Snapshots from Ground Zero
By Suzanne Rico
September 20 is our first day at Ground Zero. Getting here is difficult, because security is tight and there are miles to walk before the scene unfolds. Walking down Broadway with cameraman Paul Makarushka, I get my first overwhelming view of what used to be the World Trade Center.
Snapshot: A heavy rain turns the smoking disaster scene into a hissing, steaming pile of rubble. We trudge through the empty streets, eyes and noses stinging, our throats raw. The rain-soaked air is so foul with debris, it hurts to breathe. Protective masks are not much of a defense. Imagine taking a bite out of a building. Imagine what tons of steel, concrete, rubber and wiring would taste and smell like.
Snapshot: By nightfall, the rain clears. We are uptown, at the Rescue One fire station, where 11 members of the company are dead or missing. A blue Explorer pulls up, and a small woman gets out. Her eyes are deep wells of pain. Michelle Little has flown 3,000 miles from Encinitas. Her brother, David, was one of the first firefighters to rush into the doomed towers. Immediately, she is enfolded in the arms of her brother’s friends and colleagues. They are weeping. But with the tears, there is strength.
In front of the station, a young man stops his car. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is playing loudly on the radio. The man steps out of his car and salutes the scene before him. Michelle Little swipes at her tears and struggles for control. As the song ends, she points to the firefighters, who are saluting the American flag. Suddenly, she is calm. “This is why I came,” she says.
Snapshot: Days and nights have passed. No more rescues. The possibility of people lying buried in the twisted wreckage makes my stomach churn. I watch rescuers coming out of Ground Zero, dogged determination on their faces. But 11 days into the job, there are also signs of resignation. I stop one man and ask, “What are you finding? Where are the victims?”
His reply resonates in my mind. “The victims are here,” he says, touching his arms. “They are here,” and he touches his hair. “They’re on my shirt, on my pants, on my boots.” I look at him in awful recognition. He is covered in fine, gray dust. The World Trade Center has become a crematorium.
Snapshot: September 23 is a day to remember the dead. At Yankee Stadium, thousands wait in long security lines. Children are frisked, bags searched. Outside, rescue workers, friends and family of the victims—and those who simply want to pay their respects—snap up patriotic memorabilia. Handing out tickets to the memorial is a fire lieutenant. In his crisp white dress uniform, he could be an actor playing a part, except his craggy face is worn, his eyes haunted. We talk about the memorial, security measures, the attacks. “Did you lose any?” I ask.
Slowly, the lieutenant’s face crumples. Tears fill his blue eyes, and I count the seconds of silence, watching him struggle with a sorrow that threatens to break loose. “Eight,” he finally says. “We lost eight.”
Each night, alone in my hotel room above Times Square, sleep eludes me. Despite long days in exhausting conditions, I’m restless. My mind keeps flipping through the snapshots. I keep my emotions at bay as best I can, because I’m here to do a job. But I know the pictures will never fade, and the tears are yet to come.
Suzanne Rico is an anchor/reporter for KNSD-TV (NBC 7/39). She has worked at news stations in Los Angeles and Chicago and has covered the Columbine shooting, the crash of Alaska Airlines 268, the Los Alamos fires and the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle.