Reflections in the Wake of September 11: Visit to Ground Zero, New York City

Author: Father Edward A. Malloy, CSC

During an October 24 visit to New York City, Father Malloy, president of Notre Dame, kept the following diary. After his visit, he wrote, “I hope that we at Notre Dame can continue to find ways to support those who continue to grieve and to do our part in prayer, in testimony and in celebration to remember the living and the dead.”

When I arrived in New York City on Oct. 24, I was picked up at the airport by Sergeant Eddie Colton, one of the police officers who had been present at the Blue Mass. I had met him earlier when he had been a regular visitor to the campus with his father. In fact, one time when I was on The Charlie Rose Show, they did some filming at the Grotto, and Eddie and his father were two of the people interviewed. In any case, Eddie was still on vacation and showed up in his civilian clothes and private car. Although we had not synchronized very much, he was willing to spend as much time with me that day as he could, and I was hoping to have such an opportunity. It was a beautiful, warm sunny day and we drove into Manhattan on the FDR and eventually drove through some of the neighborhoods in the Soho, Village and southern parts of Manhattan. We had the windows open and, in a sense, took in the feel of the city.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a great delight in city life and pride myself on noticing the little things. I find New York City infinitely fascinating, and I’ve had some rare opportunities to explore different dimensions of the city, both day and night. As we drove around, Eddie described various events that had police significance connected to places and neighborhoods. Eventually, we made it to St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was the primary place that the victims were brought from the World Trade Center. They had set up in front for full triage medicine, in which they concentrated on the savable cases first. At first, St. Vincent’s had been overwhelmed by the number of people who appeared, especially the burn victims. But then, as more medical care help arrived, the victim population disappeared. It was a foreboding of what was to become the futile search for further victims in the rubble. We got out of the car at St. Vincent’s to view the testimonial wall on the side that was full of pictures of the missing and very heartrending testimonies from their family and friends. There were flowers and various other signs of solidarity. There were cards and pictures from young children, and other prayers and mementoes that had been left behind. They say that the hard thing to do in the face of a massive tragedy is to remember that it is the accumulation of many individual stories. These memorial walls became one of the ways that a large, and sometimes impersonal, city could celebrate and remember the dead.

From St. Vincent’s we drove, again, through the neighborhoods past several fire stations fully draped in front and with their own memorial testimonies on the walls outside. In fact, the many fire stations of Manhattan have become prime gathering places for the populace and the many visitors trying to make sense of the tragedies. The New York City Fire Department lost 343 firefighters in the World Trade Center. This is, by far, the largest loss of life of any non-military government group in American history. There were also approximately 60 members of the Port Authority Police, the New York City Police and a couple of other groups who also lost their lives. Never before have these departments had to contend with so much personal grieving while at the same time they spend most of their waking hours searching for the remains of their colleagues, as well as the many others who lost their life in the explosions, fires and the aftermath.

I arrived in New York City approximately 40 days after September 11. But rather than a sense of closure, it is almost as if it all happened yesterday. It is vivid in the memories of these police and firefighters who must spend much of each day digging through the ruins.

We eventually made our way to the First Precinct headquarters. It is a nondescript building not too far from the World Trade Center. Its territory includes much of the financial district, all the way down to the Battery. Prior to these events, it was not a high crime district. Precinct officers were involved in break-ins, theft from autos, some robberies and a lot of traffic control. But those who patrolled the neighborhood told me over and over again that they saw the buildings of the World Trade Center as the center of the neighborhood and the symbols of the reliability and security of the American financial system. The major event that had happened in their recent memory was the earlier attempt to blow up the Trade Center. This, obviously, had led to some loss of life and to a heightened sense of security and new plans for escape and response to further incidents. But no one imagined anything of this scale that they would soon experience.

The Police Department shifts are back to their normal 8½ hour routine, except for those whose responsibilities revolve around the cleanup and search efforts at the World Trade Center site. The latter continue to work about 13½ hours a day. From what I could tell, many people in the First Precinct are heavily involved in the cleanup operations. Therefore, it was not surprising that the front of the precinct and the first floor had a fair number of officers going in and out. I had a chance to meet many of them and to hear some of their stories. I met one police officer who had just come back from a long period of time in the hospital. He had a piece of metal go through his shoulder like a javelin. He showed me his scars and told me that he had metal plates implanted in his shoulder and arm. He said he is still in constant pain, but the physical therapy was giving him more motion and hope for the future. It was clear that he was not going to be able to continue to function as a police officer, and this was weighing heavily on his mind. On the walls of the precinct house were pictures and letters from school children from New York City and around the country. It only took the reading of a couple of them to turn sad and weepy. Eddie told me about all of the goods, including food and other items, that had been sent to the precinct house and stored in one of the rooms. These had been distributed widely.

Originally, I was going to make my full tour of Ground Zero on Thursday afternoon. But Eddie suggested that we might want to go down in the evening as well. We left his car at the precinct house and got in a police car with two detectives and began to go through the various check points that one must pass through in order to get close to the wreckage. I forgot to say that before we got to the precinct house we had stopped at a place called Nino’s, a relatively small restaurant which became the hangout for many police and firefighters and emergency crews and hard-hat workers during the course of events. They stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and much of the donated food had been sent to this, among other sites. They became famous for their barbecued ribs and other hearty meals. Out on the street they were cooking up ribs and allowed us to sample a few. Then we went inside and saw the interaction among the various police, fire and emergency crews who were eating their meals. We had a chance to discuss the service rendered with three waitresses who were functioning as volunteers. You had a sense of comradeship and commitment to the cause that permeated the establishment. We really didn’t eat anything, but just spent some time observing. When we went outside, we could see loads of food being brought up from various restaurants around town. This is one among many symbols of the great outpouring of support from the city and the country and the world.

To go back to riding in the car with the detectives, we made our way past Wall Street and almost down to the southern tip of Manhattan, took a right, and then another right, and then we began to move directly to the temporary police headquarters adjacent to the World Trade Center. By the time we arrived there the sun had set and the sense of the apocalyptic nature of the events was overwhelming. We got out of the car and began to talk to some of Eddie’s colleagues from the First Precinct, who were staffing the police command post and morgue. Some of them had been out to Notre Dame, but all of them had heard about the wonderful way we had treated them when they came to campus. Many of them are subway alumni fans of the University teams, and the vast majority are Catholic. It went without question that I would have free access to whatever I wanted to see while I was there. One of the first things we did was visit the morgue. This is the place where all of the bodies or body parts are brought so that they can do DNA analysis and try to have concrete evidence of those who have died for the consolation of their family members. Even after all this time, they have only found the bodies or parts of the remains of about 500 of those who lost their life. I can think of few more gruesome duties than to serve in such a morgue. But they do everything they can, once a body part or full remains are discovered, to treat them with dignity and not to become too jaded in the difficult activity that goes on day after day.

Everyone there had a story to tell. All of them moving in their own way. They also readily passed on impressions and information that they had received during the course of the days. The two towers, for example, were primarily office buildings. Yet, in the rubble, they have found no glass, no desks, no filing cabinets, no evidence of the primary work that went on. One of the officers described standing before the precinct house and seeing and hearing the first plane go overhead and sensing instantaneously that something tragic was soon to happen. Then there was the sound of the impact and the explosion. From that point, all hell broke loose, and everybody rushed to the scene.

Eventually, Eddie and I put on our hard hats and began to walk around the huge expanse that is now the largest crime scene in the country. The scene at night touches all the senses. The acrid smell is persistent and pungent. It is some combination of metal, human remains, the various materials that have been crushed together, the smoke that continues to come out from the burning embers below and all of the toxic substances that lie all around. At night the combination of smoke and lights and miasmic clouds remind one of one of Hieronymus Bosch medieval portraits of hell. The clanging of the gigantic machinery, the movements of the trucks carting off steel and other substances, and the hiss of water from fire trucks spraying on the mounds is part of the auditory environment there. It is hard to remember that they have already carted off 40 days of rubble and yet so much remains. The expanse before you where the two large towers once rose is irregular, so that in one section they are working two stories below the surface and yet, in another part, eight or nine or ten stories of steel stretches out to the sky. There are other structures, four or five stories high, that have been burned out but lie untouched that were also part of the Center complex. Ringing the whole thing are various high-rise buildings, some of which have been slightly damaged, and others of which probably will never return to their former function.

Eddie and I walked down into the depths of the South Tower, Building Two, which was the first to collapse. Large front end loaders were engaged in their task. Gigantic cranes were lifting pieces of steel weighing tons, some of which were being placed on the back of semi trucks. Firefighters atop a number of ladder trucks were spraying in the areas of greatest smoke. The average temperature beneath the rubble is said to be 1500 F. so that when steel is brought up it is molten and takes two or three days to cool down. Some of the steel workers are engaged in cutting pieces of jagged steel into smaller bits. Next to each piece of equipment is a member of the police or fire department whose responsibility is to observe what is being brought to the surface and to identify, if possible, any body parts that might emerge. It is a thankless task, and one that is more successful than the participants probably would prefer. This is just one stage in the effort to recover evidence. Once the accumulated debris is carried to the landfill in Staten Island, 200 people spend their time, nonstop, raking through it to seek out additional evidence.

While we were standing in the middle of Tower Two, a fire chief came up from below, and we began to chat. Then he had a call on his radio and said he had a group of firefighters working in a corner of the building where it was extremely dangerous and not very well lit. He said he would give them about five more minutes before he would replace them for the night. He described some of the deficiencies, in retrospect, in the towers. They had eliminated much of the structural steel and had used more modern forms of construction. He thought that this eliminated one level of protection against collapse. In addition, he said, the stairwells were too narrow so that when firefighters were going up, only one person at a time could come down. With all of the individuals trying to escape simultaneously, it very much slowed down the routes of exit. He also acknowledged that at some point it became suicidal to continue the rescue efforts because the chance of collapse increased with each passing moment. He said that most of the firefighters would have recognized the danger and made the decision to continue with their task. Toward the end of our conversation he heard over the radio, as I did, that his little crew had found the remains of a woman, and he went to join them.

I stood silently from my vantage point looking off at the distance as the fire crew continued their task of uncovering the remains. From what I could see, they had most of a body, which they placed on a stretcher covered with a flag, which was then eventually brought off on a small cart to be brought to the morgue. Slightly prior to this time, someone came down in our general area and played taps, surely a haunting melody in such a location.

Eddie and I then continued walking across the upper part of the remains of the South Tower and across at ground level to the fire station that had been most directly affected. The building itself is condemned but is still functioning as a base of operation for some of the fire crews. We looked on the wall of the fire house and saw the same litany of letters and testimonies and prayers.

When we returned to the area near the morgue, we heard the stories about funeral fatigue. It is so hard for these people to continue their perilous task at the same time that they try to be supportive of the family members of their colleagues who have died. The public in the New York City area has been wonderful in turning out for the multiple funerals that take place day after day.

One of the police officers told me that in the midst of the collapse of the two towers the prevailing story was that there was a rocket launcher in the tallest remaining building in the area, and they expected continuation of attacks on other structures. When jet fighters eventually appeared overhead, for many it was a comforting sight but for others it confirmed that this was the beginning of a full-scale war.

Eventually, Eddie and I walked across the boundary of the World Trade location through the checkpoints and back to the First Precinct. Because the area is so expansive, the number of security personnel is huge. They have had some instances of theft from buildings in the neighborhood, so they have upped the requirements for admission to the site itself. Those serving in this capacity include New York City and Port Authority police as well as state police, National Guard troops and many other representatives of volunteers from police organizations from outside. The firefighters have also been assisted by volunteer firefighters from all over the country. It is clear that all emergency forces are trying to learn whatever lessons are to be gained from the experiences of September 11.

As we completed my first night in New York City, Eddie and I drove over to John’s Pizza Place in the Village, which has a great reputation. It is more of a neighborhood spot than anything, but it does have great pizza. While we were there I was spotted by a Notre Dame graduate, who came to say hello. Another police sergeant was in the establishment and, without our knowing, paid our bill in gratitude for all the support that the Notre Dame community had provided to the families of the victims. Once we stepped outside the restaurant, the first person I saw was a Notre Dame graduate who had lived with me in Sorin Hall. So much for a big impersonal city. On the way back, Eddie stopped at an Italian pastry shop, which was mobbed with people at 10 p.m. I was forced to eat a number of samplings from their culinary collection. I made it back to the hotel by 10:30 or so. It was a moving seven hours since I had arrived in the city.

The next day, after some free time, Eddie picked up myself and Scott Malpass, our vice president of finance and investment, at my hotel. Scott was in town for a business meeting and wanted to have a chance to see the World Trade Center site. This time, Eddie was in uniform, and we drove down to the First Precinct so we could meet up with Shawn McGill, who had visited the campus and was one of the people saved after being buried at the site. There were a lot of police officers at the First Precinct, so I had a chance to meet some of Eddie and Shawn’s colleagues. I should mention that the night before, Donald Trump had hosted for dinner six of the people from the precinct who had either been injured or had escaped from the rubble. While we were at the precinct house a fire truck pulled up and got out its extension ladder in order to put up a sign in front of the precinct house. Meanwhile, a group of school kids from California came by to offer their sympathy and support. It was clear that the First Precinct House continues to be a hub of activity. Right adjacent to the house is one of the headquarters for the mounted police patrol.

Eddie and Shawn and Scott and myself drove in a police car along the same route, down past the stock exchange toward the Battery and then around up back to the site itself. We parked adjacent to the temporary base of operation there. The big difference between the night realities and the daytime is that there are so many more people around in the daytime, and you have a better chance to appreciate the full scale of the operation under way. Once again, we spent time chatting with various police officers and firefighters. Then Eddie suggested that two of his colleagues, Shawn and Jimmy, take us on a tour on one of the golf carts that was available there. He stayed behind. So the four of us took off and kind of made our way around the perimeter to the far side closer to the Hudson River. This put us more on the side of Building One, or the North Tower. Along the way we could see various angles that helped us more fully appreciate the devastation. Jimmy pointed out to us the escalator that allowed one to move from the street level up to the open area between the two towers. This was where he was at the time in which Tower One collapsed. He told us that he was speaking on a cell phone with his mother, who was watching everything on the television just as Tower Two collapsed. He yelled into the phone he had to run, and he took off down the escalator and, by an instinct that he attributes to the care of his dead father, he made the right decision about what street to take in order to get away from the scene. He remembers vividly people standing in front of the buildings across the street who refused to move despite the warnings and who clearly were killed when the building collapsed.

We proceeded all the way around the perimeter to the back side to the park right off of the river that is on the backside of the buildings that faced the towers themselves. There we had a chance to go into a building where we went up the elevator to the 35th floor on the roof and then could look directly down into the full scene itself with no obstruction. We stood there for about 20 minutes while Jimmy and Shawn described to us where they were at each stage along the way and what their routes of escape turned out to be. This was the first time Shawn had a chance to comprehend the scale of what he had been involved in. As we looked below, we could see all of the workers, including those running the heavy equipment, who were working hard at their difficult and emotionally distressing task. One of the buildings at the far corner across from Tower One has a huge piece of steel that is stuck in its upper corners, which was thrown over when the building collapsed. We were shown areas where the wheels of one of the planes came to rest.

After descending from this height, we drove in our cart to this simple memorial area just adjacent to the park. On the wall there pictures of all of the firefighters and police who are now considered dead. But right below the pictures of the individuals are letters from their children and family members. There are few things that can so personalize the sense of loss as reading the letter from a young child to his or her missing or dead father. Shawn, who had not been to this area before, told me after we finished our visit that he could imagine his wife having to come here if he had been lost. He said that this would have been the greatest anguish of all. Jimmy told us that after he made the call to his mother, who saw the building collapse on television, that his mother and wife and three children all thought he was dead for three or four hours since they couldn’t imagine how he could have escaped from the scene.

While I was at the memorial on the night before I had the chance to talk to one of the volunteer chaplains. He was a priest from the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where my parents were both born and raised. He told me that he had been coming here as a volunteer and had to draw upon all of his pastoral skills to reach out to those who were grieving.

Driving through on our return to the command base I was reminded again of how much this whole area reminded me of all the war scenes I had seen from World War II and the Vietnam conflict.

One of the most moving dimensions of my visit was all of the individual stories I was privileged to hear. I heard over and over again how relentless was the effort to find survivors in the early days. People worked nonstop with the hope and expectation that they would meet some degree of success. But as the days had passed they had become reconciled to the fact that now their job is to search with the same relentlessness for the remains of those who have died. They do this in conditions that are inherently dangerous. The ground can shift, the fumes may be tolerable in short doses but not necessarily in the long run, the risk of puncture or fall is relatively high. This is all separate from being surrounded by gigantic machines in a noisy environment where one could easily be run over by mistake. So far as I know, no one has yet been killed in the rescue operation, but they are all fully alert to the risk.

I met several emergency crews whose job it is to use a computer to pinpoint where any bodies are discovered, including their identity, in an effort to reconstruct what happened after the collapse of the buildings.

I was told two stories about the behavior of reporters/photographers during the first day or two after the event. One reporter stole a DEA jacket and hat in order to try and gain access to the heart of the disaster area. Somebody thought that he looked out of place and asked him what DEA stood for and he was unable to answer. He was then arrested. A second incident was even more difficult. A photographer, who was a freelancer, stole off the back of a fire truck a hat and coat and boots which had the name of a certain firefighter on them. He then began to make his way through the ruins. One of the other firefighters saw the name and recognized it as a person who had been declared dead. When the photographer was confronted, he admitted what he had done. There was then such anger from the other firefighters who felt that one of their own had been demeaned in death that the police had to extricate the photographer before serious damage was done to him.

I saw the interview Larry King did on CNN of Mayor Giuliani. He commented about the series of events that took place from the time he was trapped for a period near the command post in one of the World Trade buildings. He said that there was a sense of chaos and almost a complete breakdown of communication and the command structure. Rumors were rampant, and there was a proliferation of false reports. In a sense, people watching TV knew more than those actually on the scene. In the age of instant communication, this should not be surprising. A number of the police and firefighters with whom I spoke described the situation as completely out of control, with great fear that we were either at war or that there were further devastating incidents in store. When Mayor Giuliani and the surviving leadership of the police and fire departments were able to re-establish a command structure and a system of communication, it made all the difference in the world.

As many of the photographs suggest, there was a huge loss of equipment, by the fire department most of all, but also by the police department. Precinct One lost eight out of 12 regular patrol cars. This meant that there had to be a reassignment of equipment and a re-establishment of forms of support for those who were actively involved in the rescue efforts. Obviously, all the equipment can eventually be replaced. But in the short term it contributed to the difficulties that the rescuers faced.

One police officer who was able to escape when one of the buildings collapsed described how two of his colleagues decided rather than running they would hide under one of the fire engines. For days he never was able to find them. Several days later, while he was working on the bucket brigade, they were able to get down to the level where the fire engine was. They then found the bodies of his two colleagues, who were crushed under the debris.

When I returned to campus, almost by accident I was able to watch a two-hour show on the A&E cable channel which was entirely made up of interviews of the police, fire and emergency crews. They described persistent nightmares and a renewed sense of the importance of family in their lives. It was clear that they were living on the edge and that there was going to be a great need for counseling and support.

The day that I arrived in New York there was another major disaster at a physical renovation site when scaffolding collapsed. Many of the police and fire rescue units who had been working at the World Trade Center site were called away to attend to this new crisis. Although five people died and a number were injured, it did provide an opportunity for the rescue units to actually save a large number of people once again. They had been so surrounded by death that they needed a chance to display their skills in saving life.

Many search dogs have been used in the aftermath of the collapse of the buildings. At first, they were a critical part of hunting for those who may have been trapped. But the dogs in that sense are like people, and they got injured because of the danger of the area. They also suffered some emotional scars from always turning up the remains of the dead. The rescue units decided that they would simulate a rescue operation on occasion with someone who was alive so that the dogs could regain their sense of confidence and hope. Perhaps this is an important lesson for the human agents of rescue as well.

One of the numbered World Trade buildings adjacent to the two towers stands as a burnt out hulk. I was told that they have discovered some kind of mold inside, which is too toxic to enter without special protective gear. The challenge will be how to tear down this facility without poisoning the environment and putting people at greater risk. This is one more reminder of the complexity of the overall operation.

The people who have been working on their task nonstop have a certain resentment about the area becoming a tourist attraction. But as I experienced it myself, I think much of the nation and the world needs to discover and rediscover the human dimension of this tragedy. There is one overlook site which is dedicated to family members who wish to get closer to the scene. I think it would be desirable, at some point, to allow public access much closer than is presently possible. I felt the same way at the World Trade Center as I did at the battlefields of Gettysburg or Chancellorsville or Manassas/Bull Run. This is, indeed, sacred ground, and we honor the dead by being present where they lost their lives and in light of the numerous displays of heroism that took place there.

When we returned to the car we decided to drive over to a storefront in Soho where they have assembled the first great collection of photographs of the events of September 11. This has been a place where people can make their own photographs available. The photographs will be then put on a special site on the Internet, and the funds that are raised through this process will be made available to the families of the victims. When Scott and I walked in with two uniformed officers, there was a certain stillness and respect in the air. I think it was good for Eddie and Shawn to have a chance to see these graphic visual displays of what took place, if only as a memory aid.

Scott had to get out to the airport, so he got a cab and went off on his own. Eddie, Shawn and I then drove out to a deli in the neighborhood around my hotel where we had lunch together. I left them at that point, thanking them with all my heart for spending such special time with me. I promised that I would try to make my experience more widely available, and this is one of the many ways of achieving that goal.

Father Malloy is a president emeritus of Notre Dame.