War zone a surreal haze;

pictures 'don't begin to convey the horror'

By Jason Shepard

The Capital Times, September 13, 2001

 

NEW YORK CITY — Today I head back to my classroom in the South Bronx to explain the unexplainable to my seventh-grade students — some likely with relatives among the presumed dead in the rubble of what used to be the World Trade Center.

 

This city of 8 million people has been turned upside down by madmen who aimed to attack the freedom of America. To a degree they succeeded. This city has forever been changed.

 

I'd heard several people say that southern Manhattan looks like a war zone, but it wasn't until I saw it with my own eyes on Wednesday that I truly believed it. The pictures on television don't begin to convey the true horror of what has happened here.

 

My journalistic instincts drew me out of my apartment Wednesday, after New York City schools were shut down, and I spent about six hours walking around Soho, Greenwich Village and Tribeca -- the three neighborhoods just north of the World Trade Center buildings.

 

To the north, the bright blue sky gave the appearance of a beautiful late summer day in the Big Apple. But to the south, dark clouds of smoke covered the sky where the twin towers once stood.

 

As if the images were coming from the wartime Balkans, scores of people walked the streets with shirts and scarves covering their faces to prevent them from choking on the dusty air. Many people had white masks covering their faces. As I returned to my apartment in Washington Heights late Wednesday, on the northern half on the island, my eyes stung and I couldn't stop coughing.

 

The city was eerily silent Wednesday, as if the majority of New Yorkers had packed their bags and left town. The southern third of the island, below Houston Street, was closed to traffic, and people were slowly strolling the streets in a daze. The hustle and bustle that characterizes this busy city were nowhere to be seen. The only sounds were emergency vehicles, which sped by in every direction. Occasionally I would hear a fighter jet overhead.

 

It was simply surreal. 

 

I started my morning on West Street, which runs along the Hudson River across from New Jersey. That is where authorities are using ferries to transport the bodies of those who are found in the piles of steel and debris.

 

I met up with a television news crew from WKOW/Channel 27, and it was a nice reunion to see former colleagues from Madison. The small hellos to familiar faces were a little more significant after an "act of war" happened not far from my home.

 

At Pier 40, the media were organized by the New York City Police Department, and from there we could see the south Manhattan skyline up close, covered with clouds of smoke. It is breathtaking to see the gaping hole in the skyline that is left in the absence of New York City's two tallest buildings.

 

The West Side Highway is being used as the main thoroughfare for emergency vehicles, and for blocks New Yorkers lined the streets to applaud every truck that drove by. Between the applause, no one really talked to each other.

 

I spotted one young woman sitting alone on a piece of concrete. She was applauding each time a truck passed by.

 

"This is my city. I don't know what else to do," Claudine Zamor, 30, told me when I asked her what brought her out to the streets.

 

"I tried to volunteer today but they told me they didn't need any more. I just felt like I should be here to show my support. You feel kind of helpless just sitting in front of your TV."

 

I asked her if she was afraid.

 

"I'm not going to live my life in fear," she said. "It just makes me sad that our society has come to this, that someone is so disturbed to be able to do this."

 

I sat next to her for a while, watching the trucks of relief workers, police officers and firefighters go by. Then I walked along Houston Street, which runs west to east on the island and is about 20 blocks north of "Ground Zero." It was the point at which authorities stopped letting people walk south.

 

I walked past an elderly man who was carrying a 6-foot pole with a full-size American flag. He didn't want to talk to me when I approached him and asked why he was out today. "There were a lot of people who died yesterday just because they were Americans," he said with a scowl before walking away. I wondered if he was a veteran, maybe a survivor of war himself.

 

There were many stories like this. In Washington Square Park, a popular hangout in Greenwich Village, hundreds of New Yorkers tried to enjoy the beautiful day but could only stand the dirty air for short periods of time. A group of about 50 people gathered near a fountain and shared stories about people they knew who worked at the World Trade Center. A middle-aged couple sat holding hands on a park bench while reading the Daily News with its screaming headline, "IT'S WAR."

 

Nearby, three wilting sunflowers were stuck on a metal fence in a make-shift memorial. Next to them was a sheet of white lined notebook paper on which someone had written in block letters, "Life goes on. It's just a little different than before."

 

Today I'm hanging an American flag in my classroom. It just seems like the right thing to do. I don't quite know how to talk about this attack with my kids, but I do know that I have to. On Tuesday afternoon, I decided I couldn't teach my lessons anymore. I needed to know what was happening to our country. My students huddled around a radio. Clearly they didn't understand the magnitude of what had happened. But the questions started to quickly come.

 

"If terrorists took over the airplanes and drove them into the World Trade Center, wouldn't they die too?" David asked me. "I don't understand it. Why would they want to die?"

 

Lashanya, another student, asked me another question that I struggled to answer.

"Why does someone hate America so much that they would fly an airplane into the World Trade Center and kill people?"

 

How do you explain this to seventh-graders when you can't find a rational answer for yourself?

The front pages of the Daily News and New York Post on September 12, 2001.