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At ground zero 

by Alisa Solomon and Lew Lieberman


I emerged from the Chambers Street subway stop at 9 this morning into a crowd gaping up at the World Trade Center moments after its top floors had burst into flames. Some people were crying, a few women crossed themselves, but mostly people were exchanging stories in that almost affable New York-in-a-crisis way, collecting the tales that they would later tell their friends and maybe someday their grandchildren. Until the second blast. As soon as we heard the muffled boom and saw flames kick along the walls of the tower, we knew in our bellies that America was changed forever. I wanted to throw up.


A panicky mob ran screaming up the street, some stopping two blocks north to gape some more. Theories started flying: "Terrorists," though few could say which kind or for what cause. Sirens howled and quickly the streets became eerily empty of traffic. We could see some small figures -- something orange, something flapping white -- hanging off the building. Could they be people? The crowd let out a high-pitched primal squeal. I got the hell out of there.


I headed east in a nauseous daze -- due for jury duty at state supreme court on Centre Street, propelled by one of those defense-mechanism impulses that makes you focus on the thing that is absolutely beside the point. I turned onto Duane Street, soon finding myself passing the Javits Federal Building. I started to run. It might blow any minute, I thought.


I spent much of this August in Israel and the occupied territories. I was there during the weeks the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem was blown up by a suicide bomber, and left Haifa only a day before the bombing at a restaurant there. Though I witnessed during my travels through the West Bank and Gaza how those areas were the ones literally under siege, I began to understand the depth of Israeli fear. I lived in perpetual anxiety: sitting in a cafe, going to the grocery store, standing in any crowded area. Every time I boarded a bus, I felt my heartbeat speed up. I never felt so relieved to return home from abroad as I did two weeks ago. At last I could drop the guard, leave the panic behind.


Or so I thought. Jury duty was over: The court was closing. So I began the citizens' march up Centre Street, merging with the throngs sent home. Cops waved us away from subway entrances and told us to keep walking.


I fell in with a group of young women, administrative assistants at 2 World Trade Center. One was still crying. She was about to enter the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. "Arms, legs. Parts of people. They were falling on my head," she said. Her friend put an arm around her, saying only "shhh," and the whole block went silent for a moment. The third friend tried frantically to get a cell-phone signal. A secretary to three vice presidents at a Wall Street firm that opens at 9, she typically starts work at 8:30. "I have to get their days prepared," she said, shaken yet proud, almost as if she expected to be there again tomorrow. "My subway was late today and for some reason, for once as the train slowed down and waited, I didn't get mad," she marveled.


Her calls wouldn't go through. Neither would anyone else's. Block-long lines formed at payphones as WTC workers tried to contact loved ones to let them know they were okay.


As we trudged along -- strangers talking like old friends, people who managed to find cabs and offering to share them -- I flashed on the grammar-school drills I went through in the '60s. The Cold War came to my Midwestern suburban school in the form of duck-and-cover exercises and, once a year, a practice evacuation. We were let out of school early and had to walk all the way home, filing out in neat lines and heading into the streets, kids peeling off as we came to their neighborhoods.


A real war has come to these shores now, bringing massive violence into America for the first time. The terrible human casualties of today's attacks haven't even begun to be counted yet. Some of the intangible ones to come are obvious -- the First Amendment, for starters. The altered city skyline is only the most visible manifestation of the size of the change.


I finally got my turn at the phone. There were three anxious messages on my answering machine: One from my partner. And two from friends in Israel.


-- Alisa Solomon is a reporter for the Village Voice, New York City's altenative weekly newspaper, where this story first appeared.





An eye-witness account


Noon


This is unbelievable. This is a state of war, very scary, very horrifying. People in the streets crying, wailing, hysterical. Very little, almost no traffic, and the constant wail of sirens. No one honking their horns, very un-New York. Most saw the second plane hit, as everyone was watching the World Trade Center because of the first explosion, which shook my apartment, and then there was an incredibly loud boom.


Smoke is covering everything, although it is lifting a bit now. I cannot see anything across the river, although before the first collapse I could actually see fire coming out of the upper floors, and people hysterically waving their arms (using binoculars) pleading for help. There were reportedly many jumpers, although TV only showed a couple.





1:11 pm


I'll tell you what I can tell you -- witnessing this, and seeing the second plane hit, and being in the middle of a war zone, makes me think life will never be the same. We're starting to hear about some of the dead being brought into local hospitals, including children.


Warships coming into the harbor, but I don't find that comforting. America has never been attacked like this. Radio says that tomorrow is the sentencing date for Bin-Laden's colleague from the 1993 terrorist bombing, yet Bin-Laden is denying responsibility.


I spoke with a good friend at 10:15 -- his sister works in the WTC, was supposed to be at work at 8:30, but she was late because she was putting icing on her sister's birthday cake for the surprise birthday party tonight. So she's alive, although hysterical.


I'm fine, but then when I get through by phone to a loved one, I break into tears. I'm not in touch with exactly why yet, but it's very emotional.


I'm going out to the street now to the blood bank.





2:38 pm


I just found out that Mike, a friend of mine who works in the WTC, can't be found. I left messages at work, home, etc.


I can't even get into the blood bank -- hundreds of caring, impotent NYers crowding in. A friend just walked seven miles from his midtown trading desk back to Brooklyn and his family. He said Manhattan is all zombies -- sounds like London in '39 -- nobody's joking, no jostling, no arguing, people bursting into tears. It's an orderly line as he and thousands of others crossed over the East River on the new pedestrian walkway of the Manhattan Bridge -- total evacuation below Canal Street; cannot get into Manhattan. I'm real, real scared about my friend Mike -- hopefully he slept late.


I'm at work; no arrests coming in -- even the bad guys are in a state of shock. I'm not even thinking about possible looting. Guess I'll go walk around and feel a sense of community. Being with others is tough, though, because then you're forced to face reality. Watching CNN almost feels safer, because it's on TV. Then you walk outside and see the damage.


Two of our detectives just walked into my office and said there are many, many police and fire personnel dead at the scene, and they're saying that obviously they planned the second plane to hit when all the rescue personnel would already be on the scene. I also just heard that a friend's sister made it out of the 84th floor, walking all the way down to safety. I don't have any other details.


I just heard that Mike is okay. Thank you, God.


If Pearl Harbor was a Day that Will Live in Infamy, what the hell does that make this day? What is the meaning of today?


-- Lew Lieberman is a lawyer who works in the office of the Brooklyn District Attorney.
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