Notes From Ground Zero


NOTE — On duty at Ground Zero in the days after the World Trade Center attacks, NYPD Officer Paul Mauro kept jotting down notes and stuffing them into his pockets.  He knew, eventually, he would write about the events unfolding around him.

Fittingly, I suppose, it was one of my fellow cops who managed to sum up what it was about New York that seemed most different to me following the attacks.  He’s an officer I know only slightly, a no-nonsense veteran I’d see around the station house from time to time.  I’d never really spoken to him much.  But as I stood at the edge of Ground Zero, contemplating the hundreds of workers scratching at the still-steaming mountains, he materialized beside me.  “Amazing,” he said, following the lines of hardhats snaking up and – literally – into the debris.  “This town’s gone from the white-collar capital of the world to the blue-collar capital in one day.”

Or maybe that’s just how it seems to us, from where we’ve been in the middle of all this.  Most of the time, as a cop in this city, you feel tolerated at best; suddenly, people we don’t know, wearing more than we make in a month, are treating us with the deference usually reserved for the family at a wake.  Much of the public’s gone quiet around us.  A few nights after the attacks, a woman on North Moore Street took one look at me in my dirty uniform, started crying, and silently handed me an apple.  It was a moment so charged with metaphor, I got confused; I couldn’t even thank her.  I’m sure she thinks now I was an ungrateful asshole.

You want to hear a strange truth?  There’s a part of the cop psyche that’s tremendously uncomfortable with all this.  What happens when we have to go back to writing tickets?  What happens when the apple woman hears I took her brother in on an old turnstile warrant he’d forgotten about?  In other words, what happens when it’s business-as-usual again?

But that’s the thing, this time.  That’s the big change my married colleague nailed.  This one is so big, business-as-usual may never return.  And forget the public, that’s not who I mean.  The real change is probably – had better be — in us.  If Osama Bin Laden has reminded America of who we are as a nation, he’s reminded New York’s cops of who we are as well.


The lockdown around Ground Zero happens fairly quickly, and is reasonably orderly; years of dealing with crowd control situations in a city that never likes to be told what to do has taught the Police Department this much.  Where I am, situated just north of “The Site” as it’s already known by the afternoon of Day One, is primarily a checkpoint; by that night, I will see ID and shields from every local, state, and federal agency I’ve ever heard of, and a few I haven’t.

But it is the Police Department that is running things on the ground, and we know it.  I shine my flashlight into the faces of dour men who say they are “with State” in order to match them with their State Department ID cards, and I make FBI officials turn on their interior lights so I can inspect the inside of their autos.  I can’t help it; irrational as it may be, right now I feel this is my city that’s been attacked, and these guys are interlopers showing up late to further screw things up.

There are other things, too, to remind me that no matter how international an event this is supposed to be, to us it’s local.  On the afternoon of Day One, when I’m told by a Captain that our corner is to be set up as the primary triage center for survivors, I face a typical New York City dilemma: how do a handful of cops clear half a city block of people who are certain they have to be here?

Delicately.  Because even with the feeling that we’ve entered something new, that today all the pettiness of the past is to be swept aside, it gets ugly.  A training Sergeant once told me, when I got assigned to Manhattan Borough, that I had to expect the public to be difficult here: “In Manhattan, everybody thinks they’re the most important person on Earth,” he’d said (alas, that’s often true of the police as well).  By the time it’s dark, I’ve had so many locals give me a hard time for keeping them out of the “frozen zone” below the triage center, I’m no longer amazed by it.  Two different neighborhood residents actually choose to ignore my pleas to keep the area clear for body removal just so they can walk their dogs, hideous little designer creatures I have to restrain myself from punting into New Jersey.  Perhaps the shock has yet to take hold; this group hasn’t quite “gone quiet” around us yet.

And the volunteers!  They come in droves, ragtag groups of them drifting up to the checkpoint, young men and women in their twenties mostly, yearning to do the right thing, to help mitigate the devastation somehow, and clearly they’re genuine, their faces show it, there’s shock and pain, concern and everything else you’d expect.  But when told there’s really nothing for them to do here, that they should report to the Jacob Javits Center where volunteer details are being organized and assigned, most balk; they don’t want to walk all the way up to 35th Street, what with the subways not running.  So they encamp all over, but primarily along the West Side Highway, sitting on the grass in little groups, turning the night of Day One into a sort of crisis Woodstock.

And then late into that first night, when we’ve been standing on the same corner for about 14 hours without being sure of what’s to come next and what day we’ll finally get home and of how completely our lives might be changed, two studious-looking young women separate from the volunteer army and approach us tentatively, and on my lips is yet another demand that they get back behind the police lines, and that if they want to help they should go to Javits and stop hanging around to ogle the show, but the words catch in my throat and my alarm rises vaguely when I see one of them is gingerly carrying a box.  And she’s on me before I can protest, right up to me and my partner, and she asks us, in what I take to be some sort of European exchange-student lilt, if we’re hungry, and tells us that she and her roommate were watching it all on television and have made peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches for us, if we want them.  Which we do, desperately.  And looking into the box, I see that in each sandwich bag is a little note, sometimes in less-than-perfect English, with a simple message on it: “Thank you for your bravery” and “God bless you.” And so I have the first of what will be many moments, familiar to all Americans by now, when I find it difficult to speak.

An old man who I see now is with them pours us coffee from a huge thermos he’s carrying.  And while over the coming weeks I will often be wet and uncomfortable and nearly always very, very tired, I’ll never be hungry or thirsty again, so well will we be cared for.

After four hours of attempted sleep, during which I imagine I can hear my nerve-endings humming to each other, I’m back for the evening of Day Two.

At some point during the early morning of the second day, a grim reality was accepted: there was no real need for any emergency triage centers.  The degree of destruction is so great, there are very few wounded.  By this time, you are either one of the lucky ones, or you are not.

As a result, scores of well-meaning health professionals have gone home, and so my triage site is now simply a checkpoint manned by unfamiliar cops from a different precinct.  I pass through it heading south; I’ve been assigned to a site over by the river.  Where I discover that, where there is no triage, there will be a morgue.

I’ve been to the Bellevue morgue before, at various times for various reasons.  As everybody concurs, it’s not the sights, it’s the smells; the medicinal rush of disinfectant jumps you first, but then, around the edges, the fishy, sickly sweet odor of human decay creeps in.  This morgue, a tent about the size of a classroom, has all that, but here it lies beneath a chalky construction-site vapor that sits stubbornly over Ground Zero.  So it’s not going to be as bad as I thought, I decide when I duck into the tent.  That goddamn smell won’t be here.

And it’s not, it’s not as bad as I thought, it’s not the life-altering experience one might expect.  Perhaps because I’ve seen before just how hostile the world can be to human bodies — the results of car accidents, forgotten corpses in summer sublets, shotgun suicides — or perhaps because I’m braced.  Or perhaps because the smell inside the tent really isn’t all that different from outside it, the morgue is not the shattering experience it might have been.  Still, there are scenes.  The routine on Day Two, as workers have just begun to prod at the rubble, is essentially this: a group of eight or so professionals, comprised of Medical Examiner, Fire Department Paramedic, Police Department Captain, two chaplains, and various attendants, all hunch on folding chairs awaiting the next arrival.  They are all in that altered state of consciousness created by lack of sleep, the adrenaline of crisis, and torrents of caffeine.  The wait can take as long as two hours; other times, removals come in bunches.  Then the call will go up outside the tent, from others seeing a rescue worker arriving while holding aloft a body bag: “Body coming in!  Heads up.  Body coming!”  The fact that a single worker can carry the body bag gives some indication of what’s inside.

 Now all in the tent are on their feet.  The rescue worker (who by now can be from any of a dozen different agencies) lugs the bag onto a table comprised of a sheet stretched over a pane of plywood.  Immediately, we crowd around, all our heads bending to the bag.  Will it be a cop?  A fireman?  Will it be identifiable?  And: Will it be some horror I will never forget?

The Fire Department EMT, a female in her thirties who’d been chain smoking until the bag arrived, is all business now as she unzips the opaque black plastic of the bag.  Inside, for some reason, another bag, of some thinner plastic; this she cuts away with a short scissors.

This is human? is my first thought as her gloved hands begin to sift the bag’s contents.  How could they tell?  But then I see it.  Within a mat of gray dust and paper fragments stuck in place and strangely unburnt, a latticework of ribs.  No blood or flesh, nothing that is not simply gray and woolly with ash.

Only occasionally is there more than this.  One bag reveals a suitably red-and-bloody pulp of viscera, a white intestine snaking obscenely through it.  Beside it and unconnected, a perfectly formed and unmarred human foot.  A woman’s; the toenails are painted a heartbreaking violet.

And this, eventually, is what shocks you, what sits you down with a nauseated, displaced feeling of a world spinning awry.  Not the gore, or the lack of it.  But the small details, the things that point most tellingly to the fragile human lives caught in the maelstrom.

Because these details, actually, are what I’m doing here to begin with.  On the other side of this same tent, behind a table hauled from a hotel cafeteria, is the “Property Section,” where a team of five or so cops is tagging, cataloguing, and bagging anything identifiable that might be linked later to one of the dead.  Through the “make do” atmosphere that obtains at Ground Zero at this point, I’ve been picked up as part of this team, because I can type.

And the Property Section is an endless series of these telling details; it’s far, far tougher than viewing body remains.  Where morgue duty seems to deal only with rough outlines of people, small, broken, nearly irrelevant facsimiles of what they once were, the property somehow manages to capture them, captures their lives and personalities.

At one point I get a leather shoulder bag containing a Management textbook and a notebook.  The textbook has a woman’s name scripted on the frontispiece in a graceful, feminine hand, the notebook her weekly classes written into the scheduling grid.  They’re all evening classes; she was going to night school.  There are little reminders and exhortations written beside the schedule: “Keep up with the reading!” and “Study for this the night before.”  There are wallets stuffed with photos, company ID’s with bashful smiles, handwritten rolodexes.  A gym bag with boxing gloves and a mouthpiece is set aside; the mouthpiece will be tested for the DNA in saliva traces.  You wonder: How could these items survive intact, and their owners be so completely erased?

Then there are the cell phones.  If there is one dilemma facing the property cops, it is the question of what to do with a working cell phone.  The argument ensues every time a worker off the bucket brigade brings one in.  Undeniably, hitting the “send” button will give the owner’s last call, and thus help with identification.  But at what cost to the call’s recipient?  And who will be the one to make that call, to risk raising false hopes among family members or friends, who will be receiving a phone call from a dead person?

Compared with the property, morgue duty, as brutal as it is, feels like going through the motions.


By Day Three things still feel far from normal, but a kind of routine has settled in downtown.  The site now has a bivouac feel, replete with a no-nonsense, almost frontier spirit, as workers attack their work resolute and uncomplaining.  Various agencies contribute to this atmosphere by taking up residence in blown-out storefronts.  A Burger King has “NYPD Command Center” spray-painted over its sign; inside, a wall has been ripped out and a bank of television screens have been installed, for what purpose down here I can’t imagine.  Down the block, the FD flies a flag over its command station, at Ladder 10.  A shattered storefront between these two has been draped with a green tarp and turned into the construction-worker brain center.  Around the block, FEMA has taken over an empty drug store.  And everywhere one looks there are little aid stations set up to make life more tolerable for the workers.  We can eat in any of a half-dozen tents, get medicines, rest, even massages from a licensed chiropractor.  A man next to a truck with a satellite dish atop it hands me a free cell phone, and tells me I can call anywhere in the country for as long as I want.  (I use it to return the numerous calls I’ve received from long-lost acquaintances who have called from all over to see if I’m okay).  A feeling begins that we are our own city down here, a city-within-the-City; reports of political maneuvers in Washington and bomb scares at the Empire State Building seem to filter through to us from some distant homefront.  Yet despite this, we are all suddenly hyper-aware of our shared country; the place is supercharged with an American-ness that I imagine is normally unique to soldiers overseas in hostile territory.

We’re digging now, anybody who can.  It’s still only Day Three, and the chances of finding somebody alive are, in theory, still there.  It’s a cyclical process; you pull carefully at the impossibly antagonistic tangle of metal and concrete, until eventually a major beam or girder is exposed.  Then the ironworkers, who are fast becoming the front line of the rescue effort, hook a crane line up to the girder, and hoist it free.  Then you start again.  Anything you discover of any possible value – property, a possible plane part, or yes, a body part – goes into a bucket you carry with you.  The body parts go into a body bag, and everything goes to the morgue tent.

There is something almost mythic in the sight of the cranes in operation.  At one point, I look up from the wreckage to see an ironworker descending from the heavens directly above me, poised atop a huge metal hook at the end of a crane cable.  He is as nonchalant as if he were tinkering with his car, instead of dropping from several hundred feet to root among the still-smoldering wreckage of history’s worst terrorist attack.  Behind him, the red arm of a derrick scrapes the sky.  I think again of my colleague’s “white collar to blue collar” remark.

Among the cops working down here now, a subtle distinction has emerged; the “photo-takers” versus the “non-photo-takers.”  Some feel the attacks are an important historical event, something we should vow to “never forget,” and so the scene down at Ground Zero should be documented as much as possible, from every conceivable angle.  Others, myself included, find this slightly distasteful, and would as soon forget these sights, once (and if ever) all this is eventually over.  It’s not just among my group that this argument occurs.  More than once, I hear officers telling their buddies to “put that fuckin’ camera away.”

A crane, off to my right, is noisily hoisting a half-melted girder the length of a school bus free of the rubble when a chorus of despair goes up from the workers nearby.  Something of it tugs the corner of my eye, and I turn just in time to catch the slightest glimpse.  It is a corpse, a young woman, or rather the top-half of one, stuck to the top of the big metal beam as it’s pulled free.  Her arm flaps free once, a dumb, disembodied wave; then the weight of her torso exerts itself and she falls free, disappearing anonymously back into the wreckage.  Go ahead – take a goddamn picture of that I can’t help but think.

That night, many hours later and away from the dig sites, I walk through this mini-city, passing through armies of unfamiliar uniforms, regional American accents, cops with cadaver dogs.  There are little still-lifes of Con Ed workers sitting in the street under lamps, entwining great arteries of multicolored wires, and far above me, a strange tinkling sound; the FD guys are up in the World Financial Center, where my aunt used to cut million-dollar deals, methodically knocking out all the windows so that a later wind doesn’t dislodge dangerous shards of glass.  It’s raining now, and the ash and dirt have turned to a ubiquitous copper mud.  I pass a bedraggled group of New York firemen and find, in my NYPD uniform, that I can’t even meet their eyes; I feel vaguely guilty somehow.  They’ve lost far more members than we have.

I’m heading for the marina.  Thanks to somebody somewhere, a mini-cruise ship has docked along the river, and I’m told it’s open to rescue workers.  There’s food, it’s warm and dry, and what’s more, I’m told they have the one thing most in demand down here, that’s proven tough to come by: good, hot coffee.

It’s all true, as it turns out, and sitting on the ship’s top deck, in the lee of an overhang to avoid the rain, I sip scalding coffee with a buddy from another Manhattan precinct, a guy I haven’t seen in months.  I can see that he, like me, has gone all jumpy and wired; the “Red Bull shakes” we’ve been calling it, after the energy drink we’ve all been downing to keep going.  Stuck behind his head, to the wall of the ship, are a few sheets of construction paper, with drawings and little notes from schoolchildren wishing us well.  Eventually, these are everywhere down here, on the walls of the tents, inside the storefronts, plastering the front of the Fire Department’s Ladder 10.  Crayon notes from second-graders in Indiana wishing us well; each time I take a moment out to actually read one, I get that little catch in my throat again that tells me I’d better keep moving.

It’s a strange moment, sitting there on the deck of a palatial yacht, mud-spattered, sipping paper-cup coffee with a buddy and surveying the still-magnificent vista of lower-Manhattan, a skyline shrouded now in haze but suddenly ennobled.  “You know normally, we’d never get near a spot like this,” my friend tells me.  He giggles, a sound that falls on my ears strangely; I haven’t heard it since what seems like a former life.  “Two skells like us?  Please!”  He watches me a moment until I start giggling as well.  I love this guy, he always has this effect on me.

And that’s the strangeness, I recognize.  Not our being on a yacht docked in the financial capital of the world.  But it’s the first truly relaxed moment I’ve had in what seems a very long time.

My buddy shakes his head.  “God bless this friggin’ coffee, huh?”                                                                        *

Catastrophe, apparently, makes for strange bedfellows.  In the weeks that follow the attacks, I will be handed a bottle of water by Matthew Modine, drink beer at a benefit with the New York Rangers, and be the recipient of best wishes, personally delivered, from actors Jason Alexander and Kevin Spacey.  All these notables are uniformly considerate and polite, the Rangers in particular; later, a group of them stop by my precinct to hand out signed memorabilia and make small talk in their homely Canadian accents.

Following the attacks, the celebrity “Ground Zero” becomes, for one particular night, midtown; it’s here that a special telethon is being held to benefit victims and their families.  As a Manhattan cop, I’ve worked this sort of thing before.  Your main objective is to make sure that the “talent” gets in and gets out without something happening in the process to make you famous yourself.  Usually, you’re part of the woodwork.  Nobody much notices you until you ask a paparazzo not to climb atop the limo, at which point a heated re-assessment of the First Amendment breaks out.  Generally, though, if you’re even acknowledged, it means something’s gone wrong.

But tonight is different, for obvious reasons, and even the normally reticent Robert DeNiro throws us a nod as he exits his car and the flashbulbs go off.  Nobody is less star-struck than Manhattan’s cops; it comes, I believe, from too many behind-the-scenes glimpses of the famous misbehaving.  Eventually, you stereotype; “All these celebrities are nuts.”  Still, cops love his films, so sharing the same rarefied air as Bobby D makes a good drinking story, if nothing else.

We’re at the curb as the performers arrive for the show, most stepping from the back of imposing SUVs with blacked-out windows.  A skeletal Celine Dion emerges wearing a surgical mask and rushes inside as if fearing contact with the Hell’s Kitchen air.  Dave Matthews and Wyclef Jean turn out to be amiable sorts (the musicians usually are), and Jean greets my boss with the Jamaican “much respect,” a salutation that leaves the Sergeant beaming.  Then, after his timely rendition of “New York State of Mind,” I am deputized to drive Billy Joel down to greet the workers at Ground Zero.

In a week of surreal moments, this somehow is the strangest.  I have had it – comparatively – easier than many.  Yet staying awake now actually requires a constant, conscious effort on my part, and I have suddenly gone from a more-or-less typical midtown crowd-control detail to chauffeuring an international rock star on a USO mission into Manhattan’s new moonscape.

They are crammed into the rear seat, Joel, his drummer, and a couple of other crew members, and all I can think to say to them, as we negotiate the checkpoints of the West Side Highway, is “Brace yourself.  It’s nothing like tv.”  This is an attempt on my part to break the ice, but even to my ears, it sounds incredibly inane, and I wonder again what random kink in the bureaucratic gears has jerked me from Ground Zero into this implausible scenario.

Luckily, nobody is much listening to me.  As we drive, Joel does newspaper interviews; I’m told the LA Times would like to speak with me, but for fear of slipping up and making a career-ending statement, I decline.  I’m told the reporter wishes the NYPD well.  The interview is over; there is another lull in the car.  Then Team Joel and I fumfer our way into the all-time conversation-saver among Western males everywhere: So what do you think is the funniest movie of all time?

It is amusing, to a degree, to watch hollow-eyed groups of rescue workers deal with the apparition of a rock star suddenly appearing amidst the wasteland of Ground Zero.  They start, then give knowing smiles as if privy to some private joke, then approach with hands extended.  I realize, watching little knots of these workers drifting over to us, that I am not really showing Billy Joel off to the rescuers, but in fact quite the reverse.  This shows in Joel’s reactions; upon rounding a corner and taking in the full panorama of the destruction in one beat, he gets the “cannot speaks” for awhile.  The workers all know this feeling, and somewhat comically, they happily ignore the fact that the rock star is openly weeping as they pose for pictures with him and have him sign their hardhats.

I am not part of this; today my uniform is relatively clean, and I feel something of an intruder.  Looking around, it’s clear that Ground Zero is becoming more organized.  There’s less of the pell-mell rushing of isolated little work teams heading for nowhere in particular.  The whole effort appears streamlined.  Still, I see now many of the same faces I’ve seen all week, and I realize how lucky I’ve been.

A Sergeant in my precinct, a massively experienced detective, was on the street outside when the first tower came down; he’s long and lanky, and when he dove under a car for shelter, an arriving PD Emergency Service Truck ran over his legs.  Another Sergeant was in the building; he dove under a fire truck outside, and described the debris hitting the truck’s top as sounding like “someone dropping Volkswagens from fifty stories.”  He could only pray the truck would hold up (it did).  As he lay there, he heard what he was sure were gunshots, but dismissed the idea.  But he was right.  Other cops trapped on the street were shooting out the display windows of nearby buildings in order to dive to safety.

And those are what pass for success stories down here.

I take another look around me.

I realize how lucky I’ve been.

I take a walk down a side street off the crater site, and eventually encounter a couple of cops I don’t know leaning on barricades and flirting with a young female aid worker.  Sex drives returning; this would have been unthinkable even 48 hours ago, and it suddenly strikes me that the “World Trade Center Terrorist Incident” will indeed end at some point.  Still, it’s almost impossible to believe now, and certainly to believe that the Job – the PD — will ever be the same.  Bosses we once laughed at and mimicked behind their backs I saw unhesitatingly organizing rescue parties, working round the clock allocating resources, declaring medical stations, dictating rest periods for their men; in general, clamping order onto the sudden anarchy below Chambers Street.  For the first week, patrolmen getting off their 12-hour shifts would defy Department orders and head right back down to the site, where they would work until literally delirious.  Like the City, the Job’s been blooded; we will, I’m sure, distinguish among our members in the future by those who were “on” for World Trade, and those who’d yet to be hired.  It will henceforth be our defining event.

The City will eventually forget us – after all, we really are just doing our jobs.  We’ll be the enemy again soon enough.  Which is fine, that’s the nature of a contentious and complicated relationship.  But we – the cops – we had better remember.  The way you remember the things you’ve done that make you who you are.

I’ve been down this side street before, I realize, earlier this week.  There’s a uniquely American reaction all along it: graffiti.  Instead of “Kilroy was here” however, heart-tugging notes like “Michael, we still believe,” “I hope they’re happy,” and simply, “Freedom” have been finger-painted into the ash on the enormous ground-level windows of the nearby buildings.  Passing now, I notice one I hadn’t before: “The 46 Precinct was here.”  Goddamn right they were.  I decide to head over to the marina for the paper-cup coffee.


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