Face to face with the hellhole of ‘ground zero’

NEW YORK – The initial feeling one has on approaching ground zero – the bombed out shell of the World Trade Center – is the knowledge that below the cataclysm, the crushed bodies of thousands of people are buried. The first sight that meets the eye is the yawning gap where the Twin Towers once soared up into the sky. A wide area around the ruins in southern Manhattan has been completely blocked off. To get inside, one has to pass through more than 10 checkpoints manned by New York Police, state police and the army. A red pass is issued only by the city mayor’s office, and no other document is valid for entry, although one also needs an ID showing one’s business there. Hundreds of trucks Once through the first roadblock, there is almost no vehicle traffic other than police cars, which are everywhere, along with hundreds of huge trucks waiting in an endless line to fill up with amorphous masses of debris. Metals go to one place, other material to another. Other open trucks transport sections of the huge cranes that are assembled on site. The tension rises as one gets closer; the atmosphere is electrified. Water gushes from hoses, cranes bedecked with the Stars and Stripes loom overhead. All trucks are washed down with high pressure hoses to remove all trace of the carcinogenic asbestos dust from the ruined buildings, before they move out through Manhattan. Three weeks after the terrorist attack, the ruins are still smoking, making the eyes itch and the lungs ache. The air is cool, but the ground is warm. The situation at ground zero is unbelievable, comparable only to scenes in Hollywood disaster movies, plus the smell of charred flesh and smoke, the ashes that cling to your clothes and the countless noises constitute the dull throb of this hellhole. Even though human remains have been removed from the upper level, there are still the notes on scraps of paper, personal effects, computers and office fans, everything that escaped the flames and the tons of debris. You can always walk away from a Hollywood film or make fun of it, but not so for ground zero. You take it with you, along with the realization that if the terrorists managed to cause so much destruction in the heart of New York, no place in the world can feel safe. Part of the external wall of the second tower that is still standing has been secured by four wires to four large cranes that are pulling it down with all their might. The entire area has been cleared up to 100 meters away. After about 20 minutes of work, the job is done. The victims of the attack are mostly those who were above the 60th floors. There could be more in the subway trains that were passing underneath when the towers collapsed. There could have been many many more victims if the terrorists had aimed the planes lower down on the towers. Most of those who were on floors below the crash sites managed to get out, yet all of those who were above the point of impact were killed. Judging from the state of the many specimens of human remains at surface level, very few recognizable remains are expected to be found lower down. However, when excavations reach even further down, where the fire might not have reached, some bodies might be found undamaged. The real apocalypse will emerge slowly and will last for a long time, revealing more and more unpleasant surprises. Teams working together The central section has been cleared to let the crews work. First are the engineers who judge the risk factor in entering a particular area and decide where the cranes can be placed. Engineers go down into the basements, with no guarantee that they will get out alive, or stand under half-ruined supports that might not last much longer. Then there are the fire-fighters, today’s great American heroes, the people who ran inside the burning buildings to get people out. After fighting for days to save anyone who might still be alive under the rubble, putting out the fires and mourning their own lost colleagues, they have now begun the terrible task of collecting bodies and body parts. The third body of crews working at the site are the workers removing the rubble, a dangerous task as their next step could prove fatal. The danger is from the towers’ six basements that have a perimeter wall that was supported internally by the floors that have now collapsed. Engineers fear that the exterior walls could crack under the pressure of the river water or the cranes working above ground. If that happens, the list of victims will grow. In some areas, workers are proceeding as cautiously as if they were excavating an archaeological site. In the real city around the ruined towers, life has come to a standstill as schools have closed and many people have left their homes. Within a few days, they were replaced by thousands of tireless people – firefighters, police officers, soldiers, workers, engineers, drivers, canteen workers, medical personnel and many other professionals united in a common purpose. Most are working 12-hour shifts and everyone appears to be taking their job to heart. There are of course, some rare exceptions. Just a few days ago, the driver of one of the trucks removing metal from the site was caught trying to sell his cargo. He was sent straight to jail. Then there are the ordinary people, the few residents who have access to the end of Canal Street, a few hundred meters away from ground zero, who come out every day to welcome the crowds of workers entering the site, cheering them on. The restaurants have been voluntarily handing out free food to the army of people wearing the red badges. Most taxi drivers are also letting the crews ride free of charge. Money and care packages have been coming in from all over the United States. The terrorists have already lost their dirty war. They have been defeated not so much by American or European weapons but by the soul of these people and the soul of all free people in the world who fortunately are slowly realizing that they don’t have to experience the same things in their country, town or family in order to get angry with these killers. That is what counts: to let the terrorists know they cannot win. That is the message coming out of the millions of tons of debris in Manhattan, and the more than 5,000 people who are fighting so that within five years, what has been destroyed will be rebuilt, in reality as well as symbolically. Two greatest fears New York is in a state of siege of unknown duration. There are two major fears – possible attacks on the city’s bridges and tunnels and the fear of biological warfare. The authorities have thrown a tight security blanket over the city, checking every vehicle that enters Manhattan on a 24-hour basis, guarding tunnels and the foundations of the bridges. The police are everywhere. Guarding against biological weapons is more difficult. Gas masks are impossible to find and much talk is about how to react if such a thing does happen.The media have refrained from discussing this so as not to spread panic. Meanwhile, as strange as it may seem, life is slowly returning to the city. The question is, however, whether it will ever be the same again.

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