Most of the passengers on an early morning weekday flight from Chicago into LaGuardia are regulars on that run and they’re not on the plane for fun. No one talks. They’re reading the paper or working on laptops or catching up on some of the sleep they missed when the cab picked them up in pitch dark at 4AM.
This flight was different- for most of us it would be the first time landing in New York after the towers fell. It was the last week in September 2001, two weeks after 9/11. The plane was turning into its final descent and all the regulars knew that after that turn we were going to get our first glimpse of the New York skyline – the disfigured, empty New York skyline.
A tense murmur rose in the cabin. One man had his camera ready. I considered that myself but it seemed inappropriate, like taking pictures at a funeral. I took plenty of pictures later- what was left of the towers, still smoldering after two weeks. All the people, shell shocked. All the flags. Remember all the flags? I get a lump in my throat when I think of it now.
I always had the same reaction when the skyline came into view. From that angle, the Chrysler building and the Empire State looked like they were standing right next to each other. Vintage buildings of an earlier, more graceful era, facing downtown towards the tall, sleekly modern twin towers, like a pair of doting grandparents gazing upon their strapping young grandchildren.
Where the grandchildren had stood was all empty sky; only the grandparents remained, looking down on the wreckage.
In Manhattan, buildings, fences, signposts plastered with “Missing” flyers that were starting to peel – by that time their fate was known. The city was covered in red, white and blue; flashing neon flags lit Times Square. Vendors sold t-shirts and photos of the towers. Midtown bustled, seemingly normal and functional – except that everyone I spoke to wanted to tell me everything – exactly where they were, how they heard, what they saw and who they knew that got out or didn’t get out that morning – and I wanted to listen.
After conducting the day’s business I took the subway downtown and got off at the stop that was still marked World Trade Center. Just a few miles south the brilliant blue sky of Midtown was grey, there was still so much ash and dust in the air. The odor of burnt plastic was overpowering – all that remained of the contents of the buildings that had been incinerated.
The streets, the store fronts all closed – everything in the shuttered shop windows was covered in inches of ash, like a modern-day Pompeii. The streets were filled with people, some crying, some praying, some just walking around expressionless. The area immediately surrounding the buildings that had fallen was fenced off, about a square mile in all. Beyond the fences were admitted only the police, the Red Cross and the uniformed men and women of the National Guard. None of the stores or coffee shops were open, but on Wall Street, The New York Stock Exchange was in business, an enormous flag draped across the whole front of the building.
Behind the fences stood the wreckage of the towers. I stood there and watched them smolder for a while and then the whole scene simply became overpowering – the display cases of a jewelry store covered in inches of ash, the signs posted with faces of the missing people, the ashen sky and the atmosphere filled with toxins and pollutants you shouldn’t breathe – my head was pounding and my heart was breaking. I had to get out.
Tight lipped, face drawn, striding towards the subway I passed three young men. One of them looked at me and said “Smile. It’s not that bad.”
Yes it was.
Back in midtown, where the sky was blue and the air was clear, there were flags everywhere you looked. Times Square was lit up in neon of red white and blue.
And at night the Empire State Building, the grieving grandfather, showed his colors.