Coastal Post Online


February 2002 

Letter from New York - A Ground Zero Of The Mind - Two Catastrophes

By Jim Scanlon

I thought I recognized the smell of wreckage when I got off the Staten Island Ferry and began walking north towards the hole that was once two 110 story office towers, but then I noticed two garbage trucks parked to my left along Battery Park and realized I was wrong.

Ground Zero doesn't smell now and it is hard to see unless you have special privileges that get you directly on the site or into one of the helicopters that always seem to be hovering overhead. It's hard to be impressed with something that isn't there. I looked and looked at that vast open space and racked my brain to see the buildings that once stood there, but I was a miserable failure, and got annoyed at myself for making me do something I found so sad and distasteful.

I couldn't get to the raised ramp the city had recently constructed to accommodate the thousands of tourists who now come to the site, so I walked around GZ, looking over the fences when I could, or through a open gate as a cement truck or backhoe went in or out. It's just a big construction site now. The observer brings, and can add, or not add, the emotion. The New Yorkers who live there and lived through last fall don't talk very much about what happened but seem, mostly, annoyed with the tourists. The locals are carrying on, but seem still hurt and wounded.

I listened in on three New Yorkers talking about where they were on September 11. One left his post on Pennsylvania Avenue in Brooklyn and headed strait for the city and got there in time to run for his life as he was engulfed in that cloud of dust. Another went to a street across from Bayonne New Jersey and saw the towers fall and the clouds of dust spread out over Brooklyn. A young woman said she sat with her mother-in-law and her sick son and then rushed out to school to bring her other two children home. The school was chaotic, frightened parents screaming for their children. The crying and not knowing why. Her five year old daughter a beautiful child, now draws two tall buildings when she does her art work.

It surprised me how many seemingly undamaged buildings surrounding the huge empty space-that deep, open urban wound-are still closed, especially on the uptown side. And beyond the totally closed buildings, where seemingly normal New Yorkers hurry about, many restaurants and small store front businesses are locked and shuttered with dirty windows, next to others that are open, kind of like a still damaged coral reef, slowly healing.

The periphery of GZ along Broadway seems almost like old New York with huge crowds filling the sidewalks, but then you notice the T-shirts and caps and flags and flowers and messages and stuffed animals piled along the sidewalks and hung on the fences. The flowers are dead now, and to me they seemed to mock the many hand written statements of eternal remembrance-which also seem to be fading. The first big snow storm of the year was predicted for the next day, and stupidly, I felt upset thinking of the effect the storm might have on the thousands of offerings that mark the irregular circumference of Ground Zero.

The huge empty space, the boarded up windows staring out from the tall wall of office buildings on the west side of GZ, brought back first the video memories of September 11, and then memories. of little incidents in my life, as a student delivering Coca Cola in that area, before the Trade Center was built. GZ was a section of the city were an electronics industry thrived until it was condemned and torn down for the Trade Center. I was interviewed for a job on Church Street in 1959. I rode to the top of the South Tower in 1974 or 75. All just memories now. Everything gone. All those people, everything, burned, carbonized, crushed into the basements and sub basements, under hundreds of thousands of tons of steel, pulverized cement, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, wires, pipes...! I wanted to cry but didn't or couldn't.

Grief is big small business around GZ with street stands and street hustlers selling caps and shirts with the American flag, and FDNY and NYPD all along Broadway and on side streets. Stands are full of photos, watercolors and prints of the WTC in its glory and in its prostration. American flags are everywhere. I did not see photos or drawings of the Pentagon.

The shared grief that united the city seems to be breaking down. The first lawsuits for wrongful death and negligence have been filed, and there has already been much criticism and wrangling over how the billion dollar relief fund has been distributed, and to whom-and the wrangling is sure to intensify.

A plan by a wealthy Jewish real estate owner to honor the city's firefighters by commissioning a statue based on a striking photo of three white male firefighters raising an American flag on top of the wreckage of Ground Zero-a sort of Iwo Jima flag raising-was canceled after an outpouring of protest objecting to changing the ethnicity (or race) of the firefighters into one white, a black and an Hispanic (no women). In an odd way this dispute made is seem like the city was getting back to normal.

Now that the incredibly fast and efficient clean up and excavation is almost complete, the surprised conflict over what will be constructed and not constructed at, and around, the site, is sure to intensify. Whether Wall Street firms will move back into lower Manhattan, or quietly settle into new locations uptown, or in Connecticut or New Jersey, remains to be seen. If new construction falters or is delayed, Wall Street, the Financial District, as we know it, could die.

But why not? Many great cities have suffered great destruction, destruction vastly greater than that of the World Trade Center, and these cities have risen from their wreckage: Berlin, Warsaw, Kiev, London, Hiroshima, Dresden, Hamburg-just to name a few. Why not New York? It could become something else with Wall Street in New Jersey like the Jets and the Giants-teams with New York names that play in the New Jersey.

The investigation of the structural failure of the twin towers will probably not be allowed to cause too much controversy-it might be seen as excusing the Arab terrorists-but it seems doubtful there will ever be another "Symbol of Capitalism" reaching proudly 110 stories up into the sky-something more modest, maybe half that. What is strange about the "Symbol of Capitalism" or "Free Enterprise" is that the WTC, from start to finish was a socialistic project, or perhaps better said, a State Capitalism Project. It was built and operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, with surplus public funds from tolls on bridges, tunnels and highways, and it is debatable if it ever really made an operating profit. The WTC greatly increased commercial real estate (value) in lower Manhattan.

For years the towers were partially vacant and vacant space was filled by governmental bureaucracies. They were constructed quickly, using a radically new architectural design. Unlike conventional skyscrapers, the strength of the building was in its tube like steel skin, its exoskeleton, and in it's narrow central core. Each prefabricated floor, unobstructed by the conventional steel supporting columns, was hung between the skin and the core. The design worked well until September 11, when the attachments between one or more floors softened by the intense heat of burning jet fuel, collapsed onto the floor below, unleashing the separate chain reaction catastrophes seen so clearly on TV all over the world.

The towers, having been built by a state enterprise, were was not subject to New York City's strict building codes. (Those that make the rules often break their rules.) There were no sprinkler systems. Sprinklers were installed later, at great expense, after several high rise fires. No sewage treatment system was available until ten years after occupancy. Raw sewage was pumped into the Hudson River. Huge tanks full of diesel fuel for the City's disaster command center were located at 7 World Trade Center. Only a state enterprise could flout the city's own fire code. Who could imagine that the Disaster Center would be at the center of the disaster?

The towers went up quickly, using light material, like the cement that turned into dust and covered lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Old skyscrapers had been built with their vertical steel columns encased in gypsum blocks to protect them from failure during a fire. Sprayed on foam replaced the blocks on the columns and gypsum sheet rock was used instead in fire walls. The old methods might not have prevented the catastrophes but might have allowed more time for evacuation and might have prevented burning fuel from pouring on to lower floors. Perhaps people on the upper stories might have had time to get to the roof to helicopters. Who knows? The results of a series of unconnected ordinary decisions intersected on September 11th sealing the fate of thousands of ordinary people. Those decisions affect all of us. Little things add up in ways that are totally unpredictable and we all have to live with the results. We need rules and everyone-everyone-needs to follow them!



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