Wednesday, September 12, 2001

KFWB radio reporting for Wednesday, September 12th, 2001

Sirens 6:32 AM PDT

The crowds are forming again, in the plaza below me, outside the New York headquarters of The Red Cross, blood donors are still being welcomed and urged, in what is otherwise near-silence.

Near-silence, because still the sirens ring. 24 hours ago they began, in a city in which they are as common and as easily ignored - as blaring car alarms. But these are different, and they are not just endless, but individual. An ambulance streaking towards a West Side hospital. An EMS vehicle hurtling downtown, to the scene of the carnage. A police cordon escorting yet another convoy of massive, construction equipment comically oversized; tragically needed to pull off tons of debris from hundreds of crushed victims.

Each wailing siren is a cry for a dead citizen of this city. Each one can be heard, individually, for the first time. Each stabs another dagger into the unspoken hope here that maybe New York lucked out, that maybe there are dozens or hundreds in the wreckage, trapped but alive, injured but still to be saved.

Much has been made of the symbolism of the fallen towers of the World Trade Center. They were just buildings, and not very well-liked buildings at that. Lost in the verbiage is the humanity in that building, and today's fear in this city, the fear not of a plane deliberately piercing a skyscraper, but fear of a number. How many, tell us how many. Hint no more about "lots," or "horrifyingly many." Tell us about the thousands. Tell us about how many of us are dead.

Another siren down Broadway. One more chance for a survivor, lessened. The words of the poet John Donne ring true: Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Two Days After 8:02 AM PDT

Near the Holland tunnel, Houston Street and The West Side Highway, Pier 40 on the Hudson River if you want to try to pinpoint the geography... and still the emergency vehicles rumble past this most southwestern point to which civilians are permitted and along every barricaded intersection, crowds stare, silently, at the smoking ruin of New York's downtown.

Two hundred and sixty seven stories of rubble fell on top of thousands of people and the equation just can't be denied. Adding the figures together of all the people who've been treated in local hospitals, all those who are known safe, and generously, generously, the figure is 2000... we know of nine rescued overnight... we know of two still in contact by cell phone.

A Port Authority police sergeant was found, having directed his colleagues to where he was by cell phone, in waist high debris. He was at the center of the courtyard between the buildings, an area that I would compare with the entirety of, say, the Third Street promenade in Santa Monica, one person found within it, literally under tons of an entire cavernous New York city block having collapsed on him.

The fire at 1 World Financial Plaza billowing smoke 60 stories up and westward over the River, into another azure sky has delayed hopes who live in Battery Park City, a huge upscale condo, back to their homes to collect their pets, their medications if they can find them beneath what one resident just told me is a coating of two feet of soot and ash. The analogies to volcanoes and Pompeii, fly.

Spontaneous Gratitude 9:02 AM PDT

Twenty minutes ago, here at Christopher Street and The West Side Highway, a small group of perhaps 50 on-lookers began to spontaneously applaud rescue workers. You can hear them now in the background, rescue workers making their way from here to the World Trade Center area.

There is a saying about New Yorkers. Ask us for directions and we may teach you a new swear word. Ask us to help you to the hospital, and we may carry you on our backs.

Uptown, the plaza around the Red Cross headquarters at West 66th Street is filled again with those waiting to give blood. Paramount of all this morning is the understanding that New York's policemen, firemen, and EMS workers, often derided, occasionally corrupted, behaved yesterday as everything from gentle parents to heroes whose courage could not have been exceeded on D-Day or at Gettysburg.

And beyond the individual stories of loss and the communal stories of grief, there is the heartbreaking, teary realization that hundreds of New York's finest people, people who happened to be cops and firemen, raced against time to save others, raced into a trap so that others might be freed from it. Hundreds of them are dead saviors who would not be saved.

Ask any New Yorker about how the cops and firemen behaved yesterday, and half the time the answers you hear will dissolve into tears. The big pictures are about justice and prompt retaliation; about symbols of freedom and the survival of democracy. The small picture, coming into focus on another crystalline afternoon, is about how to honor America's finest.

For now, signs held here reading "Thank You" and "New York's Heros," and the simple, heartfelt applause, will be tribute enough.

Waiting For Numbers 1:42 PM PDT

Less than an hour ago, the Governor of the state of New York and the mayor of the city of New York concluded another news briefing. George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani again refused to do the math... and it is the horrible cold numbers that continue to haunt New Yorkers as much as do the apocalyptic visions of yesterday.

This morning, the mayor had said, of possible survivors, of fatalities..."there were a few thousand left in each building." Less than a dozen individuals have been reported recovered alive since last night.

Consider the implications of that statement. This city has existed for nearly four centuries. The greatest single tragedy in its history came on the East River, on the 16th of June, 1904, when a steamboat filled with German-American families caught fire. The death count was 1030 people. Today, one insurance firm based in The World Trade Center reports that at least 1,000 of its employees are still unaccounted for. One firm.

Barricades remain up at every intersection along Howston Street, the place furthest downtown where civilians are permitted. At all of those intersections this morning, I saw New Yorkers standing, silently, still stunned, at the smoking ruins that lay still a half a mile distant. They, and the rest of this city's residents, are bracing not merely for the numerical confirmation of New York's worst disaster ever, but for the inevitable fact that it is the worst by an exponential factor.

The Smoke Hits Midtown 3:32 PM PDT

About 90 minutes ago, as the heretofore deserted streets suddenly roared back to almost full life, and the surest sign of that, the return of this city's ubiquitous yellow cabs, the idea that Aftershock Syndrome was exclusive to Southern California and other Earthquake regions, was quickly erased.

The winds have changed here; thunderstorms are expected tomorrow, and a strong haze very common for this time of year here, the kind we'd see in the Southland in October perhaps, has blown up from downtown. It is noticeable to the north and west - obscuring the view of the George Washington Bridge - it seems to be more pronounced over the Hudson River than over Manhattan itself. With this haze came just the hint of smoke just enough that passersby in front of Manhattan's Lincoln Center here on the West Side, were stopping, staring downtown, and nervously asking policemen on Broadway... if there was a fire nearby.

There is not; One World Financial Plaza and the collapsed World Trade Center Building Number Seven, each had an intensely smoky fires this morning. Plumes of white-brown smoke first billowed to the southwest, then straight up perhaps 1500 feet in the air, and now, evidently, six hours and more later, northwards, possibly mixed with the smoke emanating from the endangered World Trade Center Building Number Five, or as it is also known, One Liberty Plaza.

This is New York the new New York. The taxis are back, The World Trade Center Towers are not. The new anxiety... has arrived.

Smoke Two 4:32 PM EDT

More than dusk is enveloping this city at this hour. The winds have changed here, blowing a smoky haze uptown from the World Trade Center area. Thin, but undeniable, it sits over the Hudson River, touching Manhattan's West Side and touching New Yorkers in a way not all of them were touched yesterday.

Remember: the bomb site is at the lowest tip of Manhattan, a ten-square block area... on a 2,400-square block island. Here on the Upper West Side, there was a pronounced odor of smoke within what was otherwise a typical late-summer New York haze. Before this, few outside the World Trade Center area had experienced this horror other than by videotape, or word of mouth. Even those I saw this morning behind the police barricades at the downtown border for civilians, Houston Street, could only see smoke pluming almost straight up.

Those people, at every intersection along one of downtown's most prominent cross-streets, stared silently, and in shock. They saw the aftermaths of terrorism. Others saw the televised images of it. Now, perhaps half of Manhattan could, for a few minutes at least late this afternoon, smell the smoke the briefest taste of the horror of yesterday, but tangible in a new, and newly frightening, way.

Applause For Heroes 6:02 PM PDT

They were near the barricades, past which civilians can get no closer to the disaster area, and they were applauding. First, just two of them - a young man and a young woman, at the intersection of West and Christopher Streets. A bus was slowly maneuvering around a corner on the main western approach to the World Trade Center area. The applause was for the men inside. Firefighters, cops, rescue workers.

The clapping built. Within minutes, the crowd numbered perhaps fifty. Two women produced homemade signs, marker on cardboard. "Thank You," read one. "New York's Heroes" read the other.

Soon every vehicle ambulance, police car, fire truck, even a giant yellow clamshell scoop with a ten-yard claw got its own round of applause. Not cheering, nothing of the showiness of the sports stadium or of almost any public celebration in this city. Applause.

Spontaneous, heartfelt, moving many of the recipients to surprised smiles, nods, bows... And - in one case at least - tears forming in the eyes of an emergency medic racing down The West Side Highway, towards rubble piles exceeding 75 feet more than seven stories.

NFL May Be Forced To Cancel 7:05 PM PDT

As the National Football League debates whether or not to play on this weekend after the terrorist attacks, sources in emergency management at the major airlines tell me that debate may be academic... that as late as this weekend, air travel, even by charter, will still be too sporadic and inconsistent to insure that NFL teams, on-field officials, and reporters, could fly to and from games. These same sources suggest that the issue of team travel in other sports, like baseball, and college football, is not yet a question of "when" but still entirely a question... of if.