N E W Y O R K, Sept. 8, 2002 -- Before Sept. 11, the world and its horrors were out there.
Rows of skulls stacked by the thousand along roadsides in Uganda; the baleful eyes of a 12-year-old soldier peering at me down the sights of an AK-47; the twisted, smoking, impossibly bloody wreckage of a car full of people just after it hit a land mine; the shattered arm of a weeping Kosovar Albanian telling me how he survived, but had to leave his sister in their burning home.
They were all out there.
But then came that Tuesday morning, when a handful of warped and resentful men managed to extinguish thousands of innocent lives and seize the hearts of millions of blameless others with fear and confusion, including mine.
I wasn't working that morning. I was at home, in Tribeca, with windows that looked out towards the World Trade Center, just to the south on the island of Manhattan. Because of that, I was an eyewitness to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and then reported on them and the proceeding events for ABCNEWS.
My then-girlfriend, Katie, was already up and quietly clacking away at her computer, and I had roused from bed later than usual and poured myself a cup of coffee. I was headed to the couch with a mug when the sound split the air.
It was like a giant ripping of fabric, a shriek and deep roar all at once, followed by a huge explosion. It was a sound I'd heard before, but only in countries at war. Never in the United States and certainly not in lower Manhattan.
"That's a missile," I said to Katie, not believing it as I said it, but not thinking it could be anything else.
"No, that's just a truck or something," she replied, but her eyes showed uncertainty. By that time, I'd made it to the window and looked up just as a massive fireball billowed out of the side of one of the towers.
"They've hit the World Trade Center," I said. I had no idea who "they" were, but even then in an unexplainable way it seemed to me like an act of aggression not an accident, and I was still pretty sure it was some kind of missile that opened a gigantic gaping hole in one of the world's largest buildings. Looking up into the maw I could see 20-foot flames leaping out. The interior of the hole was dark, but through the smoke and flames some of the building's enormous steel support beams were visible.
It Wasn't a Small Plane
I spun around and began searching for the phone. The clock next to the bed said 8:49.
Our television stands to the right of the windows, and it seemed like mere seconds before Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America were saying something about reports of a small plane hitting the World Trade Center. I finally located the phone's handset and dialed the GMA control room, a number I knew by heart through years of early morning conversations with the show's producers while on assignment for them in one place or another.
Melissa Thomas, a bright and extremely competent young producer answered. I told her I was just a few blocks away from the WTC and was looking right at the burning building. Melissa shouted into the room, "Phoner! Dahler's on line six at the scene!" and in an instant my voice was patched in live to the studio, where I tried to put into words what I was seeing.
I was describing the flames and whether there were any rescue attempts visible when the second plane hit, and for days later radio news programs would replay my astonished reaction, "Oh my God!" as if it were the "Oh, the humanity" of our times.
When World Trade Center 2 began to collapse, and floor after floor folded in on themselves with the exponential power of a small nuclear weapon, I had to explain to a disbelieving Peter Jennings on nationwide TV that, no, it wasn't just part of the building that had fallen, it was the entire structure. I remember the odd feeling of hearing the thuds of each floor pulverizing the next come to me through the ground first, and then the air, like the coming of a terrible train you feel first through the tracks.
I'm told I was the first on the air that morning, explaining to a stunned nation that their eyes weren't lying to them. I wouldn't know; I didn't see television, or listen to a radio, or even read a newspaper for a week. I stayed downtown, afraid to leave the area because the NYPD wasn't letting people come back in, even credentialed press whose passes state clearly they are to be allowed past police and fire lines wherever formed. I took naps in my apartment that was without power or phones, and worked a story that became all-consuming.
The Faces of Heroes
The voices, and the faces behind them, are what stand out in my memory.
The police K-9 rescue team who jumped in their truck moments after the first plane hit and drove straight through from Illinois. I met them at 3:30 Wednesday morning as John and Dale lay on a restaurant's stoop, catching a few hours of sleep. Tucked under Dale's beefy arm, her chest rising in silent harmony to her handler's snores, was Miranda, their German shepherd search dog. The men were gruff spoken and shy, and you loved them for that.
They worked 15-hour shifts and by the time they reluctantly packed up their truck and left for home four days later, Miranda's paws were shredded from the hot, ragged metal she'd been climbing over. After that first night they'd moved from their sidewalk beds to the floor of my apartment, refusing to dirty the couch or bed.
There was the resident surgeon, who'd just gotten to New York on vacation early that Tuesday, and watched the events of Sept. 11 unfold, like the rest of the world, on television. When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani went on local TV to ask for help from medical personnel, he hopped in the cab not bothering to change, since, like most medical students, he slept in a bootleg set of scrubs. An hour later he found himself perched on a metal beam over a bottomless chasm, working to keep a Port Authority cop whose leg was trapped between two steel support columns alive.
While stabilizing the cop's vital signs, he chatted with him, and prayed with him, and secretly hoped he'd be able to save the guy's leg. He did. And when I interviewed him as he wearily walked up Church Street to catch a cab back to his hotel, all he could talk about was how amazed he was at the bravery of the firemen who had been working all around him.
Throughout the days to follow I made numerous trips to Ground Zero usually as a journalist, sometimes as a volunteer, and due to police restrictions on cameras, often had to rely simply on words to describe to millions of viewers what was happening at the place where their friends, loved ones, co-workers or simply fellow Americans had vanished from our world.
I interviewed rescuers who awed me with their humility and determination, and searchers who tore my heart with their pleas for help, all the while denying a fading belief that they'd ever find the husband or mother whose face was on that piece of paper.
They held back their desperation with sheer, steely strength, but it shone in their eyes, and their eyes haunt me still. Their eyes said, tell me you saw this person walking around, or in a hospital, or being interviewed, or sitting dazed by the street. Please tell me you saw them, alive. The fact that I could never once answer yes, is why I can never forget the question.
Dust to Dust
ABCNEWS sent me to Afghanistan when the U.S. military struck back at Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and in many ways covering the war there, in a stark, strange and beautiful land, was a more familiar job than the one I had been forced to do in my own home.
Weeks later, during a brief respite from covering the war, I walked down to the block where the World Trade Center once stood and watched the cranes lift huge, perversely twisted sections of seven-foot wide steel girders. In the short time I had back home, Katie and I were trying to re-connect, trying to reach that place of wordless trust and comfort that had existed before the sound of the low-flying jet ripped a hole in our lives and sucked us into this alternate universe that still seemed foreign and unreal. Like so many other people, I couldn't get the map of our future folded back the way it goes, no matter how I wrestled with it, and all the plans we'd made didn't quite seem to fit together anymore.
A piece of paper blew past, drawing my eye downward, and I noticed I was still wearing the boots I'd picked up in Soho years ago, the same sturdy pair that had accompanied me to Kosovo and Croatia, to Columbine and Oklahoma City. These boots had supported me during some of my toughest assignments, the leather molding itself to my feet, shielding me against rock and thorn and fatigue, and I dread the day they finally wear out. I take better care of those boots than I do my own teeth; two re-treads, and there's always time at the airport for a quick stop at the shoeshine stand no matter how tight the airline connection.
But this afternoon I saw they were not their normally polished black gloss, rather a drab, filthy grayish brown. And I realized, because of my hurried 48 hours of travel that brought me home without a stop along the way, they still carried on them the dust of the frontline trenches in the fight against shadowy foes, the desiccated topsoil of a country wracked by years of drought and despair.
I lifted my foot and stomped down on the concrete at the corner of Broadway and Liberty Plaza.
A small cloud rose from the top of the boot, and a small cloud rose from under its sole, the pervasive residue from Sept. 11 that still and may forever coat the buildings and streets of lower Manhattan. The two puffs floated together, dust to dust, two worlds mixing before dissipating on the breeze.
Whatever veil or window or lens I used to separate myself from the rest of humanity before was erased. It's all gone now. There is evil walking among us, a very real, tangible, lethal, and deliberate evil. It came here, to our home, and we all saw it, and we are forever different.