The Magazine

South Toward Hell

The sad streets of New York.

Sep 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 02 • By MATT LABASH
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New York

IT DOESN'T SEEM RIGHT, really--romanticizing catastrophe instead of just confronting its grim particulars head-on. Still, they cut quite a swath at Sir Harry's Bar in the Waldorf-Astoria, these brave men with forearm tattoos and walrus mustaches--firefighting volunteers who have swooped in from places like Danbury and Pittsburgh to shore up New York's own decimated ranks. The hotel has graciously provided free accommodations. So after a 12-hour shift sifting through World Trade Center rubble, firemen stagger into the bar like flame-retardant cowboys, still wearing their charbroiled gear. As they fill the room, I turn to a well-heeled patron, trying to summon an appropriate reference from a Peckinpah movie. "They look like somebody," I say, struggling. "Like goddamned heroes," he replies, as the fireman douse their dust-infested insides with complimentary rounds.

But the further south one travels from Midtown, the fewer morale-quickening encounters one has. On the ride down to 14th Street, I notice splintered glass embedded in the dashboard of my cab. "It flew through my open window," says cabbie John Parafestas, who was driving near the south tower when the second hijacker steered the plane through it. "I busted a U-turn on the West Side Highway. I thought, 'I gotta get home now, or I'll never get home again.'"

Below the 14th Street perimeter, non-rescue vehicles and civilians are forbidden. Lower Manhattan has been emptied by terrorists. Even the drug-dealers and nut-cake orators are on leave from Washington Square Park. And while it is just eerily silent from the Village to Little Italy, everything below Canal Street looks like Pompeii.

Even after two days of clean-up, many streets retain footprints in a light snow of concrete ash. Emergency vehicles, many of them caught in the towers' collapse, are stacked like soot-covered matchbox cars. Newcomers to the scene needn't ask directions to the heart of the wreckage--since the spot is marked by a smoky, sulfuric cloud that changes shape with the wind, but never quite moves on. Signs marking closed businesses--"Lingerie, Lounge Wear, Essentials"--seem profoundly decadent, as all that matters now (besides, as my cabbie suggests, "bringing the pain" to whoever did this) is the 20-story-high heap of broken stones and people.

On my walk down to the site, I catch up with an iron worker from Queens. He doesn't want his name used, nor does he seem thrilled that I'm interrupting his breakfast--a Budweiser tall-boy which he sips out of a slim paper bag. "I need this drink," he says. After he tells of his prior day's work, it's understood why.

"Yesterday was cruel to the system," he explains, as if the human-interest stories on the cable shows haven't quite conveyed the intensity. He spent his volunteer shift not only cutting through fallen I-beams, but also recovering human remains. Not bodies, exactly. "Everything was in parts," he says. "I filled 25 bags full of parts." The part he's seeing now--and saw last night during haunted sleep--belonged to a woman. He knows this because her toes were painted, though everything above her thigh was gone. We stop at a security checkpoint beyond which I'm not allowed. He now seems reluctant to part. "I don't want to go back in there," he says. His eyes fill up behind aviator sunglasses, but he snaps to, taking a final anesthetic swig. Still buried under concrete slabs and twisted steel are two firefighter friends and a paramedic cousin. "I just want to use my skills, cut metal, whatever," he says. "That's why I'm going back."

There are also plenty of horrors above 14th Street, and nowhere more than at the National Guard Armory on 26th and Lexington. Outside the grimy, gothic building where a surly gargoyle keeps sentry, people wind around the block in two lines. The first line contains those who are, for the first time, filling out "Personal Information Questionnaires"--not about themselves, but about loved ones who have not turned up since the Twin Towers collapsed. The second line contains people who have already filled out the painstaking identification survey (the facial hair category, for instance, contains 10 subcategories from "Fu Manchu" to "Handle Bar"), but who have more information to give.