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Serving on 'sacred ground'

GROUND ZERO

The first thing that hits you in lower Manhattan since Sept. 11 is the smell. It was evident as soon as we exited the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. It was haunting, but it wasn't exactly what I anticipated.

We arrived here two weeks after the terrorist attack. With so many of the dead still in the wreckage, it only seemed natural that decay would be the most pervasive odor. Instead, we encountered the stench of burning garbage.

It was probably due to all the cable insulation still smoldering in the wreckage. I know we all described the smell the same way. And it is also how I will always remember it. But it was only one of many things I will never forget about "Ground Zero."

I had the honor of serving along with many other members of the New York Air National Guard's 109th Air Wing at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center twin towers. We were there from Sept. 22 to Oct. 6. I kept a journal of what we did, what we saw and what we felt. This description is based on that journal.

The 109th handled a variety of missions in support of the recovery efforts at Ground Zero. My particular part was to help secure the site perimeter. This provided me the opportunity to see for myself the devastation the terrorists left behind. I also had the privilege of witnessing Americans at their very best.

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My first assignment was the main entry control point leading into the work site. It was two blocks northwest of the collapsed twin towers. Our orientation included a tour of the entire area. It was my first of six or seven trips through Ground Zero.

I thought I was prepared for what I was about to see. The site had been shown countless times on television, and in newspapers and magazines. I was wrong. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer magnitude of the devastation. My mind still recoils at the images.

Workers by the thousands milled about the site. Most were firemen, policemen and construction workers, but there was also a fair amount of military personnel. All of them had the same tired, vacant look. There is so much death at Ground Zero. Everywhere you look you feel it staring back. It is an incredible testament to human determination that these people were able to continue on as they did.

The actual area of destruction is far greater than I imagined. Not being familiar with the area, I had envisioned only two collapsed buildings. That's the way it looks on television. In reality, however, all of the surrounding buildings were also damaged, most of them severely. And it takes an hour to walk around the work site.

Dust covers Ground Zero like snow. It shades everything gray, even the workers. The dust seems like it should be gritty, but it is actually quite fluffy. I pinched off some from a smashed car and was surprised how light it actually was. Our best guess was that it was mostly gypsum from all the pulverized drywall.

I am sure there are other things in the dust. The workers all cough, sneeze and have burning eyes. We all thought we were coming down with colds, but the feeling would subsides a day away from Ground Zero.

Not far from the former twin towers is a full parking lot, None of the cars had been moved since Sept. 11. Some are smashed and twisted hulks while others only had their windows blown out. Just a matter of where the debris landed.

At the work site, mountains of rubble 5 or 6 stories high are all that remained of the towers. Construction crews worked around the clock, filling an endless stream of dump trucks. They never stopped, but the mounds of debris never appeared to be getting smaller.

Smoke constantly poured from the peaks. One fireman told us that there was still molten steel at the heart of the towers' remains. Firemen sprayed water to cool the debris down but the heat remained intense enough at the surface to melt their boots. Massive steel girders were sandwiched in with crushed concrete. Someone told us that they weighed 1,000 pounds a foot. The collapse left them all blackened and twisted. They are among the few recognizable items in the rubble. You find scant evidence of the hundreds of offices that were once part of the twin towers. Most the furniture and equipment was pounded into dust.

Small portions of the outer shells of the buildings remain standing. I don't know what was holding them up. They look ready to fall at any second, yet the workers were having a difficult time trying to bring them down. It was as if the towers had one little spark of life left that refused to die.

All of the surrounding structures are also damaged. Whole corners of skyscrapers are missing. One building had a gash running down its face. It was literally stabbed by a 60-ton piece of one of the towers. The projectile continued to dangle from the other building. No one was sure what was holding it in place.

Enormous sheets of nylon cover the damaged buildings. One, World Trade Center Four I believe, looked like a giant hand had reached out and smeared part of it away. It was all burned out. Structurally, however, it didn't appear quite as bad as some of those further away from the towers.

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