Ground Zero, the Day After

A pilgrimage to the "ash-covered canyon" that was once the World Trade Center

I am at the foot of the smoking wreck, Building Seven. This is ground zero, the heart of the blast zone.

I know maybe I shouldn't be here. But after two days in the city, interviewing families, victims, officers, and relief workers, and after having ridden the elevator with the mayor as he returned to his command center from the wreckage on that first night, silent, covered in soot, mouth turned down, eyes sick with grief, something has drawn me here. There have been no reports yet from the inside; no time in the chaos of these early hours to bear witness.

The city block is an ash-covered canyon. Buildings on either side rise silent and black, their windows shattered. Two fire fighters on extension ladders in front of the mountain of rubble fade in and out of vision between waves of purple-gray smoke and hissing steam, spraying impossibly small arcs of water across the wreckage. Water trickles beneath my feet, mingling with ash and shards of broken glass in a gritty mud paste.

Everywhere is frantic activity: men, shirtless and sweating and covered in ash, kneeling in mud, nailing together two-by-fours; grim processionals of helmeted fire fighters hauling supplies in all directions; officers leading search teams of lanky German Shepherds through the rubble; contractors in dust masks and orange construction vests gesticulating wildly in front of giant Caterpillar bulldozers.

An unmarked white eighteen-wheeler stands parked by the World Financial Center with its back doors open, two orange body bags laid out in the refrigerated interior. Not many body bags are being brought in tonight. Those that do come are often only half full, sagging limply in the middle. They are carried out from the debris through a passageway that connects two of the World Financial Center's buildings.

Passing through that dark corridor, now illuminated only by a string of construction lights, I see testaments to quick flight: half-kneaded dough on a sandwich-shop counter, bearing the imprints of a hand; coffee cups and half-eaten danishes scattered across a café table; chairs pushed back in alarm. Fire fighters drag a length of hose past red beaded party dresses in a clothing boutique's window display. Further down the corridor, the vaulted glass atrium over the Financial Center's enclosed courtyard has been blasted inward and is now a small mountain of debris. But the courtyard's palm trees remain, standing tall and whitened by ash in the dark above deserted tables and benches.

Behind the atrium, the North Cove Yacht Harbor's boardwalk is blanketed with glass shards and singed paper. Boats, covered in debris, remain moored to the dock, bobbing gently on the water, unperturbed by the inland devastation. I follow a female police officer to the third floor of a nearby building to use the toilets. There is no electricity and she leads with a flashlight. The plumbing has been shut off too, we discover when we arrive, and the toilets give off a stench that brings tears to my eyes.

Back outside, firefighters fan out in teams, sliding across the girders and beams, prodding the ground, looking for bodies, guided only by the smell of death. But the odor is everywhere, and there are many false alarms—"Got one here, chief!"—a team descends, search dogs are brought in, a frantic digging ensues, yielding nothing, a scrap of skin, a leg.

In the center of the debris field lie two fire engines and an ambulance—the early response unit—crushed beneath piping, drywall, metal casings, insulation wire, shoes, parts of water coolers, printer paper, crushed metal garbage cans, and an endless array of reinforced steel bars.

By 5:30 a.m. many firefighters have succumbed to exhaustion and lie sprawled on makeshift cots and chairs in the triage areas, some curled in fetal position with dust masks still on, oblivious to the howling bulldozers not twenty yards from them.

I, too, am tired—exhaustion has seeped in, unnoticed in the adrenaline-doped hours of the night. My bones feel ground, my nose numb from dust and asbestos.

I bike home from Manhattan into Brooklyn at midnight on Thursday, just as the first cold thunderstorm of autumn is unleashed overhead. I ride hell-bent along barren sidewalks through the pouring rain. For the first time in days I am clean. There are no cars—no life anywhere. I pedal through the streets of Brooklyn, passing the silent red brick façade of St. Mary Star of the Sea, the church where Al Capone was christened. Through the dark twisting trees, a yellow light shines in the vestibule, the front doors are open, and a handwritten sign out front beckons: "Please come in, we're open."

—Petra Bartosiewicz