I see it. I smell it. I still can't believe it

The shocked city
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Dawn broke over Union Square, New York yesterday to reveal the residue of a night of common grief. Hundreds were here on Friday evening, saying prayers for those who died in the World Trade Centre, hugging, singing and debating with one another. This morning, the ground is thick with wax wept from a thousand candles, some still burning.

Not everyone has gone. Charles Sands, 29, came back at four o'clock with his easel and satchel of oils. He is a street painter, and lucky, in a way. Everyone else seems to have been struggling to find ways to express their hurt and their fear. That is why they came here on Friday and to other places in the city, the Lincoln Centre and Washington Square.

During the night I meet Rosario Ferrara, 31, from the Bronx. He had spent 24 hours without a break wandering lower Manhattan – or at least those parts not sealed off by the National Guard – with a huge American flag on a pole resting on his left shoulder. "It's just to show we are standing together, that we are stronger than ever," he says.

Sister Gisela of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary had also read the emails circulating last week urging New Yorkers to take to the streets on Friday evening with lighted candles. With the 12 other nuns who live with her on 13th Street, just off Union Square, she led a service of "Sorrow and Healing" on the pavement at 7pm. At midnight, she emerged with a tray to clear away the candles on the convent steps.

Originally from Belgium, Sister Gisela still cannot quite grasp what has happened. She planned yesterday to take advantage of a promise by the city to open a corridor all the way down to Wall Street so people could start preparing for the resumption of stock trading on Monday. "I have seen it on television," she said, "but I need to get close." Others will follow her down there. Most New Yorkers have yet to witness the close-quarter reality of the stumps that once were the twin towers. Only when they do can what happened last Tuesday truly sink in. Maybe not even then.

I was there when it happened. I have seen the smoke and, when the wind has been from the south, I have smelled it too, all the way to Central Park. Yet, I still can't believe it.I was about four blocks away from the twin towers in the minutes before they fell. Alerted by my editors to trouble, I had rushed down from midtown by subway. I emerged from the station seconds after the second plane struck.

I watched the top of the South Tower break off and begin to topple towards where I stood; then the whole thing suddenly fell in a huge plume of dust and death. I did not lose anyone I know on Tuesday. But the difficulty in coming to terms with what happened is familiar to me. It is like accepting the death of someone close. It is so awful, so unexpected, so shocking, you shy from articulating it to yourself. You have to say it to others, which is what Friday's vigils were about.

Is the process made more or less difficult if you were present at the atrocity, at the instant of death? I wonder about the rescue workers who are toiling there now. They have no choice but to confront the terror that is down there. Because they are finding bodies every hour. And parts of bodies. And bodies strapped in aeroplane seats. They do not have my luxury of taking time to understand. My difficulty is with the falling people. It was many years before I saw a dead body. But what I witnessed on Tuesday was so much worse. I saw people who were about to be dead.

The sirens, which wailed almost non-stop last week, are almost silent now. Here on 14th Street, where I have been staying, the soldiers, with their machine-guns and camouflaged HumVees, have gone at last. People this weekend, I think, are pausing for breath.

Other things have changed the mood. Rain on Thursday night doused the smoke and the ash and cleansed us a little. George Bush's walkabout on Friday, bullhorn in hand, lifted the rescue workers. But most of the city, north of the disaster zone, was indifferent to the presidential visit.

And there has been a shift in expectations. For a few days, all of New York, all of the world, I imagine, awaited miracles. It may still happen. I remember the sub-basement levels, some with restaurants and shops, beneath the twin towers and I pray there will be people there. But for most, the valiant efforts are surely hopeless now. I have spoken to countless people missing friends and relatives, all from the top floors of the towers. Their loved ones are surely gone. I feel so sad that New York was ready instantly for a flood of wounded. The pavement outside St Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village was jammed with doctors and nurses by Tuesday afternoon, ready to comfort and help the casualties. But those who came were mostly rescue workers. The people who were inside the towers did not arrive. They are in the body bags.

Even the flyers on the streets were a bit different by yesterday morning. "We need no more clothes donations," says a small notice on the church down the street. On a tree trunk in Union Square, with maybe 50 candles around its base, I see this notice: "Heinz Ackerman. Munster, Germany". There is a colour picture of a fair and handsome young man. But that is all; no contact numbers, no appeals for help in finding him. Whoever posted this must know Heinz is not coming back.

So, all of us must come to terms. Sister Gisela will be trying, down on Wall Street today. Charles the painter says he needs to see the ruins too and, above all, to paint them. He has another problem all of us share. How can we get used to the tragic hole in the city's skyline?