Rear exits line Theatre Alley. There are no stores, no shop windows, no lobbies - the buildings have all turned their backs on the short, narrow lane. Only rats, pigeons and the homeless are drawn here. Walking down Theatre Alley means dropping out of Manhattan's fast lane. It's like falling into a dark well. When you stand in the middle, you see nimble-footed, preoccupied people scurrying past, like apparitions from another world. Theatre Alley doesn't have its own street sign, and it doesn't even appear on many city maps. It's the kind of place nobody ever looks for. Including me. I just happened upon it.
On September 11, 2001, I was haring down Ann Street, the avalanche of the collapsing World Trade Center No. 2 advancing on my heels. When the roiling wave of dust was just 50 yards away, I dashed into the narrow side street, figuring it would sweep past on the broader streets. By the time I reached the middle of Theatre Alley, I had realized my mistake. From the left and right, towering walls of dust loomed, engulfing me. Everything went black. Theatre Alley had become a dead end. I held my breath. I told myself: Don't take a single breath until you see light. But I didn't see any light. And at some point I gave up, and breathed. Thick, warm, black dust poured into my body. I waited to pass out.
At that moment, I decided to quit my job.
At that same moment, others became born-again Christians, decided to go to war, to have children, to commit murders, to write books - or maybe just to stop smoking. It was a moment that demanded action.
During those hours, my computer was downloading more e-mails from Germany than ever before. Someone was probably writing to me the moment I inhaled that dust in Theatre Alley. People who hadn't uttered a word to me in years suddenly wanted to know how I was doing. Many described what they had been doing when the towers collapsed, where they were and what they were thinking. Everybody felt they could relate to the devastation in some way. Suddenly, at this moment when the whole world closed ranks with this tiny area on the tip of Manhattan, these people were very close to me. It was a real millennium, not as boring and uneventful as the one in 2000.
Later, with preparations for the Iraq war already under way, the singer Patti Smith told me about her plan to have people around the world shout the word "Peace!" at the same time. September 11 would have been her day.
Manhattan was white and silent, almost like Christmas, and I ran until I was right outside the blazing tower
But such unanimity cannot last long. The e-mails that arrived from Germany in the following days were already less compassionate. They expressed less and less concern about me and New York City, more and more about world peace and themselves. Yet, at that moment in the darkness, seconds after the second tower came tumbling down, there were no more certainties. Nothing was the way it used to be. It was a time for resolutions.
In my case, that lasted five, maybe 10 minutes.
I live in Brooklyn, on the other side of the river. I watched the first plane hit the World Trade Center on a local television station. While my wife and I were still debating whether I should head over, the second plane rammed into the other tower. My wife picked up the children from school. I took our car and started driving toward the small black cloud in the glorious blue sky. It was a kind of blue that has been described over and over again, probably because it seemed to symbolize our innocence, our naïvety, human goodness.
I left the car in a no-parking zone in Brooklyn Heights and squeezed past the police officers onto Brooklyn Bridge, which was packed with office workers in dusty clothing. I recall being the only one running westward. As I reached the middle of the bridge, the first tower collapsed. I'm still not sure whether I fully understood what was happening. But I thought of events from history, the Hindenburg fire, the explosion of the space shuttle, only magnified one hundred times over. I kept running toward the remaining tower. Manhattan was white and silent, almost like Christmas, and I kept running until I was standing right outside the blazing building. A firefighter stopped me and asked: "What do you want here, man?" I said: "To get closer."
That is exactly what I was trying to do, to get closer. I have no idea what I was hoping to find up close - probably an exclusive, or the truth. A few seconds later the firefighter screamed: "Run! We're losing the second tower!" And I ran, exhilarated by the sensation of having been so close.
At that moment when I breathed in the black, noxious air of Theatre Alley, I understood: I had been like a moth attracted to the light. I wasn't a witness to a momentous event in world history. I was an insect, a bug. And that didn't appeal to me at all. I needed to start a new life. At some point, somebody broke open one of the barricaded rear entrances and led me along a winding subterranean passageway, to a door edged by light. It opened into the building superintendent's office. About 15 people were huddled inside. There was a desk with a big black telephone and a little radio.
A woman was sobbing in one corner. In another, a quiet man with a Jewish kippah was sitting with a briefcase wedged between his legs. A small Asian man was scurrying around the room, and a bulky African-American policewoman was squatting on the floor, vomiting. A man standing by the desk was wearing a New York Jets jersey. A thick gold chain with a police badge hung around his neck. He seemed to be in charge. The man with the badge washed out my eyes and told me to cough up the dust. I disappeared into the bathroom and, when I returned, decided to write this one last story after all. I got out my notepad.
That moment, when nothing was the way it is now, was over.
The woman crying in the corner was Eileen McGuire, a technology expert from Marsh, the world's biggest insurance broker with offices on eight stories of the North Tower. The plane had crashed right into these floors. Eileen McGuire worked on the 96th floor, her husband John three flights up. He usually started work earlier than she did. He left their apartment on Upper East Side at 7 a.m.; Eileen didn't follow until 8:15 a.m. The building was already blazing when she emerged from the subway. She ran toward it and wanted to go in - to her laptop, to her colleagues, to her husband. But the police wouldn't let her. She ran around outside. Then the South Tower collapsed, and the cloud of dust swallowed her. She stood paralyzed for several minutes, dazed and disoriented, until Steve Weiss grabbed her and pushed her into the lobby of an office building. From there, she found her way to this basement.
Steve Weiss, whose mother is Filipino, was in Manhattan as a campaign aide to Mark Green - the Democratic candidate for the mayoral elections due to be held that day. Eighteen years old, Weiss was a student at Penn State University. That morning he and two other helpers were driving through Manhattan to distribute flyers. When they reached City Hall, Weiss realized that the election might be overshadowed by the day's other events. He decided to head home to Staten Island. Halfway to the ferry, the tower collapsed. Stumbling through the swirling dust, Weiss saw Eileen McGuire and got her to safety. He used the building superintendent's phone to call his father, who bawled him out for missing classes. Steve handed the phone to Sammy Fontanec, the man with the police badge and the green Jets jersey.
"You're lucky your son is still alive, man," Fontanec said and hung up.
Fontanec was with the narcotics division in Harlem. He and a few colleagues were downtown today for a hearing; the prosecutor wanted him to testify against a suspected crack dealer busted in Harlem a week earlier. They were standing on the courthouse steps when the first plane crashed into the tower. They pinned their police badges to their civilian clothing and rushed to the disaster area, where they lost each other in the dust and debris. Fontanec groped his way through the darkness until he found a door leading to a lobby - and seven or eight people staring back at him. He guided them down to the basement before running outside to see if anybody else needed help. He found two of his colleagues in the dust from the second tower.
Officer Tonya Daire, a sturdy black woman, had raced to Manhattan with her captain and another officer from their station in East New York. They parked two blocks from the World Trade Center. The captain told her to watch the car and took off with the other officer. Emergency calls were coming over the radio - people pleading for help, screaming, whimpering, coughing.
Tonya Daire didn't know what to tell them. She was only a police captain's secretary. She waited. Shortly before the first tower collapsed, people began running past her car. She was tempted to join the exodus, but her boss had said, "Stay here, Tonya," and she didn't want to lose her job. She had three children, no husband and needed the money. Then blackness enveloped her. She continued to wait. The air cleared. Shortly before the second tower collapsed, the captain returned and shouted: "What are you still doing here, Tonya? Run!" She ran until the cloud caught up with her.
Officer Daniel Velasquez, a narcotics cop from Williamsburg, was hit by a police car after the second tower fell - when everybody was running for their lives. The vehicle appeared from nowhere, hit him and simply drove on. Velasquez flew across a blue police barrier. When he clambered back to his feet, he could no longer see or breathe. Semi-conscious, he staggered through the dark. At some point he spotted the dim beam from Sammy Fontanec's flashlight through the murk. Then he collapsed. Fontanec and Weiss carried the burly officer down the stairs to the basement. They removed his gun belt and all the other cumbersome trappings of a New York cop. They took off his jacket and washed him off. And left him lying on his back, like a beetle.
David Liebman and Steven Garrin were en route to work when they were surprised by the collapsing towers. Liebman, a programmer, was installing software in the Deutsche Bank building. Garrin, a lawyer, had an office at Ground Zero. Ultimately, all of us were here because of our jobs. Only the building superintendent, the man who really worked here, was absent.
We spent about an hour in his room, using his phone and radio. We heard that terrorists had piloted planes into the World Trade Center and that other aircraft had been hijacked as well. That Washington and Pennsylvania had been hit, too. A war seemed to have broken out above us, and we were sitting in an airraid shelter.
Eileen McGuire was crying for her husband. In hushed tones, Steven Garrin told me that he had returned from Israel a week earlier, where he had given a lecture on philosophy. He had touched base with some relatives; they had come to see him in Tel Aviv because he was reluctant to drive through the West Bank - it was too dangerous, he said with the cautious laugh of someone with asthma. He was having trouble breathing. At some point, Eileen McGuire reached her husband. He had arranged to see his doctor - she had forgotten all about it. He was in their apartment on the Upper East Side.
She sat there with the phone, speechless.
"Hey, people, Eileen's husband is alive!" Fontanec called out. And we cheered and applauded as if all our problems had vanished. Shortly afterward Steven Garrin was picked up by two men and taken to a hospital. Five minutes later, we went upstairs.
The bright, brilliantly blue day had returned. The ground was coated with a blanket of white dust. Night had passed. We stood outside the building and paused. Then Sammy Fontanec said: "Go on. You can go now, guys." As though he were shooing cows from a field. Eileen McGuire passed around her business card as though she had just finished a meeting. The address on the card no longer existed. Then everyone started moving, back into their lives, gingerly, as though taking their first small step on the Moon. I turned around once more and noted the name of the house that had been our fortress. Temple Court Building.
That night after I had written my final story, an editor called me from Hamburg, wondering what our next feature article could be. "It'll be just like the fall of the Berlin Wall," he said. "There will be stories for the next six months, hundreds of stories." I felt weary. Really, I'd written down everything I knew. I would have been happy to stop at that point. Then I went to bed, got up the next morning and started writing down the stories. Which - essentially - is what I'm still doing, five years later.
I interviewed five men who had been trapped in an elevator in the North Tower. A woman kept playing me the message that her husband had left on their answering machine before he died. I love you. I love you. I love you. The red lamp on my tape recorder seemed to quiver with the rhythm of the words. The widow's child was playing in the living room; she was carrying a second in her womb. I attended four funerals. I spoke to Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York who had calmed his city after the attack as though it were a baby. By the time of our interview, he had become a global consultant in the war against evil and lived in an apartment covering half a floor in a Times Square high-rise. His companions from the day of the disaster - his police chief, fire department chief, and press spokeswoman - lived in adjoining rooms. They accompanied him on a journey that may lead to the White House.
September 11 was proving an endless day.
When I flew to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, we had to stay belted in our seats during the last hour of the flight - for security reasons. At the opening ceremony, I had to negotiate so many barbed wire fences and heavily armed soldiers that I ended up leaving the stadium in fear just as the U.S. team was marching in. Twice I fled the New York subway because I thought the man sitting across from me was about to blow himself up. And I paid three visits to my doctor in Brooklyn because I was convinced that I had cancer. Each time he talked to me about my work, took my blood pressure, calmed me and pocketed $120. Four years later, the head of a therapy group for war veterans in Massachusetts told me that I probably was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He himself had crawled through the Vietnamese jungle, high on drugs. We meditated together in his garage.
In November 2001, ten minutes before I was to begin a reading of New York texts at Berlin's German Theater, the U.S. military launched its bombing campaign of Afghanistan. I considered canceling the reading out of solidarity. Solidarity with whom? I still wasn't sure. But I ended up going ahead with it after all. When I finished, a woman in the audience got up and asked me how I could read humorous stories from New York while people were dying in Afghanistan. I had no answer. September 11 kept getting bigger.
In the winter of 2003, I was sitting in the U.N. Security Council chamber as the Americans sold their next war. Once again the context was New York. With their crisp white shirts and helmet hair, the media people stood in the winter sun with their backs to the East River. Nobody believed in the rationale for this war anymore, but everyone knew it was going to happen. The diplomats pretended to resist. For a week.
Three months later I was in Iraq interviewing officers and soldiers who had come to unearth weapons of mass destruction - weapons that plainly didn't exist. They had no idea what they had gotten themselves into. Many had volunteered for the military after 9/11 because they wanted to help in some way. You had to do something. Now they stood in the desert sand, muscles rippling, ready to roll. Most had never even been to New York.
In 2004 George W. Bush used the city yet again - to secure his reelection. I watched him conjure up the horrors of September 11 to a crowd of 10,000 in an Ohio field. The rural population held its breath. The Republicans held their convention in Madison Square Garden, which was cordoned off like a leaking nuclear reactor. All Bush needed was the city as his backdrop. On the eve of the convention, Rudolph Giuliani strode onto the stage like a knight in shining armor, surrounded by flags. Once again he played the heroic mayor. Giuliani used Bush, and Bush used Giuliani. Later Arnold Schwarzenegger joined the party and labeled the brooding Democrats "girlie men."
9/11 had become the killer argument, the all-purpose weapon, the ultimate guilt trip. New Yorkers turned away in disgust. A large majority of them voted for John Kerry. It didn't matter. The rural population of Ohio held more sway than they did. The day after the last presidential elections, the city appeared as depressed and exhausted as it had been after the attacks.
The politicians, newsmakers, soldiers, conspiracy theorists, moviemakers and architects milked the day dry, stripping it of its dignity, clawing out its heart - and leaving behind the void that was Ground Zero.
In the spring of 2006, when the first World Trade Center building was reopened, Lou Reed was here. He had a grim look on his face. He sang - on a stage built right next to the pit - "Just a Perfect Day." In my head it sounded like the ideal anthem to 9/11. A New York song about the blue sky, about the wonderful city, about the trivial plans people make, about the impending horror, about all of those missed opportunities in life. A perfect day. "Reap what you sow," he sang. Behind him, the sheeting covering the façade of the Deutsche Bank building wafted like a shroud in the spring breeze. They are still finding bones inside.
I never returned to Theatre Alley, though I often found myself at Ground Zero - because some architectural plans were being unveiled, because there were anniversaries to be celebrated, or because I was shopping at Century 21, the discount store that has the world's cheapest Paul Smith shirts and Kenzo socks. For five years I didn't even know the name of the narrow lane. In December 2001, following a Christmas party in a bar near the pit, I decided to show my wife the place where my life was supposed to start all over again. Decked out in our Christmas finery, we wandered through streets illuminated by construction site floodlights until a policeman turned us away with a sympathetic smile. I felt like a disaster tourist - like George W. Bush, Gerhard Schröder and all those other politicians who had stood on the edge of Ground Zero with tears in their eyes.
Nearly five years after 9/11, I entered Theatre Alley for the second time in my life. It was a hot, bright day in July. Half of the alley was taken up by scaffolding. A homeless man, seated in a folding chair in a driveway, watched me blankly as I walked past the back doors before stopping at one that might have been my own. I looked at the door that had offered me sanctuary and hoped that something would happen inside of me, that I would find inner peace, could start my life anew, something like that. But nothing happened.
The stench of urine filled the air, and a rat lay rotting on the doorstep. I felt like Noodles in Once Upon a Time in America, a man who, after more than 30 years' absence, returns to a New York that he no longer knows.
I decided to visit the people from the basement back then. Perhaps they had found ways to fill the void.
Steve Weiss suggested meeting in a café in East Village, probably because he didn't want to see me at his parents' house on Staten Island where he was still living. His candidate, Mark Green, had been beaten by Michael Bloomberg in the delayed mayoral election. Bloomberg had bought his victory with multimillion-dollar TV advertising, but had nonetheless proved a good mayor for New York: resolute but not as feverish as Giuliani. Weiss smiles sympathetically when I tell him that. By this point, he had realized that politics were institutionalized and powerless. He said he wouldn't bother voting again - there was no point. If at all, he says, he would vote for Barak Obama, the Great Black Hope from Chicago. Then again, maybe not - not even for him.
Steve Weiss' journey from the basement on 9/11 to this day in July 2006 has been a series of chain reactions.
First of all, he walked the 90 blocks to the Upper East Side with Eileen McGuire. They were a great couple, the 43-yearold insurance broker and the 18-year-old campaign aide. He stayed one night at his uncle's place on 86th Street before returning to Staten Island. On September 13, he bought a small American flag in an army shop there and put it on his backpack. That resulted in a fight with his girlfriend, who thought the flag was ridiculous; they split up shortly afterwards. On September 14 he returned to Penn State. He left a voicemail message with an editor at the college newspaper, saying that he had been stuck in a basement with several people on September 11. But she never called back. After that, he didn't tell anyone his story.
In the summer of 2002, he worked for the U.S. Green Party activist Ralph Nader. In 2003, he organized the protest movement against the Iraq war at his college. He spent a few weeks in 2004 working for Eliot Spitzer, New York State's Democratic attorney general, and a fashion magazine. And the last six months in Spain, where he met a girl who may - or may not - follow him to New York. He is currently jobless. He's interested in journalism and likes Amsterdam.
Did 9/11 change him? "It made me more political," he says.
A little later, he says he wants to be an investment broker. I suggest that might be out of character, and he explains he will give all the profits to people who really need it. Steve Weiss, now 23, wants to be Robin Hood.
By comparison, the routes taken by David Liebman and Steven Garrin after leaving the cellar appear almost humdrum. They both went home. Liebman to Long Island, Garrin to the Upper West Side. They took showers and returned to work downtown a few days later. Both needed time to get their feet back on the ground again; most of their clients had vacated to New Jersey. But now, they say, everything is back to normal.
They visit me back-to-back at our office - Liebman in the morning, Garrin in the afternoon. They didn't look remotely alike, but still would be easy to confuse: two middle-aged, unruffled men with briefcases and hobbies. Liebman, who develops software for financial services companies, has a 60-year-old Cessna that he flies up and down the coast of Long Island every weekend. Garrin earns his living with patent law, but is passionate about Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig. In his spare time he teaches German literature and history at a public college in Manhattan.
They would have liked New Yorkers to respond more angrily, with more outrage
Garrin and Liebman are Jewish. Liebman's ancestors came to the United States from Russia and Poland; Garrin's mother is from Berlin. Both have two children - Liebman two boys, Garrin two girls - and both like to work alone. Liebman is the only employee of his software firm, Garrin the only lawyer in his law firm.
Neither suffered any psychological aftereffects from 9/11, they say. Terror attacks are arbitrary, random acts, Garrin says. People are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, Liebman says. The Sears Tower in Chicago could just as easily have been the target. Both would have liked New Yorkers to have responded more angrily, with more outrage. But they didn't consider leaving New York for a split second. Garrin has always lived on the Upper West Side, Liebman on Long Island. Their lives really haven't changed, they say.
Yet there are differences between the two. Liebman is a Democrat, Garrin a Republican. Steven Garrin supported the Iraq war and likes George W. Bush. "He's a decent president," he says, "a man who is guided by strong religious convictions. There are different types of intelligence. Bush has an intuitive intelligence. Like Reagan. He was a brilliant president, not a brilliant man."
David Liebman was against the war. He considers Bush dangerous. "They exploited 9/11 to cut back our hard-won civic liberties. The Patriot Act is a disaster. If we continue down this road, we'll end up with a dictatorship," he says.
When their interviews are over, they take their briefcases and head back off to work, past the heavily armed soldier who is currently positioned outside our building in Midtown - probably because one of the residents is feeling threatened. Two middle-aged men from New York. They have no recollection of each other, they say.
Officer Tonya Daire still remembers that she had to take three showers on September 11 - one in a hospital in Manhattan, one at home, and one in the evening when she reported back to the police station in East New York. She had to hand in all her things and undo the braids a hairdresser had put in just two days before. But she couldn't wash the voices out of her head. They were the voices from the police radio.
"Those people were pleading for their lives; they wanted us to help them, but I just sat there in the car; I couldn't see anything, I didn't know anything. I've never felt so helpless in my whole life," she says.
The voices didn't go away. They were still with her on September 13, 2001, when she celebrated her 38th birthday. She heard them when she typed letters for her captain, when she put her daughters to bed and when she woke them up. Sometimes she felt angry without knowing why. In a therapy group for police officers, she learned she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She was told to avoid anything remotely related to 9/11. She did as she was told. She didn't watch any coverage or read about the attacks; she never even went downtown.
The voices grew softer. And they stopped completely when she had a baby in 2004. It was another daughter. Tonya Daire quit her job as the captain's secretary in 2005, removing the final link with September 11. Now she compiles crime statistics for East New York. It isn't a particularly good area. The crime rate drops when they lock criminals away, she says, and rises when they are released. This curve now represents the biggest ups and downs in Tonya Daire's life. She has put the day behind her, she says. But when she went for a lung check last week, a doctor asked her about 9/11, and Tonya Daire started to cry. And found she could not stop.
At least her lungs are OK.
Many police officers who helped out at Ground Zero after the attack are now experiencing respiratory problems. Some have cancer. A policeman from New Jersey was the first official victim of the debris: a forensic pathologist found toxins from the World Trade Center dust in his scarred lungs. Nobody knows exactly how poisonous the cloud really was. A few months ago the New York Post commissioned an analysis of the shirt worn by a helper at Ground Zero. Kept in a plastic bag for four and a half years, it was still severely contaminated with asbestos, the newspaper wrote. The police union is preparing a class-action suit against the city.
Tonya Daire says she has more allergies than before, Sammy Fontanec now has trouble breathing, and David Liebman contracted sinusitis nine months ago and hasn't been able to shake it off since. To the best of their knowledge, Steve Weiss and Eileen McGuire are healthy. Steven Garrin's asthma is no worse, but 9/11 made Daniel Velasquez sick.
Velasquez is 34. He meets me in his mother's apartment at a housing project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His mother's gaze is trained on a small TV set. A Mexican hit parade show is on; the sound is fuzzy. She is extremely overweight, has no teeth and speaks no English. Velasquez cautiously lowers himself onto the sofa, a loveseat he fills by himself. He is tall, a bear of a man more or less coated with tattoos. On September 12, Verlasquez had an X-ray taken of his back, where the police car had hit him. It revealed a few broken ribs, so he stayed home for a month until everything had healed.
When he was fit for work again, they assigned him to the waste disposal site on Staten Island, where the rubble was being scoured for human remains. A fully-fledged military camp had been set up - with a morgue, pathology tent, quiet rooms and a canteen. When everything had been sifted, he returned to his station in East New York and spent another year in narcotics. When the back pains became unbearable, he underwent surgery and was transferred to the Internal Affairs Department - where police officers monitor their colleagues. Nobody wants to work there, but it was an office job and he took it. Things didn't improve, though. He got sick again and started having difficulties breathing. He was basically off work half the time, he says. In 2005, Velasquez was put on early retirement. At 33.
Now he lives with his mother in Williamsburg and sometimes stays with his girlfriend in Queens. He can't sleep. He's undergone 90 sessions with a chiropractor and tried every painkiller on the market. The last time he slept through the night, it was because he had almost taken an overdose.
He's sitting there as though welded to his sofa. He still has huge biceps from the days when he played football, but they are little use to him now. He says the police officer who ran into him didn't even stop. His mother doesn't stop staring at her TV screen, and even his girlfriend - who joins us later - pays no attention as he tells his stories. Maybe she has already heard them too often, or maybe she can't understand them. After all, she wasn't there.
Eileen McGuire and her husband, John McLane, are out on their deck on the north coast of Long Island. They built the house two years after 9/11 - in an attempt to find peace of mind. It's a very large house, set at the end of a long, winding gravel drive. It faces a vineyard. But Eileen McGuire is describing the view from the 96th floor of the World Trade Center. It faced south toward the Statue of Liberty, the port, the Verrazano Bridge, the ocean.
John McLane says he once watched one of the falcons that built their nests on the roof of the North Tower whisk past his window and catch a pigeon. His desk was right next to the window. The Marsh floor plans, all eight of them, are on his wife's knees. Every desk is shown; every single desk, every single sink. These are maps of a lost world.
When Eileen McGuire came home on the evening of September 11, she and her husband started calling other Marsh employees to find out who had escaped. Then they wrote down the names of anyone they couldn't trace, and went to one of the missing persons' offices the following day. When the clerk saw the length of their list, she invited the couple into a small room and asked how they were feeling. The woman recommended taking lots of vitamins. Ellen McGuire returned to work on September 13. Marsh had set up temporary offices in Midtown.
On his first day back, John McLane learned he was due to succeed his superior, who had died in the attack. Or who - more accurately - was presumed dead, because nothing was certain at that point. McLane took the job. Five days later he attended his predecessor's funeral. That made things easier to handle for John McLane, notwithstanding that the coffin was empty. He went to four funerals in all, his wife to more than 50. She would have liked to attend more, but many of the services overlapped. Marsh lost 295 employees on September 11. Twelve of them had been at Eileen and John's wedding. Eileen McGuire wanted to do the decent thing.
It was difficult. Insurance is a tough business. A week after the catastrophe, the scramble for the vacant positions began. Eileen McGuire watched employees embroider their resumes with the feats of their deceased colleagues. She transferred to a different department because her boss wanted her to find out which funerals his superiors were planning to attend.
Marsh is a huge firm that constantly swallows smaller businesses; staff fluctuation is high in the insurance industry. The dead colleagues were soon replaced. Only one-fifth of her department were Marsh employees on September 11, Eileen McGuire says. More and more often, people will ask her where a file is. When she replies, "At the waste disposal site on Staten Island," they don't understand what she's talking about.
In 2003, the company relocated to Hoboken, New Jersey. In 2004, the New York State attorney general launched a fraud investigation against Marsh. The company used the opportunity to lay off 3,000 staff. Another catastrophe. The memories of 9/11 faded. Last year, John McLane accepted a post at a rival company.
Eileen McGuire wants to be a bulwark against change in this transient world of insurance. She regularly lunches with colleagues from the old days. Sometimes she studies the WTC floor plans and tries to remember who was sitting where. She has saved all the newspaper clippings with epitaphs of her colleagues, as well as the programs from the funeral services that she attended. For a while, she kept in touch with relatives of the deceased. But that became more and more difficult, perhaps because she and her husband are a living guilt trip.
"It's almost uncanny that both of us survived," she says.
Sometimes she thinks she's seen dead colleagues on the street. Recently she imagined she had seen a young victim from her department in the supermarket. Gertrude. She has problems focusing. Her husband copes better, perhaps because he spent four years as an officer on a nuclear submarine before going into insurance. But he, too, has kept the slip of paper from a fortune cookie that he found on the street a week after 9/11. "You are the chosen one," it says. McLane produces it as though it were proof of his innocence.
Eileen McGuire gazes out toward the vineyard. Maybe she sees the late afternoon sun warming the Long Island grapes. Or maybe she sees the ocean.
Eighteen months after 9/11, she bought a sterling-silver case and had the name Sammy Fontanec engraved on it. She suddenly realized how important Fontanec had been to her, her pillar of strength amid the chaos. She took the case over to Sammy Fontanec's police station in Harlem. It's hard to picture this fairskinned Irish woman with her blow-dried hair and power suit in the Harlem narcotics division. But she was there.
Fontanec doesn't know where the case has gone. Nor does he look like someone with much use for a sterling silver memento bearing his name. He is sitting in a leather armchair in his living room. A house bar fills one third of the floor space, a huge TV another.
"I wouldn't have forgotten Eileen anyway," he says. "I always thought her husband must be a lucky man. She was more concerned about him than about herself. I also remember her silk scarf. I tore it up, wet it, and gave it to people to breathe through. That thing must have been worth at least 200 bucks; it had this slinky feel. Eileen didn't bat an eye. A good woman."
Fontanec speaks with the hoarse voice cultivated by all New York police officers. He wears light blue, bellbottom sweatpants. Tattoos snake up his arms. His dark hair has been tamed back, and he's wearing the thick gold chain that held his badge on 9/11. When the others left the basement to return to their former lives, Fontanec went to help at Ground Zero. He did that for three months, spending most of his time at West Side Highway, monitoring access to the designated no-go area around Ground Zero. His testimony against the alleged crack dealer, his original reason for being downtown that day, was postponed for months. "It was a perfect time for criminals," Fontanec says with a grin.
He was transferred from Narcotics to Homicide in 2003 and promoted to detective. The football jersey and low-slung jeans have given way to a suit and tie. The work is harder, and he sees worse things than he did back then. But after his shift he gets into his Honda and drives 60 miles up the Hudson to Middletown, where he has lived for the past 10 years with his wife and two children. They have a beautiful two-story wooden house; painted white, with a welltended front yard. It is a three-hour commute every day, but he can leave all that New York crap behind him. In seven years, he wants to do that forever. That's the plan.
Sammy Fontanec's parents came to New York from Puerto Rico. He grew up in Harlem and the Bronx. He became a cop because his older brother was a cop. He didn't want to be a hero; he wanted the pension that comes with spending 20 years in the New York Police Department. He has been a police officer for 13 years now - seven more to go. He will be 42 then - not a bad age to start all over again from scratch. He bought a house in North Carolina a few years back. He could imagine living there. It's not as hot as Florida and not as cold as New York. That is his kind of climate: medium warm.
One summer morning in 2006, we all meet up in the basement again. Up there the world is falling apart as it did then. It's worse actually. North Korea is building nuclear weapons, Lebanon descending into war, Iraq careering into chaos. The columnists call it the "post 9/11 world." September 11 is still alive and kicking.
Down here it's cool, quiet, dark.
It feels strange, a little like a class reunion. Eileen McGuire has brought her husband, John, because he was part of that day. Everyone inspects the others' faces for familiar traits. But we were all caked in dust back then, desperate, younger, different. Armed with flashlights, we now make our way through the empty basement. The building superintendent's room is gone. New walls have been erected and old ones leveled. The Temple Court Building is a construction site. It is being converted into an apartment building: downtown is turning residential. New York keeps reinventing itself. It looks different. But David Liebman knows immediately where the desk was. He even finds the phone line. Eileen McGuire steps carefully on the cracked floor in her high heels. Steve Weiss seems wired; with a running commentary, he buzzes around taking pictures with his cell phone. Tonya Daire hasn't come - maybe because of her children, maybe because of her captain. Steven Garrin quietly stands to the side, clutching his briefcase and clearing his throat. Dust is not good for his asthma. After 10 minutes, people begin running out of things to say.
After all, we didn't know each other. We had nothing in common.
An African-American policewoman from East New York, a Jewish lawyer from the West Side, an Irish insurance broker from the East Side, a Filipino student from Staten Island, a Dominican retiree from Queens, a Puerto Rican homicide detective from Harlem, a Jewish software developer from Long Island, and a German journalist from Brooklyn. A motley crew of New Yorkers thrown together by chance - like in the subway. The new building superintendent watches us with interest. A black man from the Bronx, he has been here for just two years.
What happened to his predecessor, the man whose office had offered us shelter that September day?
He's dead, the man says. He had come from India and worked in the building for 30 years. The first time he went home, he had a heart attack. Just keeled over.
After an hour we head back upstairs. We pause to marvel at the beautiful old stairwell, an atrium with a massive glass dome. People will be living here in 18 months, the super says. Then he unlocks the door, and we step out into the daylight. It is a bright, hot morning. Manhattan is baking. A perfect day. A perfect city. We will all return to our other lives now. But for one last moment, we linger on the threshold.