“Life at Ground Zero,” a Memoir

By Elaine Marinoff

     The pool water was cool as I stretched my arms in a side crawl, returning down the lane with the backstroke. The Olympic-size pool at the Executive Fitness gym was on the top floor of the Marriott Hotel, between the two World Trade Center towers. Echoes from the lapping water resonated throughout the enormous space, with workout machines surrounding the pool like a studded belt.
    I made my way to the dressing room and a hot shower. It was 9:30 p.m. I took the first elevator down six floors, then changed elevators to go the rest of the way down, walking through the World Trade Center number two lobby to get to the plaza.
    On that Monday evening a classical guitarist a la Julian Bream was performing to about 60 tourists and neighbors gathered on folding chairs to enjoy the perfume of the starlit summer night.
     I sat on the black granite ledge surrounding an old cherry tree thinking, I love this city; cultural gems are hiding around every corner. Then I walked down the long flight of stairs and up West Broadway eight minutes to my loft on Franklin Street.
    Up at 7 a.m. the next morning, I prepared for an 8:30 appointment. As I sat in the kitchen of my narrow white loft under the glass skylight sipping tea and reading the news, I felt an earthquake, or was it an explosion?    `
    It was 8:46 a.m. The building shook like the earthquakes I lived through in Los Angeles. I dashed away from under the skylight. Just then the phone rang. It was Hilly, my boyfriend.
    “My daughter was on her way to court on the Second Avenue bus and saw a plane fly into the World Trade Center, go see what’s going on.” I ran to the front door and outside onto the loading dock. Neighbors had gathered to watch the burning tower. We all thought it was an accident.
    “What a jerk, couldn’t he see where he was going?” We could not believe what was happening so close. Just then another plane came toward the towers, jamming directly into the remaining tower, bursting into a red ball of fire.
    I said, “Oh my god, it wasn’t an accident.” Someone yelled, “Suicide bombers!”
    We stood there packed onto the loading dock as we witnessed people jumping out of the windows, their only hope for survival. They looked like giant birds diving straight down, frightened souls flying through the air while each floor burned down, level by level. Then the second tower imploded in a massive black plume, the building falling to its knees like a wounded soldier.
    My next-door neighbor had recently adopted a 5-year old child from Costa Rica who was in one of the schools near the towers. He broke our silence screaming, “Sam; got to get down there and find Sam.”
    “I’ll go too, help the others get out,” I said. We ran west to the river, then down toward the towers along the water’s edge. We were almost there when we saw the screaming children barreling out en masse with their teachers.
     I lost him in the frantic, racing crowd, then at 10:28 the long-awaited tower number two imploded in an immense black cloud. I could not go forward — too dangerous. The stampede of humanity was rushing toward me to save their lives.
     Some had run down 50 to 100 floors. Secretaries in good suits carrying high heels, stock brokers in Hermes, attorneys and accountants with briefcases, storekeepers from the underground city, restaurant workers in aprons, janitors, hairdressers — all running up, up away from the towers.
     Reaching safety, some fell down on the ground in relief, some in exhaustion. “I’m alive.” Some were sobbing, some praying. The thick black smoke engulfed us all as white ash fell like snow.
    We were the lucky ones. I sat down on a bench to catch my breath saying, “This is a war.” A group of Middle Eastern men by the river were on cell phones, laughing. Instinctively I sensed they were involved.
    Walking back to the loft amid the bewildered, injured and thankful, I spotted my neighbor walking with his arm around Sam. Emotions so high, I cried.
    I sat in my office immobilized, trying to reach my family. By this time it was 5 p.m. I remembered my 8:30 appointment that never occurred. I walked the nine blocks up West Broadway to Houston Street and sat outside at Silver Spurs cafe, watching the glowing towers burn from afar. I called Hilly, and he came to eat with me. We walked back to my loft together at nightfall, everything covered with ashes and smelling of smoke, desolate and dark, all the power off. It was haunting, frightening. We lit candles, carrying them from room to room. We lived apart, together on weekends, but on this night he stayed.
    The disaster did not impact him as strongly as it did me, as he lived farther uptown. The Trade Center was my neighborhood; it housed my bank and drugstore, my gym, my world. I treasured that azure, carpeted, spotless gym. The kids who worked there were my friends, especially Justine Robins, an 18-year-old African-American girl training for the Olympics in track and field. Were they alive? Could they have gotten down from the top floor of the Marriott? I searched, but never found them.
    The next morning when I showered, I touched my numb skin with fingertips to see if I was still there as I replayed the events of the previous day. “I am here and they are not.”
    The sirens from ambulances rang out nonstop each time they found a body. Most were dead on arrival. Heavy trucks rumbled down Church Street empty, and back up West Broadway filled with wreckage, loud and heavy on the road, headed for the dump. My loft and office were between those two main arteries.
    Donning face mask and helmet, I rode my bike a few blocks down to see the cordoned-off site at Chambers Street, the fire still burning. The air was like a thick peach soup, cars and every object around covered with a creamy ash, destroyed. We were all in shock. The phones were down, power still out.
    By nightfall I was spent, drained from the terror. I told Hilly not to come down; I thought I was fine, used to being on my own. At dusk I wanted to get something to eat. Nothing was open, no markets or restaurants, nothing.
    When darkness fell, it was a sizzling, silent ghost town, no one on the streets. A dead zone, “Ground Zero.” I thought surely around the next corner someplace would be open to get dinner. I trekked east toward Chinatown, walked and walked until I found myself in the old East Broadway section. One tiny joint was open on a dark side street. It was mobbed, though no one spoke English, the menu in Mandarin.
    Walking home in the dark I got lost. Disoriented and frightened, the glow from the burning towers gave me a point of reference. Locating my loft, the electricity still off, I stumbled through the dark space to my bedroom into bed.
    As the days went on a charged panic prevailed. The feeling of suspense and the frantic search to find the living before it was too late heightened. The city was in deep mourning. At our firehouse on North Moore, and at fences and other firehouses throughout the city, there were impromptu shrines with candles, flowers, and photos of missing loved ones, pleading for help to find them.
     With the stench of death at my doorstep, the acrid dust invaded every nook and cranny of my home. I could feel the spirits of the dead souls.
    Television crews parked in front of my loft day and night, counting the number of dead found and unfound. At first CNN reported, “2,000, then 2,500, then it was 2,976 at last count.” The skeletons of the Twin Towers continued to smolder. By day four, with unrelenting sirens still blaring, the stench increased, unfound bodies rotting. It was a silent, smoky graveyard. We were warned not to open our windows or use air conditioners. However, at the same time the Environmental Protection Agency reported the air outside not harmful, though that would later be refuted when lung problems and cancers developed.
    Still no subways, buses, or cabs south of Fourteenth. I was hungry and my cupboards were bare. I rode my bike up deserted West Broadway, locked it, and got on the uptown subway, exiting at 57th Street. As I walked up the stairs I saw a girl licking an ice cream cone. I could not believe it — we were in a war downtown and uptown it was life as usual.
    “Where did you get that ice cream cone?” I asked, as though I had been in the jungle for a year. “Across the street in that deli,” she said. I went in and bought ice cream and an apple, then made my way over to Central Park, lying down on the grass, staring at the pure blue sky, and smelling the clean air. People were sitting around reading, laughing, and talking as if nothing had happened.
    I could have stayed and eaten dinner uptown, but a force I could not identify pulled me back home. Almost dark when I reached Canal Street. State troopers stopped me, demanding proof that I lived near Ground Zero. One personally escorted me the four blocks to my loft, instructing me to stay inside.
    The power had been turned on at last. I escaped to my bed in the darkened bedroom, farthest from the noisy street. Immobilized, I read trashy novels and watched TV for weeks, while the sirens and rumbling continued day and night. On TV I saw scenes filmed from my Franklin Street corner. I left my loft only to survey the situation by bike. I had no desire to run away, as some did. I felt a part of the disaster and wanted to see it through.
    In the beginning, access to areas below Houston Street was restricted. After a week or so, when restrictions were lifted, hordes of tourists came down in a steady stream to view the devastated site. The hardest-hit apartments and lofts near the Trade Center, with doors and windows blasted open, were, sadly, looted. Some of my neighbors moved uptown to good hotels with maid service, staying for months, even years. Some just left town never to be seen again. Selling was out of the question; our valuable lofts had become worthless.
    The E.P.A. sent a crew in to clean the walls and floors of my loft, and the city paid us to stay, not wanting a mass evacuation. They sent psychologists door to door to discuss how we were handling trauma and depression. I said I was fine. How could I have opened up to a stranger at my doorstep? When they left I crumbled. I bought a 6-foot American flag and taped it to the inside of my office window facing the street, thus declaring my patriotism. Robert DiNiro started the Tribeca Film Festival to bring positive energy into the area. Mayor Guiliani brought Paul Simon and other musicians in to boost our spirits, proving to the terrorists we had not been brought down to our knees.
    I felt as though the stuffing had been kicked out of me. After painting six to eight hours a day for 30 years as a serious artist, I found it impossible to work. The only painting I would do for years to come would be to reiterate the disaster on canvas over and over, painting the dead souls in a creamy, peach atmosphere.
    Eight or nine days after the disaster, all the landline phones were still out but I could use the cell. “Yes, I’m all right, just shaken,” I said to my daughter.
    “It’s pretty grim, ashes and a creamy dust everywhere, with the smell of burning flesh.”
    “What can I do to help, Mom?”
    “Come out to Long Island for my birthday, the weekend of September 24th. My tenant will be gone by then. I think everyone else in the family will come. It’ll be good to all be together. I miss you guys so much.”
    Hilly pleaded with me to get away earlier. He said, “We’ll buy that rowboat you have been wanting for years, so that when the kids come out, we’ll be able to take them rowing on Sam’s Creek.” I had bought the house in Bridgehampton as a business and had a tenant at the time, but we decided to stay in a motel. “It’ll be fun,” he said, “and we need to get you away.”
    It was good to run away for a few days, but I could not leave the disaster, emotionally. I woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweats screaming, unable to escape Ground Zero.
    As we looked at rowboats I said, “What are we doing here?” It was too much of a departure. With heavy heart we ordered a 12-foot aluminum Lund with oars.
    Approaching the city upon our return, we could see the skeletal towers against the smoky sky, still glowing, harsh reminders of reality.
    When my tenant finally moved out, I ran to the sanctity and safety of my house near the sea, reveling in the clean air and garden, walking the beach. My children and grandchildren came from L.A., Sedona, and Atlanta.
    As the months and years passed, the masses congregating at Penn Station on Friday afternoons, waiting for the 4:01 out to Montauk and all points east, plus the crowded subways and Grand Central, caused fear to run up my spine. The thousands of innocent folk in one spot were invitations for another terrorist attack. Each week my anxiety heightened and I increasingly dreaded the trip.
    But at last, after five years, I put the Ground Zero loft on the market. Three years later, I finally had a buyer and could plan my future.
    I moved to my paradise and the safety of the eastern end of Long Island for good and built an art studio attached to my house. The new paintings no longer talk of strife and pain, but reflect the early morning light of the quiet dawns I treasure.

    Elaine Marinoff is a member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop who lives in Bridgehampton. This is a chapter of her memoir, “Running With Wildcats.”