It was a ridiculously warm winter day, and the police officer was right: ground zero was a muddy mess. And that, as you might have guessed, qualifies as a blessing. Winter, at least as of Feb. 25, has passed without notice in New York. The ground is spring-soft. It is not covered in snow. It is not frozen solid. The workers in the pit that once was the basement of the World Trade Center have not had to contend with the elements as they struggle with their emotions.
Chief Peter Hayden was in the north tower on Sept. 11, manning a command post in the lobby. He was there when the second plane hit the south tower. He didn’t see it, but he heard it and felt it. He and his colleagues moved their command post out of the lobby after the first tower fell, but not before trying desperately to evacuate the buildings, fearing exactly what happened.
The chief, a soft-spoken man with a friendly face, has been at the site ever since, helping supervise the rescue effort and then the slow recovery process. He invited me to join him at ground zero when I told him I was working on a book about the Fire Department of New York and its long, rich and tragic history. More than five months had passed since Sept. 11, and still I had not been to the site. Like most New Yorkers (or, for that matter, New Jerseyans), I knew people who died at the World Trade Center, people whose bodies have not been recovered and perhaps never will be. I associated the place with terror and death, and feared my own emotions.
Chief Hayden met me in the quarters of Engine 10 and Ladder 10 on Liberty Street, directly across from ground zero. The firehouse has been turned into a headquarters for the F.D.N.Y.’s recovery efforts, a place where workers can get coffee, soda and some snacks. But you’d better be a rescue worker if you’re looking for a cup of joe. A sign outside the house reads: “No Freeloaders.”
Inside, the walls are decorated with written prayers and messages addressed to New York’s firefighters from colleagues and children from across the country. A child from California, who couldn’t be much more than 8 or 9, to judge by the handwriting, told the firefighters they were his heroes and that they had made him proud to be an American.
Chief Hayden brought me to the roof of 10&10, and it was there, four stories above street level, that the enormity of the destruction was made plain. You may have heard that television pictures do not do justice to the scale of the evil. That’s all too true. “You see what this looks like now,” Chief Hayden said. “We’re down to the lower basement levels. Imagine what it was like when the wreckage was seven stories high.”
And then there are the terrible, seemingly mundane scenes that escape television news cameras. Chief Hayden pointed to a spot to our right, in the southeastern corner of the site. There, firefighters in boots, helmets and Day-Glo vests were raking through the mud. They were looking for body parts. The chief explained that the search for body parts is a three-step process. Material taken from the pit is searched. It is then trucked to a corner of the site, where the load is dumped and firefighters with rakes give a more thorough examination. The load is then put back on trucks, hauled to a barge and brought to the Fresh Kills Landfill, where it is searched once again.
Chief Hayden pointed to another spot, several hundred yards away. “You see what look like railroad tracks? That’s where the Number 1 and 9 trains ran. And over there, that’s where the PATH trains came in from New Jersey.” He asked me if I ever commuted by the PATH to the World Trade Center. I had, numerous times. “Well, over there, in that muddy field—that’s where those big escalators used to be,” he said.
Even though the excavation seemed to be winding down, more bodies will be found. The chief is sure of it, and I heard some of the rescue workers talking about the inevitability of finding intact remains—in other words, not just scattered body parts—in certain pockets. The fire department is adamant about searching every possible corner of the site for the bodies of dozens of firefighters still unaccounted for. Like the Marines, the Fire Department of New York prides itself on never leaving their dead behind.
In this place of heartbreak, perhaps the most tragic sight is that of men in their 60’s and 70’s, grey about the temples and hunched over with terrible burdens, looking for the bodies of their firefighter sons. These older men were firefighters themselves, and had been proud that their sons had followed in their footsteps. Chief Hayden knows a few of them. “Life didn’t turn out the way they expected it would,” he said.
Do they take some solace in knowing that schoolchildren are writing essays about their sons’ heroism? I left ground zero praying that they do.