When a team formed to clear one of the adjacent World Financial Center buildings, I followed. The massive dome of the foyer was intact; the marble floor was slick under the ash. The windows on the west were blackened; those on the east were blown out. I explored the second floor. Reception: phones off the hook, milkshake on desk, computer monitor on floor. Vase of flowers upright and intact. Gym: rows of treadmills and stairMasters, heavy bag, dumbbells, all uniformly beige with dust. It looked too perfect, an artist’s project, life-size in paper mache.

I caught up with the firemen on the fourth floor. They split up, working in pairs, keeping in constant voice contact. In fifteen minutes, those ten men checked every single room, closet, and cubicle. They finished by four. For the next three hours I watched the work outside. WTC 7 collapsed around 5:25. I tried to call my editor on a payphone and watched a man next to me hang up and start crying. I got my eyes flushed out twice. I talked to a man from Ladder Company 134 in Queens. He had begun his day getting his son dressed and packed for his first day of pre-kindergarten. “You know what?” he said. “Fuck this. Just fuck this.”

I carried home with me three things that I’d snatched at random from the site: a memo from Matthew to Jeff about Karen’s secretary, the front page of a report on Telecom Strategies for the New Decade, a photograph of a mustachioed man in a tuxedo at a podium. They stink of burnt rubber and there’s still enough dust on them to make my skin itch if I handle them.

I carry some other things as well. There is the psychologist who believes that if I am not in shock I must be in denial, after seeing so many people die. There is the girl who called me a vulture.

Vultures profit from disaster. When I ran to, and not from, the square, was I not on my way to exploiting this holocaust? Did I sense that the magnitude of the event could be made to magnify me? I cannot altogether refute this charge.

But something larger propelled me. I felt an intense passion in those hours, an exaltation. I felt alone at the center of the world. All details became iconic and crucial. I tried to record everything.

I believe that our present way of life ended in those hours. That is the dressed-up, smoothed-over analogue of seeing planes vanish into buildings and people coming down from the sky. I think it is proper and honest to say I wanted to experience that for myself and communicate it with as many others as I could. I have no ambivalence about that.

 

Nicholas Spangler is a staff writer at Newsday.