40 Hours in Hell  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 2001

40 Hours in Hell   

A New York Times reporter chronicles her marathon coverage of the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, including 28 hours at Ground Zero.

By Katherine E. Finkelstein
     


The morning of September 11 began like any other for me. I went to my gym for a workout, had plans for breakfast with my apartment mate. And though I cover Manhattan courts for the New York Times, my assignment that day was to cover New York's primary election at Staten Island nursing homes, where the residents had lost their in-house voting booths.

I had no idea that soon I would be at the heart of the biggest story of my life. I would be at the base of the World Trade Center when it collapsed, killing thousands. And after narrowly surviving and briefly leaving the epicenter of the tragedy, I would work my way back through numerous security cordons. By the time I left around 1 a.m. Thursday, I had spent 40 hours on the scene, the last 28 at Ground Zero, for hours the only correspondent there.

At 8:45 a.m., I first saw the top floors of one tower flaming from the windows of my gym at Chelsea Piers at 18th Street and the West Side Highway. A clutch of people standing there had seen the first plane strike.

I left the gym and broke into a half-run toward my apartment, where I called the desk and was told, "Go down there." It was 9 a.m.

I put on jeans, a T-shirt and comfortable shoes (no socks), grabbed a small backpack, a notepad, two pens, my pager, my cell phone and a charger, to eliminate that hunt for working pay phones. My apartment mate, Tracy, who was watching the news, suddenly cried out, "Something hit another tower." No subways, I figured. I'd ride my bike. Down Seventh Avenue, I slipped through traffic that was being diverted by the police at almost every intersection.

The closer I got, the bigger the story seemed. Outside St. Vincent's Hospital at 12th Street, some 15 nurses in scrubs stood on the sidewalk with gurneys, waiting for casualties, their gazes fixed on the flames downtown. Emergency vehicles roared past me, sirens whining. At each corner, crowds of commuters stood transfixed, staring at the towers.

Seventh Avenue became Varick Street and still I rode lower, people scattering haphazardly as the buildings spit and crackled. Papers, thousands of them, fluttered through the air. A plainclothes police officer, his shield around his neck, stopped me.

"Press."

"I don't care," he said. "Get out of the way."

I hopped off my bike, wheeled it to a side street and locked it to a scaffolding, about a block and a half from the World Trade Center. The air was thick with acrid smoke, the heat palpable.

"Where are the victims?" I asked two police officers as ambulances screamed up Church Street. One officer pointed east, away from the trade center buildings. I ran, then went south one block and saw them: A line of employees wet from sprinkler systems and fire hoses streamed from the buildings as firefighters tried desperately to keep them moving so they didn't block the streets.

I began to interview. The workers came from floors low and high, recounting the plane hits in rage, fear and shock. I tried calling the desk on my cell phone. No signal. Long lines snaked from each pay phone and police were clearing the streets.

It was 9:50 a.m. when I finally got through. Behind me people were screaming. I think I was screaming. I was spelling names, barking quotes to someone taking dictation. It seemed the situation was getting worse, not better.

I turned again and plunged into the crowd, noting now that workers exiting the buildings were bloody, one man with red trails down his face, blood-spattered newspapers on the ground, women hysterical.

I fought against the tide of employees, past one rescue command center and down to the entrance of the north tower, where the dust and paper storm felt thicker. I was feet from the door through which employees were being evacuated. The sunlight was gone, the air thick with ash. People waiting to leave were backed up the stairwell in what looked like an endless line.

It is hard now to say what I heard or saw first. A low and ominous rumble, in a split second turning into a roar. A vast black cloud forming at the top of the south tower, then sinking quickly as though the building were made of fabric, not steel. The orderly effort to evacuate people splintering as people broke from the door and raced past me.

A man shouted into a walkie-talkie. People yelled out, "It's going to go." As the building collapsed, black funnels of debris raced toward us, about to overtake us. I turned east and barreled up a side street, the lethal column of debris at my back.

This cannot be real, I thought for a nanosecond, arms pumping, legs flying. I am running for my life up a street I have known all my life, being chased by a building. It's like a demented Bruce Willis movie.

"Let's go, let's go," an FBI man screamed from the mouth of a subway entrance. Two cops hurtled in. I leapt in after them and almost fell down the stairs as the pulverized building thundered over me.

I am being buried alive, I thought. It was black and debris kept pouring in. A man called out, "My ankle is broken. Someone help me." He screamed as more people fell in from the street and tripped over him, then tumbled down the stairs with a thud. My mouth, eyes and ears were filled with dust.

I heard the two officers: "I'm here. Are you?" "I'm here." "Yo."

I was holding someone's arm, that of the FBI man. "Can you help me?" I asked, not even knowing why. He was in a desperate crouch, his other arm over his head.

As the blackness subsided into a murky dust, the FBI man bolted for the exit. I headed deeper into the subway. The two officers and I met by a turnstile and embraced in an awkward circle. They were from the Board of Education and had come to evacuate the schools.

I pulled out my notepad but had lost my pen. One of the officers took a dust-covered pen from his shirt pocket and extended it. "Keep it," he said. I barely wrote anything except their names: Sgts. Peter Calise and Norbert Davidson.

Our skin was caked with sharp, stinging dust; a bucket of it was in my hair. My eyes blinked out from a hood of ash. And then a man staggered down the stairs with a woman slung over his shoulder. She was covered with blood, her clothing tattered. She looked dead.

"Come on," said Davidson, and took my hand.

We went up the stairs and emerged into a completely brown world. The air was thick, the streets gone under inches of debris and soot, windows blown out, people staggering. Some poured into a nearby bank. Others screamed to avoid the plate glass or anything that might blow.

Clutching Davidson's hand, I turned the corner and saw a miraculous sight: New York University Downtown Hospital, as welcome as a Red Cross tent in a war zone, I imagined.

The floors inside were streaked with blood. Dust swam in the air. Hospital workers were handing out water, asking people to remove dust-coated clothing. Lines for the pay phones stretched down the hall. My skin was burning. Volunteers were passing out moistened gauze, and I wiped my face with a piece of it.

I wandered the hall and interviewed two investment bankers, who said they'd left the building and saw people jumping, clawing at the air.

Suddenly, we heard screams and more people surged in through the lobby doors. It was 10:30 a.m. The north tower had just collapsed. The Pentagon, too, had been hit, someone said.

And that is the first time all morning that I actually grasped the story: We were under a terrorist attack.

I must have been in shock. As I drifted through the hall, people began asking whether I needed medical attention. I was trying to follow a changing line of thought about the morning's events.

I wanted to leave lower Manhattan. Someone announced the bridge was open. The skies were safe. But were they? I wandered to the hospital steps and heard a nurse say, "Oh, my God. They're bringing in the children." She wept as strollers appeared. Another nurse embraced her.

Finally, I managed to call my boyfriend, Ken, and arranged to meet him on Grand Street, in Chinatown, at his architecture office.

Outside, lower Manhattan looked like something from "War of the Worlds." Brown snowdrifts covered the streets. Stunned police officers roved outside City Hall. SWAT teams with automatic weapons stood on the steps of every courthouse.

And as I walked, people offered me medical help. Others offered me blessings.

Ken's colleagues fell silent as I entered his office, an emblem of a changed world. In the bathroom, I threw out my T-shirt and washed my hair in the sink with liquid soap. As Ken used soapy paper towels to scrub my back, he too felt the stinging fibers of insulation creep over his skin. He gave me his undershirt.

Then I called the desk and filed my notes, despite audible chaos as editors struggled to dispatch their cops and courts and City Hall reporters to cover a war. I was coughing up dark phlegm. Then we went outside to a coffee shop and actually ordered lunch, drinking coffee and splitting a turkey club sandwich as waves of dusty people walked past us, leaving downtown.

Lunch lasted only minutes. The desk paged me again, this time to report on the activity at local churches.

Wandering back toward the security barrier that had been set up along Canal Street, I realized that, by leaving, I had probably locked myself out of the story.

Why hadn't I stayed at the hospital? I had wanted coffee, some food. A wash. A hug. But now I was turned away from two checkpoints and feared that I wouldn't get back in. At a third checkpoint, I showed my press pass and got the officer there to smile. He let me through.

A few blocks down was a new sign taped to a lamppost, "Please join us in prayer," directing people to a mission and shelter diagonally across from the courthouse where I worked every day. Inside the chapel, some people were praying. In the basement, homeless men watched CNN, staring rapt at the images of mayhem and terror still unfolding, live.

It was about 2 p.m. I filed more notes, then walked further south to the federal courthouse at Foley Square. A makeshift triage center had formed there, organized by no one and staffed by anyone. Air Force medics visiting town, medical residents, ambulance corps volunteers were scattered around the fountain there, waiting for casualties or a call to Ground Zero.

Burn dressings, gauze, defibrillators, oxygen pumps were strewn on the sidewalk. Seeing my notepad, a man trying to organize this mass said, "Follow me and make a list of all the supplies these people need."

He began striding around the fountain as I scribbled behind him. "Can you get me ambu bags?" a nurse asked.

"I can't get you anything," I said. "I'm a journalist. But I'm making a list."

Then a call came out for ambulances: They were wanted and needed at Ground Zero. As medics scrambled for ambulances, I called the desk and was told to go down if I could.

I approached what looked like the motliest crew: a group of guys with Hatzolah, the Jewish volunteer ambulance corps, mixed in with stragglers. "Can I get a ride?"

"We have no room, we're packed."

"New York Times. I'll squeeze, stand, sit anywhere."

"OK." One of the medics offered a hand. We were 14 in the ambulance. The driver took off with the doors still open and we jolted against the sides. I tripped over a rolling oxygen tank.

Our convoy ground to a halt as a medic peering out the window said, "It's fire. A building's fully engaged."

Someone opened the doors. I climbed over a stretcher, shearing my jeans at the knees. There was another skyscraper, completely aflame: building seven of the World Trade Center complex.

The police directed us to another triage site, this one in the outdoor plaza of the Salomon Smith Barney building at Greenwich and North Moore streets. Stretchers for casualties were lined up beneath hand-written signs — critical, noncritical, morgue — taped on the building's marble pillars.

A Times photographer, Nicole Bengiveno, saw me and we hugged. As I called in more notes, building seven came down in a shower of dust, and I loped behind an ambulance. The crowd oohed as though at some strange civic display.

A group of volunteer medics soon assembled to head down, and I slipped among them, my press pass tucked beneath my shirt. As police led us through, firefighters were everywhere, napping on the West Side Highway, clustered by company. We kept moving downtown, through checkpoints where some in my group waved medical credentials. No journalists in sight.

We arrived at the lobby of Stuyvesant High School, just blocks from the site. Rescue workers, firefighters, trauma surgeons in scrubs, shuttled into the lobby, which had been turned into an operating theater lit with emergency generators. IV bags hung from the school lockers.

It was about 6 p.m. My cell phone was dead. I couldn't charge my phone because the building's electricity was off. And there were only four pay phones in the lobby, which stopped working one by one. But I waited, managed to file more notes, then went up to the school cafeteria, where someone had opened up cans of food and was serving cold corn, cold spinach and frozen pizzas.

I ate with an Air Force reservist named Tim; he'd been in town for a conference. We looked north up the West Side Highway, where emergency vehicles stretched for miles.

As the wait for casualties continued, Tim and I walked outside to the overpass, looking out on smoke, flames and rescue vehicles. The weather had been beautiful, a gorgeous day in late summer now dissolved into soot.

By 8:30 p.m., with no casualties still, our trauma center was disbanded. Tim gave me his stethoscope and tattered medical security pass and went home. I borrowed a cell phone and called the desk. Did they want me to try and go lower still? A bristly cordon of police officers had closed off all access to the disaster site. But a volunteer firefighter who had no credentials either offered to try to help me get further south.

We turned west on Chambers Street and walked intently past a row of firefighters to Battery Park. It was entirely dark. The power was out. No street lights. We passed a cop and kept walking down to Vesey Street and took a left, sharing a moment of oddly casual conversation about my work for the Times. And then we were there.

Only Gustave Dore's drawings of Dante's Inferno looked anything like it at all. Streams of water crisscrossing giant shards of building, metal piercing through smoke, skeletal crews in the intersection with tools as tragically inadequate as single fire hoses against smoldering rubble heaps seven stories high.

There were no journalists here. There seemed even to be few firefighters. A throng was just up the street, waiting for word to come help. But what help might that be? A single easel sat on the street, with aerial photographs of the building site to help the rescuers navigate.

"Come on," said my guide as he strode through the soaked debris of glass, paper, mud and ash. I moved cautiously behind him. What might I do with one almost-filled notepad, no socks and a dead cell phone, in the midst of this catastrophe?

"I want to call the desk," I said, pointing toward an intact building being used as home base by the rescuers. It was the American Express building on Vesey Street, right across from the downed towers.

The lobby was a hub of shattered glass, klieg lights and men tramping in and out. That morning, as the first tower fell, fast-thinking cops shot out the lobby's plate glass windows and those who dove through them survived. Inside, the lobby was strewn with garbage. The emergency lights threw off eerie shadows.

Remarkably, one police officer there was a longtime source of mine. He quietly gave me a tour.

To the right of the lobby, a narrow hall lined with folding tables served as a temporary morgue. The floor was streaked with blood, as 16 charred bodies with no identifying clothing had just been moved out into a refrigerated truck.

The bathrooms, "a little gross," he said, were on the second floor. There was no running water or electricity. The working telephone, also on the second floor, had no local service.

I walked up the escalator and there was the phone, sitting on a marble reception desk by a vase of flowers. I dialed 9 and then the desk. Nothing. A 1-800 calling card. "It only calls long distance, like to New Jersey," said a passing firefighter.

Who did I know where? Seattle? California? My sister lived in Philadelphia. She'd just moved and I didn't have her number. I got 215 area code information, but she was unlisted. I tried calling the California bureau of the Times. No answer.

The Washington bureau. I called 202 information and got through. Someone answered the phone and transferred me to New York. I dumped more notes and, after some arduous explanation, the desk arranged for a clerk to stay all night in the Washington office to transfer me.

I was out of notepads. It was getting cold. I needed to go to the bathroom. I ventured over to the bathrooms that had been used — without flushing — by firefighters all day. The smell was prohibitive. But on the floor was a trampled American Express Security jacket. I picked it up, grabbed some napkins from a nearby desk and went in search of a more remote restroom.

On the fifth floor, I was wending my way in the dark along a corridor when I saw a flashlight beam: two female rescue workers looking for the same thing. We found a toilet — a little less terrible — in the back of a women's locker room. We took turns, holding the flashlight for each other. On the way down, I opened a supply closet in an empty office and pulled out several notepads stamped "Lehman Brothers." A woman was asleep on the floor.

On the second floor, my firefighter said, "There's a better view," and walked me around the corner. From here we saw directly into the collapsed walkway, a mass of impenetrable steel. A bulldozer was crunching into it, bite by bite, revealing the grilles of buried fire trucks. The way to it was studded with treacherous humps of debris. And on a nearby flagpole, a tattered American flag flapped pathetically. Two firefighters slept on the stairs below me.

I picked my way down the stairs, through deep puddles in the lobby. Outside, a man in an NYPD community affairs jacket was standing there, staring into a snow of falling ash. Normally, he would have been assigned to chase me away. But where would he chase me to? There were few policies left intact and almost no one to enforce them.

I stood next to him and introduced myself. He was John Costigan, a retired police officer who'd driven in from Long Island with boxes of bottled water donated by local supermarkets. "I'm looking around thinking, 'Where do you start?' " he said. "The world changed today."

The world had changed. Or ended. I wasn't sure which or whether there was any difference between the two. Welders now stood at the bottom of the flagpole, gnawing at it with their power tools.

I wandered around the American Express building to a side door that led to the temporary morgue. A curtain was now drawn across the bloody hallway, a police officer stationed outside, as though guarding the dead from any further outrage.

A Bellevue Hospital Center truck was parked outside, orange bags stacked in the truck bed. As I peered inside, a man behind me said by way of explanation, "body parts." He was a volunteer undertaker, who'd been working all night in his rumpled suit and respirator mask.

"You move some things, you find some parts," he said grimly. "A little here, a little there."

Hours had slipped by. It was 1 a.m. I had been either standing or running since 9 a.m. the morning before. My legs were tired. I was cold.

I had wandered back toward the front entrance of the American Express building to file my notes when I saw another Times reporter, David Barstow, who'd arrived wearing a business suit. I led him to the phone and was calling the Washington bureau when a cop, the new night guy in charge, asked, "Who are you?"

"New York Times."

"Get out."

I tried moral indignation. "You know, I've been here from the beginning. I was nearly buried this morning. And my paper needs people down here."

"Get out."

"It's cold out there. Do you have a blanket?" I asked.

"No."

Out I shuffled, with no way to call my desk and nowhere to sleep. Barstow headed into the rubble. Outside, firefighters sat in upholstered office chairs in the street, watching as their colleagues battled the fires, red, smoky smudges across the nighttime sky.

I knocked on the door of an ambulance and asked if I could sleep in the back of the truck for an hour. No. "If casualties come, I need to move out," the driver explained, suggesting the Embassy Suites, a hotel on the corner which was dark and looked a world away.

I walked slowly west on Vesey Street to canvas my options. Between Ground Zero and the hotel sat an abandoned Mexican restaurant, beer bottles still on the table, doors open. Could I sleep there in the dark, invisible to rescue workers and potentially in danger from falling buildings or even ordinary crime? It was still New York, after all.

I continued down a few doors. The street got darker, emptier, more remote.

This wouldn't work at all. By dawn, just these few yards away, I'd be locked out permanently with no way to get back.

Already, there was a cop posted halfway down the block who hadn't been there when I'd set out. "You can't get back in," she said.

"But I just walked past here."

"I have orders. No one gets through."

"Look," I said, gesturing to David Barstow, who was now seated in an office chair, also wearing one of the globe-blue American Express Security jackets.

"He's my colleague."

The woman scowled. "I'm not supposed to," she said and shrugged. I continued on. Obviously there was no leaving. I wandered toward the band of firefighters and put two office chairs together. I was freezing. For warmth, I used a strip of gauze to wrap one foot and a trampled towel to wrap the other, then curled up and slept.

I awoke in the pre-dawn an hour or so later, when volunteers began bringing supplies. It was time to improve my situation, especially if I was going to stay another night.

It had been 10 hours since I'd last gone to the bathroom. I awoke my volunteer firefighter, who was slumbering in a chair beside me, and asked him to help me reattempt the American Express building. We got inside and at the supply table, I washed my eyes with saline, stocked up on paper towels and handiwipes, then walked up the escalator.

Slivers of natural light now cut into the building. A small corporate art space lay down the marble corridor, where a cart of art objects had been abandoned. Below me, I saw an atrium, an elegant cafeteria and the curtain hanging in front of the temporary morgue.

An unlocked and elegant florist shop, flowers intact, sat at the back of the hall, the personal effects of the owner still lying near the cash register. I walked in. In a small, dark back office was a large trashcan, filled with flower stalks and petals. This would do very well for a personal toilet, I figured, grateful for a moment of privacy.

Outside, the sun had risen on another devastating day.

Boxes of supplies went by. I grabbed a fleece blanket, a package of socks, a toothbrush and washcloth and stood on West Street with the blanket over my shoulders, brushing my teeth using bottled water, then wiping my face with the washcloth.

An official from the medical examiner's office went by and gave me the morning's count: 21 body bags and four bags of parts, though he added angrily, "If you get a thumb, is that a part? I feel like going home and going to sleep, and maybe in the morning all this will be gone."

More rescue workers had come with the light: men in those lunar-looking hazmat suits, K-9 units with their dogs, military uniforms from many divisions, parajumpers with equipment strapped around their legs. Men everywhere, alive and dead.

I needed to charge my telephone. A Verizon truck was parked on the corner of Vesey and West streets, and the guys inside had hoisted an American flag to the top of their truck antenna.

I poked my head inside. Did they have a wall plug where I could charge my phone? No problem.

I climbed in and sat on a big spool of phone cable, the blanket wrapped around me as my phone charged. I fell instantly asleep and woke up when one of the guys brought me a plastic container of fruit cup.

Outside, the morning was hot and glorious. It was time to gather my thoughts and notes, write something coherent and call it in. The desk said they wanted "it all." I gave them everything I could gather, from the parajumper unit — 18 of them — who'd ended up sleeping on a yacht, to the K-9 rescue worker who'd driven through the night, 15 hours from Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his body-sniffing dog.

I wanted to be closer still. Carrying a shovel, I worked my way to the heart of the rescue effort, the crumpled walkway, and stood amid the local steelworkers and carpenters. Lalji Salassie, a carpenter who said he'd helped construct each of the World Trade Center buildings, looked on in anger. "It's like somebody destroyed my work," he said.

A group of doctors in the street were washing out rescue workers' eyes with saline. I asked where they were from.

"Sloan-Kettering," said Dr. Rafael Barrerra. They were cancer doctors. I instantly thought of my best friend, Karen Avenoso, a journalist with the Boston Globe who'd died of cancer three years ago. She'd covered TWA Flight 800. Months later, she'd been diagnosed with cancer and died after a 10-month fight.

She should have been covering this, and I suspected that, somewhere amid the crowd, she was here. These doctors, who'd tried to save her from cancer and who came down to treat the 5,000 people now dead or trapped beneath this rubble, were reduced to rinsing out people's eyes. My heart slipped into the craters of the buildings. I wept beneath my mask and plastic goggles for all the world's loss. The tears kept coming.

Back at the truck, I filed a long rescue insert, then revisited the flower shop. I was exhausted and disheartened and wanted to be home. Bruises had formed on my legs. My lungs hurt. And I was increasingly nervous about reports that other buildings were on the verge of collapse.

Barstow was watching the rescue efforts from a 10th-floor balcony of the American Express building. I was hoping the Times could get someone else down here to relieve us but was bracing for a night in the Verizon truck. I was sitting on the spool of cable at 5 p.m., talking on the phone to my boyfriend, when I saw people running past the truck. "Oh, shit," I yelled, disconnecting the phone. "Run, run," people screamed. I leapt out and raced up West Street, ducking behind a fire truck as people slowed.

Rumors were whipping up the street: that the winter garden was going to collapse further; that the American Express building was coming down. My legs were trembling so much I could barely stand up from this repeat of yesterday morning's dread.

Slowly, I drifted back, and in the Verizon truck, one of the men said, "You know, you really should get out of here. They just designated this a building collapse zone, eight blocks in all directions."

I didn't need to ask where the center of the zone was: We were parked in it. I called the desk and got an editor on the phone, asking, "What do you think about the fact that I am now in what has been designated a building collapse zone?"

"I think that Richard Pérez-Peña is writing that story," he said. "I'll transfer you."

He was not heartless, just distracted. We all were. I wanted to leave, but not until someone else able to stay for the long haul replaced me. By then, my phone was ringing with calls from family members, wanting to know when I would leave. They were scared. I was too. There were all sorts of possible hazards: falling buildings, leaking gas mains and the air, putrid and filled with dangerous dusts.

The evacuation plan if a building did fall was primitive at best. "If you see these guys run, then run," said one firefighter.

The next eight hours passed in a blur: I visited the flower shop, shuttled through the debris, watched the procession of orange bags, changed face masks, drank more water and sat in exhaustion, then got up and did it again.

At about 10:30 p.m., the desk said they were launching another reporter, C.J. Chivers, to try to replace me. He had a security pass from One Police Plaza and they thought he could slip through.

I was in the Verizon truck on my spool of cable when he arrived; a more welcome sight it would be hard to imagine. He'd even brought me a cup of coffee. I gave him the tour, then left him my blanket, the cell phone charger and a neon New Jersey Transit vest. I took my American Express jacket and carpenter's hat and walked up the West Side Highway, past emergency vehicles lit up like Christmas.

It was early Thursday. And though more than 40 hours had passed since I first hopped on my bicycle, the terrible story had just begun.

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