New York Diary: White Ash People

WRITING - John Bloom

I'm riding the Ghost Train on my way to examine the rubble.

By 11 p.m. the subways of New York are disturbingly quiet and vacant. Empty cars. A person here and there who needs to get on or off the island of Manhattan. At every second stop, there are dark brooding movie posters all along the walls. "Schwarzenegger: Collateral Damage," they read.

One of the most stinging reminders of the disaster is that there are pictures of the World Trade Center everywhere. I sit staring at a subway placard for New York University advertising a course called "Why a World Trade Organization: A Proposal," superimposed over the familiar image of the twin towers. The E train and the 1 train both say "World Trade" on the side of each car, but the conductor is not making the usual announcement, which is: "World Trade-bound 1 train. Next stop will be . . ."

Tonight they're saying, "This is a southbound 1 train, we will be terminating at 14th Street."

The trains stop between stations, for five or ten minutes at a time, but no one complains about the claustrophobic feeling of being stranded between the dark walls. New Yorkers have become softer, gentler. Occasionally a man wearing a hard hat, carrying a flashlight or a shovel, climbs aboard, and each one becomes an instant hero. "How is it?" people say. And he tells what he knows.

There are ghost people, too, people covered from head to toe in white ash, and they're the biggest heroes of all. People instinctively hug them, shake their hands, not knowing exactly what they do but knowing that they've been into the heart of chaos. Yesterday the White Ash People were victims, and for some reason most of them didn't clean off the grime. They sat in bars like totemistic shamans, telling their stories, receiving their audiences. Tonight all the White Ash People are firefighters, New York City Transit cleanup crews, and volunteers from rescue organizations throughout the Northeast. Most of them are exhausted and grim.

I change trains twice and slowly make my way south, but the closest I can get is Prince Street in Soho. I walk down a silent Broadway, past expensive boutiques that have never seemed more irrelevant and silly, with iron bars across their showroom windows. At Canal Street I talk my way past a police roadblock, and the first thing I see is not ambulances--I've heard only three or four sirens--but an interminable line of . . . dump trucks. Simple grimy dump trucks, of the sort you would find at a highway construction site, all waiting their turn to drive away with whatever molten debris can be loaded up.

There is no electricity--all power was shut off because it was making the fires worse--and so the only illumination comes from huge arc lights of the sort you used to see on old movie sets. I cut over to Church, where the street is lined with TV news vans and their attendant reporters, all trying to find the perfect "stand-up" position.

Now the area becomes thick with rescue workers, most of them trudging back north, exhausted, returning for rest so they can resume work in the morning. At Park Place I finally see it.

Or rather I don't see it.

It's impossible even to see the rubble! The continuous smoky cloud is still hovering a full 70 feet above the ground, and only by fighting your way through the smoke can you glimpse even the bare outlines of where the boundaries of the debris might be. I spot a resting workman--his shirt says "Nassau County Rescue"-- and ask him if he's been closer.

"I've been to Ground Zero," he says.

And are you finding anything?

"We're not finding bodies. We're finding shoes. There are desks and metal files. There are objects but no bodies. I've heard they've found bodies, but I haven't seen them."

I walk on to the west, where a fireman tells me they still haven't gotten all the underground debris to stop burning. They tried to pump water through the tunnel for the PATH train from New Jersey ("Destination: World Trade Center," it used to say), but there was a problem. The PATH train tunnel is now only four feet high.

Just as it's impossible to see the edge of the debris, it's impossible to see the top of the mountain. The building was ten times higher than the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and it pancaked down into the tunnels that were once the mass-transit system. It's impossible to look at it and think that anything inside it could be living.

On my way back, I pass the White Ash Man from Nassau County again. I ask him if he knows what the white ash is.

"We've been talking about that," he says. "It's a combination of everything, I guess. We're thinking maybe that's why we're not finding so many bodies."

At the media outpost, local reporters are showing snapshots on the air and giving physical descriptions of "loved ones" known to be working in the towers. One was on the 104th floor of World Trade One, the first building hit. The other worked on the 106th floor of World Trade Two. I wonder if these appeals are a prayer for miracles or a way of grieving.

New Yorkers are not known for their sentimentality, so much of what's remarkable about the reaction of locals is what they don't say. You don't hear "We will always remember these people in our prayers" or "This will make us stronger" or "We will get beyond this and we will survive" or any of the other clichés that people use whenever disaster strikes. They did go to churches last night. They did pray. They did resolve to survive. They volunteered in such numbers that most had to be turned away. But, for once, they didn't feel the need to make speeches.

Most of the speeches, and the vows of revenge, came from other parts of the country. One of the strange things about moving around in the city of New York right now is that people everywhere else have more details and information than New Yorkers. New Yorkers are besieged with phone calls, emails, stories of schools that were closed in Kansas and office buildings closed in Dallas ("We have a World Trade, too," someone said) and theme parks that consider themselves a terrorist target. Such stories seem surreal in New York. Yes, it's scary, but why are civilians in Arizona more scared than the White Ash People at Ground Zero?

As I re-board the Ghost Train for my ride back to the north, I see yet another picture of the World Trade towers, this time on an abandoned tourist map. The gut-wrenching thing about this particular complex of office buildings is that virtually everyone has been there at least once. Everyone has memories of a night at Windows on the World, dancing with fellow conventioneers, or going to the 107th-floor observation deck and trying the "motion simulator ride" which--creepily, now that I think about it-- imitates what it would be like to fly a plane around the World Trade Center. Everyone in New York has shopped in the Trade Center's underground shopping mall, and must know that anyone caught there during the collapse was killed almost instantly.

An hour and a half later, I get off the Ghost Train on the Upper East Side. I've decided to walk. Lexington Avenue is deserted. I could walk down the center of it if I chose, but instead I stare into darkened windows and look up at the tony apartment buildings and wonder why the city that never sleeps is sleeping. After 12 blocks I see a woman walking her dog. It reassures me. She's not a White Ash Person, and she's not covered in whatever the white ash once was.