That day

Few people realize the smell which goes with the term “smoke damage.” We hear it, we read it, after a house fire, but until you’ve experienced it you don’t fully appreciate the acrid bitterness. This isn’t the woodsy smell of being downwind of a campfire, this is the smell of the parts, the flammables and the chemicals used in their manufacture having burnt. It’s an industrial smell, foul, bitter, even repulsive.

You could go into lower Manhattan a month after the Twin Towers were attacked and smell that. The smell, that foulness, was everywhere, on every street corner.

It was quieter. In the months before a walk down the sidewalks and there was (that overused term) a bustle of people, going places, doing things. Couriers, some on bikes, some on foot, going between offices with packets of papers. Things getting done. The ones on foot, coming up behind you, would stick their arm out in front of them, like a cow catcher on a locomotive, cutting a path through the humanity. Hustle.

After, none of that. The smell, of course, you weren’t in such a hurry. Who wanted to do something to increase respiratory rate in that foul stench? But there were just less people, the streets weren’t as crowded.

The area around where the twin towers had been was, of course, walled off from the public. All the equipment clearing the wreckage coupled with the wreckage itself: Twisted and torn steel, jagged ends and precarious piles, it would be foolish to walk near it, certainly without a hard hat.

So they had plywood boards up, forming an ad hoc wall around the clearing area. The boards were painted gray, end-to-end, too high to gaze over (bodies, remains of bodies, parts of bodies, were still being found) several blocks out from where the destruction had taken place.

Gray temporary walls you couldn’t see over, that acrid house-fire smell, and haphazardly stapled to the boards were home-made missing person notices. Pictures of a someone, perhaps at an event, a wedding, a dance perhaps, or at an athletic event, or maybe even lounging, perhaps at home or in the company of family. A person, a picture of them living if not enjoying life, a moment to remember.

Next to the picture the words, usually in bold type, sometimes handwritten and copied many times. “If you have information...,” “If seen, call...,” “Lost!” “Missing...,” and thousands of these things, stapled to gray boards hastily erected on city streets. The light breeze, pushing that smell around, and those homemade notices, those pleas, flapping in the breeze, a staple or two being the only thing keeping them from being lost in the wind.

You could, if you had business in a still-standing skyscraper, go up so many floors and look down into “the hole,” as they called it. Mud, men, machines, hardhats moving around, and impossibly twisted steel, trucks there to haul the mess off, waiting.

Business completed and back outside, the smell, the flyers flapping in the breeze.

Remember this, remember the loss, tell your children. Remember, not so much of a building but the loss of people, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, of 9/11.


Hebrews 12: 1-3

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,

2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.