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By Pete Hamill, Diana Kane, and Noel Maitland
After the towers collapse, I arrive on the scene. There are no streets, only caverns of destruction, filled with sections of I beams, aluminum facade, dust, paper, and mud. Buildings surrounding what will come to be known as ground zero are gutted, burning fiercely, have hundreds of broken windows, or have been ripped wide open by flying girders. The command system is shattered; a chief is yelling orders from atop a rig. Every man seems to be from a different unit, and most lack basic equipment. We stretch hose lines to control fires in the acres of rubble, and pass stretchers, breathing masks, and forcible-entry tools over the girders to try to rescue trapped firemen.
Later I find my company, Ladder 15, at a staging area, where they've set up chairs outside the shattered windows of an office building's backside, like some war zone Parisian café.
After a few hours of awaiting orders, we split up to look for work. I find a large contingent of firefighters and police on the south side of Tower 2's remains, snaking a hose line into the rubble's smoky darkness. I search for victims under the wreckage. No sign of anyone.
From time to time the smoke lifts a little, showing six stories of uncollapsed steel girders and concrete flooring looming overhead. I keep searching, making mental notes of what girder I'll duck under if the rest of the building gives way.
Men shout for relief at the end of the hose line. I follow the line into intense heat and choking smoke. About a half hour later I reach the end and offer to take the nozzle, but the nozzleman refuses. "I'm not going anywhere until Duncan comes back!" he yells. By tradition, a company keeps the nozzle until the fire is out and firefighters from the house are safe. I help feed in hose, then start back to get some tools. Suddenly I feel sick and dehydrated. Hundreds of hands steady me as I clamber over rubble and down ladders that the brothers have laid across the steepest sections.
In the triage center in the firehouse across the street, the nurses seem like angels with IVs. Before I fall asleep, I think back to the afternoon, when firefighters and construction workers fired up earthmoving equipment and started clearing the street. Only hours after the collapse of the towers, the recovery had begun.
You know my neighborhood. Last September, the sidewalk in front of my home became the backdrop for news reporters showing the world the devastation. My neighborhood, TriBeCa, just north of ground zero, also became a triage center when merchants threw open their doors to the injured and scared. It became a staging area for rescue workers searching for survivors in the smoldering rubble at the end of my street. And my corner was one where thousands streamed to pay final respects to those lost in a national tragedy that played itself out in an American neighborhood.
We had elementary schools and a canine day care center. We were also home to Miramax Films and some of the world's trendiest restaurants. We were an eclectic mix of artists, Wall Street brokers, and middle-class families. We are different now. Weary from the effort to recover and plagued by uncertainty, we are a neighborhood adrift.
Paul, a neighbor, was the son of "homesteaders," middle-class families attracted here by city subsidies after the towers were built in the mid-seventies. Like so many Americans, he decided to raise his own family where he grew up. A month after the attacks, he packed up and left. For how long? I asked. "Forever," he replied.
A friend from uptown offered to walk me home one night. As we walked down my street, he grabbed my arm in alarm. "I know that smell," he said, of the ever present smoke in the night air, reminder of the fires still burning deep inside that diminishing pile. "I grew up next to a cemetery," he said. It was the smell of the crematorium.
I watched one morning as a father walked his son to school down my street. Once proud skyscrapers stood vacant, their facades burned and stripped, their offices charred honeycombs. The son took his father's hand and asked, "Where is the future?" His father replied, "The future is everywhere around you, at all times."
Weeks later, when the sirens had vanished from the night and we were no longer asked for passports, gas bills, and driver's licenses to prove that we lived in what we came to call the frozen zone, everything looked the same and everything felt different.
My wife, Fukiko, and I were lucky. We had been across the street when Tower 2 came down with the roaring sound of a steel-and-glass avalanche. We were engulfed by that cloud of dust that rose 25 stories above the street, a cloud so opaque that it looked like a solid. The cloud was made of pulverized floors, exploded glass, smashed desks, computers, food, file cabinets, and human beings. She and I were separated in the dust, found our way home separately, and celebrated the simple fact of being alive.
We were lucky in another way: In our loft 14 blocks north of ground zero, we had electricity. Television, telephones, the Internet all worked. So did we. For nine straight days, we wrote newspaper stories about the calamity. On the tenth day I wrote nothing and for the first time sat on a couch, thinking about the ruined world, and wept.
But life also provided its own consolations. In the streets we met some of our neighbors for the first time. We stood on street corners together, manual laborers and dot-com workers, mothers and children, all staring downtown at the smoldering stumps of the towers. We asked about children, and dogs, and survivors. The emotions of awe, horror, rage were gone quickly, replaced by a shared sense of vulnerability.
That is what remains: vulnerability. And from vulnerability there has emerged a tough fatalism. We all learned, that terrible morning, that we could die while reaching for a piece of toast at breakfast. Where I live, that knowledge has made us more human. Even on streets noisy again with traffic, strangers say good morning. Men kiss their wives more, and hug their children, and walk with them to the Hudson to embrace the sunset. But not one talks with utter confidence about tomorrow.