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The view from Ground Zero: A place of heroes and heartache

- Editor's note: - Journal columnist Greg Johns visited the World Trade Center site during his recent visit to New York covering the Mariners. These are his thoughts.

2001-10-30 by Greg Johns Journal columnist

NEW YORK -- You wonder at first if you should even be here, gawking and gaping at a national tragedy. There are people buried here at Ground Zero, people like you and me who just went to work one day and never came home.

People who boarded a plane and never got off.

People who ran to save others, but never saved themselves.

In some sort of painful pilgrimage, we feel compelled to peek at the wreckage now, seven weeks after terrorists flew two Boeing jets into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. We come in waves, on foot, walking a jagged semi-circle around the World Trade Center complex that no longer hovers majestically above the New York skyline.

We are confined by fences, restricted by New York's finest, pushed along by tired Army Reservists who sometimes lose their patience and shout expletives at slow-moving viewers.

But it is worth it. Worth the opportunity to absorb the devastation. Worth the chance to feel first hand the powerful emotion still lingering from Sept. 11.

Worth the rare occasion to imprint on your pysche a sense that the world can be so terrific and troubled at the same time. And that you really are part of that world, whether you want to be or not.

The first thing that hits you is the smell. Even from blocks away, the air is heavy. You struggle to identify it, then realize it's like a fireplace left smoldering overnight. A choked smoke. From the rubble of a city still burning.

That's when your stomach starts to sink. Until then, you fooled yourself into thinking this was an excursion. An opportunity to see history.

Suddenly you realize this isn't sightseeing.

This is life.

And this is death.

You walk by a roped-off subway entrance leading underground. The sign reads ``World Trade Center Station.'' And you remind yourself that the thousands who used to board this stop no longer have a destination.

The World Trade Center is gone.

So is a huge chunk of Manhattan. Businesses boarded up. Restaurants closed. Apartment buildings off limits.

You stand behind a police barrier and see what used to be a bustling metropolis in the foreground, frozen in time.

The New York Stocking Exchange with a huge sign in the window: ``20 percent off all bras and girdles.''

Cookie Island: ``Every cookie needs a belly,'' with a huge smiling cookie face peering out.

Anna's Nail and Skin Care. A place for beauty, covered with ugly dust and ash that can't be overcome by constant street sweepers and fire hoses.

A giant billboard for E*trade: ``I think we're on to something.''

And in the background, behind these everyday sights, looms the once unimaginable. The blackened skeleton of Five World Trade Center, a building in complete ruins just from the fallout of its former neighboring skyscrapers.

A crane looming above wreckage of what used to be the North Tower, where now only blue sky fills a hole in the skyline, like a missing tooth in what used to be the world's biggest and brightest smile.

A hook-and-ladder fire truck still pouring a constant stream of water down on the smoking rubble that hides the bodies of thousands.

You've seen the pictures of the burnt buildings. But you haven't seen the gaping jaws of hundreds of people staring at the damage. You haven't seen the stricken faces of the long lines of viewers who file past like a funeral procession, with quiet, unspoken acknowledgement that there are no answers to their questions nor buffers for their bared emotions.

Everywhere there are messages. Valiant attempts to put words and sense to the incomprehensible.

In front of a staging area where dozens of hard-hatted workers mill about sits a pickup truck with a fire district license plate. And a huge sign in the back window: ``FDNY: All gave some. Some gave all.''

Nearby a street musician plays the ``Star Spangled Banner'' next to a wall plastered with letters from across the country. Religious tomes. Messages of hope. Messages of despair. One catches my eye, a child's scrawl.

``I sorry for those people in NY,'' read the crayon words. ``I wonder who did it. I am sorry for the kids that don't have moms and dads. Sometimes I think I can take what happen Sept. 11. But I can't take it back. Bye, Lee.''

Lee is not alone. No one can take this back.

Not even the rescue workers who trudge out of the site, some with American flags wrapped as bandanas around their heads; men who consider it a success now when they find a dead body and can allow another family whatever peace that brings.

Every restraining fence is now a memorial. Flowers. Teddy bears. Pictures. Candles.

Every dusted-over store window is a memo board with poems scratched in every available inch of dirt. ``Heroes live forever. We will always remember.'' And the hauntingly simplistic ``Why?''

There are pictures of victims with phone numbers to call, just in case. Hand-written letters in Japanese. Messages of thanks to the hundreds of dead firemen and police officers who are still being honored one by one in memorial services each day in New York City.

A young boy sells pictures from Sept. 11 out of a cardboard box. Vendors hawk NYPD hats and patriotic pins. Out of desperation arise new business ventures. One man sells T-shirts with a crossed-out picture of Osama bin Laden over the words, ``Wanted: Dead or Alive.''

Every new street block brings a different view, a different perspective of the wreckage. Eventually we reach the clearest vantage point, a straight shot a couple blocks from the rubble of the South Tower. Here, Army guards shout at any tourist who raises a camera.

``No pictures here. This is a crime scene. Move along.''

I don't understand that. Surely there is no legitimate reason to prevent photos here. But no one feels like arguing. Hell, no one feels like talking. We shuffle along.

Eventually we reach a street where a piece of twisted wreckage lies, pulled to the side so people can see up close the carnage that has been wrought.

The column of concrete and steel is maybe 50 feet long. The metal crossplates are several inches thick. You reach out with your hand and realize there isn't a man alive who could step up to any piece of that beam and twist it even a fraction of an inch. You are certain a thousand men could rope up to that steel and struggle and strain and never make it flinch.

You slowly absorb, as you gaze at the badly torqued beams in front of you, that living human beings -- men and women of flesh and blood like you -- had been alongside that unbendable material as it collapsed with such tremendous force that it now lies pretzeled on a sidewalk in Manhattan.

That is when you truly realize the horror of what must have gone on inside those monstrous buildings during the torturous moments the morning of Sept. 11.

And then finally you turn and walk away, looking for a taxi to make your escape back to a safer, steadier world.

Vowing to remember even while trying to forget.

Greg Johns can be reached at

-- Martin Thompson (, October 30, 2001


This is a truly touching article.

I can still see the smoke raising from the WTC from a hill near where I live. I still can't believe it.

I knew people who worked there. I used to go thru those buildings twice a day on my way to work in lower Manhattan. I shopped there, ate there, met friends in the bar on Windows on the World. I took friends and relatives to the observation deck when they visited.

Someday I might have to courage to perform this pilgramage for myself. Right now, I have a desire to stay out of the way of the people who must do this horrific job. They too are victims. These people must have nightmares every night.

-- K (, October 30, 2001.

Note: Greg Johns is a Sports writer. I find that even more amazing.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 30, 2001.

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