The Worst of Times, The Best of Times

By Neil deGrasse Tyson

Via Email

Follow-up correspondence to family and friends giving an update on the family’s psychological state and the living conditions in Lower Manhattan.

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

Now, three months after the double Boeing 767 attacks on the World Trade Center, my family is physically healthy and emotionally stable. A detailed update follows, but it took me 1,700 words to convey. Please forgive the length. It was part communication and part catharsis.

Bearing eyewitness to an event that makes world headlines and carries a nation into battle is a heavy burden to carry. My family spent twelve days in Westchester as war refugees from lower Manhattan. For each of the first ten days, I slept fourteen hours, which is two and a half times my nightly average. For the next several days, I spent most of my waking hours in a kind of stunned silence. For the two months that followed, sirens (which, to a city dweller, are a form of acoustic wallpaper) actually rustled my nerves; they, having been continually immersed in the sounds of rescue vehicles for nearly two hours—until the collapse of the south Tower, when the air went morbidly silent.

For those same two months, the mere sight of Park Avenue South (the concourse up which I walked while pushing my son in his stroller and carrying my daughter on my arm) would cause my muscles to twitch, in silent, yet autonomic remembrance of my expended energy escaping three miles to Grand Central Terminal, northward to my parent’s quiet home in Westchester.

I remain fearless of airplanes. I write this as I sit on a Boeing 767 en route to Los Angeles. But I can’t keep my mind from drifting: What’s the largest piece of this airplane that could crash into the World Trade Center, explode out the other side, and survive in tact? The landing gear? My computer battery? My belt buckle? My wedding ring? How quickly would I die? One second? A tenth of a second? As a varsity wrestler in college at 190 lbs and as an amateur martial artist, how many terrorists could I wrestle to the ground?

Based on what I have read, I suppose these are all symptoms of a form of shell-shock that are only slowly in ebb. After September 11th, I am different in several ways. My emotional mind has been somewhat separated from my rational mind. They were formerly interwoven with a careful balance of the two, but where my emotions would never override decisions that required the benefit of rational thought. For a while, my emotions went unchecked. I was irrationally angry with the endless parade of tourists, cameras swaying from their necks, filing past my window asking area residents, Which way is Ground Zero? They would utter these words while covering their mouths, not wanting to breath the smoky air that I must breathe every day. Although it’s a warren of streets primarily associated with finance and business, downtown Manhattan remains the neighborhood of fifty thousand people. I was not alone in my sentiments.

My sister, who knew and loved the World Trade Center from the time she worked for the City as a Mounted Urban Park Ranger, made the arresting comment, I find it easier to believe the Towers were never there than to believe that they are now gone.

The picture-taking tourists were generally respectful of the makeshift shrines along the streets near Ground Zero. They are silenced by the force of reverence as they pass the vistas of the tangled wreckage. What had I done my first day back in the neighborhood? Walk the route and quietly take pictures. Realizing the hypocrisy, my rational mind slowly overcame my feelings of resentment. When asked, I now direct tourists to the best viewing sites of the wreckage. I do this because it’s the right thing to do. Ground zero belongs to America. Ground zero belongs to the World. Ground zero is the hallowed graveyard for 3,000 souls. It just happens to lie in my back yard.

There are other changes within me. I leave work a little earlier. I hug my children more often. I am more likely to talk to strangers. I am more easily saddened by sad things. And, as is true for so many, I have become intolerant of intolerance. Police have changed too. The two-dozen officers stationed in view of my living room window have become genuinely helpful and friendly. They smile and pose for pictures with passersby. To a New Yorker, this is an extraordinary sight. Beautiful moments. We need these now.

Lest you think all is well, our local fire department, two blocks away, lost six men. They lost onlysix because they were the first on the scene, assisting escapees from the North Tower. Rescue workers who came later went to the South Tower after it was hit. But the South Tower was the first to collapse, burying all at its base. Fire stations farther away in Manhattan, from where it took longer to reach the site, lost upwards of a dozen men. The sidewalks outside of these fire stations continue to spill forth with candles and flowers. Another shrine lies along the Hudson River, near Midtown. An adjacent pier contains a morgue and a makeshift forensic lab that continues to identify the remains of the dead that are shuttled from Ground Zero. You can’t walk more than a half dozen blocks without an encounter with one of these quiet reminders that something very, very bad has happened.

My September 12th account of escaping lower Manhattan received a wide email distribution, after I had distributed it only to a small circle of family, friends, and colleagues. Among the thousand responses that I received was from a man who mailed two cuddly stuffed animals. He did this after reading of my daughter’s sadness that her stuffed animals would have dust all over them and that we would not soon return to the apartment; sometimes little gestures are big gestures. At one year old, my son is too young to know or remember anything that has happened. He still cries when he is hungry and laughs at peek-a-boo. My five-year old daughter occasionally talks about the tragedy, but in a way that tells me she’s just fine. Daddy, if the bad men on the airplane are dead, how did the newspapers get a picture of them? Daddy, if the World Trade Center were across the street, where the City Hall fountain is, then the people who fell from the windows might have fallen in the water and lived. Daddy, even though the World Trade Center is gone, the Word Financial Center is still there. Maybe when they clear away the dust, we can go back to its park and play.

By two weeks after September 11th, we moved back to our downtown apartment, less than a quarter mile from ground zero. But this was only after the ⅛-inch layer of World Trade Center dust was removed from every surface in our 1,700-square-foot apartment. This was a four-day job, with two of those days employing six people who wielded brooms, micro-fiber sponges, and HEPA vacuums. This dust layer, a mixture of pulverized concrete, wallboard, other silicates, and traces of asbestos, is what flowed through the panes of our closed windows. The dust cloud had been so thick and dense that many of our neighbors, those who had left their windows open on that beautiful end-of-summer day, are only now moving back into their apartments. At least one of our neighbors had to discard every drape, every sheet, and every item of clothing that was left behind.

While the media and Congress were marshalling feelings of anger and patriotism, I had no such luxury of thought. We were just trying to conduct our lives in what was a war zone. Military vehicles had blocked most of our local streets. Many still do. The emergency power line that supplies the New York Stock Exchange has police guards at every node. This line was swiftly laid, above ground, enabling the Exchange to open just one week after September 11th. My daughter’s elementary school, PS 234, was closed and she is currently in her second building. Being so near ground zero, the school was used for the support and rescue efforts of emergency personnel. Depending on which way the wind blows, the Ground Zero fires, which still burn, bring a smoky, dusty smell to all of lower Manhattan that I now think of as the blood of the Towers. For every hunk of metal the cranes and tractors extract, fires break out below. At night, with the brilliant construction lights illuminating the wreckage, you can see plumes of smoke rising fifty stories high from our dining room window. Of course, the smoke rises right where the Towers used to stand in view. Street cleaning trucks have stopped sweeping. Now, they just wet-down the streets, keeping the kicked up dust to a minimum. Meanwhile, large, flatbed dump trucks haul away ton after ton of debris from Ground Zero, twenty four hours per day. At a recent PTA meeting for PS 234, we voted to stay in the temporary building, two miles north, until the FDNY declares that all fires are extinguished, and the indoor and outdoor air quality passes a strict measure of purity. At home, we do not open our apartment windows while we run two high volume HEPA air filters, cycling the apartment’s volume of air four times per hour.

Before we moved back, I had a Midtown lab analyze dust samples from our window pane. Its content was consistent with later EPA tests of dust in the area. But I also noticed very tiny flakes of black carbon. While it was probably charred office paper, I could not help think that some percent of it was the wind-blown remains of immolated victims in the pre-collapse fires—a furnace hot enough to render molten the steel cores of the World Trade Center towers. Before my apartment was cleaned, I swept up a vial’s-worth to keep as a kind of reliquary—in remembrance of a tragic portal through which we have all passed and in the expectation that a Phoenix will one day rise from the ashes.

Continued peace to you all.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

New York City