David Usborne: In the shadow of death

A journey through the ruins of Manhattan
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There used to be a perfect view of the twin towers from the north end of Avenue A in the East Village of Manhattan. People who live in the area, and all around New York, will still expect to see them every day. But they are gone and it feels disorienting. Instead, we have a 20ft-high mural now, freshly painted on the wall of my dry cleaner, the towers depicted with smoke and orange flames billowing out from them. "In Memory of Friends and Family," the message reads. "RIP September 11, 2001."

I passed the mural yesterday morning, long before dawn. More like a shrine, with flowers and flickering candles crowded up against it on the pavement, it is a touching reminder of the humanity of this city as it faces unspeakable tragedy. Someone has posted a poem to the dead on one side of it, as well as some colour pictures of the towers just after they were hit by the two planes on Tuesday.

All night, this part of the city had been rumbling as convoys of heavy vehicles turned off the nearby FDR highway and headed down towards the devastated financial district. Mostly, it was heavy construction equipment, dump trucks and bulldozers called in to shift rubble. All of Manhattan south of here has been sealed off. It is a giant crime scene. Or, as I am to find out later, it is more like a war zone. That sounds clichéd, but, really, that is what it is. It is a battlefield after the killing has ended.

Seeing the first soldier was my first intimation. He was sitting exhausted with some New York police officers at one of the barriers, blocking all routes south from Houston Street. "You guys want something to eat? Yahoo, guys, what's going on?" This was someone yelling from a passing mobile canteen. Every policeman, fireman and city official had already been up 18 hours.

On foot, I make it eventually to the spot where I had fled the collapsing south tower, less than 24 hours earlier. The electricity is out, and it is pitch dark. All normal human life is gone, but suddenly there are soldiers all around. Moved in during the night, there are all members of the National Guard. Finally, I make it to Broadway, where I get my first glimpse of what the kamikaze pilots, in their hijacked jets, had wrought. Under the krieg lights of the rescuers, I see the stump of the north tower. I am still a few blocks away. What does it look like? Some kind of modern sculpture in steel and concrete, maybe. What used to be vertical steel beams in the building are splayed out, a bit like a stubbed-out cigar.

Flat-bed lorries roll by, loaded with generators and more lights. The power is off in this part of town and, where there are no portable lights, it is completely dark. I stumble down streets, seeing little but feeling the soft ash of pulverised glass and concrete under my shoes. And kicking away other shoes. There are pairs of shoes all over the place. I am not sure if they were shed by office workers running for their lives on Tuesday, or if they have come down from inside the towers. There are so many of them.

Anyone who has lived through this will have images in their head that they will never forget. Some are grisly and will rob us of sleep. Others are more quiet and chilling. I won't forget, for instance, a fruit and vegetable stall on the pavement in Church Street. It will still be there now, as you read this. Aubergines and raspberries and apples, all arranged nicely to entice passing office workers. None of them have any colour, now, because they are covered in the grey snow of ash like everything else.

The abandoned fruit, the shoes, and the empty businesses begin to make me think of a nuclear holocaust. Is it reasonable to compare what has happened here with Hiroshima? Of course it isn't, but you will have to forgive any New York resident for thinking of it. The area of death is fairly confined. But the numbers of those who have perished will be horrifying. More than 200 firemen are missing. The whole death toll promises to run into thousands. Even the anecdotes of friends point to it. My former landlord is fine. He was due at breakfast in the south tower on Tuesday, but missed his train. But his company did not lose just a few of its people. It thinks it has lost 1,000 of them. That is just his company.

We are only a few journalists wandering this financial district when the sun comes up, but very quickly we are rounded up and escorted to what turns out to be the main staging area for the rescue effort. It is on Chamber Street and West Street, just two blocks north of where the tower once stood. I remain there for several hours, a mask on my face, just watching the military-style manoeuvres all around me. It is a constant flow of human beings, in and out of the affected area. Firemen, policemen, policemen with dogs to sniff out any survivors, soldiers, all of them marching in neat platoons, doctors in green coats, nurses and Salvation Army volunteers.

None of us wants to get in the way of this. Mostly I just watch this human swirl around me, but I talk to a few rescue workers and firemen. I find Ben and Herman, two residency doctors who drove up from Baltimore overnight to help attend to casualties at the site itself. They have not slept. I speak to a Battalion Commander of the fire service. He is Kevin Byrne. He tells me that among the problems his men have faced have been crank cell phone calls from people pretending to be in the wreckage. There are people capable of that? He sighs and shrugs, unable to find energy to be angry.

I talk to Mike Trainor, a paramedic with the fire service. He has seen many bodies during the night. "They are pulling them out all the time. But they are pulling them out from the top of the rubble, which means they were at the top of the buildings and they were most impacted, because that is where the airplanes hit." Mostly they are finding bodies, he said, but they are also finding body parts. There are makeshift mortuaries set up nearby. One official reports that one is in a branch of Brooks Brothers.

Nobody has anything encouraging to say about finding people beneath the mess who may still be alive. It is possible. Survivors may have found pockets of air under the rubble. As well as dogs, I see police officers unloading tiny robot vehicles with lights and cameras on caterpillar tracks. They will be sending them into the wreckage of the building to seek out any signs of life.

So finally, under heavy guard and with warnings not to stray with threat of immediate arrest, a group of us is escorted to the site of the attack. This is, in fact, ground zero of the most catastrophic attack ever perpetrated against America. We only have to walk two more blocks to get there, but it takes time, because of the many hundreds of rescue workers in our way. Not all are pleased to see us. The media has a role to play, but when you are trying to save the lives, not only of strangers, but also of colleagues, you are not going to be impressed by newsmen and -women in suits carrying television cameras.

We stop at the corner of West St and Vesey. It is almost 24 hours since the towers came down right across the street from where we are standing. Again, if I ever need to imagine what a nuclear hell must look like, I have seen it today. Hollywood could never conjure this. Thick smoke continues to fill the area, fed by fires on what was the No 7 building in the World Trade complex, a 40-storey block that collapsed later on Tuesday afternoon. Occasionally, the smoke clears to reveal the remains of the towers. Segments of what used to be the steel sheathing of the towers are standing, pointing upwards towards the sky like snapped-off teeth. Otherwise, nothing is recognisable. Someone says that what remains stands about five storeys above ground level. I cannot tell. But everyone reacts the same way. What happened to those buildings that stood so tall just one day ago? How can such a structure almost evaporate in this way?

It has all gone to dust and ash. It is thick around our feet now. In areas, it has turned to sludge as water from the fire trucks has mixed with it. I almost trip on a large, twisted panel of metal, that looks like aluminium. It must have come from one of the buildings, although I wonder briefly if it could be part of one of the airplanes. There are bits of paper all over. It is as if the area has been blanketed by giant confetti. Most are burned around the edges. All of it is material from filing cabinets that used to fill those 110 storeys of each of the towers. I bend down and find a cheque written by someone called Nancy Epstein in January 1999 for the amount of $300 to the New York Port Authority. It is almost intact.

The rescue workers look so tiny against this backdrop of mind-numbing destruction. A fireman is climbing a ladder, set up against a walkway that used to cross the street right here, and he looks like an ant. Beneath him, to bulldozers are shifting large volumes of rubble. Cranes, rising perhaps 120ft in the sky, are a little way further back. They, too, are trying to lift sections of debris. It is time to leave. Soldiers begin to bark orders at us. We are to keep moving. Or we will be arrested. None of us is in the mood to do anything other than what we are told.

Nobody wants to say the obvious. How likely is it, realistically, that survivors will be found in there? Those towers have simply been mashed to the ground. Clearly, it is going to be days before the rescue teams will be able to get to every area of the carnage. They are hampered not only by what lies above the ground, but by what lies underneath it. There are car parks under here, going down 10 levels deep, and the concrete that covers them over has stress fractures. This is a very dangerous operation indeed.

Many, in there, are not doing much more than waiting for their orders. Others have confronted what this tragedy means to New York and the world head on. Like firefighter Rudy Weindler, who spent nearly 12 hours trying to find survivors and only found four – a pregnant woman sitting on a curb, and three others in the rubble of a building in the trade centre complex. "I lost count of all the dead people I saw," he said. "It is absolutely worse than you could ever imagine." He went on: "There are so many other buildings that are partially destroyed and near collapse. There are a lot of fires still burning."

Everyone who was there was there for a reason. We, too, the journalists, were doing our jobs. But for most of New York, this is an area that is out of bounds, and will remain so for many weeks. That is agony for some. It is agony mostly for those panicked family members who were still yesterday desperately seeking missing relatives. Like Jarid Maldonado, whose mother, Myrna Agosto, worked on the 71st floor of one of the towers.

"All I know at this stage is it's been so many hours since this happened, and she would have called," he said. "Right now, I don't know what to think. I don't know what to do."