On The Scene: Sifting Through the Debris In the Aftermath of Horror

Y. Peter Kang is a former Daily Cal columnist attending Columbia School of Journalism. Respond at [email protected].





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NEW YORK-I was uptown, seven miles away from the towers Tuesday morning when the planes hit. I watched the events unfold on TV with the rest of America. When the towers collapsed, I watched them topple live on TV. I could have been anywhere. I could've been in Berkeley-where I was less than 48 hours before.

The events only truly hit home when I looked out my fifth-story window and could see that the only cloud in the blue sky was the enormous black one billowing out over the downtown skyline. And the endless line of cars and people heading uptown away from the madness reminded me that this wasn't TV-this was my backyard.

A couple hours later, I made my way downtown and talked to several people who witnessed it firsthand. Their accounts were shocking.

A construction worker building scaffolding just blocks away said he suddenly heard a boom and thought it was thunder. He looked up but didn't see any clouds.

"The next thing I see, a lot of paperwork from the offices come out the windows, and a big piece of wall just fall down to the floor. So my foreman says, 'Let's see what's going on over there,''' said Jose Rivera, who ran to Maiden Lane, two blocks from the South Tower.

"So I go to see, and standing next to the twin towers I see at least 30 people, at least 30 people, jumping out the window and landing on the ground, bouncing off the ground at least 10 feet," said Rivera, 26. "Some of them were falling through canopies."

Rivera then watched in horror as the second plane hit the South Tower. He immediately began to run. Looking back, he saw what he said looked like an engine falling to the ground. In the ensuing stampede, he sprained his ankle. Other people weren't as lucky. A woman running in front of him was literally scalped by a large piece of falling glass, and a man was impaled with a pipe, he said.

It's the strangest thing to walk down a pitch-black Wall Street through ash inches deep.

It was like a ghost town there early Tuesday night. To complete the surreal mood, I was wearing a black bandanna covering my nose and mouth to protect me from the haze of dust floating all around me. I probably looked like a Wild West robber to passing cops, I thought. The oddest things go through your head at times like this.

It was so quiet. Eerie. Surreal. You hear the adjectives over and over in news broadcasts, but when you see it firsthand, this is exactly how you feel.

To see shoes, sometimes one, sometimes two, littering the empty streets. Abandoned food carts with a full stock of donuts and bagels covered with a thin layer of dust. An order of five-gallon bottles of water sitting on the sidewalk, undelivered. Cars lining the sidewalk completely covered with ash, each with their rear window blown out. Charred pieces of paper with detailed financial portfolio summaries of people most likely dead. Other papers outlining retail bond market strategies. None of that matters now.

Later, I stood in front of the NYU Downtown Hospital, half a mile from the World Trade Center, and watched ambulances bring patients in. There weren't that many, maybe one an hour. Not a good sign. But of those who were brought in, many were police officers and fire fighters.

A doctor praised them, saying they were "unbelievably courageous."

"Police officers and firefighters with broken bones, lungs collapsed, pelvises crushed. Their first reaction was 'I want to get back, I have men trapped,'" said Dr. Rory Krinck, Chief of Orthopedics.

I talked to some plainclothes cops, covered from head to toe with ash and debris; they looked so weary, so tired. Their eyes told me they would be having nightmares about the things they saw for a long time. When asked about casualties, they said the rumor among them was that 20,000 were dead. Considering the number of people who work in those buildings, they might not be far off.

I visited Berkeley this past weekend, and on the flight back Sunday, I flew to Newark with a connection in Pittsburgh. (Those cities ring a bell?) I remember being so pissed that my Newark flight was delayed an hour. Needless to say, in times like this, one realizes how lame it is to dwell on the trivial. None of that matters. After the accident, for about two hours I couldn't get in touch with my brother, who was in Midtown at 9 a.m. I breathed a sigh of relief when I finally heard his voice.

He's alive. I'm alive. But so many are dead. And that's what matters.

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