11.04.2001 04:35 PM
Working Near Ground Zero
The silence is deafening. Unlike the perspectives that television reporters have given us from Ground Zero, my experience upon returning to work in New York City has been different.

My first trip back to New York was 19 days after the attacks. I traveled there to direct a television show in a studio not far from Ground Zero; my previous foray into town had been to the same facility merely days before the terrorists struck.

The tale of this trip begins underground with the commuter train I took into Grand Central Station. From there, I transferred to an express subway train headed downtown. It was a weekday morning, so the platform was jammed with people.

A couple of stops later I got off at a station a few blocks from Ground Zero. I was the only person to get off and was alone as I emerged from the stairwell.

I was shocked-not by anything I saw, but what I did not see. Although it was 9 in the morning, there were virtually no cars, no cabs, no traffic, and very few people. It was not the "New York returning to normal" that most news reporters and politicians had been heralding. Unlike their accounts, my reference point was a few days prior to destruction, when I had last worked in New York. For me, the scene was more surreal than the media had described.

My trek to the studio went through what officials call the "Red Zone," skirting within a few blocks of the Twin Towers site. Along a stretch of four or five blocks, I found every store closed, with notes in each window saying, "Will Re-Open Some Day" or "Closed Until Further Notice."

There was no electricity; nothing was open. A few shopkeepers cleaned soot off their windows, a water truck rolled by, spraying the street, and police were stationed at many corners to check local resident or worker IDs. However, for the most part, things were closed down-like a city waiting for a hurricane.

Along Broadway, the now-famous site of a church standing unscathed amid rubble behind it was so amazing I had to pause. Across the street was a row of pillars in front of a bank of ATMs. Someone had taken masking tape to one of the pillars and spelled out the word "LOOK," with an arrow pointing toward the church.

The ATMs, useless without power, had been covered over with paper and a sign stating, "Put Your Poems Here." Poems were all over the paper-but New Yorkers had taken care to avoid getting graffiti on the bank itself.

Like a poster for an event that's long past, many areas still had pictures of missing family members-many put up over two weeks ago when hopes were still high. Each flyer had one thing in common...a listing of the company, tower number, and floor where their special person "works." None of them were written in past tense-to their authors, the Trade Center still exists.

Juxtaposed to this was the sight beyond the posters of smoldering steel, a burned-out building, and a piece of one Trade Tower impaled in the street. I have seen devastation in my career while on-site at major news stories, but this scene was eerily different.

In the past, there's been a contingent of live trucks, local onlookers, and even tourists creating a commotion. That's what I expected but not what I discovered. Likely, there's an area with this type of activity; but the Trade Center site is so large, I didn't come across anything of that nature for blocks on end.

Like drones, a small cadre of people wandered the sidewalks to work. Many white-collar workers pulled suitcases on wheels toward the New York Stock Exchange that was 30 minutes from opening. They filed past police ID-checks and alongside a small army of repair trucks.

Every major utility and most minor ones were on-site in an attempt to get things running again. One worker had just finished cutting the street with a saw, laying fibre optic cables a shallow distance below the asphalt. Were it not for the engine of a passing dump truck or the shutting door of a utility van, there would have been no sounds at all.

For a time, I'd taken out my camcorder to record a personal diary of my first trip back after the attacks. Within a few minutes, this felt altogether inappropriate. People did pause in an effort to comprehend, but no one was taking pictures. I returned the camera to my suitcase and didn't take it out again.

As I neared the studio, my path crossed a closed subway station covered by a barricade. Peering over the barricade, the station's name hit me with force: "World Trade Center."

Looking up, all I saw was an empty street with rubble a block or two away. The mangled steel marked what used to be there; the subway sign was a sentinel of an era past.

Suddenly, my mind flashed to the ending of Planet Of The Apes when Charlton Heston sees the remains of the Statue of Liberty resting on the beach. The remaining boulevards on my walk were nearly empty-an urban vision not unlike scenes from The Omega Man when there's no one left on the streets of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, save for the protagonist.

I reached the studio, which was just beyond the edge of the Red Zone, and found things weren't quite as bleak. On adjacent street corners, workers had setup temporary cell phone towers. Getting out on a long distance hard-line was still difficult; for two weeks, it had been impossible to call long distance at all from this area unless you had a cell phone.

From the high-rise vantage point of the upper-floor video studio where I was working, the scene was odd. It was difficult to tell exactly where the towers once stood. Only the pockmarked holes of neighboring skyscrapers stood testament to the edifices that were their neighbors.

It was only then that I fully realized how lower Manhattan had changed into an urban ghost town-those who once lived there are no longer around. As one colleague remarked, "There are 100,000 fewer people going to work down here." And the silence is deafening.

Joseph Maar is an industry producer/ director with over two decades of experience. He's worked on productions in New York City over 40 days in the past year.


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