At Ground Zero, I Recall Sichuan

Oct 19th, 2008 | By ffolwell | Category: Life on the Road

Photo by Ma Jing (Masa)

By Gao Wenhuan (Eliot)

New York City - “I felt it,” I whispered to myself as I was one block from Ground Zero, former site of the World Trade Center. I sensed that my nose smelled something like disinfectant, the same thing I smelled while working as a reporter at the epicenter of the Sichuan earthquake.

My companion and I had just finished covering the Wall Street financial crash, so we decided to visit Ground Zero where the thousands were killed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

It was only five minutes walk from Wall Street to Ground Zero. What will I see there? Am I ready to visit this tragic place, I kept wondering? “Don’t worry. It’s just like a construction site,” said my companion.

Yes, there’s no difference between this and other construction zones: the whole site, the size of a big square, was fenced off and not viewable to outsiders. Only a couple of motionless cranes were visible. Construction workers wearing orange helmets were still working; building materials scattered all around. 

At this spot, surrounded by skyscrapers, I can’t imagine that 108-story twin-tower buildings stood here. Seven years have passed and the whole place is being rebuilt.

“I do my job, carry on and live my life. Only crazy people do these things, normal people don’t go to fly a plane to destroy buildings,” says an African American security guard who watches the Brooks Brothers building. Nearby there is a Burger King and a Chinese restaurant. Security guards stand at every entrance. We walked closer. A warning sign read, “Danger blasting, no radio transmitting”.

Nearby is 10 House, the fire department closest to Ground Zero, where a young man in firefighter’s clothes was folding T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Sept. 11”. He acted as an impromptu guide for tourists who come to take photos of the emergency vehicles and ask him questions about the rebuilding.

His name is John Morabito, he has worked as firefighter for thirteen years in this station. On September 11, 2001, he and his crew went into the burning World Trade Center to rescue survivors. “We were in, 54 of us went into the building, but later we lost six guys,” he told us.

10 House was closed for two years after the attack, and reopened in 2003. Many of Morabito’s colleagues left, but he still holds his post. In order to raise money for widows and children, Morabito sells the T-shirts, some with “FDNY” on them (Fire Department of New York). “I am not ready to leave. Many left and retired, but I don’t want to leave, I want to see the new building,” he said.

How hard is it to face a familiar area like Ground Zero that was totally devastated? I can’t imagine. I spent two weeks at the epicenter in Sichuan province immediately after the earthquake. It was my job to go there and report it, but it was overwhelming for me. I never thought I would face the terrible reality of human vulnerability. Even here in the U.S, I occasionally recall those days of facing life and death in Beichuan. I can never forget the words that jumped in my mind there: The only difference between life and death is that one is standing, one is lying down. 

“Evil people can never beat good things,” a Danish tourist in his 70’s told me as he visited Ground Zero. He said the rebuilding of the Ground Zero is the symbol of standing up again after tragedy. “People from around the world need to work together and accept each other,” he said.

“Dedicated to those who feel and to those who carry on, may we never forget,” is written on a bronze plaque at the fire department. Yes, I promise to treasure, appreciate and love life more from now on

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