Aug '02 [Home]


The Disaster We Dreamed Of
by Elizabeth Seay

Back when we worked across the street from the World Trade Center, Ken and I used to walk through the towers' shadows on our way to lunch at the Odeon. There we would sit at a corner table and have wine, and he would tell me stories about hiding from the militia in Zaire or hopping a ship to cover the wreck of the Exxon Valdez. Ken was a former reporter and worldwide adventurer; I was an aspiring reporter and wannabe worldwide adventurer.

After lunch, we would walk back to the office where we both worked as editors, and pause on Liberty Street at the entrance to our office, gazing up at the cramped bit of sky between the towers, half-drunk and daydreaming about otherworldly places and wartime disasters.

Neither of us was at the office the morning of the attack, and we hadn't been back since. So much ash had poured into our building, the company had relocated to New Jersey. Now we wanted to meet for lunch, the way we did in the old days, and have an adventure of our own:  We would sneak as close as we could to the disaster site.

When we met on Broadway, Ken looked more than ever like a war correspondent, in his jeans and denim work shirt, collar open, and jaunty baseball hat pulled over his wavy gray hair. He carried a backpack and a massive, professional camera with an eight-inch lens. We worked our way through crowds pushing at the police barricades that blocked the way to Ground Zero. I knew we'd get closer, which made me feel smug. As we moved toward the disaster area, Ken lent me his camera, and I used the long, magnifying lens as binoculars, trying to get a better look at the heap of incomprehensible metal.

As I fiddled with the camera, focusing on a tangle of beams, I heard a woman next to me say, "Wow, she's got quite the lens." I pretended for a moment that the camera was mine and that I was a person who had a good reason to be looking through it. As a photojournalist, I felt powerful and righteous. That was one great thing about being a journalist, I thought:  You could shrug off criticism for your desire to get close to disaster. It was all right if you wanted to see it, to walk up to it, to touch it, to make sense of it, to encompass it, to cover it, in every sense of the word.

When we got to the Odeon and sat down, Ken told me he had noticed a Coast Guard cutter with anti-aircraft guns in the harbor. I liked the way he recognized them as nine-millimeter guns and could explain that the figure referred to the inner diameter of the gun barrel. I told him about my urge to go free-lance in Afghanistan. The Odeon was the same—women with cell phones and men in dot-com casual khakis—except that the best table, the one at which you'd normally look for De Niro or Brad Pitt, was full of police force brass in crisp, dark blue uniforms. As we ate our salads and ginger squash soup, we could see outside the window a slow, awkward parade of trucks heading downtown—garbage trucks, police cars, and a flatbed with a jungle gym-red crane lying on its side.

After lunch we walked west. As we approached a barricade where an expansive policewoman stood, arms folded, Ken hid his camera, and I put my company ID around my neck. Back when I got the ID, I had thought it was uncool to wear it on its bright blue cord, but now I thought it made me look official. Ken told his smooth half-lie about going down to our building, the World Financial Center (true), and our need to get in to pick up 'personal effects' (false), and I imitated Ken's aura of journalistic mission. The policewoman let us in.

Ken sniffed the air. "Smells like Kuwait," he said, "the oilfields burning." Trucks kept passing us heading downtown. One was an SUV piled to the roof with teddy bears. One was a van filled with ordinary people—I noticed a young Latina woman with curly hair and an old woman looking straight ahead—and I wondered where they were going. We wound up near our building on Liberty Street. Now, the street was lined with fire trucks and blocked by a police cordon. Beyond that was the pile of wreckage. Ken muttered that a real reporter would find a way to go right up to it, but we didn't have the right excuse. We stood on the sidewalk and looked over the police barrier at the wreck.

A man at the barrier turned to look at us. Trim and sandy-haired, in his 40's, he was dressed in jeans, like us, but he wore a Red Cross ID. "This your first day?" he asked. "Yep," we said, trying to fit in with his crowd, ordinary people come down to help. Everyone else was in uniform:  policemen, construction workers, firefighters, and soldiers in fatigues.

The jungle gym-red crane we'd seen had been only a piece of a huge crane—one of the eight tallest in the world, the Red Cross man told us. The wreckage stood high above it, dwarfing the people and every idea we'd had about it. The first few stories of the World Trade Center's facade were still there, sheared off at the top and fencing the tangle inside. We watched the slow rise and fall of hooks carrying ribbons of twisted steel. A memorial site stood behind us, piled with about a hundred identical teddy bears. This was where the SUV had been going; the work of memorializing was going on in the same grim, directed way as the clean-up.

While we were standing there, the police opened the cordon to let a procession of people through—regular people, like the ones I'd seen in the van. "Victims' families," said the Red Cross worker. I averted my eyes in an impulse of respect, but was unable to resist watching them. There were several dozen, more women than men. They reminded me of the crowds you see in airport waiting areas, expectant, not weeping, some carrying bouquets of roses, some dressed up, and others just wearing their day clothes, nurses' scrubs or jeans and work boots. One tall, preppy woman was walking a black puff of a dog. It nosed along, unperturbed, even when a scooter went by with a cadaver dog in a cage. Two middle-aged black women dressed in going-to-church pink suits went last, riding on a cart driven by a Red Cross volunteer. The only unusual thing was that everyone in the group was wearing a yellow hard hat.

They passed behind two fire trucks on Liberty Street, out of sight. Then we saw a few yellow hard hats bob out beyond the trucks, 20 feet above the sidewalk. "There's a viewing stand there," the Red Cross volunteer said, and if we leaned to our left we could see it:  a wooden frame that I would normally call a parade stand, at the spot where we used to enter our building. A group of yellow hard hats stood there, facing the wreckage, and then moved to the side, and more yellow hard hats moved forward.

There was continual noise from the site, a roaring of engines and clanking of metal, and occasionally a shout. And then above it we heard a high-pitched wail from behind the fire trucks. I had to hear it again and again before I understood what it was. Ken and the Red Cross guy looked at each other, and the Red Cross guy said to us, "Shouldn't have brought her down." A fireman came running by, pushing a gray-wheeled office chair, like the ones we'd used upstairs in our office.

Soon, the victims' families came back through. Most of them were composed. The dog kept pace with its owner's halting step. The older of the two women riding on the cart collapsed onto the shoulder of the other; her yellow hard hat rolled into her lap.

After they had gone by, the Red Cross man drifted away, and Ken and I agreed without saying much to go back. It seemed to us that it was no longer possible to stand there, the only people without anything to do. We walked back through the unrecognizable streets and rejoined the crowds shoving to see around the outer barricades. This exploring of the wreckage was what all our lunches had prepared us for, what we'd dreamed of, in a way. But then we hadn't expected that our disaster would come up to the doors of our office, and we hadn't known it would be like this.

I pulled my ID badge off, feeling fraudulent. I was in fact fraudulent. But even if I had been a real war correspondent and done what war correspondents do, I don't know how it would have helped.

(Elizabeth Seay's stories have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and in the anthologies, Before and After:  Stories from New York and Floating off the Page:  The Best Stories from the Wall Street Journal's 'Middle Column'. She lives in Brooklyn and is a grad student in the Writing Division at Columbia.)