Are You OK?

Trying to Get the Word Out From the Surreal City in Disaster

Ruth Ford: "My boyfriend, Kerby Neill, works at One Liberty Plaza. He felt a rumble, saw the shadow of the first plane, stood up, and saw the crash. He called and told me not to worry, he was being evacuated. (Unknown to her he walked home to Park Slope.) When I heard that the second tower had been hit, I ran for the subway. The train stopped in the tunnel and people freaked. The first building had fallen, but we didn't know. They cut off the air because of the dust. When we finally got out, there was ash everywhere. At the top of the stairs, I saw a man collapsed in a corner, his nose clogged with ash, hyperventilating, and someone helping him. I was just standing there and the building rumbled.

"I panicked, running for the glass doors. The security people shouted at me to stop, and then all this debris started raining down. I thought when I went outside that it was the apocalypse. First it was gray ash; you couldn't see 10 feet in front of you. Then black ash. The sun was a hard tiny dot. I don't think I accepted it until I was walking across the Manhattan Bridge and I looked and the towers were gone."

According to a reporter, people wandering near City Hall were grabbing handfuls of the asbestos-laden ash to take home. One phone call at home: Cliff, my nephew and a doctor, had been treating patients evacuated to Jersey City, burns mostly.

E-mail from Arnim: " . . . We have slaughtered innocents throughout our history—from the Indians through the slaves . . . all to gain economic advantage and signal repression. We have turned former oppressed colonials of color into alleged "terrorists," and the technology has empowered these individuals to wield a level of power and destruction once reserved as the exclusive province of the state. Now, there are thousands of people waiting in line to be the next suicide bomber. DuBois's conclusion about the color line being the the hallmark of the last century is still appropriate. Remember, we A-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

Being here means facing the unreality of victims who failed to appear during torturous days of digging, waiting, listening. We face the prospect that thousands share a mass grave, a hole blasted seven stories deep into the city's foundation. It's a grave shared with our founders, for right there are the remains of Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans, as well as the remains of centuries-old wooden ships.

Buddhist service book: "Compassion does away with the distinctions between self and other. When one sees the illusory nature of man, true compassion arises."

E-mail from Grace Bastidas: "This is a list of things needed by rescue crews: lip balm, aspirin/Tylenol, saline solution, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, combs, Neosporin . . . "

E-mail from Geoff: "You know how they said they were evacuating everything south of Canal . . . what about "the Tombs" [the Metropolitan Correctional Center]? You think they evacuated those people?" And, "New York is frantically calling manufacturers upstate to make more body bags, according to one bag producer in Binghamton, my Uncle Wayne."

Wednesday, people were collecting clothes, especially socks. I took a subway, a cab, and a walk to get to work. I crossed a barricade at Union Square into the frozen zone. As the day went on, the smell became more acrid. The wind shifted and blew smoke north through the length of Manhattan. I tied a scarf over my face.

Bastidas: "Buckets, rubbing alcohol, scissors, deodorant, disposable razors, shaving cream, towels, washcloths, sheets, blankets, SOCKS . . . "

Ron Catenanova, who works in my building, tells me he's got three sons who've been down there digging the whole time: William, 38, an engineer; Jeffrey, 37, a crane operator, and Adam, 30, a firefighter. He says their feet are very blistered and are constantly wet.

E-mail from Robert Kasner: "Was on a plane to Seattle over Manhattan after WTC was struck. Saw smoke but didn't know. During the flight I noted that we seemed to be going faster than normal. Diverted to Detroit. Once landed, I saw other planes landing but none taking off. Went outside for a smoke, saw a security man who was listening to a radio and said only: 'New York is under attack, the WTC was destroyed, we're at war.'

"Tried calling my wife but circuits were down. Thinking she might be dead, or hurt, and that I needed to get home. Finally called my mom in Minnesota, who had heard from my wife Tricia that she was OK. I rented a car with two strangers: a woman from Florida and a French male fashion model. We drove straight through in 10 hours and waited at the Goethals Bridge another 10 hours."

Thursday, a day of 90 bomb threats. At work, I got upgraded to a dust mask.

That night there was an impromptu vigil in Union Square. People improvised speeches, not knowing what to say. An NYU student named Jordan Shuster had laid butcher paper down on the pavement Tuesday, and for days he had scribbled a diary of messages on it. A Larry Mitchell had added, "I write this to all the people who no longer ride the subways, walk the streets, complain about the traffic . . . these people whom I never knew, but shared a seat on the train at some point." A few messages were crossed out, like "Stop the Hate! Stop the Immigrants!" A question was asked, "God?" and answered, "God!"

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