What I Saw at the Devastation

This, for me, is the unforgettable image of the day: the fine gray ash that covered everything downtown, all the people and buildings and cars; the ash that flew into the air in the explosions and the burning and that settled over half the city. It was just like Pompeii, which also was taken by surprise and also was left covered top to bottom with ash, fine gray ash.

This is what everyone in New York says, sooner or later, when they talk about what happened: “It was such a beautiful day. It was the most beautiful day of the year.” It was. Clear stunning cloudless skies, warm but not hot, a breeze. It was so clear that everyone in town and Jersey and the outer boroughs—everyone could see the huge, thick plumes and clouds of black and gray smoke. Everyone could see what happened.

And when it began, everyone was doing something innocent. It was morning in New York in the fall and workers were getting coffee and parents were taking their children to school.

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And yet: For all the horror we are lucky. If you are reading these words you are among the beneficiaries of great good fortune. Those of us who were not in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or nearby, those of us who were not among the terrified victims on the planes, those were not heroic firemen and tough cops—-on a local TV show last night the reporter Dick Oliver was asked how it was that so many firemen died, couldn’t they have escaped, and he said, with a rough voice that had love in it, “Firemen don’t run out of buildings. Firemen run into buildings”—are blessed indeed.

And not only because we are alive. We are lucky because for some reason—for some reason, and we don’t even know what it was—the terrorists didn’t use a small nuclear weapon floated into New York on a barge in the East River. We are lucky that this didn’t turn nuclear, chemical or biological. It could have, and I thought the next time the bad guys hit it would have. Instead they used more “conventional” weapons, fuel-heavy airliners and suicide bombers. And so the number of dead will be in the thousands or tens of thousands and not millions or tens of millions.

We have been spared. And now, chastened and shaken, we are given another chance, maybe the last chance, to commit ourselves seriously and at some cost to protecting our country.

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People were saying “This is like Pearl Harbor,” but it wasn’t Pearl Harbor. Our fleet wasn’t taken out; we weren’t attacked by a nation whose planes had clear markings; we lost 10,000 or 20,000 people, and they were civilians. If it has to be a movie, yesterday really to most of us in New York was “Titanic.” It was the end of a world, the drowning of illusions as brave men and women held hands and jumped; it was, I hope, the end of the assumptions that ease and plenty will continue forever, that we rich and powerful folk will be kept safe by our status, wealth and luck; it was the end of a culture of indifference to our nation’s safety. Those Twin Towers, those hard and steely symbols of the towering city: they were the ship that God himself couldn’t sink.

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I was, like most of New York, very afraid. My sense from the beginning was: This isn’t going to be over for a while. My son, 14, had just begun at a new high school in Brooklyn, just a stone’s throw across the river from the World Trade Center. He’d left for the subway at 7:30. At 8:45 as I watched TV I saw the first explosion, and the breathtaking telephone report of a terrified man who had seen, he said, a big plane fly straight into one of the towers. “Oh my God,” he said over and over, and it was like hearing the first report of the Hindenburg. I was still watching when something—I thought it was a helicopter—hit the second tower and it blew. And then minutes later the Pentagon.

Phones went down. I could not reach my son or his school. He’s new there—no friends yet, no teachers he felt close to. And Manhattan was cordoned off; no one could get in. Should I go, try to walk to Brooklyn, try to get across the bridge? But what if he calls? If I don’t answer he’ll think I was hurt.

But the Internet did not go down, and I was comforted by instant messages from friends reporting in, e-mails from friends with information—the phones were down but the Net stayed up, and I kept it on all day. I thought a network or newspaper would be hit—the bad guys had targeted the great symbols of American power, the wealth of Wall Street, the military might of Washington. Now I thought: They will hit their much hated media. I sent an e to a friend at a newsmagazine: You guys may get hit, go home. I e’d word to my praying friends: Pray for the children at my son’s school. They e’d back: Pray for my aunt at her school.

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I waited by the phone, by the computer, hoping for word. The phone would ring and go dead, or I’d pick it up and get a busy signal.

I ran out, got cash at the bank, walked to 92nd Street and saw, with awe, that the clouds of smoke were visible all the way up here, five miles away. Trucks unloading food at restaurants and grocery stores were double- and triple-parked, their cab doors open, radios blaring. The Church of the Heavenly Rest, an Episcopal church in the neighborhood, immediately taped flyers to utility poles: “On this tragic day, come and pray.”

Three hours later, at noon, my son got through. They had heard the explosions; the head of the high school had come in and said, “Please, peacefully, follow me downstairs.” Most everyone was calm and purposeful; they gathered downstairs and listened to a radio. My son had a long line of kids behind him wanting to call home and he couldn’t speak long. “I’m safe,” he said. “We’re all completely safe.”

I told him the attacks seemed over—he covered the phone and yelled to the line, “My mother says the attacks seem to be over.” I said it had all ended, he said, “She says it has ended.” In times of crisis every American becomes an anchorman.

He told me with the offhand gallantry of a 14-year-old boy, “It looks like I’ll be sleeping in Brooklyn tonight.” The school took him and all the children who couldn’t get home in, cared for them and sent them to the homes of teachers who lived nearby. My son was with a gaggle of boys at the French teacher’s house. He had seen people sobbing on the subway in Brooklyn.

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I walked over toward church after noon, and now the scene was silent and jarring. The sidewalks and gutters were jammed with an army of expressionless marchers going from downtown to uptown, silently trudging through the traffic-less city.

Midday mass was pretty full, and people seemed stricken. I saw a neighbor I’d been trying to reach. We’re all fine, she said.

“Did a rat stand on its hind legs this morning?” I asked.

“No, and if it had, I would have run to your house to tell you.”

Like so many in New York, she has feared a catastrophic terrorist event for years, the type from which you have to flee, quickly. Years ago she told me that she saw a rat in her neighborhood, and he had risen on his haunches and then scrambled away. For no reason she could remember, she said a prayer at that moment: “Dear Lord, if the big terrible thing is ever coming, will you warn me by having a rat rise like that?” She often prays this. I was very glad she had not seen the rat.

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I walked by a local schoolyard. On the steps, a group of young tough kids who are often there playing a boom box. They have the look, the manner, of danger, and everyone says drugs are sold there. Yesterday they were on the steps, boom box blaring, only this time it was news reports telling us what was happening. The well-suited men and women marching by would stop and listen to the news, and then nod with thanks and leave. I listened for 10 minutes and when I left I said “Thank you, gentlemen,” and they smiled and said “Welcome.” They were offering a public service.

In the afternoon I went to the home of a friend in midtown—again stunning silence, and the streets now empty of people and traffic. On the way home, in the early evening, I went to get on a bus, and as I went to put my fare card in, the driver said softly, “Free rides today.”

The bus was jammed, and people had what Tom Wolfe calls “information compulsion”: Everyone was talking about where they’d been, what they’d seen, “I was in the Trade Center at 8:00 a.m. and left 15 minutes later.”

A funny moment: A seat opened up and we disagreed over who should get it. “Oh I don’t need it.” “No, I’m getting off in a minute.” The courtesy made us all laugh. An elderly Englishwoman in a seat chatted with a young girl standing nearby. As the young girl left, she turned and said, “I’m so sorry you’re seeing the city like this.” The Englishwoman shook her head and put out her hands as if to say: No, I am seeing the best.

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As I watched television I became aware, as everyone I’ve spoken to has mentioned along the way, that the great leaders in our time of trauma were the reporters and anchors and producers of the networks and news stations. What cool and fabulous work from Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, what stunning work from Brit Hume and Aaron Brown, Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer, and the cameramen who took stupendous and dangerous pictures, and the guests like Richard Holbrooke and Norman Schwarzkopf and Tom Clancy, who added knowledge and context and well-grounded viewpoints. They all did that knowing it was dangerous where they were, knowing it could get worse, that the weapons or targets could change. They stood their ground and did their jobs.

Those anchors and reporters, they led us Tuesday, with cool and warmth, with intelligence and deep professionalism. And every one of them must have known he, or she, was one way or another in harm’s way. These men and women of the media should all get a mass Medal of Freedom the next time it’s given. They really helped our country.

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The night of the attack my son got through to me again, and he told me more of what he’d seen and then he told me, just before he rang off, of the amazing thing he’d seen. At dusk, as the sun was going down over the city, he looked over at Manhattan. The rays of the sun hit the smoke and debris floating in the air, hit it strong and at an angle, and it all reflected on the water of the river and the light it produced was beautiful. “It looked golden,” he said. “It was all the color of gold.”

Even in horror there is beauty to be seen, even in trauma there is strength to be gained, and at the heart of every defeat is the seed of a future victory. After the Titanic sank, they reformed international maritime law, mandating enough lifeboats for passengers and constant radio contact.

And that is what we must do now, that is where the golden lining can be: We must admit that we have ignored the obvious, face the terrible things that can happen, decide to protect ourselves with everything from an enhanced intelligence system to a broad and sturdy civil-defense system, with every kind of defense that can be imagined by man, from vaccines to a missile defense.

For the next time, and there will of course be a next time, the attack likely won’t be “conventional.”