Osama bin Laden’s Death Doesn’t Solve Everything. But It Helps.


I remember a day with few clouds, a brilliant sun.

I used to live in an apartment that overlooked the Hudson river. I was holding a cup of coffee looking out the window. Just then, a passenger jet flew by. I said to myself, “That plane is low.” But I didn’t register the significance of that right away.

Back then, I was riding my rickety Miyata bicycle to work in Brooklyn federal court. I thought nothing of that low plane, until I turned to 14th Street and saw the towers on fire. For some reason, I thought it was something like an accident. Americans didn’t believe anyone would attack us, even after 1993. But both towers? Impossible.

I pedaled down toward Chambers and West streets. I remember the river of people, cast in ashes, walking up the bike path next to the West Side Highway, ashen, dust-choked, terrified.

I remember a police officer firing his weapon in the air to move a recalcitrant motorist. “Move your fucking car!” he screamed. At that moment, the first tower gave a vast, sickly rumble and fell. A police officer yelled, “Go, go, go,” and everyone ran, me included.

I circled back to Chambers and West, and then the second tower fell, and this time I slipped past the police cordon and made my way toward the damage.

I remember a colleague dressed in purple and white emerging from the smoke and waving. Behind him, debris from the towers had ripped the face off 7 World Trade Center.

I remember encountering a firefighter confused and injured and alone, dazed and covered in dust, talking to himself.

I remember other firefighters stretching a hose from the river toward the fires.

I remember a grief-stricken firefighter wielding an iron bar like a club against a circle of foreign photographers. “Get the fuck out of here,” he screamed.

I remember Pete Hayden, one of the few senior Fire Department officials to survive the collapses, climbing on a rig and addressing several dozen firefighters. “OK, let’s see who we have left,” he said. I remember a firefighter reciting a list of the companies that were gone.

I remember a pile of roasted cash lying on Liberty Street that nobody would touch.

I remember three paramedics sitting on the sidewalk in exhaustion. No, they didn’t feel like talking.

I remember a firefighter talking on the last working pay phone behind the World Financial Center, trying to tell his son what had happened.

I remember seven bodies brought initially from the wreckage. They had been covered in blood-soaked sheets. Adults so crushed they had become child-sized, they were left on the sidewalk under a pedestrian bridge at the World Financial Center, while a temporary morgue was set up a few blocks away.

I remember sharing a set of headphones with someone and listening to President Bush’s speech that night, words that began the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

I remember leaving to go home sometime after 2 a.m., as a column of grim-faced firefighters arrived to relieve their brethren.

I remember asking a fellow reporter how I looked, and he just laughed and said, “Forget about it.”

I remember reaching my apartment and embracing my wife. She was so happy I was alive. It was only then, when I saw the videos of the planes striking the tower, that I felt that sense of shock all over again. It took at least an hour in the shower to scrub the chalky white dust off my body.

I remember that I got up the next morning and went back to work, but I couldn’t get back into the site. Mayor Giuliani dubbed it a crime scene and sealed it. Meanwhile, he and his aides gave guided tours to dignitaries and celebrities.

A fellow reporter told me how he waited at St. Vincent’s Hospital for an expected flood of wounded, but few people came—save the terrified relatives and friends of the dead and missing.

More than 2,750 people were killed, including 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority police officers, and 23 NYPD cops, including John Perry, a man that I knew. The fires burned for three months.

The toxic nature of the site—the dust and gases—contributed to illnesses and deaths among thousands of police officers, firefighters, and construction workers. But the government resisted the warning bells for years, until the damage was done.

I remember the outpouring of support and the flood of volunteers who arrived in Manhattan. I remember spending the next evening at the Police Academy and watching Giuliani embrace a woman who was looking for her paramedic husband. She handed him a photograph, and he said a few quiet words to her.

I remember sitting with construction workers in a makeshift cafeteria and listening to them talk about their back-breaking work on the pile. I remember interviewing shop owners who said their stores had been looted in the days and weeks that followed the collapses.

I remember interviewing a fire safety worker at the trade center, who had saved himself from death by crawling under
a truck.

I remember traveling to Circleville, New York, to interview a man who had worked at the towers, but who refused to set foot back inside Manhattan. He had moved his family to Circleville because it was outside the blast radius of a nuclear explosion.

I remember interviewing relatives of the dead, and helping to perpetuate their very public grieving process. In hindsight, I wish we reporters had left them alone. Instead, year after year, we go back to them and ask them once again, “How did it feel?” I was actually glad when, almost two years later, my newspaper took me off the 9/11 beat.

Today, the site is a construction zone, and unfortunately, a kind of ghoulish tourist attraction.

Ten years later, Osama bin Laden is finally dead, and I have to admit feeling satisfied, and astonished that all these memories came back so clearly as if no time had passed at all.