a way our of lower manhattan. Along the way, Paul, slightly defeated mumbled about the idiots who hijacked the planes. A few stragglers we had picked up, also young white boys, hoped that wed go to war. At first I remained silent. What do you say to a kid who may have just lost his father so traumatically? But eventually I found a way yo explain the other side of the equation. I tried to gently explain that people are killed like this by the American government all the time, that this may have been a reaction to Americas international policies and actions. I guess being working class kids from Queens, Paul and Jose were not jumping to protect their government. Eventually we were agreeing, albeit not completely. But I felt better about it. Paul and Jose and I departed in China town. He called a few hours ago to tell me his father got out of the building in time to save himself.
I came back here to the IMC and were putting together some reports, while constantly laughing and shaking our heads in frustration as we watch Bush give his speech and congress sing their patriotic songs and news analysis about the menace of Bin Laden. We are working hard, washing our clothes, skin and hair, trying to get the camp-fire smell out and trying not to itch our skin too much. People pass out occasionally and then get up again to send emails and write stories and every once in a while we sit around together to figure out what we should do next. The schools and most of downtown will be closed tomorrow. We are holding a meeting in Union Square tomorrow at noon to discuss how to respond to the rampant patriotism emerging to fuel a possible war or bombing attacks. It feels like a daunting task. We will make some pamphlets and distribute them around the city. Ill forward the statement as soon as it is complete and edited. People are meeting throughout the country and hopefully something will come out of this. We have already heard that Arab NYC residents have been harassed in the streets and at their work places, but we havent heard anything serious yet. For now we are taking things minute by minute, drinking coffee and laughing at the president and the ridiculous propaganda the media is spouting so we dont get too depressed. Right now a few of us are going to ride down to the Javit Center where civilian volunteers are gathering for search and rescue teams. Do what you can locally. Any minute now we could be in the midst of massive war, internationally and nationally. No doubt the anti-terrorist propaganda will affect all of us.
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