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Ray Suarez: The Presence of Absence After 9/11

I am a New Yorker. I knew the Twin Towers well. In the tough economic times of the late ’70s, I strolled the food court and the shopping areas on my way to sign for an unemployment check. As a young reporter, I covered news conferences in Windows on the World. Meeting a friend at her office on a high floor on a blustery winter day, I closed my eyes and relished the swaying high over the Hudson. Buildings that tall have to be able to sway, or else the energy transfer from high winds would break them.

I watched the towers being built during my junior high and high school years, and watched as they gradually became an accepted part of the skyline. The pair was a massive, machined, modern, rectangular answer to the elegant Chrysler and Empire State miles to the north.

A decade ago, I stood in a newsroom shocked into silence as one, and then the other tower pancaked into massive clouds of dust. Like just about everyone else on planet Earth, I was shocked. Unlike most people on planet Earth, I had to go there. I had to be there.

The next morning I was on the first train back into Lower Manhattan after the Amtrak shutdown. People snoozed. Some talked on phones, or to their neighbor. If you’ve ever taken a train from D.C. or Philly or New Jersey into New York City, you’ve seen the way the city suddenly appears out the right-hand windows as the train threads its way through northern New Jersey.

On the morning of Sept. 12 when the glittering skyline came into view, the presence of absence forced its way into everyone’s thoughts. The train car fell silent. Everyone turned to look, to see the hole left by the towers replaced by the steady column of smoke. The silence persisted all the way into Penn Station. I surfaced into the streets of my hometown to find it quiet, subdued, slowed down.

The days that followed were amazing and horrifying in roughly equal degree. I picked up papers in the streets of Brooklyn blown out of the towers miles away. I talked to people bravely hanging on to their last shred of composure to describe a missing person they hoped could still be found.

I talked to emergency room docs who spoke to me with a wistful and not-quite-yet-believing tone about all the preparations they had made for the soon-to-arrive stream of injured people. It took a while to realize no one was injured. Everyone who didn’t get out of those buildings was dead. I talked to firefighters about their dead friends, widows about their dead husbands and nervous neighbors about the air in Lower Manhattan.

Time after time, that absence was drilled into my eyes. When something as massive as the World Trade Center is part of your working vision of a place, its absence can’t be absorbed in one viewing. I said it for the first time the morning of Sept. 12, standing in front of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. Standing by the nurses and emergency docs, gurneys at the ready, waiting for the casualties who would never arrive, I stared down Seventh Avenue at a patch of sky I hadn’t seen in 30 years. No towers. Days later on a subway car heading across the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn I looked up from my paper and again, shock. No towers.

That first week I headed into the shopping mall under the massive pile of debris with an urban search and rescue team from California, looking for the missing, the injured, and the dead. The other camera crew was from NBC. The other reporter was David Bloom, who would die just a year and a half later covering the opening stages of the invasion of Iraq.

The Tourneau watch shop had been looted down to the shelves. Just across the corridor sat a grocery store, its entire stock still neatly stacked on the full shelves, covered in a fine layer of dust. Coming back out into the light was another opportunity to relive the shock. Just two years earlier I had done a book signing at the national chain on the first floor. Ash was still drifting down onto my parents’ lawn in Brooklyn. Yet there at Ground Zero the books were still stacked neatly, sitting in orderly bookcases, with acres of rubble, the stacked wreckage of two of the biggest buildings in the world.

The earth boiled as fuel below ground would feed fires for months to come. Men had been scrambling over the debris since shortly after the buildings came down. Many people working on and around the site seemed to have face masks, which they came to wear under their chins. I’m not sure the masks did much good for the chins and necks. “Trade Center cough” was a common affliction and a moment of bonding. Your throat felt like it had been burned. The cough was a futile attempt to clear, and relieve, the throat. Cameraman and soundman would cough before rolling. An interview subject would cough before answering. The reporter would cough before a question. One day, standing over the site and watching the awful smoke rise from the soil, I thought about the workers who would eventually suffer from chronic lung and throat problems. Today, there are many.

People met for days, seeing each other “for the first time since.” Voices would drop. “Did you know anybody?” “Did you lose anybody?” A high school girlfriend’s brother died. A member of my high school graduating class was on the flight from Boston. An in-law’s mother watched bodies hit the ground and ran from her undamaged office building through the dust-choked streets to a packed ferry boat that took her off Manhattan Island.

It’s been said ad nauseum that “everything changed” on Sept. 11, 2001. Well, yeah. From the smoking ruins in Lower Manhattan came a decade of war. From the terrorist attacks, the ensuing wars and the terrorist attacks that followed in Spain, Britain and elsewhere, came a new conversation in the wealthy West about the place of Islam in Europe and North America.

For New Yorkers, the decade brought something else again. The attacks unleashed emotional, physical and economic forces on New York City that reverberate through the city still. My life, as a reporter, a New Yorker, an American, was changed that morning. Maybe in another 10 years we’ll all have a better idea what it means.

One of the most remembered and replayed images of that first week features President Bush and a New York firefighter on “the pile.” Cheers rose from the workers at the site when the president promised them that the people who knocked down the buildings would hear from all of us soon. But away from the smoking site of mass murder, that was not the tone of New York. What I’ll always remember was not the bluster, the vows of revenge or the anger. What I’ll always carry with me from that week in New York was the deep sadness, even among the thousands who knew no one in the towers. New York was heartbroken, solemn, quiet. Not yet a city ready for war as much as one that first had to mourn its own, and recover from the blow it took for the rest of the country.

Video encoding by Julia Griffin and Justin Scuiletti.

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