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Tuesday, 05 September 2006 03:44

Michael Winship: A Modest Distance from Hell

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A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
by Michael Winship

Everyone always says it was a picture-perfect day, and true, the sun was shining and the sky was bright and blue, but the morning felt humid to me.

We lived in the West Village, between Hudson and Greenwich Streets. The Trade Center was at the end of Greenwich Street. We had slept in a little late. Kathleen leapt up to shower and dress, I a little behind her.

She ran off to vote in the primary and go to work. I was just getting into the shower when the buzzer connected to our front gate went off. "Damn," I thought. "Must be the Fedex guy."

I got on the intercom and heard Kathy's voice. Get down here quick, she said, the World Trade Center's on fire! I pulled on a pair of shorts and a tee shirt, grabbed my keys, and with remnants of shaving cream still on my face, ran barefoot to the end of the block.

Looking downtown, black smoke was streaming from the top of the north tower, and we could see a gash on the left side, about a quarter of the way down the building, burning orange and a bright cherry red.

About thirty of us stood in the intersection, watching in hypnotized horror, unsure what had happened. Many were on cell phones and finally, someone said, "It's a plane."

Kathy had to get to her newsroom. She hurriedly kissed me goodbye and dashed off. I briefly considered getting my camera, but it felt ghoulish. I watched a bit longer, walked home, just half a block, and in those few seconds, the second jet hit.

A few years before, at a party we had met an elderly woman who was at Pearl Harbor. She talked about standing on a hilltop and watching the Zeroes vector in on Battleship Row. That's what it felt like.

Church bells started ringing and didn't stop until noon. We lived only a few blocks from St. Vincent's Hospital, and for the first two days, the sirens were constant day and night. Everything below 14th Street was sealed off, designated "the frozen zone." To get in or out of our neighborhood, we had to show proof of identity and residence. National Guardsmen and police from around the country were at every corner.

By the fourth day, the sirens had stopped. Emergency vehicles kept roaring up Hudson Street, but now they were just using their flashers, whether out of courtesy or futility, I don't know. The air had filled with the heavy, acrid smell of melting glass, plastic, insulation and metal. People in our neighborhood wore facemasks or kerchiefs around their mouths and noses.

The handbills with photocopied pictures of loved ones and phone numbers asking for help proliferated, taped to every wall, lamppost and window. I walked over by St. Vincent's, still surrounded by rescue vehicles and microwave trucks. There was a big tanker truck of fresh water parked on West 11th Street, and the slightly mad, Lewis Carroll-like sight of chefs from the city's best restaurants, dressed in enormous toques and spotless white uniforms, dashing wheeled steam tables of hot, gourmet food to the emergency workers. They did everything but break into a chorus of "Be Our Guest." Fighter jets roared over our neighborhood. President Bush was arriving for his tour of Ground Zero.

We went out to Long Island Saturday afternoon, determined to attend the 70th birthday of our friend Jack. On the train, there was an exhausted fireman, sprawled across a row of seats, deeply asleep, still in his thick black rubber coat with yellow stripes. There also was a drunken metalworker covered in ash and dirt. As he sat in his hardhat, tee shirt and jeans, he told us he had been taken off the job building the new American Airlines terminal at JFK and sent to work at Ground Zero. There was no way -- NO WAY -- he was going back there. It was just too horrible.

The following week, after a night of rain, a new smell arrived, a heavy one of rich, fertilized earth with a strong whiff of mildew. Most of us thought we knew what it was, but few said so out loud. It permeated our entire apartment. A couple of nights, the smell of burning was so strong, we had to close the windows, turn on the air conditioning and light candles to mask it. 

The smell would last until November; the pile would smoke and burn through the holidays. Every time the shovels, bulldozers and cranes exposed another layer, oxygen met fuel and heat and the fires began anew.

Two vast and trunkless legs once stood. In 102 minutes they were gone. On Sunday, the number of American military deaths in "the global war on terror" reached 2,974, officially exceeding the number of Americans and foreign nationals killed in the 9/11 attacks, not counting the 19 terrorists who hijacked the planes.

Monday's edition of the British newspaper, The Independent, reported, "Far from ending terrorism, George Bush's tactics of using overwhelming military might to fight extremism appear to have rebounded, spawning an epidemic of global terrorism that has claimed an estimated 72,265 lives since 2001, most of them Iraqi civilians...

"A US led-invasion swept away the Taliban regime in a matter of weeks, and did the same to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party in 2003, but far from bringing stability and democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq, the outcome has been one of constant warfare."

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden is nowhere to be found. And the king whispers, look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION

Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.