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    Disaster. Tremendous courage. Heartbreak. Loss. Unimaginable shock.

    These are among the words being spoken throughout the vast regions of New York City.

    It was eerily quiet last night and this morning in Manhattan. Quite the opposite of
    yesterday morning when disaster struck the southern tip of the west side of the city.

    By 9:15 A.M. Wednesday, there were the endless sounds of police, fire truck and ambulance sirens and the buzz of helicopters.

    The scene from the rooftop of our building on Horatio Street, which is two blocks from the Hudson River and about a quarter mile from the Trade Center site, was horrific. None of us will forget the huge crater in Number 2 World Trade Center, when initial reports said that a small commuter aircraft crashed into the northern building of the 1,250-foot twin towers.

    As neighbors sipped coffee and ate breakfast rolls, we heard a noise. From where we were, it sounded like a truck backfiring. As we are on the edge of what is called the Meat Packing District, we are very used to those noises. But when a neighbor looked up and said, "The World Trade Center is on fire!", well, it was incredulous.

    Words cannot describe the horror on our faces as we saw flames shooting from the building's upper reaches (about 1,000 feet in the air). Or the even more indescribable reaction as we saw the silhouette of a large jet appear crossing the Hudson River and semi-circle the Number One tower, bank to the left and dive into the northwestern corner of a floor. I cannot find words to describe the feeling of seeing those flames cascading upward from what is said to be a floor in the 80s through the 110th floor.

    Oddly, the impact of that second plane was silent to us.

    The moment was surreal, as if you were in your worse nightmare with no sound.

    In fact, it was our worse nightmare.

    I was speaking on a cordless phone to former Vicksburger Ron Foley and then, through Call Waiting, to my brother, John Nassour of Vicksburg, when the southernmost building imploded. A few minutes later, absolute disbelief as the pieces of the northern structure facade buckled and began falling off, followed by that building imploding.

    The description of the disaster from a friend working in his corner office of a brokerage on Greenwich Street, about 2,000 feet away from the towers has made me realize that this is an event we will never be able to erase from our memory. Like Pearl Harbor, like the 1953 Vicksburg tornado, it will leave an indelible memory of exactly where we were and what we were doing when all hell broke loose.

    My friend, who was helping with an orderly evacuation of his offices after the impact of the first collision, said seeing "that second jet coming in at such speed and going through the tower like a bullet" had him weeping and trembling.

    The planes literally ripped through the center steel supports and the central sections of the building began falling on top of each other. Amazingly, according to those who were able to get out, the stairwells on the edges of the structure were intact and provided an escape route.

    It is said that the planes were carrying some 10,000 gallons of jet fuel and that the ensuing inferno was in excess of 16,000 degrees.

    The impact here is only beginning to set in.

    The courage and outpouring of love and concern is huge...

    When I went out to gather all the papers, the winds had shifted and the smoke and debris still in the air this far away was incredible. I wondered, "How in the world, in that intense smoke and all that debris at impact were those fortunate few able to manage to think straight and exit to safety, some down 85 flights of double stair landings."

    When I went up on the roof deck, I looked up and the sky is clear and the day gorgeous and, if you never knew it was there, you would never miss the twin towers. But, to have known they were there yesterday and not there today, is a mind-boggling thought.
    This morning, as one looks at video of the twisted steel and rubble of the destroyed twin towers and other buildings, it is reminiscent of pictures of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb, London and Berlin after the blitzes of World War II, or scenes after an earthquake. Debris and ash has been windblown for miles.

    Tales of heroism about police, firefighters, rescue team members are being told everywhere, and some survivors are, this morning, being dug from voids of the collapse and the lower basements.

    At nearby St. Vincent's Hospital, there are lines of volunteer blood donors, but the impact of the as yet unknown death toll is foretold in the number of doctors, nurses and support staff outside the Emergency Room, standing adjacent to empty gurneys.

    New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who narrowly escaped death early yesterday when the second tower collapsed as he met with emergency services in a bunker at 7 World Trade Center, promised, "We will rebuild and come out of this stronger than before. Emotionally stronger, politically stronger, financially stronger."

    The city, south of 14th Street on the West Side, is closed except to essential traffic. Even residents going to the supermarkets or to purchase hard-to-find newspapers have to show I.D. at the 14th Street crossings.

    You stop at the corner to cross and suddenly realized the streets are virtually empty. The city has never been this quiet. But there is compassion everywhere.

    One must think what this devastation has accomplished for the madmen who planned it. I have long felt, the United States is the best friend the various factions in the Middle East have.

    One thing for certain are the words being spoken by almost everyone in the nation: Our lives in the United States have changed for all time.

    SEPTEMBER, 2002


    "Disaster. Tremendous courage. Heartbreak. Loss. Unimaginable shock. These are among the words being spoken throughout the vast regions of New York City."

    A year ago that's how I began an eyewitness report on the terror attack on the World Trade Center complex. In the last few days, as I revisited Ground Zero, as it has come to be called, and the surrounding makeshift memorials to the dead that have now become permanent, those words could still apply.

    "The Sphere," a steel and bronze monument "to world peace through world trade" by German artist Fritz Koenig, was the centerpiece of the World Trade Center plaza. In the falling debris, the 30-year old sculpture was split and crushed. It has been restored, as much as possible, and moved to nearby Battery Park. Six months to the minute after the first plane hit the first tower, it was dedicated as temporary memorial. Last Friday, as I stood at the sculpture, I couldn't help but imagine what that hell must have been like and how anyone survived. So many didn't.

    Around me, there were people in deep grief - some even in tears. Others were snapping photographs of those accompanying them in front of the Sphere. A few feet away, there were vendors - selling hot dogs, pretzels, soda, post cards, photos of the towers, sparkling pins of the American flag and t-shirts and caps printed with the logos of the fire, police and emergency departments.

    The scene is repeated at historic St. Paul's Church, with its cemetery of faded tombstones just across the street from Ground Zero.

    These sites, like so much of New York City, have sadly become just another tourist site.
    It's quite sad that carnival-like atmospheres have been allowed to blossom. The vendors should be banned so these can be places of remembrance and solitude.

    Even as a tourist attraction, Ground Zero is not very satisfying to some visitors, who wait in long lines to observe it from viewing areas overlooking the 16-acre site. As a man emerged from one platform with his family, he exclaimed, "I don't know what there was to see! It's just a huge, deep hole!"

    Was the devastation supposed to be frozen in time so he could experience it? Did he not realize that nearly a year has past and we have to, so to speak, pick up the pieces and begin anew to show the world our resolve and strength of character? And did he not realize that even now the site is cleared of the debris of the twisted steel of those collapsed, combined 220 floors, it is more than a missing New York City landmark? That it's more than a gigantic excavation pit? That it's more than a "huge, deep hole"?

    To the families who never saw their loved ones again, it's sacred ground - a place of burial.

    St. Paul's (Episcopal) Church dates to 1766 and was attended by George Washington as well as hundreds of Colonials. Amazingly, it didn't suffer any structural damage from the collapsing towers. It immediately became a 24/7 refuge providing food and rest for the thousands of Ground Zero firefighters, police and emergency workers at Ground Zero. As soon as the public had access to the area, the fences surrounding the block the church is situated on became a place for memorials. How anyone can view these (signs of sympathy, flags from various fire companies and police departments, flowers, leis from Hawaii, votive candles, countless Teddy bears and the notes of loss from loved ones and the photos of lost loved ones) and not be moved is boggles the mind.

    The impact of the loss is felt most when reading the poems and prayers. One that particularly struck me was left in December by Lynn Hayes. It begins:
    "Please respect my mother.
    She is buried there somewhere.
    And please respect my father.
    He vanished into thin airÖ"

    That last line reminded me of the scene late in the afternoon of September 11th, when I went to St. Vincent's Hospital, the downtown trauma center best equipped to handle tragedies of the proportion we experienced, and saw lines of volunteer blood donors and untold numbers of doctors, nurses and emergency workers with empty gurneys. They were awaiting ambulances bringing the injured. When those ambulances never arrived, you knew the depth of the death toll. It was a miracle that anyone survived the twin infernos of jet fuel and the collapse of hundreds of floors one upon the other.

    It's been a tough year for New York City. Full recovery is a long way off. It seems every aspect of our life has not only changed but also been deeply affected.

    There are no words that can describe the pain and suffering of loved ones lost, and it is very hard to find someone who's not been affected by at least a friend or acquaintance lost in the tragedy. The news has fully noted the loss of tourism in New York and the countrywide financial repercussions of September 11th. But we know that a nation as strong as ours will somehow bring about a turnaround.

    What is still most puzzling is why such acts were committed. How those labeled as terrorists could live in the United States, get to know our peoples (many of whom have backgrounds similar to theirs), our culture and our democracy and still commit such dastardly deeds.

    As someone of Middle Eastern background, I am puzzled by the constantly cycle of bloodshed and terror in the Middle East. If we, with all our religious and cultural differences, can live side by side, why can't they? I know the U.S. is Israel's strongest supporter, but I've always felt that we are the best friend all the factions in the Middle East have. If any country can help generate long-term peace there, it's the U.S. [On a personal note, I wish our policies were more even-handed; i.e., why our government tends to condemn only one side when both sides seem to be equally at fault.]

    The impact of what happened here can't be easily forgotten. All of us have, no doubt, looked inside ourselves and asked why we were spared when so many innocents were not. It is still very difficult to look at the downtown skyline and realize those towering twins are gone.

    We live in a city and world forever changed. It was incredulous to see how New York City came together - with care and compassion everywhere -- in those hours of tragedy; and it's more than a little sad to see that camaraderie gradually dissipating.

    Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani stated, "We will rebuild and come out of this stronger than before. Emotionally stronger, politically stronger, financially stronger."

    The tales of bravery and enormous sacrifices by our police, firefighters and rescue teams won't soon be forgotten. But, no matter the healing powers of a strong people, there'll always be a void.

    When I ponder the loss of life, I am drawn to some of the most poignant lines of literature I've read, the ending of George Eliot's Middlemarch. I've adapted it here as a small remembrance of those who left their homes the morning of September 11th, 2001, and never returned:

    "Ö They had no dreams of being praised above others, feeling that there was always something better which they might have done, if they had only been better and known betterÖ So, now, we insignificant people reflect with our daily words the ardent deeds that shaped their lives and recall the love and sacrifices they madeÖTheir full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of their being on those around them was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts. That things are not so ill with you and me as they might be is half owing to the number of persons who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

    Of course, their many acts of courage and bravery were historic and their "tomb" will be visited and revisited for years to come.

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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