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Satellite image of Manhattan, NY - Sept 12, 2001.

Photo: Space Imaging

Part 2. The day after: How officials responded




day after the tragedy, New Yorkers were in a state of shock and mourning. An eerie silence had fallen over the city, which was still obscured by smoke and blanketed in dust. Part of the World Trade Center was still in a raging fire—and another building, #7, had just collapsed. FEMA declared the city a federal disaster area and had sent a dozen urban search and rescue teams, four to Northern Virginia to the Pentagon, and eight to Ground Zero.



As many as 10,000 were believed dead, since it was estimated that some 30,000 to 50,000 people might have been in or near the Trade Center’s towers when they were hit. (1) At the Pentagon, meanwhile, hundreds were believed dead, but here, too, it would take months to complete a full, forensic investigation.


Down on the vast, charred remains of the World Trade Center, rescue workers like Vince Forras and ironworkers silently hammered away at “the pile.” The last thing anyone was thinking about was their own health, he says, although many were coughing and experiencing a mysterious ringing in their ears, which, he confesses, was strange in view of the absence of noise and the very deathly silence of the place.



To this day, he says, he can still recall the experience. “The sharp smells, the body parts, the rats—it just inundates your senses.”


“It was such a fulfilling mission. What did we know?” says Vince Forras. 


To this day, he says, he can still recall the experience. “The sharp smells, the body parts, the rats—it just inundates your senses.”


From where Forras stood, over the pit, mounds of smoking debris loomed like mountains and the hundreds of firefighters like himself from all over the country (as well police officers, federal officials, canine units, army, FBI, iron workers, construction crews, and others) looked like Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels, scaling the immensity of the task ahead. Ironically, having worked around the clock, he had only seen a close-up view of Ground Zero—not the TV images of the immense catastrophe everyone else saw.


Many of the 35,000 or so people living in the neighborhoods around the buildings had been evacuated, although some stragglers remained holed up in their apartments on streets that had been turned into a war zone, with army tanks and National Guardsmen patrolling the streets. Among these residents was someone who came down to help with the rescue effort but was injured, having fallen from running from the towers who had been told by the police to return to her apartment. Kim Todd, an actress who had just recently moved to the neighborhood, was just waking up from eventful day, in deep back pain.


Living just two blocks away, she had run to help, answering a call from the friend who worked in the World Trade Center needing help evacuating people just after the first airliner hit. But she was caught in thick smoke and the throngs of people escaping the building--and narrowly missed being hit by a falling piece of the jetliner.  “Then the second tower came down, and everyone around me was dead. And while I was taking a breath and thinking, ‘I’m OK—don’t move,’ a passing fireman stopped and, seeing me alive, slapped me across the face and said, ‘Run! Run for your life!’”


Now she was trapped in her apartment without electrical or phone service, recovering from her back injury.  “I was so sure I was going to die I had written out a will,” recalls Todd, whose apartment was covered four inches deep in dust and debris, because her windows had been left open. Her dog Rigsby, who would later become a “therapy dog” at Ground Zero, was waiting there for her.


It would be weeks before Todd and her neighbors would begin to clean up their apartments but there was tremendous confusion about how, she remembers. Just getting electricity and phone service would be a challenge. “The city kept saying everything was fine, but people were sick, and had coughs, skin rashes, eye irritations and even nose bleeds,” Todd remembers. “In the beginning, the city was overwhelmed and it wasn’t the priority.”