Kindness is the last word most people would use to describe the people of New York, a place that seems to rejoice in its reputation for quick rudeness, sharp elbows, and gruff remarks.
It is a city of immigrants who quickly adapt to the well-deserved New York stereotype. I know I grew up in Brooklyn across the Manhattan River, which was always âThe Cityâ when I grew up.
But cuteness is the word that best describes my memories of reporting on the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed 2,750 people when hijackers crashed airliners into the World Trade Center Twin Towers. .
Everyone from emergency responders to taxi drivers, Red Cross volunteers, police, firefighters, New York-New Jersey Port Authority employees, and electricians working to restore power and Communications on Wall Street in lower Manhattan graciously took the time to share their stories.
It was the week following the attacks and the city was still in shock and on edge. The death toll was always a big question mark. The bridges and tunnels that connect the city’s boroughs and New Jersey were open – only to be closed at all times, usually due to suspected terrorist activity. Telephone service, landline and cellular, was minimal.
I was working with the late Journal photographer Richard Pipes, and we were frustrated. We had spent the day trying unsuccessfully to contact the Southwestern US Forest Service firefighters who were providing logistical support to first responders and volunteers working at Ground Zero.
Our attempts to walk to Battery Park where they were headquartered were blocked by an ever-expanding crime scene perimeter as FBI and NYPD agents searched for pieces of the crashed planes. on the twin towers. We weren’t sure which stories we were going to be able to tell or which stories we should pursue.
Pipes and I were in a Times Square hotel and as we sat in the lobby discussing story ideas, a young bellboy named Jerry approached us. He apologized for interrupting him and then asked if we had seen the fire station a few blocks away.
Jerry told us he walked past the station every day and people were dropping flowers.
“You should check it out,” he said.
Pipes and I took his advice and made our way to the fire station.
The streets were quiet – hardly any traffic, but people were walking around in good fall weather.
The train station was not far away and we saw that there were walls of flowers stacked up to the waist on either side of the aisle leading to the gates. Pipes started taking pictures and I spoke to the firefighters who explained to me that the locals felt the need to show their support and started laying flowers and food on the night of the attack as the people do it when a friend has lost a loved one.
One of the firefighters said it was happening all over New York City.
As we were talking, a group of young people walked towards the doors of the fire station and started singing. People walking down the street stopped. My interview has stopped.
They were students of the famous Juilliard School in New York City, which has provided New York City with singers, musicians, dancers, actors, filmmakers and writers for decades.
They started with the spiritual civil rights “We Will Overcome.” They sang a few more songs in front of a growing but silent audience. Their voices were so pure, clear and full of hope and love that you somehow knew things were going to work out. New York would bury its dead with honor and fill the gap in the horizon. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be done.
Tears flowed. The firefighters thanked them.
I spoke with the singers, then they left to go to another fire station to rehearse their mission – – to heal the city with the gift of their voice.
Coming back to the hotel, Pipes and I knew we had the start of a story.
Things like this were happening all over town.
People rallied on the West Side Highway to cheer on truck drivers heading down Manhattan to haul debris cleaned up by long lines of firefighters, police and union members in lines of winding buckets. on the rubble of the World Trade Center site.
The media called it “Ground Zero”. The people working on the bucket lines called it âThe Pileâ. When the workers left the site to rest, New Yorkers lined up cheering them on.
Pipes and I weren’t trying to say that things were wonderful. People were counting the recovered bodies. The collapsing towers filled lower Manhattan with a caustic dust that, to this day, has claimed the lives of the people who worked there.
But despite the veil of desperation hanging over the city, average New Yorkers were looking to do what they could.
And it is the memory that I chose to keep.
UpFront is the Journal’s regular news and opinion column.