Not A Ground Zero Tourist: A Reporter's Notebook

TAMPA (2011-9-8) -

The first thing I noticed when I came out of the Fulton street Subway stop was the taste. It was like I had a penny in my mouth. A very sharp, metallic taste.

I quickly realized that the pulverized remains of the fallen World Trade Center towers were literally still in the air.

Earlier that day I wasn't sure if I would make this trip. I didn't want Ground Zero to become a tourist attraction and I didn't want to be a that kind of tourist.

But, the newsman in me said I had to go and see through my own eyes... not filtered and distanced through a TV screen.

There were plenty of other people drawn to Ground Zero that day -- for whatever their own personal reasons. I didn't need directions. I just followed all the people headed in one direction. I just knew they were headed for Ground Zero.

Everywhere I looked I could see evidence of the collapsed towers. The walls of the buildings along the streets leading to the World Trade Center site were blackened with dust and soot… the leftovers from the giant dust cloud that had raced up them as first one – and then another – tower fell.

I could see the rubble pile from blocks away – it was that massive.

And, then, I was there. Hundreds of people were quietly staring at that iconic piece of latticework. It was once part of the outer skin of one of the World Trade Center towers. Now it stood in front of a huge mass of crushed concrete and twisted steel. This was all that was left of buildings that once rose so high that when you looked up at them it made you dizzy.

Now the sight of it made me queasy.

There were lots of people taking pictures. I had brought my camera but I couldn’t bring it out of my pocket. It seemed wrong to take a snapshot of what was not just a pile of rubble but the burial ground of over three thousand souls.

Instead, without even thinking, I got on my cell phone and called my kids. I told each of them where I was and what I was looking at and what I was feeling.

I was surprised that I wasn't angry. I was almost indescribably sad… sad that anything could lead to this kind of violence. And, I was enlightened. I now had a visceral understanding of what the British and the French and the Germans and the Japanese have known all along. This is what war looks like when it happens on your doorstep… at your home.

I left my viewing spot and walked all around the World Trade Center site. At times, it was like walking through Pompeii after Vesuvius had erupted. Time stood still. In atrium restaurants at hotels to the west of the site – tables were still set for diners… flowers on the table were wilting in their vases.

I finally started to make my way back to the subway. But I couldn’t get away from the destruction. Every few minutes a flatbed truck would pass with part of the World Trade Center rubble lashed to it. I will never forget the sight of I beams twisted as if they were a licorice twizzler. What kind of moaning roar that violence must have unleashed along this very street.

Before I reached my subway station, I passed by dozens of street vendors hawking 911 memorabilia. Hats… t-shirts with the still standing towers on them… that kind of thing. THIS made me angry. How tacky. How disrespectful.

Then, it hit me. This is America… where you have the inalienable right to be as tacky as you want to be. That kind of freedom can be messy… even disrespectful… And with the pile of rubble from the 911 attacks just blocks away… freedom was still doing a brisk business.

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