Disaster begins quietly, almost innocently. Maybe we hear faint alarms that danger approaches, but the potential consequences are too shocking for us to accept.
We're out in a boat, and we think, "Whoa. The wind has picked up a little." We're speeding along an interstate, and we think, "That deer over there isn't going to walk into the roadway, is it?"
Sept. 11 was no different. Millions of New Yorkers grappled to comprehend the ultimate scale of the disaster. My effort began during the morning commute, on the subway train I was taking to Wall Street. At Chambers Street, three stations before my stop, a woman came on board to say that the World Trade Center was on fire.
Here's a tip for visitors to New York City: When someone walks into a subway car and starts making announcements to the assembled passengers, it's wise to be skeptical. But then a second woman came onto the train and said the same thing. That's when I thought, I guess the World Trade Center is on fire after all.
But like others, I still couldn't imagine what was to come. After I walked past the burning towers to
office, I volunteered to go back outside and take a picture of the burning towers. We could post the photo on our Web site, I thought.
Seconds after I arrived at the nearest corner with a view of the Twin Towers, the south tower collapsed. It had never occurred to me that one of these towers -- much less both of them -- could fall. It was incomprehensible.
The few of us at that corner ran. With the tower's collapse, brown cloud of dust billowed through the streets. It overtook us. The world went from daylight to pitch black in a moment.
Yes, the annihilation came quickly.
A year later, as I reflect on what has happened to the World Trade Center area, I think about certain natural disasters that predated this man-made one: the 1980 volcanic eruption on Mount St. Helens, for example, or more recent wildfires that have scarred Western states.
Once the lava has stopped flowing or the fires have burnt out, what remains is a scene of utter devastation: blackened stumps in place of green forests, and a still silence where animals once roamed. To visitors with memories of the pristine landscape, the barren aftermath is a disheartening sight.
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Yet no matter how extensive the destruction, say biologists, life eventually returns. New trees grow. Insects begin to swarm. Birds build nests. The mix of animals may be different from what it was pre-disaster, and the timetable of the transformation may be unpredictable. But the ecosystem revives.
That, I think, is the story of downtown Manhattan since Sept. 11. The death of thousands of people and the collapse of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers were the most apparent damage. In the surrounding neighborhood -- including Wall Street, only a few hundred yards from the site of the attack -- the injuries were less traumatic but just as real. The lost lives will never be brought back, and the future incarnation of the WTC remains a mystery. But property, business and the way of life downtown have begun to recover from assaults that once seemed irreversible.
We returned to our office Sept. 17, but the continuity of routine had been broken. Before the attacks, people walked freely in front of the
, across the street from
office at the intersection of Wall and Broad streets. On the morning of the 17th, rifle-toting soldiers patrolled the streets, and a policeman checked our IDs as we exited the subway station.
People sought refuge from the vast horror in the inconsequential, superficial details of their pre-Sept. 11 life: morning coffee. Lunchtime walks through the neighborhood. Shopping. But solace, of course, wasn't that simple. All the food carts selling cheap coffee and pastries along Wall and Broad had disappeared. To cross streets near the WTC -- the streets that were still open, anyway -- we climbed over makeshift asphalt hills that buried electrical cables strung along the curb. Two of the beloved temples of retail in the area, the electronics store J&R and the discount department store Century 21, closed for repair and cleanup.
The few measures people took to ward off further damage at times seemed laughably pointless. A few people walked the streets wearing surgical masks, hoping to protect themselves from suspected poisons in the foul air drifting over from the WTC site; to the maskless majority, this headgear offered as much protection as a dehumidifier during the Johnstown Flood. In the lobby of our building, we signed in each morning and signed out each night. But if these signatures were supposed to help locate us in case of another attack, we wondered, wouldn't they -- and the rest of the lobby -- be buried in rubble, too?
Turning It Around
Yet in a process as subtle and piecemeal as insects returning to Mount St. Helens, things slowly got better. The smell went away for good. The coffee carts returned. J&R reopened, then Century 21. The cables disappeared, and the asphalt melted away like a snow bank.
Of course, some of the neighborhood hasn't returned to pre-Sept. 11 normalcy, and may never. A year ago, any visitor could take a walk-in tour of the New York Stock Exchange; now passers-by can't get closer than the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. Odd Job Trading, a lovably cheesy discount liquidator next door to Century 21, shuttered that location.
The two Thai restaurants in the neighborhood -- one across from the WTC, the other in a remote location along the West Side Highway -- have shut down. Street vendors have shifted their merchandise mix from knockoff watches to Twin Towers memorabilia. The farmer's market in the WTC parking lot was a no-show this summer. And Liberty Plaza, the one-block park where downtowners once spent warm afternoons eating outdoors and watching chess hustlers at work, remains behind a chain link fence.
Other than for security guards, the only bull market that remains downtown is tourism. As before Sept. 11, tourists are easy to spot: They wear matching T-shirts, they congest the sidewalks by walking slowly, and they take pictures of themselves with the NYSE in the background. Visitors also distinguish themselves by calling the site of the attacks "Ground Zero." Out of habit, defiance or a sense of longing, most of us locals just refer to it as "the World Trade Center" or "the World Trade Center site."
We downtowners have mixed feelings about the pilgrims to Ground Zero. On the one hand, we welcome the novelty. People from the heartland, whom we New Yorkers traditionally annoy, pour out their sympathy for us. On the other hand, we New Yorkers in daily proximity to the WTC can't comprehend why people would go out of their way to stand on a viewing platform and stare at the leveled cityscape where the Twin Towers once stood. We steel ourselves to our loss by ignoring the graveyard that remains.
Let me return to Mount St. Helens for a moment. The 1980 eruption and landslide lopped 1,313 feet from the top of the volcano, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Oddly enough, that's just 50 feet short of the Twin Towers' height. It will take two centuries for Mount St. Helens to grow to its former stature, estimates the USGS. Recovery, obviously, takes time.