12 Octber 2015
With a little getting lost we wound our way through Lower Manhattan past shops bursting with Halloween pumpkins the like of which we never see at home. We were heading for the next item on our must see itinerary, a place that had played a part in both our lives although neither of us had ever been there. Back in 2001, the World Trade Centre was nothing more than two tall office towers in Manhattan. On September 11, that changed and the world and our lives changed with it.
It was morning in Manhattan but afternoon in England. Commando had just got out of bed and was half watching TV as he ate his breakfast. When he saw the first report of a plane crashing into the World Trade Centre he thought it was a film. Then realisation that this was real life dawned and he called me at work in my basement Dream Factory office. As we talked he watched the second plane hit the second tower and we both knew it was no accident. The horror of such a thing was unimaginable. No more work was done at Dream Factory that day. Everyone was glued to the breaking news on the Internet. Shortly after I got home the first tower fell and we watched live footage in stunned silence. Tears streamed down my face when I thought of those poor people trapped with unthinkable choices in front of them. Those images will stay with me forever even though I wasn’t there.
Neither of us lost anyone in the towers or on the planes, although one of my colleagues later discovered his nephew had died in his World Trade Centre office. Suddenly the world was a place filled with unimaginable evil standing side by side with the tremendous bravery and sacrifice of the police, fire fighters and rescuers. Never did we think what it might mean for us personally but, over time, we found out that the evil deeds of the terrorists had long tentacles that touched many lives including our own. Our losses were nothing in comparison to those directly involved but, with Commando working in the aircraft industry and me for a tour operator, our lives did change. For a long time Commando’s job was in the balance and, eventually, mine was lost as Dream Factory suffered a long, lingering death. Nothing would ever be the same again.
We turned onto Vesey Street and got our first view of World Trade Centre One. The strange haze in the air made it appear to glow and gave a feeling of unreality to the scene. As if in a dream I could almost see the thick white smoke, the fluttering confetti like paper and hear the sickening bang, bang, bang of the floors of those buildings collapsing onto each other. These were the streets we’d watched on TV, filled with rolling smoke and dust covered people running, some away to safety, others, the firefighters, medics and police, towards the danger. The memories were so vivid, even though I wasn’t there, tears came to my eyes and rolled down my face. Two thousand nine hundred and seventy seven people died that day, three hundred and forty three of them firefighters and seventy two police officers trying desperately to rescue those trapped inside the burning buildings. Many more have since died from the toxic dust. It felt as if their ghosts walked with me.
The plaza where the towers had once stood was crowded but I was never under any illusion that we’d have it to ourselves. We found a space beside the north pool, created in the footprint of the north tower, and stood quietly looking at the jewelled beads of water falling. All around the perimeter people gathered with their own thoughts and memories. It seemed strange that there could be such a feeling of peace in this place, crowded with people, filled with ghosts.
The new tower, World Trade Centre One, glistened and glittered above us, the tallest building in Manhattan. Try as I might to imagine the huge, bustling towers that once stood in this place, all I could see were the burning buildings, the people desperately clinging to window ledges hoping for rescue. On that terrible day we’d watched from the other side of the world, feeling as if we were there. It seemed impossible that rescue wouldn’t come, surely there would be helicopters on the roof carrying those poor souls to safety? We gasped in horror as we saw people jump, imagining what it must have felt like to have the choice between fire and smoke and those moments of flying towards the hard, unforgiving ground so far below. We stood where they had fallen, saw their names etched on the side of the pool before us and remembered.
At the South pool rainbows danced on the falling water and the sun sparkled. We hardly spoke, each of us lost in our own thoughts and memories. In my mind I could see the jagged shard of twisted metal standing amid the smoke. The tears kept falling, like the water in the pools. Despite the rainbows and the sun the unspeakable horror of that September morning seemed to linger, if only in my mind.
We’d planned to visit the museum but in the end the crowds and a nagging thought that I wouldn’t be able to bear it made us leave. There were just too many ghosts, too much emotion, to stay any longer. Instead we walked past the white winged marble edifice of Santiago Calatrava’s new transportation hub. This seems more sculpture than building, part reminder of the remains of the original World Trade Centre towers, part angelic wings enveloping and blessing the site.
We made our way to Battery Park where, by chance, we discovered Ftitz Koenig’s Sphere standing, bettered but unbroken, on a bed of smooth pebbles. This sculpture once stood in the centre of Austin J Tobin Plaza, between the twin towers. Somehow it survived and now it seems to be a metaphor for the people of Manhattan, scarred by the terrible events of September 11 2001, but still surviving. My research told me it had been removed so I was surprised and delighted to find it there. We strolled slowly around it, noting it’s battle scars and marvelling that it escaped when so much else did not.
The cool breeze and greenery of Battery Park felt rejuvenating and the hidden messages I found in the Sphere helped soothe my mind. The next part of our journey would be less taxing, at least on our feet. Like real New Yorkers, we were taking the Staten Island Ferry. After the inevitable bit of getting lost, where I mistakenly walked towards the tourist ferry and Commando put me right, we found the ferry terminal. Oddly, in a city where everything has a price, the ferry was free thanks to Mayor Giuliani. There was a queue and a short wait but soon we were aboard and had found a spot on the outer deck with a decent vantage point on the right side of the ferry where we’d been told we’d get the best views. Soon we were under way, passing towers of bleached wooden groynes and leaving Manhattan behind.
As the vessel turned we caught sight of the Brooklyn Bridge with a helicopter whirring above it. The towers of Manhattan slowly receded and we turned our attention to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The blue green water was tipped with white foam and filled with little sailing boats. The helicopter circled above us.
“It’s one of the tourist helicopters,” Commando told me, “we could take a trip if you like.”
“Not a chance,” I said. “Three planes in two weeks is more than enough for me. There’s no way I’m getting in a helicopter.”
Once we’d passed as close as we’d get to lady liberty and seen her glinting green in the sun, we turned to look back at the Manhattan skyline. The tall towers were shrouded in a thick layer of smog we’d not noticed when we were there walking the streets. Now the strange haze over everything made sense. The scale of World Trade Center One was revealed as it towered above everything around it but didn’t quite make it above the smog.
On Staten Island the air was clear and fresh. We left the ferry terminal and strolled along the esplanade in front of the Staten Island Yankees Stadium with a cool breeze ruffling our hair. A seagull photo bombed the picture Commando took of me squinting into the sun with the backdrop of Manhattan and the smog. Sensibly he’d worn sunglasses and a hat, although it was in danger of blowing away.
The ferry we’d travelled on is a commuter ship, used mostly by people who live on Staten Island and work in Manhattan. Two hundred and seventy four residents were among the dead, workers in the World Trade Center towers, police and firefighters, one passenger on United Airlines Flight 93 lost in Pennsylvania and one victim of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Familes must have looked out helplessly over the water at the plume of smoke on that day, knowing their loved ones were there in the midst of the terror. Behind us was a memorial to those victims. Designed by Masayuki Sono, the two, thirty foot white marble wings of Postcards bears small granite plaques representing each victim and frames the place where the twin towers once stood.
Walking between the marble structures I looked at names. Most plaques had flowers tucked behind them, probably placed there on the anniversary of the event just over a month before, now dried and wilted. On the rail of the esplanade a wreath of red, white and blue fluttered in the breeze.
Much of the debris, roughly two million tons, from the collapsed buildings was taken to the Fresh Kills Landfill site on Staten Island to be sorted. Amongst that debris were the remains of many victims, most never identified despite the efforts of detectives and forensic experts. There are plans to turn the landfill site into landscaped parkland three times the size of Central Park. The park will be designed by James Corner Field Operations, the firm who designed the High Line and will include a memorial. It is likely to be many years before it’s possible to stroll there though.
Our strolling was confined to the return to the ferry terminal and, once back on Manhattan, we took the Subway back towards Central Park. Thankfully, the New York Subway is not as far underground as the London version so I didn’t have too much trouble being down there, although, without the handy line map, it was confusing, especially as, unlike all the other underground systems we’ve travelled on, the trains didn’t seem to stop at every station. We were also serenaded at one point by a disheveled looking woman who may, or may not have been the worse for wear in other ways. We were the only people who paid her the slightest attention. She could certainly sing though.
There are moments in history that touch the whole world. September 11 2001 was one of those. The emotion, tears and memories of the World Trade Center site had caught me unawares, surprising in their intensity. Perhaps walking half the length of Manhattan, the unexpected twenty five degree heat and the disorientation of the five hours we’d gained somewhere on our flight across the Atlantic played a part but I was glad we’d done it.