09/10/2011 04:30 EDT | Updated 11/10/2011 05:12 EST

9/11 Remembered: Canadian Press Reporter Recalls What It Was Like At Ground Zero


HALIFAX - I could see, smell and faintly taste the disaster from kilometres away.

My colleague and I were driving over the George Washington Bridge and into Lower Manhattan after a frantic drive from our office in Halifax.

It was Sept. 12, 2001, just over 24 hours after the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. We had raced from The Canadian Press bureau in Halifax a day earlier, assigned to tell the stories of Canadians helping out with the cleanup, recovery and whatever else in the aftermath of the terrorist attack.

As we approached the island, we could see smoke billowing up from a new gap in the skyline. Clouds of grey grit rose, hung and drifted away from the waterfront.

I rolled down the window and could immediately smell an acrid, heavy, almost metallic odour we assumed was the residue of the fallen buildings and all that they contained.

It settled on the tongue like a chemical silt.

I had been in the city weeks earlier, standing directly beneath the towers that made me dizzy as I looked up to see their tops. It was astonishing now to see thick dust clouds in their place.

We drove into the city in a frustrating search for a hotel. Everything was booked. So many people had been displaced by cancelled flights and rearranged plans that finding a room became a near impossibility.

When we eventually found one, they charged us a premium, something I found so despicable at a time of such loss.

The hotel had a strange feel as firefighters, engineers and others in clean-up uniforms milled about the lobby under vaulted ceilings and gleaming marble floors.

We immediately went to the West Side Highway, the closest we could get to the site. People lined the long stretch of road that runs along the Hudson River and was once anchored by the soaring towers.

It was a beautifully sunny and crisp day, a real incongruity to what was unfolding. People seemed both stunned and keenly alert as they snapped photos and gazed at the area where the towers used to stand.

They broke into song and spontaneous applause as firefighters and police emerged from the site looking haggard, defeated and covered in grey ash.

That telltale smell was heavy in the air.

Sirens wailed constantly throughout the lower part of the city, making me wonder why they were in such a race to get there when it seemed so unlikely anyone would be found alive. Still, they became the city's anthem for the first few nights, gradually easing off as rescues waned.

On our first night, several colleagues and I were sitting in the hotel restaurant. Suddenly, people started pouring in through the two or three sets of revolving doors. They looked panicked.

We went out into the lobby and found a police officer outside trying to manage a crowd of what seemed like hundreds either running into the hotel or down 7th Avenue.

The chaos was frightening.

We learned there was a bomb scare at the Empire State Building. Someone had found a package.

I asked the cop what to do. Looking frightened himself, he said: "Run."

Run? Run where?

"Go as far south as you can," he said.

I was scared, terrified in fact, imagining that needle-nosed giant coming down on my head.

Everyone seemed very much on edge as we ran down 7th, only to be hemmed in by the barricades around the World Trade Center site. Cops, wildly waving directions with their arms, screamed, "Get off the street!"

I remember the tension, the looks on people's faces — helpless fear, the thought that if they could take down the towers, anything was possible and there wasn't much you could do about it.

It turned out someone just left a bag behind and there was no threat, but it showed how anxious most were feeling.

On my first morning in the city, I went to a hospital where families were looking for survivors who may have been taken there, unconscious, injured and unable to identify themselves.

It seemed the crowd was made up mostly of young women and men seeking their spouses. Large bulletin boards lined the entranceway and were filled with hand-made posters bearing details of the missing.

Private photos of men with their children during a summer vacation, newlyweds on their honeymoon, moms holding newborns, grandparents beaming with little ones.

All had been photocopied onto white paper with names, addresses, distinguishing physical characteristics — a Superman tattoo on a left ankle, a birth mark on an inside forearm, a surgical scar — the floor they were on in the towers, what they were wearing, phone numbers to link them to their families, many with the headline, "Missing."

I found it heartbreaking and imagined the details running through their minds as they drew up the posters in such a desperate bid to find people who were surely lost.

One woman who has remained in my thoughts held a poster of her husband, a Hispanic man in his 30s who was a supervisor at an investment firm near the top of one tower. She had given birth to twin daughters six months earlier.

I still remember her face. Smooth light-brown skin, framed with long black hair pulled back in a tight pony tail. Too young to be a widow with small babies.

She seemed frightened, anxious, not distraught but consumed with worry. Her English was halting. He was the sole breadwinner and she spoke as if there were a real chance he was alive.

Tears streamed down her face as she told me, "I just feel he has to be OK. ... I just need him, they're six months old. They just need their dad."

The grief was muted, with quiet crying and hugging.

It seemed the area around the hospital changed dramatically overnight. The lower part of Manhattan became plastered with posters of the "missing." Every flat surface in one neighbourhood near an information station was covered with the faces of the lost. Their families milled around, giving emotional interviews to TV reporters who also broke down in tears.

I remember seeing one man's posters throughout New York. You could walk for miles and find his face on light posts, store walls and trees.

Even after Rudy Giuliani, the mayor at the time, shifted the rescue effort to a recovery mission about a week later, relatives defiantly recast his signs to say "Still Missing."

The city itself seemed numb, exhausted from the grief and shock. The edginess wore off and a gentle resignation or depression set in.

Funeral processions at small firehouses and churches became a routine occurrence.

A certain kindness or awareness of others seemed to take root. I remember walking out of a store in midtown Manhattan and the doorman said tenderly, "Stay safe."

Impromptu memorials popped up. People would gather in parks to sing, hold hands and tell stories. One man said he had never seen so much generosity and togetherness in the city. Dozens lined up for five or six blocks to donate blood. Bystanders stood for hours in the hot sun to hand out water bottles to firefighters, and businesses offered free food to those working at Ground Zero.

In a strange way, it was the safest I had ever felt there.

But there were ugly reflexes too.

Using racist slurs, a cabbie driving me to a centre where people brought toothbrushes, hairbrushes and anything with DNA for identification purposes angrily told me it was the fault of all Muslims — that theirs' was a contemptible and violent religion that fostered hatred.

Profiteers set up shop on street corners so hastily that some of their mugs, T-shirts, posters and knick-knacks contained blatant factual and spelling errors. Even in a city surrounded by death, there was money to be made.

For journalists, the goal was to get inside Ground Zero. I obtained a pass and was granted entry. To say it was like a movie set seems easy and trite, but that's what immediately came to mind.

It was a dreamscape of wrecked buildings, shattered windows, crushed cars and streets littered with objects that didn't belong there — bottles of hair dye, pencils and floating sheets of paper mixed with torn photos, bits of desks, chunks of concrete and a police van with its roof caved in.

All of it was covered in a gritty ash that cloyed at your nostrils and saturated your clothes. It was the remnants of the two towers and much of what they contained. I instinctively scooped up some of it, but then wondered what exactly I was holding and what I would do with such a ghoulish memento.

Today, it sits in a mason jar on my bookshelf. Its scent and sight still conjure up vivid memories of a frightful run down 7th Avenue, the anxious face of a young mother praying for a miracle, and a city struggling with its own anger, fear, compassion and vulnerability.