Aerial view of the World Trade Center site in September 2001. Wikimedia Commons

Journal From Wounded Manhattan

Here is an up close and personal account of the effects of the attacks on September 11th on the residents of New York City and just how such an event shaped the community which was directly attacked. How do we find order in the chaos?
Marco Bardazzi

Fire Chief William F. Burke, Billy to his friends, loved Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra and was an American Civil War buff. His father was the commander of the firefighters of Plainview, on Long Island, and Chief Burke had always lived in that pleasant little town not far from New York City. After twenty years of honorable service, at the age of 46 he was already thinking about retiring to be a lifeguard at a nearby beach. Instead, on a splendid sunny September morning, his boys in Engine Company 21 saw him disappear under the Twin Towers.

We could tell another 300 stories like Chief Billy Burke’s story, one for each of the firefighters who died on September 11th at the World Trade Center. And we could tell yet another 6,000 stories, one for each of the faces that for weeks have smiled at me from the desperate flyers hanging up all over New York.

Faced with a measureless tragedy, a very human temptation arises, which is to try to reduce it to “acceptable” dimensions, to fragment its enormity into lots of little pieces within the grasp of our feelings. Faced with the monstrosity of more than 6,000 deaths, the mind staggers, as when it tries to imagine how big the universe is. And then it gropes in search of something it can hold onto, a familiar face that is no more, a Chief Billy on which it can focus. I confess that I too surrendered to the same temptation as I jotted down these scattered notes, tangled up in the numerous notebooks I filled as I tried to tell, as a journalist, about the “Attack on America.” This is a journal of a wounded New York. My notes are little things, but perhaps they tell some things not shown on TV.

Why not start with firefighter Billy? The company he headed has its fire station right below the terrace of our Manhattan apartment; all we have to do is look out the windows and there it is, twenty floors below, now surrounded by flowers, candles, drawings, and the many devotional objects that hands of every religion and every race have left in remembrance of Chief Burke. There are also three little candles put there by my daughters: a red, a white, and a blue one (“Look, it’s like the American flag!”). Who knows how many mornings, passing in front of the fire station to walk the girls to the school bus, I have exchanged a rapid greeting with Billy the firefighter, leaning against his bright red fire engine.

Relics of Horror
Approaching the World Trade Center that September 11th, what struck me first was the paper. Thousands and thousands of sheets covered the entire financial district of Manhattan, along with tons of dust. Contracts, e-mail messages, pages from the Internet, printed by unknown people who may no longer be here. “Guide to the beauties of India,” said a page downloaded from Yahoo! that I picked up on the Brooklyn Bridge. Perhaps it was the dream vacation of a secretary working up there in the middle of the clouds. It was a rain of sheets of paper that earlier that morning had been stacked neatly on clean desks, somewhere inside the two 1,320-foot-high towers, and were suddenly catapulted into the middle of dusty streets that remind you of the eruption of a volcano.

Deeply etched in memory, too, from that nightmarish morning, are the disoriented faces of doctors and nurses in the hospital emergency rooms. They were standing with dozens of stretchers at the entrance to the various ERs, waiting to be immersed by that Biblical wave of wounded, which never arrived. They spent hours like this, in an unreal silence, wondering when the ambulances would arrive with their sirens screaming, full of bodies on which to perform the miracles learned in years of study and experience. Instead, there were very few wounded. Their absence left a silent anguish among those young doctors dressed in their greens, waiting in front of the hospitals.

The Massacre of Daddies
The World Trade Center was not a place for supermanagers, who have their offices in Midtown or in the exclusive buildings around Wall Street. An army of office workers and commuters worked in the Twin Towers. Many were the Daddies of the suburbs and the American dream: in their thirties, with large families waiting for them in houses with yards, accustomed to traveling an hour on the train every day to come into Manhattan, or carpooling with friends and coworkers they had known since high school. Only by looking at a map of the dead can you understand how September 11th will mark entire generations of Americans forever. In Rockville Center on Long Island, 20 fathers of families are missing. There is a little street, Raymond Street, that seems more like a road inside a cemetery, with four houses struck by the tragedy. In Manhasset, at the other end of Long Island, forty people did not come home. In Greenwich, in nearby Connecticut, there are 28 dead–all of them friends, people who worked together in the same offices and on the weekends got their families together for barbecues. The Sunday after the tragedy, at Mass at St Mary’s Church in Middletown, New Jersey, Father John Dobrosky read a list of 70 missing: 26 were parishioners; the others were their relatives and friends. From Baskin Ridge, also in New Jersey, the Second World War killed twelve people in five years; the airplanes sent by Osama Bin Laden in one morning in peacetime (at least apparently so) managed to take two victims more. And now entire communities are asking themselves how they can help and what to say to fatherless children. Just one firm, Cantor Fitzgerald, a brokerage house that saw 700 of its 1,000 employees disappear at the World Trade Center, left 1,500 orphans in the suburbs around New York.

Remembrance Square
The morning of September 12th, drawn by some mysterious attraction, the young people of Manhattan began pouring into Union Square, a large square in the center of the Downtown area. Students from New York University, artists from the Village, copywriters and high school students, all armed with magic markers, knelt in front of the gigantic rolls of paper lining the square and unleashed their emotions. Some wrote peace slogans, some wrote poems, some built Twin Towers out of cardboard. Union Square that morning was an open-air memorial born spontaneously out of the need for happiness of a generation that suddenly found itself at war.

Then the “professionals” arrived. I went back to the square a few evenings later. Everything was very beautiful, candles everywhere, posters, drawings, strange odors of incense in the air (maybe even a joint or two…), hundreds of young people still there, holding hands or singing around a guitar. All beautiful, but already seen before, no longer spontaneous. I was reminded of a cold winter night last year in Central Park: the same candles, the same faces, the same songs, but then to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of John Lennon’s tragic death, right in front of the park. Many faces, in Union Square as in Central Park, were framed by gray hair that betrayed their age. In all probability, they have been going around with the same guitar, singing the same songs, since the time of the Vietnam War.

All beautiful, but the human heart, especially now, in front of those “nothings stuffed with explosives” who came from who knows where, needs something more. The flyer “America,” circulated also among the kids in Union Square, was a much more convincing proposal.

The re-opening of the stock market was the most important and urgent reaction that New York could give to the world. But this time, anyone who thought that things could return to “business as usual,” without too much emotion getting in the way, had to think again. The Monday it re-opened, I went toward Wall Street along with the office workers and stockbrokers employed there. Any illusion of returning to something resembling normalcy evaporated as soon as they came out of the subway. Almost a week after the attack, the air still dried your throat and burned your eyes. To get to the offices, you had to go past long lines of police barriers. Thousands of people were in line, in an unreal silence, with National Guardsmen in camouflage guarding the streets. Every so often, the unsettling sight of the smoking skeleton of one of the towers would peep out from a side street, just dozens of yards away. Some burst into tears, others took pictures. No one spoke. Every fifty yards there was a checkpoint where identification was checked and purses and briefcases searched. The financial heart of the planet seemed transformed into the Beirut of the 1980s. The managers of the new economy, who became millionaires in a few days in 1999, had already lost their arrogance with the crisis of 2000, but September 11, 2001, is the day they truly changed forever.

God Bless America
Following their mayor-hero Rudolph Giuliani, the splendid example of how a simple human presence, without rhetoric, can help people to get up again, New Yorkers are back on their feet. But they have a great need not to feel alone any more, and they still carry around with them a sense of disquiet that this city has never known before, maybe not even at the time of the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression. In St Patrick’s Cathedral, for days and days, candles costing $1.00 each were lit one after the other, using up all the supplies. The glass candleholders in which they were placed at the feet of the statues of saints cracked from the excessive heat and sustained use.

People who had not talked to each other for years got back in contact with each other. Psychiatrists are making fortunes. Via Internet, complete strangers make friendships online just to have someone to share the anxiety of a world that suddenly seems unknown. In Union Square and Times Square, TV and radio crews had set up mobile stations where people could stop and tell their stories about September 11th or let go of their emotions. The sophisticated New York Times was transformed into a great open stage of human interest. To the devil with trends and fashion for snobs, for three weeks the city newspaper had given space primarily to the anguish of millions of people who, after what happened, felt the question of meaning weighing on their hearts, to which they often do not find an answer.

As happens with all mysterious things, perhaps September 11th is destined to bring unexpected positive fruits. I went to Yankee Stadium the evening the Yankees started playing again (and this may have been the real signal that everything was ready to begin again) and I sang, for the umpteenth time, God Bless America, by now the real national anthem. In that stadium, there was not a faceless crowd, there was a people. If someone had taught it to them, they could have sung Non nobis.

This is the people that had built the Twin Towers with an emotion perhaps not unlike that felt by those who, a thousand years ago, erected the great cathedrals, and now it will rebuild them even better. Giorgio Vittadini’s words come to mind, bounced over from the other side of the ocean: “I am completely and totally enthusiastic about whoever built the Twin Towers, because they made them for the community in which they live. The point of departure is passion for anyone who makes an attempt at construction that has in it anything noble and just.”