My Personal Ground Zero

by Bill Brenner on May 19, 2010

A walk past Ground Zero takes the author from the darkness to the light.

Mood music for this post: “The Engine Driver” by The Decemberists:

If ever there was a day when I could relapse my way into McDonald’s to down $40 bags of junk and wash it down with four glasses of wine, this was it.

My mood took a deep dive this afternoon. And the source was the last thing I would have expected.

In New York City to give a security presentation, I walked past the World Trade Center site on my way to the my destination nearby. Gone are the rows of lit candles and personal notes that used to line the sidewalks around this place. To the naked eye it’s just another construction site people pass by in a hurry on their way to wherever.

I was pissed off at first. It wasn’t the thought of what happened here. My emotion there is one of sadness.

No, this was anger. I was pissed that people seemed to be walking by without any thought of all the people who met their death here at the hands of terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. It was almost as if the pictures of twisted metal, smoke and crushed bodies never existed.

I wasn’t here on that day. I was in the newsroom at The Eagle-Tribune and remember being scared to death. Not so much at the scene unfolding on the newsroom TV, but at the scene in the newsroom itself. Chaos was not unusual at The Eagle-Tribune, but this was a whole new level of madness. I can’t remember if my fear was that terrorists might fly a plane into the building we were in as their next act or if it was a fear of not being able to function amidst the chaos. It was probably some of each.

This was a huge story everywhere, but The Eagle-Tribune had a bigger stake in the coverage than most local dailies around the country because many of the victims on the planes that hit the towers were from the Merrimack Valley. There was someone from Methuen, Plaistow, N.H., Haverhill, Amesbury, Andover — all over our coverage area.

When the first World Trade Center tower collapsed on the TV screen mounted above Editor Steve Lambert’s office, he came out, stood on a desk and told everyone to collect themselves a minute, because this would be the most important story we ever covered.

Up to that point, it was. But I was so full of fear and anxiety that my ability to function was gone. I spent most of the next few days in the newsroom, but did nothing of importance. I was a shell. I stayed that way until I  left the paper in early 2004. In fact, I stayed that way for some time after that. I should note that the rest of the newsroom staff at the time did a hell of a job under very tough pressure that day. My friend Gretchen Putnam was still editor of features back then, but she and her staff helped gather the news with the same grit she would display later as metro editor.

The bigger point though is that I was in that newsroom, not in lower Manhattan. Many of the people walking by today were, and their scars are deeper.

As I started to process that fact, my mood shifted again.

I realized these people were doing something special. No matter where they were going or what they were thinking, they were moving — living — horrific memories be damned.

They were doing what we all should be doing, living each day to the full instead of cowering in fear in the corner.

Doing so honors the dead and says F-U to those who destroyed those towers and wish we would stay scared.

It reminded me of who I am and what I’ve been through. I didn’t run from the falling towers or get shot at in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Baghdad. But the struggles with OCD and addiction burned scars into my insides all the same.

I was terrified when I was living my lowest lows. But somewhere along the way, I got better, healed and walked away. I exchanged my self hatred and fear for love of life I never thought possible.

It’s similar to what the survivors of Sept. 11 have gone through.

They reminded me of something important today, and while some sadness lingers, I am grateful.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

christine March 26, 2011 at 8:18 am

the last time i was there, i was angry at people who were posing for pictures with the hole like they were at disneyland or the grand canyon or something. smiling, huge, fingers grasping the chain link fence.

it made me sick as hell.

Hinesmatt September 12, 2012 at 8:57 pm

I was there, watching from across the river in Hoboken from the time the second plane hit, when they fell… I was outside the buildings the day before and frequently took the PATH train back and forth from NJ passing through the WTC station.

I can still vividly remember what it felt like to come up from the grimy station (favorite feature was worlds cheesiest leftover from the 70s crushed orange velour and brass handrail bar) first into the busy shopping mall underneath the buildings, then into the plaza, typically packed with people heading everywhere. This had been an almost daily experience that entire summer as I’d been jobless after shutdown of and spent many a day hanging out with my HS buddy and (now former) colleague Phil Gulla who lived just down the way on Fulton St.

On Sept 10 I’d flown back from a trip to see family and debated driving over that afternoon to get my dog from Phil, who was playing pet sitter, or to wait and head over to get him in the morning. Phil wanted to hit the gym so I went that day, we went to the NY Sports Club across the street from the Towers and then before jumping in the tunnel to drive back I dropped him at the supermarket embedded into WTC’s ground floor. Little did I know that I’d never be in any of those places we frequented often, nor even in Manhattan again for a long time. After the 9/11 my already too long job search was completely doomed and I was forced to move back home to Boston.

When I did return in late November to see the Pats play the Jets with tickets purchased long before the attacks, walking up Fulton St. toward ground zero affected me in a way I’d never before experienced. My friends who lived in the shadow of WTC were up for a night out the bar, seeing that final piece of twisted metal superstructure standing alone in front of the big hole in the ground was something they had grown accustomed to, they had to, as part of their daily lives. I myself was unprepared for the feelings that hit me in that moment, and not even as much by the hole in the ground, hidden from view by construction workers’ fencing, but from the massive gaping limitless hole in the sky above that had always been overwhelmed by the gargantuan largess of the two buildings. Ever since going to NYC as a 5yo and going to the rooftop viewing deck with my family, WTC was my absolute favorite thing about Manhattan. Just like everything else there, you could never get over their size even when you walked through the doors so often you forgot or didn’t even care to look up.

To me, I’m glad that all those people walk by every day and 9/11 may not cross their minds, maybe it does and they just don’t show it, New Yorkers are pretty encased in a thick outward unphased veneer. I’m glad that despite the pointless death and violence that transpired that day, life has moved on, Bin Laden killed two buildings and too many innocent people, but he could never kill the spirit of Americans or NYC. And oh yeah, I’m glad we killed that mfer ourselves. Hope the 100 virgin handmaidens were worth it chump. Wish I had the opportunity to spit all over your grave.

I totally see where you’re coming from Bill, it’s true it’s hard to know that for many people 9/11 now passes each year without them giving the significance of the date any additional thought. They’ve forgotten even. That’s pretty lame, at least in theory.

But it’s also a great thing that life goes on there, unabated by the hate carried out by those cowards who perpetrated it, and, more importantly, obliviously hidden from consciousness by the masses who call it home each day. That means he lost, and we won.

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