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Ground Zero visit brings mixed feelings

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt Tana R. Hamilton
  • Aeronautical Systems Center
I've been to New York City before, but at the end of September I saw a different place. The events of Sept. 11 changed my previously scheduled visit. I spent two days there. I had to see Ground Zero. My feelings were very mixed about why I had to go there, and what my purpose was, but I knew that I would go. Since I already was in Manhattan, I set out on foot for this pilgrimage. I decided that as a military member, I wanted to see the reason we'd engage in another long conflict, this time called "war."

I walked south on Broadway and shopped a bit along the way to distract my mind from my final destination. The streets still had traffic, though there was a ban on cars with only one passenger entering the city during peak hours. Things didn't look terribly different, yet.

As I got closer to where the towers once stood, I asked a store clerk where was the closest place to view the scene. I felt weird, like I was asking directions to a cemetery that still had ongoing processions. After all, this site still contained the bodies of thousands.

I would not need directions. As I walked closer to the towers, a putrid odor, similar to the charred smell of a house razed by fire, permeated the air. Its strength was surprising, since I was still blocks away, and this was two weeks after the attack.

Barriers, on either side of the streets, formed pathways so pedestrians could only cross at controlled points. I spoke to a policeman standing in front of cleanup efforts -- cranes, ladders and loud dump trucks -- who proudly told me that he was also a New Jersey Air National Guardsman.

I continued down the tunneled path until I stared directly at the remains the World Trade Center North Tower. I didn't expect it to look so sterile. Police buses, rented fences and uniformed military members stood between the building and the closest accessible point. In contrast to its blackened, hollow exterior, a tall white and glass high-rise stood behind it with a large American flag proudly hanging near the top.

My nostrils burned from the smell, and my stomach turned. I tasted why people I'd seen there on television wore surgical masks. I had enough for one day.

The next evening, I went back to where I had left the day before, and circled the scene. At every intersection with a clear view, there were tourists and locals: never enough to block the whole road, never lingering too long, never talking too loudly. Some took videos or snapshots with their cameras. There was a somber feeling as couples put arms around their partners' backs, for some sort of comfort.

In the chilly night-air, I saw the south tower. I was glad I didn't see it the first time. It wasn't black, like the first one. It burned white and ashen, and the steel beams were more mangled. Smoke still rose from the floors underneath it, still burning like the remains of a campfire.

I passed a parking garage blocks away from the towers that had a lone car remaining. It must have been a white car, but I couldn't tell through the inch or so of dust that had settled on it. Some had written poetry, or names and dates on the dusty windows of empty stores. Most of the memorial balloons, candles and signs had been moved to Union Square or washed away by the rain of the preceding days.

I spoke to every military member I saw along the way. Most of them were Guardsman or Reservists. I asked them about their shifts, which most said lasted 12 hours. I asked them about their rotations, and many were willing to work the continuous days.

One military member talked of the priest who died when someone who jumped from the tower landed on him. He showed me the priest's business card, and told me of his devotion to victims of fires in the city. A soldier showed me a picture he carried in his pocket that an elementary school child colored and sent to thank the workers.

As a former combat camera photographer, I've documented humanitarian efforts, military operations and the effects on the victims in other countries. I've never seen destruction like this in my own country. This time, those affected were my friends, fellow military members and other Americans.

I had no desire to go any closer to get more images. I only wanted to offer my encouragement to those there, the heroes that witness our war zone daily and to understand what happened in New York City. I still don't understand. But the hollow, solemn place that I saw, I will never forget. (Courtesy Aeronautical Systems Center Public Affairs)