Report From Ground Zero:

The New Landscape

All photos and text
© 2001 by Michael Cook

This is a diary with a large void at the beginning, a journey that's still unfolding—in New York, across America, and half a world away in Afghanistan. But we all know what happened on September 11. We've all watched the film footage of the attack ad nauseum. It has become, by this time, part of our collective national psyche. Because I am now able and anxious to move on, I have focused primarily here on the situation following the events of that surrealistic day.

Despite repeated attempts, I still haven't written a coherent account of my experiences on that day. It's not for lack of recall; that day will be etched in my memory forever. The bottom line is that I survived. Many others didn't. My traumas pale in comparison to some others, and it seems self-indulgent and unnecessary to detail my story of that day here—and perhaps disrespectful to the memory of those whose voices have been silenced forever.

Nevertheless, because it is historical, I will keep trying (if only for my own edification), and may post an account of that day eventually here. My experience was not particularly unique or profound—nothing that hasn't already been said. When people learn that I lived across the street from the World Trade Center, they invariably ask me, "Were you there at the time?" The answer is yes. Now, the only significant aspect of it is that we were able to successfully evacuate, despite some frantic moments.

Fortunately for us, life goes on—which is why I have chosen to focus here on the road forward. If nothing else, the captions of the accompanying photographs should offer the reader some logistical sense of that day for us. Other than that, a detailed account of those events will remain a work in progress.

Some background:

For over 22 years, the downtown area surrounding the World Trade Center towers has been our reality. It was from there that we watched the area blossom into a real residential community, bringing services, stores, restaurants, and small businesses, which in turn attracted more residents. The tenants of our building were among the earliest contemporary residents of the Wall Street area, and we think of ourselves as pioneers there. Twenty years ago, the entire area was a ghost town after 5:00 p.m., and there were almost no stores or services available. Battery Park City (pop. 40,000+) was merely a vacant landfill of sand on the Hudson River.

Although the landscape, skyline, and atmosphere of downtown changed dramatically over the course of 22 years, one thing had remained constant during all the time we lived there: the two monolithic towers that pierced the sky, reflected sunlight into our home, and provided a never-ending mosaic of shifting patterns, colors, lights, and peoplescapes. Now, that too has changed.

Myself; Sandra Rubel ("Sandy" here), my friend/wife/partner/significant other/antagonist— depending on how I (or she) feels on any given day; and David-Michael ("D.M."), our son, who was already uptown at school on the morning of Sept. 11 when the planes hit the towers above our loft. That morning was his first day of high school.

Sandy is a painter in her own right—good, and improving. David-Michael is a great computer wunderkind, poet, and musician currently working on a new website featuring his art and photography. We'll put in the link as soon as it's ready.

Part I:
Journey Back to the Gates of Hell

I got into our building again today. Downtown Manhattan is gradually being opened up to more people, and once through the first perimeter at Canal Street, people are allowed to wander pretty freely downtown, but only on the east side of Broadway. There are lots of people down there now, because the stock exchanges are open again, and local deliveries to businesses and stores are being made--mostly on foot. West of Broadway is another matter; cyclone fences have been erected below Chambers Street, and the area is filling up with “hawkers and gawkers.” Even tour
Our kitchen, still in disarray two months later. We can't seem to make any progress on cleanup—for a lot of reasons.
buses are coming down to Canal Street, where everyone sits trapped in gridlock for an hour, snapping pictures to show their grandchildren in Des Moines. They can’t see much.

The police are being very helpful and sympathetic to residents who had lived inside the serious perimeter west of Broadway, and I was able to get escorted in with a contingent of four of New York’s finest. Some were committed to following the letter of the law, others were more humane and compassionate. I was lucky; our “platoon leader” was one of the latter.

The devastation in this area is truly horrific and unimaginable. It is the most surreal scenery I’ve ever witnessed on planet earth--and seeing it firsthand is completely, absolutely different than watching it on television. You just can’t believe your eyes.

When we got into our building and walked up the stairway to the fourth floor, the door was still opened, hammered in by rescue workers a week earlier. But the area is well secured, and I have confidence in their ability to protect any property that may still be salvageable. No one is allowed in “the zone” without a police escort, and only residents who can convince the police and guardsmen that they have a reason for going in, get the nod.

I had my first glimpse of the loft several days earlier, when I got in with the help of the ASPCA--hopefully to find our cat. We saw no sign of him then, and were only allowed about 4 minutes to search. It was so overwhelming and disorienting, I pretty much restricted my search to the most protected area--a back bedroom farthest away from the blast. In that short time, I wasn’t even capable of wading through the debris to see the entire loft. By today, I was a little better prepared psychologically. But even as we walked in through the door, all the cops’ jaws dropped simultaneously, and the only words I heard were “Ohhhhhh, my Gawwwwwd!!” (These are veteran NYC police, and they’ve seen a lot, including being on duty in this war-ravaged area downtown.) They were stunned at the destruction inside, but I, having already been through the initial shock, was better fortified and could see things in a more positive light. I started noticing some paintings and cabinets that obviously weren’t destroyed, despite being covered in a blanket of thick gray dust. As long as the glass hadn’t broken into the paintings, there’s a good chance they can be cleaned up intact. Closed containers and cabinets may have also withstood the ubiquitous dust and flying debris. The floor is stratified in layers: glass on the bottom, then a thick layer of dust, followed by miscellaneous trash, millions of papers, and another few layers of dust on top. It will get worse with more dust and wind and rain coming in through the broken windows, and there may well be a layer of snow on top of everything inside before we can tackle the cleanup. Meanwhile, the mountain of twisted wreckage and the skeletal remains of the towers continue to smolder, eight days later. In some ways I wish it would snow tomorrow and cover the whole ruins in a pure white, natural blanket. No one is left alive in the blast zone now, but we are alive, and I have to keep reminding myself that as I stumble back through the streets in a daze. Every once in awhile a breeze whisks across the wreckage, delivering the horrible scent of death. Maybe it will snow early this year. . .

Part II: Fine Particulate Matter


For my third trip inside “the red zone” (ground zero) to our loft, the objective was to bring out two large rolling trunks, still packed with Sandy’s silk garments from the previous craft show--and whatever else I could carry out. Since the trunks had been closed, we thought the contents inside would be undamaged, despite the layers of dust and debris that covered them. The idea was to get them down the four flights of stairs and just roll them down Greenwich Street the seven blocks to where the van had been parked since September 9. Fortunately, that parking garage was just outside the southern perimeter, and I’d already checked on the truck to determine that it was undamaged. It would be a little tricky to get the vehicle out of the area, where anything other than emergency vehicles are still prohibited, but she felt confident that she could do the show if she just had those trunks, and we knew there was a lot of other booth equipment in the van. Somehow we would get the van out; for now I was just taking it one step at a time.

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