Ground Zero

130910-adler-ground-tease
Smoke and debris erupt from the south tower of the World Trade Center. Jerry Torrens/AP

Steve Miller's existential moment came on the 55th floor of 2 World Trade Center, where he paused on the way down from his 80th-floor office just long enough to use the men's room. It was a little past 9 a.m. on Tuesday; 15 minutes earlier, a 767 had flown into the north face of the neighboring 110-story tower and burst into flames, sending Miller and most of his colleagues straight for the exit signs. Now, as he paused and pondered calling his wife, the public-address system announced that the building was safe and tenants could return to their offices. Miller looked out at the burning building and saw people jumping from windows a thousand feet above the ground. The cardinal virtue of New Yorkers--skepticism of official pronouncements, especially reassuring ones--asserted itself in Miller's breast. He ran for the stairwell just as a second airplane buried itself into the tower a few floors above him. He was walking across the bridge to Brooklyn when he looked back and saw his building disappear in a cloud of smoke. Later that morning he arrived home, where his wife fell into his arms. "Oh, my God," she gasped, "I thought you were dead."

He thought: you don't want to know how close I came.

No, but she and the rest of the world would soon find out how many thousands of men and women did not go home to their loved ones last Tuesday. The lucky ones were in hospitals; the rest were in pieces among the hundred-foot-high mounds of rubble to which the two great towers had, in a few hours, been reduced. Some of these were workers in the South Tower who had put their faith in the mistaken all-clear. The next day Miller, a systems analyst for an affiliate of Fuji Bank, heard from his boss that of 120 employees on his floor, only four appeared to have gone down with the building--the head of the division and three of his top aides, all of whom were Japanese.

Also among the missing were hundreds of workers from the upper floors of the North Tower, including about 680 of the 1,000 who worked at one company, the bond-trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald. Many were trapped by the fire below and unable to escape; some of those nearest the flames chose to jump rather than suffocate or burn to death. They landed with such force, according to an eyewitness who was watching along with New York's mayor, Rudy Giuliani, that a pink mist of gore rose from the sidewalk as they hit. Steve Tamas, a Verizon technician working in a nearby building, counted 14 jumpers. "The first five or seven were dropping right out of the building, almost as if they were trying to hold onto it," he recalls. "As it got hotter, they'd run and leap like they wanted to get as far from the heat as they could." A few unlucky pedestrians were struck and killed by objects, including bodies, falling from the planes or the buildings above. Scores of police officers and more than 300 firefighters were lost in the rubble, including a 68-year-old Fire Department chaplain and the first deputy commissioner, who was directing rescue operations at the base of the 10 million-square-foot office complex. The largest number of New York City firemen to have died in a single disaster before last week was 12. Two days after the disaster, the city had compiled a list of 4,763 names of people who had been reported missing by relatives or employers--and identified fewer than 50 bodies.

And in a matter of hours, the effects rippled out to touch virtually everyone in the city, or, for that matter, the world. That daily miracle of controlled chaos--the rush of commuters into downtown Manhattan--went furiously into reverse, as hundreds of thousands fled uptown on foot in search of an operating subway line. As they left, police sealed off a 30-block area behind them, a swath of real estate embracing Wall Street, city hall, state and federal courthouses and government office buildings and some of the city's busiest subway stations. It is also home to 9,000 people in the new high-rises of Battery Park City, thousands more in TriBeCa lofts and prewar office buildings converted to apartments. Most of those people were still homeless by the end of the week, leaving behind belongings buried beneath an inch-thick layer of gritty dust.

As they fell, the towers disintegrated into a thick cloud of pulverized concrete, glass, marble and gypsum wallboard, which raced outward faster than a person could run and turned the air into an opaque sea of dirt. The two substances that survived the cataclysm best were steel and paper: the 200,000 tons of structural steel that supported each tower, and the millions of pages of letters, invoices, reports and briefs that had filled the desks and filing cabinets, and fluttered to the ground for miles around, the work of 50,000 people scattered to the winds. Roberto Hernandez, a window washer, saw the first plane hit from his perch 10 blocks from the towers, but decided that no terrorist would cost him a morning's pay. Around 10 o'clock, though, as he made his way toward the subway station below the World Trade Center--New Yorkers regard the subways as a distinct geographic realm, in which a fire up on the 80th floor might as well be on the moon--a boom echoed through the streets, the sky darkened overhead and he was swept up in a panicky stampede going the other way.

Hernandez ran, leaping over fallen pedestrians and stumbling into a public fountain. The acrid air stung his lungs and eyes. He made his way toward the wall of a nearby building lobby, behind which he heard voices, couldn't find a door, finally kicked his way through the glass only to fall to the bottom of a two-story atrium. He felt himself fortunate to get away with just a broken hand, a badly sprained foot and 20 stitches in his arm, considering the alternative of choking to death in the smoke outside. "I was sure I was going to die," he said after being treated at NYU Downtown Hospital.

He wasn't the only one. Within five minutes of the first impact, emergency medical teams had begun scooping victims off the ground and throwing them in ambulances. Those who could walk would scramble in on their own. "We would open the door, and they would pour in," said paramedic Lisandro Rijos, who with his partner David Ayala was the third unit on the scene. "We'd have 10 people in the back, and we're only supposed to have four. But we'd close the door and just say go, go, go!"

But by 7 p.m., Rijos says, it had grown "eerily quiet." In one sense, New York was overprepared for the worst civilian disaster in American history. Vast triage and trauma centers were set up, medical workers rushed in from all around the city and surrounding counties, and New Yorkers lined up by the thousands to donate blood until there was no place to store it. Yet after the first wave of burn and trauma cases, this army of specialists found themselves with almost no one to treat. Bellevue Hospital at one point had five doctors per patient in the emergency ward. "[Tuesday] night I was positioned at Chelsea Piers," said Wayne Roimisher, a volunteer EMT from suburban Rockland County. "We were set up for any emergency. It was a great site, full of surgeons. But we were treating firemen and police who needed their eyes washed."

There was no shortage of victims, just of treatable injuries; the vast majority were still buried in the rubble and the rest were coming out in pieces. Dr. David Capiola, a surgical resident at a midtown hospital, bicycled down to a trauma center the city set up at Stuyvesant High School, a half mile from ground zero. But there was no surgery to perform. "I saw a man with no legs, one arm, and a shirt with the cuff links on," he recalled. "He had a note in his pocket. I don't know what it said." The city put out a call to the federal government for the one medical necessity it had failed to stock adequately: body bags.

In almost every other way, though, the city responded swiftly and efficiently to the disaster. Even The New York Times had to admit that the crisis brought out the best in the notoriously contentious Giuliani. The disaster seemed to vindicate his obsession with security and his decision, much criticized at the time, to establish a state-of-the-art disaster command post outside city hall--although unfortunately not its specific location, in one of the smaller World Trade Center buildings, which was destroyed by the collapse of the Twin Towers. A few questions were raised, quietly, about the premature all-clear at the South Tower. "They told us 2 World Trade Center was safe, so some people were actually turning around and going back up," said Garth Williams, who made it safely down from the 69th floor. Officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which was in the process of turning over management of the buildings to Silverstein Properties, a private developer, refused to confirm or deny that such an announcement was even made, although numerous survivors reported hearing it. But if it was a mistake, it was an honest one: it came at a time when no one could have anticipated the second attack--everyone assumed the first hit was an accident--and a flood of evacuees from the South Tower might have complicated the rescue and firefighting efforts in the building that was already burning.

The one great tragic miscalculation of the week--the establishment of the fire command post at the base of the towers--was just an inevitable consequence of the way firefighters do their jobs. Commanders don't give orders from a safe spot down the block, or send their men into danger they're not prepared to face themselves. And the collapse of the two great towers--which had stood up to the massive 1993 bombing and the impact of the airplanes themselves, with a force one observer reckoned as a kiloton of high explosive--was inconceivable. Engineers later concluded that the thousand-degree heat of the burning jet fuel weakened the buildings' structures until they could no longer support the weight of the floors above. But the loss to the department known as New York's Bravest was unimaginable: nearly 3 percent of the entire force, including many of the most-experienced commanders.

Entire squads disappeared, including all six men manning Ladder Company 7 that morning, who had been out on another fire. They were called down to the site at around 9:10 a.m., and, their colleagues believe, ordered into the fiercely burning 2 World Trade Center. Although it was the second tower to be attacked, it fell first, just before 10 o'clock. Ladder 7 shared a firehouse with Engine 16, which had the relative good fortune to be assigned to the North Tower. Lt. Mickey Kross went to look for a commander on the 23d floor, but on the way he encountered a woman who had apparently been left behind in the evacuation; she was elderly and overweight and was having trouble breathing. She told him her name was Josephine. Just then there was a rumble, the sound of the South Tower collapsing. He ordered his men out, but he stayed behind with an officer from Engine One to help the woman down the stairs, one step at a time. They reached the fourth floor at 10:28, when, with "the loudest rumble I ever heard in my life," he said, the building collapsed around them. "I grabbed my helmet over my head and made myself into a small ball. I thought I was going to die." Somehow, he had landed into a small protected void, along with two other firefighters. Slowly over the next few hours the smoke began to clear, grayish light overhead turned into sunlight--"the most beautiful thing I've ever seen"--and sometime after 1 p.m. Kross crawled out triumphantly onto a heap of rubble. He's still wondering what happened to Josephine and the officer from Engine One.

Nearly 12 hours later a firefighter from Brooklyn, who didn't want to give his name, stood looking at the burning hulk of another building. "That building is a burned-out shell," he said wearily. "If it falls, it's falling this way, and I'm going the same way. Because I got four guys who as far as I know are gone. I know they were here and now they're not, and I've been looking for them all day. If they're in there, we're going in for them.

"We were playing golf today on Staten Island," he said. "We saw the plane. We came over on a bus. And now they're gone."

In hushed awe at the magnitude of the disaster, New Yorkers--who in more normal times can become completely unhinged at the presence of a single dead pigeon with West Nile virus--gathered around their beleaguered city. A hard-fought primary election for candidates to succeed Giuliani disappeared instantaneously from public view, along with most of the candidates, with the exception of Giuliani's clear favorite among the Democrats, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, who appeared constantly at the mayor's side. (The vote, which had actually gotten underway Tuesday morning, was rescheduled for Sept. 25.) In a city that always fancied itself the capital of the world, American flags sprouted everywhere. Knots of people stood at Greenwich Village street corners until past midnight, waving flags and loudly cheering empty dump trucks heading south. Teenagers tore sheets into makeshift dust masks for the rescue workers and handed out water and cookies.

Ironworkers, including many from the famed Local 40, whose members built the Twin Towers in the early 1970s, showed up to work 12-hour volunteer shifts, cutting steel with torches and pulling away the twisted remnants with cranes, so the rescuers could probe deeper into the rubble. To them, this was not just a civic disaster but a personal insult as well. "It sent chills through us when it went down," said Harry Connors, from Long Island's Local 361. A couple who had planned a small civil wedding for Thursday found themselves volunteering instead at the Red Cross missing-persons phone bank, so their fellow volunteers threw them a wedding, with a donated cake and champagne. Then, postponing their honeymoon in Vancouver--where they couldn't fly anyway--they went back to the phone lines.

But all the determination in the world couldn't make up for the fact that the rescue effort simply wasn't rescuing very many people. Hardly anyone was brought out alive after the first 24 hours, except for rescuers who themselves were hurt or momentarily trapped in the rubble. Rumors flew of mysterious sounds from deep in the wreckage, of phantom cell-phone calls, of buried cops firing off their weapons to attract attention--the latter, authorities said, probably the result of ammunition's exploding in the sporadic rubble fires. The plangent symbol of this particular catastrophe was not the yellow ribbon or the bouquet but the walls covered with homemade fliers seeking information about people who had gotten on a train or a bus Tuesday morning and never come home. Have you seen Mary Melendez, who worked for Fiduciary Trust on the 94th floor of the South Tower? If so, please contact her husband, Ramon, who last heard from her just before 9 a.m. on Tuesday. "Don't get scared," she told him, although he could tell she was starting to cry herself. "In case you watch the news. It wasn't my building."

"Just get out of there," Ramon ordered, but she replied: "I don't know if I can leave."

Melendez knew it could take hours to get out of the building so he waited patiently by the phone. By the end of the week he was still waiting, and wondering how long he could keep reassuring his two youngest sons, who are 6 and 8, that their mother was stuck in the city because the roads were blocked.

Most of the people seeking relatives, after making the rounds of the hospitals, went to the family contact center in a converted armory. There Jacqueline McCormick arrived Thursday night looking for information on her brother, Frederick Varacchi, 35, who was president of a subsidiary of Cantor Fitzgerald. The giant bond firm occupied four floors near the top of the North Tower. Cantor's president, Howard Lutnick, was interviewed by Connie Chung, barely able to hold back his tears; his own brother, Gary, is among the missing. Lutnick would have been at his desk himself at that hour, but it was his son's first day of kindergarten and he had delayed leaving for the office to take him to school. McCormick held a picture of her brother, taken just two weeks earlier at a wedding; he was beaming, in a tuxedo, and his wife and three young children were with him. Varacchi's sister had called him on his cell phone just after the first impact and he had answered. "My office is filled with smoke. I can't see. Please tell the children I love them," he said, before the connection went dead.

"We have quite a bit of hope that he could be alive," said McCormick's husband, Todd. "There could be air pockets. We've heard there's tapping on the steel, voices..." But they also know the other truth, after spending four hours filling out forms and submitting dental records and DNA-testing information. Still, they clung to the ray of hope offered by the detective who interviewed them, who mentioned that a Port Authority police officer fell with the building from above the 80th floor and survived with just a broken leg.

Is this possible? Could a person fall a thousand feet and land, still alive, in a heap among several hundred thousand tons of twisted metal? Amazingly, he could; in fact, it happened at least twice, to two Port Authority officers. Dr. Kenneth Testa, a trauma surgeon, had gone to the triage center after midnight on Wednesday--his 36th birthday--and was there around 1 a.m. when the call went out from the site for a surgeon. Rescue workers had found a man trapped in the rubble and feared they would have to amputate his leg to get him out, but after working for an hour and a half they managed to extricate him in one piece. "He was awake, alert, stable, talking," Testa told NEWSWEEK. "His lungs were clear. It's a miracle that he's alive. He rode that down all the way from the 86th floor." A little later that night Testa witnessed the rescue of another Port Authority cop who had been on the same floor, Sgt. John H. McLoughlin, who was listed in critical condition with kidney damage late last week, but whose prognosis was good.

Perhaps that could come as some sort of reassurance to Steve Miller, the man who saved himself by ignoring the all-clear on Tuesday morning. The only thing he could say about his future is that "I'm not going to work in a 100-story building ever again." Of course, he won't have to; probably, no one is going to build a 100-story building ever again. The real challenge for New York City will come in the weeks ahead, as the missing are converted to casualties and the strange emptiness in the downtown skyline ceases to draw stares. But no one doubted that, at least in the first few days after the unspeakable horror of Tuesday, it had passed its first awful test of the new century.

In "Grits, Guts and Rudy Giuliani" (SPECIAL REPORT, Sept. 24), we described the murder rate in New York as "surging." In fact, homicides, which rose slightly in 2000, are down 11 percent in 2001 and 68 percent since Giuliani became mayor. In "Ground Zero," we reported that two Port Authority police officers fell more than 80 floors and survived in the World Trade Center collapse. The Port Authority now believes that the officers reached the ground floor by foot before the towers fell. In "Love and Loss," we misspelled the surname of David Retik, who was a partner in a venture-capital firm. NEWSWEEK very much regrets these errors.

Join the Discussion