A BLANKET OF DUST
Copyright 2016 Richard Hopkins Squires
Just before dawn on a cold, still January morning, Andrew Black walked into the plaza between Lafayette Square and the White House. A tall, thin man, he was well dressed in a dark blue cashmere overcoat, scarf, briefcase and woolen hat; so well appointed and distinguished that he easily passed for a White House staffer on his way to work. The guard in the heated booth on Seventeenth Street looked his way; Black nodded obliquely in return as he crossed to the sidewalk in front of the Renwick Gallery, thinking the building itself might provide him some cover.
When he reached Lafayette Square he looked to his left and saw his friend Diana Crane walking diagonally through the park. He hardly recognized her in the disguise she’d rigged up. An attractive, athletic woman in her forties and the daughter of a six-term Democratic Senator from Connecticut, she was dressed like a homeless tramp in a head scarf, filthy overcoat and hoodie.
When he was opposite the White House, Black turned, crossed the plaza, and sat down on the parapet that anchored the fence directly in front of the portico. He pulled a one-liter bottle from his briefcase and opened it, releasing the pungent smell of gasoline into the still cold air. He hurriedly poured the gasoline over his head, hat, scarf, coat, and pants. His eyes stung from it. He had already smeared his head and body with incendiary gel; now the gasoline chilled him markedly. He shivered violently as he pulled a butane lighter from his pocket. His hands shook uncontrollably. For a moment his nerve failed. But he recovered, lit the flame and held it to his chest.
A ball of fire engulfed his body and roared high above the fence line. Black cried at the top of his lungs with pain. The half dozen people in sight of him stopped in their tracks and watched. After a three or four seconds his voice fell silent. Then the smell of roasting flesh began to lace the air.
Directly across the street in front of Lafayette’s equestrian statue, Diana Crane could just feel the heat from the fire on her face. She pulled a camera from her pocket and framed the man on fire with the White House for a backdrop. She took two shots and hurried away.
A guard arrived within a minute, quickly followed by another. They stopped transfixed, peering at Andrew’s face--already black and charring--through the flames. The smell, so much like roasted lamb, threw them back in horror.
‘Get an extinguisher!’ the lieutenant ordered.
‘You can’t do that!’ the sergeant retorted, who was thinking that at this point you could only save him for a life of total agony.
It’s not obvious? the sergeant thought. ‘It’s caustic!’ he replied.
‘Goddamn it, man, we’ve got a fire here!’ But the lieutenant too felt wary; he couldn’t remember the training and he was frightened to make a mistake. ‘Get a blanket, then!’ he ordered.
The sergeant ran back to the guard booth by the gate. He couldn’t find a blanket, so he grabbed a Secret Service raincoat from its hanger and ran back to smother the flames. By the time he returned, though, it was over.
The lieutenant was barking into his cell phone. The White House loomed mutely behind. The remains of Black’s body lay crumpled in a rough ball on the sidewalk, a small circle of people gathered around it, full of horrified bewilderment. Licks of blue and yellow flame ran along the lines of his coat and hat. A glance at his blackened face was enough to show that he was dead. Only his legs below the knees, still bearing scraps of his trousers, and above all his feet, still finely shod in black, bench cobbled shoes, still wrapped in socks to the ankles; only these remained to suggest the man who crossed the plaza just minutes before.
And his briefcase. The lieutenant looked inside. It was empty except for a single piece of paper bearing Black’s letterhead. The hand-written note read, ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.’
By the time the two guards read this note, Diana Crane had walked a block and a half to the New York Deli on 15th Street, where she handed her camera to the editor of Washington’s Blog, who sat waiting for her at a table inside. Within minutes the pictures were posted on the web, with Black’s hand-written note for a headline.
Leaving the coffee shop, she turned north to walk home through the quiet early morning traffic of the city. It was a bright, sunny day: she felt the atmospheric pressure in her head; she hated it. Why did she have to be so sensitive? She craned her neck from one side to the other, stretching her jaw as she walked briskly down the empty sidewalk. After all those months of preparation, it was done. She felt a rush of giddy exaltation; the pull of gravity seemed to loosen, she felt her feet lift from the pavement in a joyous leap. But as she landed she reproached herself: homeless women don’t do that sort of thing. She looked about. Up the street she saw a camera pointed toward her from a streetlamp. She hunched over as she turned away instinctively and draped her arms around her abdomen.
Recovering, she turned a half circle, crossed the street, and continued north beneath the camera. A storm of thoughts tore through her mind, disconnected words whose only correlation was the agony of feeling underneath them. And beneath the feeling she could just make out the image of his face--Andrew’s burning face--looming into consciousness. She must calm down. Another wave of anxiety crashed on the walls of her mind.
Then she saw him right in front of her; hovering over the sidewalk in Farragut Square. No, it was just a man, an ordinary man. He looked at her peculiarly. Oh God, I’m going mad... A visceral sense of the fire flashed over her; she had to stop until it passed. It would be a fight to just continue walking down the street. The sight; the smell. The pain. And the pain of his family, his friends. She stood in the center of the square, staring blankly into space.
What did we do? He died for me. He never said so much, but it was clear enough. Did he love me? Yes, of course. A wave of guilt assaulted her. But that’s ridiculous; he did it for himself. It was his idea in any case. He knew what he was doing. Just remember: don’t look back. The shocking smell of roasted flesh.
* * *
It started with Sam. She hadn’t thought of that before, but it was obvious: it all went back to Sam. Who died by fire too, presumably. She hadn’t thought of that either. Having breakfast for a lark on nine-eleven. They never found a trace of him. Leaving the square her mind raced through that day.
It was a perfect morning in September. The phone rang; it was Sam.
‘Morning, sweetheart.’ It was almost 9 am. She was so glad to hear him that she missed his tone of voice.
‘Sam! What’s up?’
‘I’m at the World Trade Center.’
‘That’s very posh. What...?’
‘Listen,’ he interrupted, ‘something’s happened here. Either a bomb went off or a plane or something hit the building. Nobody seems to know. Can you turn the TV on?’
‘Are you all right?’ She rushed to the living room. ‘Oh my God,’ she said as the picture came up. ‘It was hit by a plane! There’s a gash in the building near the top; there’s smoke pouring out. Are you ok? Where are you?’
‘We’re in the restaurant on the top. We’re fine; it just shook the building for a moment. It sounded like a bomb, though.’ As she looked upon the stricken building, she understood.
‘Oh no,’ she said. She couldn’t hide her fear. ‘Are you alone?’
‘I’m with Randy.’ A fellow employee of Amnesty International: Diana knew him well. The three of them ran the DC office. ‘There’s hundreds of people here. There’s a lot of smoke; it’s hard to breathe.’ But no one could prevail like Sam, she thought. Fearless Sam. He’d find a way to shimmy down the tower if he had to.
‘Can you get to the roof?' she asked, watching the TV screen. ‘A helicopter might be able...’
‘We’re going to try. We found the staircase...’ Then the line went dead. Completely panicked, Diana tried to call him while she circled through the channels on the television. Virtually all carried pictures of the stricken building. Twenty minutes later her call went through.
‘Diana!’ Sam answered. ‘I just got back to the restaurant. We climbed to the top but the door to the roof was locked. Can you believe that? The restaurant manager had the key but he needed some kind of security code.’
‘Can’t they find it?' she screamed. Then she caught something fleeting on the television screen. ‘Oh my God!’ she cried. A second plane struck the south side of the South Tower, some fifty yards away and twenty floors below him.
‘Jesus!’ he cried out almost simultaneously. An enormous ball of fire erupted from the building, searing his face as he watched it. It burned in the air for two or three seconds and vanished. He turned quickly away and bent over into a protective posture. ‘Diana!’ he called into the phone.
‘I’m still here,’ she answered.
‘It was another plane. You’ve got to get out of there, Sam.’
‘Oh, Jesus.’ Were they trapped? He was not the type to panic: this Diana knew. ‘We’ll have to try the stairway going down. But the smoke...’
‘Can’t you break a window?’
‘Possibly. I think we can. But I want to try the other stairways first. It could take a while. I’ll call you when I can,’ he said. He was so sober, so matter of fact: she could divine from this how bad it was. As bad as Fallujah? Lebanon? Rwanda? He’d been through wars. When he ducked into the stairwell she lost contact for a second time. She sat glued to the screen with nothing to do but watch the towers burn and wait for the phone to ring. And now her friends began to call.
‘Sam’s trapped inside the building. I’m waiting for his call. Don’t call back: I’ll let you know when I hear from him,’ she told two of them, fairly snapping into the line. He got back to her a half hour later.
‘I went as far down as I could,’ he said. ‘But that was only seven floors. I tried all three stairways but they’re all blocked.’
‘Are you back in the restaurant?' she asked.
‘Oh my God!’ he suddenly exclaimed.
‘Someone just jumped out the window!’
‘The South Tower! Oh, God: there’s another one! I can’t watch it...’ She could hear his footsteps as he turned back from the window.
‘Where are you?’
‘I stopped a floor or two below the restaurant. That man jumped almost from the top...’
‘But where are...’
‘A financial firm called Cantor Fitzgerald. There’s not so much smoke here. It’s eerie; the phones still work. Nothing’s damaged. They’re talking to the fire chief.’
‘Really? What does he say?’
‘That they know where we are and they’re coming to get us. They have to get past the crash floors but they say that the fires aren’t serious.’
‘Oh, thank God.’
‘The jet fuel burned off right away, and there isn’t that much on the floors to burn. It looks like the fires are dying on the South Tower, at least from here.’
‘How does it look to you?’
‘It’s just black smoke,’ she replied. ‘I can’t see flames in either building anymore.’ Then Diana heard a loud boom on the phone line. She looked to the television. The South Tower was falling.
‘Can you see what’s happening?' she cried into the line.
‘Oh my God,’ Sam cried. ‘I can’t believe...’ He stood transfixed at the window as the thousand foot tower blew apart and fell at nearly free fall speed in a deafening roar to the ground.
‘I heard explosions!‘ he replied. ‘I can’t believe...’
‘Are you all right?’
‘There’s clouds, like volcanoes! It’s unbelievable; it’s rising! I’m going to the other...’
‘Oh no,’ Diana said. Then he was cut off again.
* * *
She crossed K Street and turned up Connecticut Avenue. Two soldiers dressed in combat gear, no more than 21 years old, stood at the entrance to the Farragut Square Metro. They had submachine guns slung over their shoulders. She stumbled as she mounted the curb and saw them. They looked over suspiciously. Her hand shot to her forehead; she felt suddenly faint. One of the soldiers started to approach her. She quickened her pace and waved him off with an irritated gesture of her hand. She passed them with her eyes locked on the sidewalk.
A block away she came to the doorway she’d picked out, which led into one of those glass shoeboxes full of lawyers. If they should question her, then that was where she’d been. Then she noticed a camera trained on the doorway. What difference did it make; she’d never pull it off anyway. She wasn’t an actress: as soon as she spoke she’d give it away. The disguise was strictly for the White House cameras. Anywhere else it was a liability. She hadn’t thought of that before.
She looked back behind her to the Metro stop. The sidewalk was empty.
* * *
He called her for the last time at 10:25 am. He was still at Cantor Fitzgerald. They were barricaded in an office on the northwest corner of the floor, as far from the South Tower dust as they could get. They taped the door to keep the smoke from seeping in, and they broke a couple of windows facing west for air. It was an excellent place to ride it out until the firemen arrived. The fire was nearly out below, dying of its own accord.
‘Sam; I’m so glad you’re back.’
‘I love you.’ She didn’t like that. Why would he say it now?
‘I love you too. Where are you?’
‘In a corner room on the same floor. We still have a land line. Can you believe the phones still work? But the firemen... well, the firemen are holding back.’
‘For God’s sake, why?’
‘They fell back when the South Tower collapsed.’ They fell silent for a moment. ‘It’s actually very quiet here. Everyone just talking on the phone. When I look below it’s like we’re in a glider flying over clouds of dust, with buildings poking through them almost randomly. Can you see anything?’
She looked to the screen. Aside from the gash in the side of the building from the plane, where a column of smoke still trailed, the building looked sound. On the three undamaged sides you’d hardly know there’d been an accident. But everywhere below it was a scene of utter devastation.
‘It looks good, Sam. The building seems sound.’
‘It feels sound,’ he replied. Then she heard an explosion through the phone. She looked to the screen. The radio antenna on the tower roof buckled just before it dropped.
‘Sam!’ she cried.
‘Oh no!’ he replied. The phone went dead and she watched the building fall--not fall so much as fly away--like a sparkler spewing I-beams off in place of sparks--spewing them so forcefully that huge steel columns, heavy as a car, flew hundreds of feet; flew over Vesey Street, and West Street, stuck like a giant’s spears into neighboring towers or fell in a rain of steel and clanged upon the street.
* * *
She crossed Rhode Island Avenue. There to the right was the red brick Catholic Church where JFK was buried. Her parents had attended; she had not been born. Suddenly the questions besieged her again. Why was the door to the roof locked? Why not send a helicopter rescue squad to break it down? If he was close to the top of the building when it fell, then why wasn’t he near the top of the pile when it was over? Why was there no pile at all? Why were the entire contents of the buildings, including some three thousand people, blown to dust? How was that possible? There should have been a pile, a huge pile, and Sam should have been on top of it.
But there was only a massive field of broken steel, and a foot thick blanket of dust.
Stuck in the middle of the vortex again, she repeated the catechism she’d devised to deal with the reality of his disappearance. You’re gone and the body stays behind. The spirit goes where the spirits go, and you’re left with a lifeless corpse. That’s what you have to work with. So what if it’s irrational. You gather for the funeral. You leave flowers at the grave. And for that you need the body. But she had nothing: both body and soul were snatched away. What was there to cling to?
She crossed Dupont Circle, where the avenues merged like the spokes of a wheel to a hub of grass, with a fountain of nudes in the center. They were lovely. Were they the only public nudes in Washington? That’s what Sam said. It was the kind of thing he’d know. The sun was now full up, and people passed her on their way to work. She reminded herself to play the part.
An old woman sat on a bench and watched as Diana approached. Had she spent the night there? Was that accusation in her eyes? Or did the woman simply wonder if they knew each other from the street? Diana’s house on Hillyer Place was just to the north of the circle. What if a neighbor should see her in these clothes?
‘Diana?’ A voice called out behind her. She turned: Christ! It was her brother. A handsome, somewhat glamorous, twice-divorced man in his early fifties, Charlie was a national reporter for the Post. He lived a block away from her. She checked the lamppost over his head: there was a camera. To the right, a half block away, another camera. He ambled up beside her.
‘What’s with the get-up?' he asked.
‘What are you doing up so early?' she countered, her eyes to the ground, unable to disguise her panic.
‘I’m working the night shift,’ he lied. ‘So what’s...’
‘I can’t talk here,’ Diana said. ‘Do you want to come to my house?’
‘Sure,’ Charlie answered with a leer that bordered on contempt. He walked a half step behind her and kibitzed. ‘Is that mud in your hair?' he asked. Was it really that obvious?
It drove her into a fury. They reached the corner of Hillyer, and walked halfway down the empty street to the pretty, red brick Arts and Crafts bungalow with a steeply pitched roof and stained glass over the windows. Diana opened the door and let him in. He went straight for the couch in the living room and dove with his shoulder for the pillows in the corner, from which he surveyed the room--an attractive hodgepodge of period hangings and newer, more comfortable furnishings--from a semi recumbent position. Is he planning to crash here! she wondered as she went upstairs to change.
‘Make yourself some coffee!’ she called down from the bathroom door. She caught her eye in the mirror as she pulled off her clothes and piled them on the toilet. A band of hair above her forehead was indeed caked with mud. ‘At least it covers the gray,’ she thought, combing her fingers through the thick, ginger-colored hair that still remained her crowning glory. She’d have to shower--she didn’t like bathing in the winter.
Imagining the water made her think of Andrew Black. ‘Forgive me, Andrew,’ she whispered incongruously, suddenly feeling guilty just to be alive. She stared into her own eyes for a moment, as if she might see inside them where he’d gone.
When she came down afterwards and saw Charlie appraising her, spread across the couch like a walrus sunning on a boulder by the sea, she felt a sudden rush of anger. He’d been perfectly positioned to uncover it; a much bigger story than Watergate. And she had counted on him for that. But he did nothing. Worst than nothing, really: by dutifully reporting the government’s fabrications on the crime of the century, he’d become a puppet in its propaganda ministry.
‘I especially liked the mud gel and the hoodie,’ he said as she sat down. The smirk on his face set her off.
‘And what were you up all night for?’ It certainly wasn’t work; he was still drunk.
‘Honestly, Charlie, when will you get it together and connect the dots?' she interrupted, apropos of nothing. ‘You think we drifted into this by accident?’
‘Into...’ He circled his hand evocatively.
‘This police state. Why do you think I wouldn’t talk on the street?’
‘I just assumed...’
‘You know about the cameras and surveillance. You know about the iris scanners. You know that they can monitor my face. You know that dissidents are now considered tantamount to terrorists, and that they’re disappearing from the streets.’
He knew, but still maintained an air of studied diffidence about it. On a personal level he assumed he held a kind of class immunity, which was probably true. And he assumed that the odds were always against them finding you anyway. The systems were too complex, and the people running them too stupid, for any individual or faction to control them. So that any malevolent action by the government--tyranny, covert action, war--transpired not so much by plan as from caprice or accident.
Diana thought it was precisely the chaos and incompetence of the system that made it possible for an organized and disciplined faction to manipulate it to their private ends. And to deny the facts parading before his nose as Charlie did was to abandon his moral duty to the truth. But then, a phrase like moral duty to the truth could only make a man like Charlie laugh.
"She looked to the screen. Aside from the gash in the side of the building from the plane, where a column of smoke still trailed, the building looked sound. On the three undamaged sides you’d hardly know there’d been an accident. But everywhere below it was a scene of utter devastation. "
‘Is that why you’re dressed up like a bag lady? To fool the cops?’
‘Yes, and a fat lot of good it did me, thanks to you.’ Then an image of Andrew’s burning body suddenly flashed across her mind. Her hand went to her forehead and she reeled a bit. Charlie caught it.
‘Are you ok?’
‘I’m fine,’ she said, recovering. But she was not ok. The enormity of it struck her again, and swamped her in a tide of fear.
‘So what’s going on? Is this about Sam?’
‘I can’t tell you right now.’ He would know soon enough.
‘I only ask because it’s 15 years now.’
‘There’s no statute of limitation on murder, Charlie.’
‘But cases do turn cold,’ he rejoined, not intending to be cruel, but wanting to help her see the futility of the quest that had come to possess her. Which pointed up the fundamental gulf between them: life was a quest for meaning to Diana, which made her question everything, while Charlie saw it as a quest for power, and as such had learned to question almost nothing. He squinted an eye. ‘You know what you look like? A tarred and feathered Junior Leaguer,’ he said.
‘Thanks so much for sharing that.’
‘Just saying,’ he replied. He got up and headed for the door. He stopped as he passed her, and weaving slightly, looked her dead in the eye. ‘It’s fifteen years. It’s time to move on. He isn’t coming…’
‘It’s none of your goddamn…’
‘You’re renouncing your life for a man who’s dead!’ The words shocked her into silence.
‘He’s not dead to me,’ she finally whispered, looking down.
‘But he is nonetheless,’ her brother replied, with all the sympathy he could muster. ‘It’s not completely sane.’ He grabbed the doorknob. ‘You still coming tonight?’
‘To what?’ She’d completely forgotten.
‘Dinner at Mom and Dad’s?’
‘Oh, right. Of course,’ she said.
But how could she possibly do that now?
She saw him to the door, returned to the living room, took a sip of the coffee he’d made, and turned the TV on to CSPAN on a hunch. The reporters were waiting for the White House press secretary to enter the room.
‘Good morning,’ he said on arrival. ‘I’m sure you all know about the incident this morning in front of the White House,’ he began, ‘which happened about 7 am. A sixty year old man, apparently a DC resident, committed suicide. That’s all we know right now.’ A reporter stood up.
‘Can you tell us his name? Who exactly did he work for?’
‘His name was Andrew Black. He was the owner of The Radical Solution, a bookstore on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan. That really is all that we know.’
‘I understand he set himself on fire, and that photos have already been posted on the web.’
‘Really? I haven’t heard that,’ the secretary answered with a straight face.
‘You don’t know that he set himself on fire?’
‘Yes, we do know that,’ he answered, cautiously retracing.
‘You don’t find that remarkable? You don’t think it suggests something extraordinary?’ The press secretary paused while he considered how to use the question.
‘I guess some people might say that a suicide burning might bear comparison to a suicide bombing. Is that what you mean?’
‘Did he have a bomb? Was he attempting a bombing?’
‘We have no reason to think...’
‘Was he Dillon Black’s son?' another reporter interjected.
‘We don’t know whose son he was,’ he replied in a bald faced lie.
‘Do you think he was a terrorist?’
‘For heaven’s sake, Bob, he owned a bookstore,’ the secretary said, peddling backwards again. ‘We should think of his family and friends right now, who are dealing with the trauma of his suicide.’
‘I’m sorry, but no one commits suicide by setting himself on fire.’
‘Well, this man just did.’
Lying on the sofa in something close to a state of shock, Diana suddenly realized she’d continued to blankly watch the television even after the briefing was concluded. She rose from the sofa and turned it off. It was still early though, and for the moment she had nothing to do. Nothing to do on such a day. She retired to her favorite spot in the house, a sunny bay window in an alcove off the living room in which she’d placed a love seat. The sun was just beginning to shine on the cushions. She lay down and closed her eyes. Shortly afterwards Betty the calico cat jumped on, stretched into a corner by her breast and purred contentedly.
She drifted into a kind of half sleep with the sun on her face. There was Andrew, in a ball of fire, in a blackened agony. She shuddered at the sight and for the first time wondered, why? Why did he do it? It wasn’t for the glory, regardless what he said. For the principle? For the power. To even the score in asymmetric warfare. And for Sam, too. If Sam were still alive then Andrew might be too. It all went back to Sam in any case.
* * *
When her last call to Sam went dead, she turned to watch the tower on the screen. She saw it fall, throwing steel columns like toothpicks over the neighboring streets. It came down in seconds in a raging cloud of dust, storming down the canyons of Manhattan. In the hysteria that followed, a single thought possessed her: she had to know if he was still alive.
And she had to find out for herself; she wasn’t going to wait for the authorities. She considered her options for a moment, and decided to drive. Hardly thinking about what she was doing--hardly thinking at all--but rather churning on a tide of desperate emotion, she picked up her purse, put on her shoes, got in the car, and drove to New York City.
Once on the road, her mind shut out everything beyond the whirring passage of the highway, which aptly mirrored the incoherent white storm in her mind. After a couple of hours, somewhere north of Baltimore, that storm receded. She became aware again of her surroundings. It was a beautiful fall day. Traffic was proceeding normally. If the radio was off, you’d hardly know that anything had happened. It was all too eerie.
She turned on the radio. A reporter from the Wall Street Journal described what he saw from his office facing the South Tower just minutes before: “I heard metallic crashes and looked up out of the office window to see what seemed like perfectly synchronized explosions coming from each floor, spewing glass and metal outward. One after the other, from top to bottom, with a fraction of a second between, the floors blew to pieces. The tower went down perfectly straight, as if a demolition crew had imploded it. I wondered if it was being brought down deliberately.”
Shortly afterwards an announcer broke in to say that President Bush was ready to address the nation. “Freedom itself was attacked this morning by faceless cowards. And freedom will be defended,” the President began, with his salient Texas accent. “Make no mistake: The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”
‘Cowards!’ Diana thought as she turned off the radio. ‘That’s the last thing I’d call them.’ Halfway up the Jersey turnpike she could see a cloud of smoke, drifting southward from Manhattan. The cloud grew in size until finally the World Trade Center came in view. Except there was no World Trade Center, just a towering column of dust. The signs on the turnpike announced that all the bridges and tunnels leading into Manhattan were closed. She turned on the radio again.
‘The entire building just collapsed as if a demolition team set it off--when you see the demolition teams on these old buildings,’ an eyewitness said. ‘Bam bam bam bam bam,’ a fireman exclaimed. ‘Dozens of explosions going down and around the building as it fell.’
She remembered a boating party on the Hudson some years before, that had crossed the river from Battery Park City to New Jersey. On an impulse she took the Hoboken exit and wound her way through the back streets of Jersey City to the ferry dock. She saw a large crowd standing there, watching the smoldering wreckage across the river. She found the ticket booth and asked to go to the World Financial Center.
‘Manhattan’s been evacuated below Canal Street,’ the agent said. ‘You have to go to Hoboken North and get a boat for the 39th Street Pier.’ Diana was prepared for this.
‘I’m an EMT,’ she responded. She’d been trained as an Emergency Medical Technician to prepare for field work with Amnesty International. She fumbled in her wallet and produced an I.D. ‘They’re expecting me.’ The man gave her an appraising look. She was very attractive for an older woman, with her hair drawn back in a ponytail. But in sneakers, tights, and a cotton pullover she clearly wasn’t dressed for work.
‘If you say so, lady,’ the man replied, pushing a ticket through the window. ‘I don’t know what they’re gonna tell you on the other side, though.’
She went down to the dock and waited for the ferry, which she could see approaching from the far side of the river. With the bridges and tunnels all closed, the river had filled with every available boat, most of them ferrying people from one side to the other, making the Hudson look more like a holiday harbor painting than the scene of an historic tragedy. It was now late afternoon and still a beautiful, cloudless day. The kind of day that gave her headaches from the pressure. She absorbed the perfect, unobstructed view of the catastrophe, and listened as the people plied each other for information and speculated on the meaning of it all. She noticed a group of firemen waiting by the landing and asked one of them if he was going over.
‘Yeah, we’re on the midnight shift,’ he replied. ‘We got a pump boat moored up in the harbor there that we’re running to the pit.’
When the ferry docked a dozen firemen alighted along with an equal number of EMT and medical volunteers. She boarded with the firemen, showing her ticket and EMT card to the crewman on the ferry.
‘You better hang that card around your neck,’ the crewman advised her. ‘The cops are throwing people out now.’
Across the river, the cloud filled the city, spreading mightily into the sky over Brooklyn and Staten Island, and casting a haze on the rest of New York. As the sun began to sink in the western sky, it reflected off the blanket of dust that covered every level surface of the city, giving the roofs, the streets, the parks and the windowsills a uniform whitish glow, as if a mountain had exploded and deposited volcanic ash on the city. One of the firemen rummaged in his kit to find Diana a piece of string to tie her card on, and while he was at it he gave her a dust mask.
‘Thanks,’ she said, offering her hand. ‘I’m Diana.’
‘Danny,’ he replied. ‘What brings you here?’
‘My husband...’, she began, and then faltered. She looked down to the deck and then up into his eyes, her own eyes brimming with tears, a strange bewildered smile on her face.
‘Your husband! Oh, jeeze’, he said, placing a hand on her arm. ‘Enough said.’
She stood with the firemen in the bow, watching the ferry navigate the throng of boats to the other side. By the time they alighted she was practically part of the team. Danny wasn’t going to ask her, and she carried herself with such an air of certainty that no one else thought to question why she’d come alone, with no equipment.
‘Jesus Christ,’ Danny said as they stood on the dock and saw the devastation right before them. The pristine harbor and its mammoth yachts were covered in a half foot of dust, which was covered by another foot of ravaged business papers. Dust clouds hung in the air, swarming about in visible contending streams. A gagging smell--a combination of chemicals and roasted flesh, the firemen said--permeated the air. The buildings that lined the harbor, the brand new, upscale World Financial Center, were covered with debris, defaced by broken glass and scarred in myriad ways.
‘You know where you’re going?' Danny asked.
‘Yes. To the North Tower,’ Diana replied. ‘Can you tell me how to get there?’
‘You sure don’t waste time,’ he said. ‘The fastest way to the pit is just follow this hose,’ he continued, pointing out the hose that ran from his company’s pump boat to the site. Two cops approached as he directed her.
‘This area has been evacuated,’ one of them said to Diana. Diana held her EMT card up for them to see.
‘I’m supposed to be here,’ she said. ‘I’m an EMT with a triage group.’
‘She came over with us,’ Danny said by way of confirmation.
‘I’m due there now,’ Diana said by way of parting. ‘Thanks for everything, Danny.’
‘All I gave you was a piece of string!’ he called back.
She pushed past the policemen with a quiet smile and followed the fire hose around the building to Liberty Street. The hose was full, wet, and throbbing like a giant landed eel, turning its passage through the dust into a stew of grey mud. She followed it to West Street. To her left a maze of firetrucks, police cars, tow trucks, ambulances, and water trucks littered the eight lane street as far as she could see to the north. Hundreds of uniformed men were milling around the debris in a seemingly aimless fashion, chatting while they waited for instructions. She waded past the men and tracked the hose across the street and into the ruins of the World Trade Center.
It was impossible at first to get her bearings. Inside the cataclysmic wreckage of the complex, all she could see was smoke, fire, and a chaotic field of mangled steel. Then she remembered: follow the hose. A pathway had been made along it, up a small rise from the street and past the flaming wreckage of the Marriott Hotel. She scrambled to the top of a pile of rubble and looked around in awe. The broken steel was scattered in a roughly circular field that spanned four blocks, punctuated here and there by standing shards of steel.
She peered through the smoke to find the pile; the pancake stack of a hundred floors. Near the top of that stack she’d look for Sam. But there was no pile. There were no remains. Where there should have been a stack of floors some twenty stories high, there was nothing but space.
Where had the building gone? She turned round a moment in panic. She looked past the tilting shards of the tower’s curtain walls, but saw nothing behind them but fire and smoke. No stack; no floors. No walls, no ceilings, no carpets, no tables, no desks, no chairs: there was nothing but steel and dust, millions of broken, twisted shanks of steel rising out of the smoking depression beneath her and spread hundreds of yards in every direction from the footprint of the tower. Suffused with a wrenching smell and draped in a blanket of dust.
There was no place here that Sam could be.
She noticed other people standing by her; it was a natural place to pause before descending into the pit. To her right she saw a handsome woman in her forties, dressed in a white lab coat.
‘Did you just get here?' the woman asked.
‘I could tell by your clothes.’ Except for her feet and lower legs Diana was still clean. ‘How’d you get in?’
‘I took a boat from Hoboken. I just flashed my EMT badge to the guys and smiled.’
‘Amazing how that works.’
‘Yeah. I need to find a group to work with, though.’
‘You can join us if you want.’
‘Is it a triage group?' Diana asked.
‘It was supposed to be. We’ve been here since noon, though, and we’ve only found a handful of survivors. And all of them were still on their feet.’
‘What happened to the buildings?' Diana asked urgently. ‘Why aren’t the floors stacked on top of each another? I thought you’d find survivors in the wreckage of the floors.’
‘That’s what everybody thought. We were expecting thousands of survivors.’
She paused and cast her eye around the rubble field. ‘We’re not even finding bodies.’ They stared in silence for a moment on the field of broken steel in front of them. It was quiet except for the hiss of smoke and an occasional clanging of a beam as it yielded to the efforts of the workers. There were twenty or thirty of them, searching through the mangled chaos for survivors. White hot smoke was rising up in currents from the tower basement; acrid, caustic, poisonous fumes that were subtly laced with the scent of death. ‘You’ve got to be careful when you go down there,’ she continued. ‘There’s a red-hot fire in the basement of both towers. Streams of molten steel they say. It heats the surface steel so hot it burns right through your shoes.’
‘I’m just trying to imagine where the survivors might be,’ Diana said hopelessly.
‘Good question. We’re thinking that they must be where the buildings went. You saw those clouds of dust?’ The words pierced her like a rapier, and suddenly Diana understood.
‘Of dust?' she fairly cried. ‘Dust? Oh my God... Don’t tell me...’ She burst into tears. The rescue worker moved to comfort her. She put her arms around her.
‘Do you know somebody there?' she asked.
‘My husband,’ Diana cried. Then she lost it. The woman approached and she sobbed in the arms of the stranger until she was too weak to continue.
‘I’m so sorry,’ the woman said. ‘Just forget what I said.’
‘But you said...’
‘But what do I know? What does anyone know? I just know we’re here to find them.’
Diana drew herself together and wiped her hands across her eyes to dry them. ‘Thank you,‘ she said. ‘I was on the phone with him this morning, so I know he was trapped inside...’ She began to weep again. ‘So I came up here to find him, and I had an EMT card, so...’
‘You did the right thing,’ her new companion said. ‘I would have done that too.’ Diana wiped her eyes again.
‘I don’t even know your name,’ she said.
‘I’m Angela Cross,’ the woman said. ‘What’s yours?’
‘I like that: Cross and Crane. Why don’t we get a cup of tea?’
‘Do they have it?’
‘Yes,’ she answered, pointing to the far side of the devastated complex, ‘there’s kind of a hot dog stand over there, at Liberty and Church.’
Then a huge roar stopped them in their tracks. A block away on Vesey Street another tower--Building Seven--suddenly fell in front of them. It fell freely, as if it were weightless and pulled down by a string. Their hands went to their ears reactively. It was over in seconds. The top of the building hit the top of the pile below it with a sickening crash and then it was silent again except for the whoosh of the shock wave and the clouds of dust behind it. They turned to shield their faces from it. A half dozen witnesses stood on the ridge with the women, shocked into silence. A fireman came trudging up the pile.
‘Now we get to eat the dust again,’ he said with disgust, passing his gaze to all of them in turn, as if to confirm that they had witnessed something they would someday feel a duty to describe. How could a fifty story tower just fall down like that? Standing on the ridge, they suddenly felt exposed. Angela pulled on Diana’s arm: they fell in line with the others, and followed the hose back down to the street.
‘Was that supposed to happen?' Diana asked incredulously.
‘I can’t see how,’ Angela replied.
‘There was rumors it was coming down,’ a nearby fireman said. ‘They evacuated it this afternoon.’
‘How considerate of them,’ Angela said. Diana looked to Angela to try to ferret out the meaning in her irony, but seeing her impassive face, said nothing. ‘This is nothing compared to this morning when the towers fell,’ a fireman said behind them. ‘The dust was so thick that the sky turned black; black as night. You couldn’t see three feet. On the sunniest day of the year.’
On West Street everyone was numb. It was like wartime: after the first few bombs you hardly notice anymore. Except that they did. Angela was still determined to visit her hot dog stand, however. She led Diana south to Liberty Street. They turned east through the fire and rubble and continued to Church Street. The hot dog stand was a plain collapsible table about six feet long that held two catering urns--one holding coffee and the other hot water--and a large steel pot of steaming water with twenty or thirty hot dogs floating on the top. Cream, sugar, mustard, catsup, napkins, cups and buns were arranged around the pots, which attracted a steady crowd of firemen and rescue workers.
The women made tea and stepped away from the table to view the current disaster from a different angle. The dust had settled, and with no traffic or sirens or people it was as eerily quiet as it had been before. The hot white smoke continued to rise from the base of the towers; the debris field and the fires beneath it turned Diana’s thoughts to the Inferno. The newly demolished skyscraper stood in a pile beyond it. A couple of firemen sidled up next next to them to discuss the latest catastrophe. The women listened in.
‘You see how that building’s all piled up there?' one of them said, pointing north to Vesey Street. ‘I must have done thirty demolitions like that. You see how high the pile is? That’s what I mean. That’s a standard demolition.’
‘You mean how tall the pile is.’
‘Yeah. That was a fifty story building, right? Give or take. And now the pile is what, six stories high? So it’s five hundred feet before, and after it’s like sixty: figure eight to one, ok?’ The second fireman nodded by way of understanding. ‘And the whole building is in that pile, right? I mean a little bit of dust got out, but everything is there. If you were looking for a phone or a desk or a chair or a body you could find it; you might have to dig some but what I’m saying is that everything that was in the building before is in that pile right now.’
‘Except the air between the floors.’
‘Exactly.’ He stopped for a moment as the point sank in. Then he swept his arm around to indicate the debris field of the twin towers in front of them.
‘But that’s not what happened with the towers here.' He swept his hand in a radius to mark the debris field in front of them. ‘Look at it: steel beams thrown into a field a quarter mile across. Steel beams sticking out of other buildings that they hit like spears. And that’s all you got here, is steel. There’s no walls, no windows, no floors, no chairs, no desks. No phones, no paintings, no pens. There’s no bodies. There’s no nothing. Whatever they used was so powerful, it granulated everything except the steel. It pulverized it into dust, into that black smog this morning that you couldn’t even see through. Like right there.’ He pointed to Church Street, where the dust lay up to your ankles over everything. ‘There’s no piles,’ he continued, his voice rising in intensity. The towers were 1400 feet; so eight-to-one that should have left two piles, like a hundred and eighty feet high. Like eighteen stories each, I’d say. But all you’ve got there is a couple of bumps; like twenty feet high. There’s no piles at all; there’s just this giant field of steel and dust. This was not a standard demolition charge. This was some kind of crazy shit. This was military.’
‘Yeah, cause nobody else...’
‘Nobody else has got that kind of firepower.’
‘What about the paper?' Angela asked him, asking a question that had vexed her all day. ‘What’s that all about?’ There were millions of pieces of paper that were blown out of the collapsing towers, which now lay scattered in the dust.
‘I know, that’s weird. I think they must have rode the blast wave out. They surfed the wave and didn’t get pulverized like everything else. You want to know what else surfed out on the wave? The blinds; the Venetian blinds. See over there? And there? And there?’ He pointed to a nearby lamp post, a hanging sign, and a tree limb in the distance. All of them supported strange cocoon like hangings, a foot or two in diameter, that you could see on close inspection were the mangled remains of the towers’ Venetian blinds.
‘Yeah, and golfballs,‘ the other fireman said. ‘There’s thousands of golfballs lying under the dust. You’re walking around and you feel something funny, and you bend down and it’s a frigging golfball. Like how weird can it get?’
‘Yeah, like it’s too dense to vaporize.’
‘Unlike a telephone or something.’
‘Not to mention a body.’
Hearing this, Diana saw a fleeting image of the clouds of heavy dust that raced down the streets of the city, which outran the people in flight and covered them all with a flour like coating, of what? The walls, the floors, the phones, the carpets, the chairs, the windows and the pulverized bodies of the people in the World Trade Center. And the dust that funneled high into the air above the city and blended with the wind to form a stream of vaporized debris in the sea of air above them. That was Sam. His chestnut hair, his teeth, his bones, his heart, his mind. Falling on the streets in tiny bits and flakes and drifting over Brooklyn in the wind. His body blasted into dust.
Her mind turned black. A flood of agony rose from the bedrock of her soul, from the well of feeling that knows no words. She fell weeping to the ground on hands and knees. A strange, alien wail resounded from her throat. She pressed her forehead into the dust. Angela hastened over and knelt beside her as she keened. The firemen joined them.
‘Her husband was in the north tower,’ Angela whispered. Unwilling to disturb her, they could only stand by. After several minutes it was over, and they helped her to her feet. She was covered with dust now, on her face, her arms, her legs, and as she wiped her hands across her blouse, her body.
‘We’ve got to get you out of here,’ Angela said, embracing her, and soiling her lab coat with splotches of dust. She started to wipe them off with her hands. She glanced at Diana, who was watching her, and nervously stopped.
‘Where should I go?' Diana asked blankly, as if there were no place on earth that would have her.
‘You should go to Beth Israel; he might be there.’
‘They found a number of survivors,’ a fireman said.
‘I’m going to take you there. We’ll have to walk, but it won’t take long.’
Diana sat on a folding chair behind the hot dog stand while Angela went to her base to tell them she’d be gone. By the time she returned it was dark. The power was down in lower Manhattan because of the disaster. They heard generators fire up to break the silence. Harsh white lights shot down on the rubble where the firemen and rescue workers continued to peer into the fiery pit for miracles. As they walked north on Church Street, Diana gazed for the last time on the void in the sky where the towers had stood. Where the mystery of Sam’s existence was now reduced to dust. Where it seemed that life itself had been reduced to its essential element, illusion.
Diana held her hand up and they stopped. ‘I can feel them,’ she said, her head slightly raised. ‘I can feel their souls.’
They walked north through the abandoned, now forbidden city where the only sign of life was an occasional vortex of dust, whirling ten or twenty feet into the air and meandering half a block, drawing here and feinting there before subsiding, as if the dust remembered something of its former incarnation and was trying to reconstitute itself again.
There were barricades and checkpoints at Canal Street, and armed men in uniform: the introduction of martial law. People milled about the north side of the street, watching the smoke rise from the ashes several blocks below. Quiet, numb, as if the smoke were all that remained of some distant Gotterdammerung.
They passed a lot on Houston Street that had been turned into an impromptu stretcher factory: dozens of wooden stretchers made from 2 by 2’s and plywood, never to be used at all. On 14th Street they passed an emergency blood donation center, where hundreds of units of blood had been drawn that day to treat survivors. The blood went begging that day, and the following days as well.
A little to the east of the blood center they walked by an emergency morgue, set up to receive the bodies of the victims of the crime. But the morgues were practically empty. Out of three thousand victims that day, only 300 bodies were discovered. The rest came in pieces. Nearly half of them vanished, like Sam, without a trace.
Beth Israel was busy nonetheless. Many victims had been treated there that morning. The hospital was waiting to receive survivors as they were found and delivered from the rubble. Family members who could get into Manhattan were directed there. There were three or four hundred such people when Diana and Angela arrived, waiting for ambulances from the site of the catastrophe. They spilled out of the emergency room, onto the 16th Street sidewalk and into Stuyvesant Square across the street.
‘I may know someone here,’ Angela said as they arrived at the entrance to the emergency room. They waded through the crowd to the information desk, packed five deep with questioners. Angela slipped around to the back of the desk, spoke to a woman standing in the background, consulted a list with her, and returned to Diana.
‘They haven’t seen him yet,’ she reported as she came back through the crowd. ‘She said the best thing to do was to wait here and check the ambulances as they arrive.’ Diana looked around and thought about the prospect of waiting through the night for ambulance arrivals.
‘I’m sorry,’ Angela said, reading her thoughts. ‘I just don’t know what else to do. I can give you the keys to my apartment if you’d rather stay there for the night.’
‘No. But thanks,’ Diana replied. ‘Thanks for everything. You’ve been a true friend.’ They embraced. As they drew apart Diana caught her eye and thought of something. ‘There’s one thing that I’d like to know. Who do you think could have planted the explosives in those buildings?' she asked.
‘I don’t have a clue,’ she replied. ‘I’ve been thinking about it all day.’ She unbuttoned her lab coat and took off the sweater she was wearing beneath. She gave it to Diana with her card.
‘Here, take this. I’ve got a jacket at the site. You can mail it back to me later on.’
She left Diana in a crowd of people on the street before the hospital, the air crisp with nightfall, still tainted with the smell of destruction and death.
As Diana watched her walk away, she took stock of her feelings for the first time that day. She had never felt so isolated. She felt like a mother in a birthing ward who had lost her baby. She understood that she’d been sorted out correctly and taken to the people she belonged to, the people who were shortly to be known as family members. And glancing around, careful not to look at anyone too long, she saw that she belonged there in a superficial way. But there was a gulf between them. Because the others, in their innocence, were full of hope. But Diana knew too much. Her faith was shattered. Reading her distress, a woman in her thirties approached her on the sidewalk.
‘I saw that woman drop you off. Are you waiting for someone to arrive here?’
‘From the World Trade Center?’
‘Yeah. That’s what all of us...’
‘No,’ Diana lied. Or was it a lie? Why was she here? She decided to lie. ’No, I’m an emergency worker. They just wanted someone stationed here.’
‘Have you been down there?’
‘Yeah, this afternoon.’
‘How’s it look? My brother’s...’
‘Your brother’s down there?’
‘Yeah, in Building Two. What’s it look like?’
‘It’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything...’
‘Are they finding anyone?' the woman demanded. How could Diana answer this?
‘Yeah, I think so’, she said. ‘They should be...’ She couldn’t continue; she was suddenly afraid that she’d be overcome with tears.
‘You think so? Wow. What does...’
‘Look,’ Diana interrupted, ‘there’s always hope. That’s all we really have to work with now.’
‘Yeah, hope,’ the woman answered with a trace of anger. ‘That’s all we’ve got.’ She said it slowly. ‘Hope.’
‘I wish I knew more,’ Diana said.
She shook the stranger’s hand. ‘God bless,’ she said. And then on impulse she embraced her.
Diana pulled away and headed somewhat blindly west on 16th Street to get away. She continued for several blocks before turning aimlessly north, then east, then finally south on First Avenue and back to the hospital again. The people of New York had poured into the streets to seek the meaning of the day’s attacks. It was a fair, almost balmy night, with temperatures in the sixties. She returned to Stuyvesant Square, where people continued to congregate and wait. American flags were everywhere: you wouldn’t have thought that the Lower East Side could possess so many flags. ‘They must have flown them up from Alabama,’ she thought to herself.
She found a seat on a park bench facing the hospital, from which she could monitor ambulance arrivals. She looked around. The mix of people in the park--a combination of family members and neighborhood residents--gave her a comforting sense of anonymity. And however pointless the purpose of her vigil, she refused to think it completely useless, for if nothing else it gave her something to do that night. And there was always hope. Yeah, hope.
A man placed a television set on a bench in front of her, plugging it into a long extension cord that he ran across the street. A small crowd gathered to watch. He surfed slowly through the channels. They all showed the three falling skyscrapers, accompanied with narration by the network commentators.
‘Anybody who’s ever watched a building being demolished on purpose knows that if you’re going to do this you have to get at the under infrastructure of a building and bring it down,’ Peter Jennings said, as the tapes of the exploding buildings played over and over on the set. The man turned the channel to CBS, where Dan Rather said, ‘It’s reminiscent of those pictures we’ve all seen too much on television, where a building was deliberately destroyed by well placed dynamite to knock it down.’
He flipped the channel again. President Bush walked stiffly to a podium set up in the Oval Office, a look of grim determination on his face. ‘Today our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes, or in their offices. Secretaries, businessmen and women, military and federal workers. Moms and dads. Friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror,’ the President told the nation. ‘The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge structures collapsing, have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger. These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature… The search is underway for those who were behind these evil acts. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts, and those who harbored them…’
She walked to a quieter side of the park, and sat down again on a bench. Like most of the people on the vigil, she dozed off at times throughout the night. Was it safe for a woman to sleep on a park bench in New York? When she woke she had her answer: for this night only, yes. It was an intermittent outdoor slumber party, with hundreds of proctors and participants. No one would dare to breach the sanctity of that gathering: the criminals in attendance joined the vigil just like everybody else. The secret sinews of humanity had found a common purpose for the city.
In the cool light of dawn they woke to find that not a single living person had been brought up from the wreckage. Knowing why this was the case, she still felt powerless to speak. She had no right to talk about it--no right to destroy another person’s hope. Which made her feel she had to leave. Nothing was going to regenerate her husband from the dust, and nothing would avail her to pretend that was the case. She sat on the bench in the morning light, running her finger over the dew on the planks. She could go back to the site, but for what? To see it all again? For what? She wasn’t sure they’d let her back in anyway. The word had spread that volunteers were being weeded out as federal troops arrived. Martial law was now the word in New York City.
She chatted briefly with her neighbors on the bench, a couple of kids in their twenties who were waiting for news of their father. Now that it was light they hoped the ambulances would begin to come. It looked to be another gorgeous, sunny day. Nature was mocking their tragedy. Diana stood and said goodbye. She didn’t know where to go: apart from leaving the hospital, she didn’t know what to do. After a moment’s hesitation she turned west again for no better reason than to see the river.
Everywhere she looked that morning, New Yorkers were waving the flag. They pasted them in windows, hung them over doors, carried them around on poles and paraded them down the streets. It was understandable, but nauseating. As she approached the river, she realized that she would wind up in the crowds around Ground Zero, a prospect that she couldn’t face. She stood in a crowd on the corner of 14th and 8th Avenue and blankly pondered the reality, standing mutely as the throng moved west to cross the avenue, then south to cross the street. Then she made a snap decision to go home. She walked north to 39th Street, and turned west to reach the ferry landing.
Once aboard the ferry she leaned on the port rail and stared at the site the entire way across the water. A thin trail of white smoke rose from the molten fires that raged in the basements below the towers. Her mind was numb: under-rested, overtaxed, it seemed incapable of generating thought; it could hardly produce emotion. She watched the smoking columns rise until they hit the lower tendrils of the westerlies, where they turned and join the prevailing wind in its long march through New England to the sea. How long will that infernal cauldron burn, she wondered.
Sam was in that wasteland; that was all she knew. However hard she tried, she couldn’t quite grasp the reality. He was in it, but not of it. He was gone.
She had to make some calls: Sam’s brother--his parents were deceased--and her parents. Melanie and Charlie. She didn’t have a cell phone; it could wait. But it gave her a genuine reason to go home. Who else called yesterday? Was it only yesterday? It seemed an age ago. It was this time yesterday she talked to Sam. She was so certain that he’d make it. The boat sounded its horn as it approached the dock. It landed at Jersey City; she had to hail a taxi to Hoboken to retrieve her car. The radio was playing in the taxi. The driver was out for blood.
"Where had the building gone? She turned round a moment in panic. She looked past the tilting shards of the tower’s curtain walls, but saw nothing behind them but fire and smoke. No stack; no floors. No walls, no ceilings, no carpets, no tables, no desks, no chairs: there was nothing but steel and dust, millions of broken, twisted shanks of steel rising out of the smoking depression beneath her and spread hundreds of yards in every direction from the footprint of the tower. Suffused with a wrenching smell and draped in a blanket of dust."
"Hearing this, Diana saw a fleeting image of the clouds of heavy dust that raced down the streets of the city, which outran the people in flight and covered them all with a flour like coating, of what? The walls, the floors, the phones, the carpets, the chairs, the windows and the pulverized bodies of the people in the World Trade Center."
"As they walked north on Church Street, Diana gazed for the last time on the void in the sky where the towers had stood. Where the mystery of Sam’s existence was now reduced to dust. Where it seemed that life itself had been reduced to its essential element, illusion.
Diana held her hand up and they stopped. ‘I can feel them,’ she said, her head slightly raised. ‘I can feel their souls.’
'We already know it was al Qaeda,’ he said, talking loudly over the newscast as he turned his head, his jaw stretched toward the back. ‘We knew that as soon as the planes hit. Now it looks like Saddam Hussein was the mastermind, and bin Laden was doing his bidding.’ The radio announcer made a statement that Diana couldn’t catch.
‘You see what I’m saying?' the cabbie yelled. ‘He’s gonna tell those shitheads that we’re gonna fuck them up.’
‘Bush. And then we’re gonna go and fuck them up.’
‘But how could they know who it was so soon?’ The cabbie stopped the car and turned off the radio as Diana counted out the fare.
‘That’s the FBI,’ he said. ‘They found one of the hijackers passports…’
‘Where?' she interjected.
‘In the dust! Just lying in the dust a block from the North Tower.’
‘But how could…’
‘It blew through the flames and out the building and landed down there in the dust. A little singed, is all. So then they put two and two together, and bam, they found the whole cell. Like twenty Arabs, from Pakistan or something. Except they didn’t really find them, because everyone of those motherfuckers is dead.’
She was so distracted on her long drive home it took an effort just to stay on course. The world was in a state of shock, but everything was normal on the turnpike. It was all too eerie. She tried the radio: the President was speaking again: ‘The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror, they were acts of war,’ he said. ‘Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda,’ he continued, ‘but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated… We will stand together in this Global War on Terror.’ What country do you start with in a global war on terror! she wondered. The Muslim world? That might take a while, like fifty years.
But who planted those explosives?