NEW YORK - A man gasps, a woman cries, and a small boy from Illinois stares in silent shock.
Under a brooding winter sky, these three visitors and a crowd of hundreds are pressed against a barricade to see the smoldering war zone that lies before our eyes. Where once the World Trade Center dominated the skyline to command breathtaking 60-mile views, today all that is left is a toxic wasteland of asbestos, dioxin, PCBs, benzene, lead, and other vicious poisons swirling in the air and leeching into the ground.
Even with ample warning from saturation news coverage, the mind recoils at the devastation. Television fails to capture the annihilation in all its enormity, stench, din and desolation. When people first see the ruins, the predictable happens: Jaws drop. People gasp. Cries of "Oh, my God!" fill the air to underscore the heart-rending heaviness of the moment.
Those of us standing here at ground zero are not curiosity seekers. Rather, each of us is on something of a pilgrimage. We have come here to pray, to honor fallen heroes, and to witness the chilling aftermath of terrorism waged on the American homeland.
On Sept. 30, I paid my first visit to the World Trade Center, an experience at once surreal and profoundly moving. As I stepped off the Staten Island ferry, the shifting wind delivered an acrid, nauseating smell that hinted of a runaway electrical fire. A short walk into Manhattan's financial district took me along sidewalks blanketed with a volcanic-like grit that crunched under my shoes and rubbed my throat raw. Ashen debris caked every building and store awning within a six-block radius, as though a volcano had exploded in the nation's largest city. Thousands of police and national guardsmen patrolled the streets, looking for would-be terrorists bent on more mayhem.
City trying to mend
Like most visitors then, I audibly gasped when the ruins of the World Trade Center fell into view. All that remained of the once-majestic 110-story towers was an obscene jumble of steel I-beams, plumping pipes, concrete, drywall, and glass all smashed and flattened into a smoking mound seven stories high. And buried somewhere in that burning nightmare were thousands of Americans, all dead.
Today, New York City is on the mend. The city that was grieving in September is now looking ahead. The good news is that the round-the-clock salvage work has eliminated the smoldering mound. The bad news is that the World Trade Center is now mostly a pit--and perhaps the world's largest toxic waste site.
A bone-numbing rain starts to fall. Into an endless column of triple-axle dump trucks, giant cranes drop building debris intermixed with the blasted, burned, and pulverized remains of innocent people who had no chance to bid their loved ones goodbye. Once filled, the trucks rumble down the streets to awaiting barges for a long, last ride to the regrettably named Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. There, more than 300 police officers are sifting through 1.2 million tons of rubble for anything remotely human. To date, more than 10,650 human remains have been recovered. During two days in early December, the WTC salvage teams discovered six more bodies in the sub-basement of one of the towers, bringing the total to 3,040 people confirmed dead or missing. Each body is placed in a casket draped with an American flag and then carried away by an honor guard of firefighters.
Leaning on a barricade, a 4-year-old boy from rural Illinois peers up at a passing firefighter and asks him for a closer look at the former twin towers. Their interaction evokes themes of a post-modern Norman Rockwell. The boy is innocent as a lamb. The man, built like a linebacker and covered with grime, has spent the morning unearthing the crumpled body of one of his "brothers." Kneeling next to the boy, the rescuer tenderly shakes his head no, telling him this scarred and scorched landscape is no place for kids. As the man's watery eyes tell the rest of the story, the boy's mother begins to weep.
Naming the heroes
The crowd is speechless, too moved to utter a word. Finally, a grandmother clears her throat and pronounces the firefighter a hero. People reach out to touch him, to connect with this numbed man who spent a recent vacation resting and going to funerals. He gives us a sad, tired smile and then returns to the disaster site. We never learn his name.
Day or night, rain or shine, the salvage operation grinds on. Acetylene torches flash on and off. A deafening volley of jackhammers splits the air. Huge excavators and 15-story cranes pry through the ruins, yet the enormity of the destruction -- spanning many acres and collapsed buildings -- dwarves them like Tonka toys. With surgical precision, a towering crane nudges the sagging skeleton of Building No. 7 -- collateral damage in the attack -- causing several stories of charred façade to come crashing to the ground. While recovery at the twin towers is often performed by hand and shovel, at Building No. 7, it is a scoop-and-dump operation on a massive scale.
Asbestos is on everyone's mind. Though Mayor Rudolph Guiliani proclaims the city's air fit to breathe, it is anything but at ground zero. Salvage workers suck purified air through purple respirators. Dusty dump trucks are hosed down with fresh water.
I move toward the north end of the World Trade Center. Nearby skyscrapers that sustained structural or window damage are now draped in great swaths of black, burgundy, or orange hi-tech fabric mesh that is delicate enough to flutter in the breeze, yet strong enough to prevent falling objects from crushing people below. Blocks away, workers are pressure-washing a 30-story skyscraper streaked by a slurry of hazardous ash. It's a sobering thought that hundreds of buildings in lower Manhattan may need such decontamination. Meanwhile, firefighters clad in dirty brown overalls shuffle past the crowds and into historic St. Paul's Cathedral, where they devour warm meals before resuming their grim search.
Since Sept.11, the iron gates and sidewalk of St. Paul's have become a poignant backdrop for the nation's outpouring of grief. Anguished personal letters, photographs, flowers, flags, crucifixes, candles, banners, and the occasional written warning to Osama bin Laden have been left behind as tributes. One card asks of New York's 343 dead firefighters, "I hope we are worthy of your sacrifice." Another whispers to a deceased husband and father, "You are forever in our hearts and prayers." Upon this hallowed ground we visitors stand 30 deep, trying to fathom the full misery inflicted upon so many innocents and their families.
Somehow, life goes on. A block away, a street musician plays "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" on a wooden flute. A woman at a portable prayer stations offers counsel to a weepy tourist. A subway train rumbles past the Fulton Street station like distant thunder while, above, street vendors do a brisk business selling vintage photos of the twin towers standing strong and tall.
Most businesses encircling the World Trade Center area are now reopened, but every day it's a struggle to survive. More than 110,000 workers -- all former customers -- have been relocated away from lower Manhattan. And while phone service is still spotty and tightened security makes office delivery nearly impossible, the area seems to be slowly rebounding.
Nightfall envelops the city, but the darkness is no match for the floodlights that bathe the cleanup site as though it were a stadium. The rain starts to fall colder and harder, but visitors keep arriving -- to gasp, to weep, to stare in silent disbelief. Though the twin towers are gone, even in their deaths they draw crowds like fallen superstars, now icons of American history. And somewhere amidst the rubble, a 30-foot Christmas tree has been erected to commemorate the dead. Adorned with 3,000 angels, each bearing the name of a victim, the evergreen sends forth a powerful message of hope and renewal.
It's getting late. Time to go. As the Staten Island ferry slips past the Statue of Liberty and her glowing uplifted torch, the message I depart with is clear: the strength of America rests not in its towering buildings, but in the hearts and spirit of its 270 million people strong.
Don't worry about New York City. The Big Apple will make a comeback in a very big way.
Matthew Mosley Robb, a former resident of Cape Girardeau who now lives outside Washington, D.C., is the great nephew of Jean Bell Mosley and the grandson of Juel Mosley, a past managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.