Moving On From Ground Zero

By sunrise on Sept. 11, 2002, one year after the towers fell, the crowds were already thick at Ground Zero. A strange carnival had descended on downtown overnight, depositing a sea of mourners, babies clad in red, white and blue, politicians and doughnut vendors. Bagpipers had marched in from all corners of the city, some as far as Jamaica Bay. They stood in tight clusters, their kilts flapping high in the wind.

I’d come early, somehow thinking I might be alone there. I was looking for some reminder of what I’d seen a year before. But as the ceremony and the speeches and the solemn roll call of the dead began, I found little to connect with.

I went to Ground Zero last year on the night of Sept. 12, sneaking in behind police lines at dusk to report on the scene -and utterly unprepared for the destruction I saw. I stood at the base of mountains of hissing, twisted metal; I watched the frenzied men digging for bodies in a burning pile of rubble seven stories deep; I talked with the rescuers and took pages of notes; and I lugged cartons of water bottles out to the firefighters on the debris pile.

But I didn’t feel like I belonged there. During the night, I watched a group of cops toss the bag of another reporter and threaten him with arrest. By the time I left, at dawn the next morning, my notes were hidden under my shirt.

I hadn’t really wanted to leave-but once I did, it seemed impossible to return. Leaving so soon, staying among the rescuers in the rubble for only a few hours, I had only unformed and incomplete impressions. Still, the memories were so vivid that I was reluctant to return to the site, knowing that what I had seen was vanishing daily by the truckload. Wanting to move on, I instead found myself clinging to a fast-disappearing image.

More and more, I wished I’d stayed.

When I returned on a December night four months later to work the food lines with the Salvation Army, the site was already transformed into a construction zone teeming with electricians, welders and engineers. I looked for a familiar face; I was thinking about someone I’d met that first night who did stay, and I wondered how she was doing.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Abby Lindsay was pulled out from beneath the towers just in time. A cop named Nick with a gray mustache had found her huddled under two chairs propped against each other like a teepee, where she thought she wouldn’t be killed by the falling towers. He grabbed her and told her to run.

As it turned out, Abby didn’t go far. The next day, she had returned to Ground Zero and was busy behind a table of hot trays, feeding the firefighters. Her 5-foot-1 frame was tiny beside the men. She had outrun death by a few seconds-a matter of yards-and she had not staggered out of the haze looking for home or the nearest hospital. Instead, she’d shrugged off her cuts and scrapes and, less than 24 hours later, was a seasoned volunteer with a solid line on the surest place to find a flashlight, a spare sweatshirt, a carton of cigarettes. But with the dirt streaking her round cheeks, and wearing a pair of borrowed shorts that came to her ankles, she looked less like a gritty rescue worker than a child caught in a war zone.

“I’m not leaving till this is over,” she told me. Behind the genial smile, her eyes were slightly wild.

She said she was 34 years old and an executive assistant in human resources for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, an architectural firm whose offices were nearby, across the street from the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. The firm had lost one employee in the towers on Sept. 11, a Russian architect named Arkady Zaltsman, but Abby didn’t know that yet. The last I saw of Abby that night, she’d slung an arm around the waist of a fatigued rescue worker and was leading him to a metal folding chair in the triage area.

A year later, I decided to look her up and see how she was doing. We met for lunch on a blustery day at a restaurant on the North Cove Yacht Harbor. A lunchtime crowd mingled with men in hard hats hammering in new panes of glass on the Winter Garden’s glass atrium.

Abby seemed older now, closer to her actual age. Her round face was still shaped like a doll’s, her blond hair still cut in the same flouncing pageboy, but there was a new sharpness to her, a new gauntness in her cheeks.

Her eyes were the most changed-more restrained-and when she started talking about her experience on Sept. 11, she started to cry and then stopped herself.

When the planes hit, Abby’s colleagues were milling around, confused-nobody seemed to know what to do. Abby wanted to help. She left her office and walked to the Millenium Hotel right in front of the World Trade Center. “I remember seeing a woman lying on a gurney with an oxygen tank … it looked like her socks were melted to her feet,” she recalled. “We went into the lobby of the hotel and pulled ottoman chairs out. People were so traumatized they just wanted to sit.”

Then Abby heard an explosion directly overhead and looked up to see a plume of smoke. Everyone around her started running, and she was afraid of getting trampled. So she pulled two chairs over her head, hoping to ride out the storm.

When Officer Nick arrived, “I just felt his arm,” she said. “I thought I was going to die of suffocation.” He led her to safety and disappeared. As the dust settled, Abby looked around at the devastation and the bodies and decided she wasn’t going anywhere.

She said she felt guilty when she left Ground Zero after four days. While she was working there, she didn’t have time to think about nearly dying. “I used to have depression a long time ago-bad depression,” she told me. “I fought my way out of it, but I still have to fight.”

Abby said that she, too, had wanted to go back to Ground Zero once she finally did leave.

Not long after she returned to her office, Abby said, she was asked to process the life-insurance policy of the single Skidmore, Owings employee who had died on Sept. 11, Arkady Zaltsman. For months, she spoke regularly with Arkady’s widow over the phone, helping to settle his affairs, sometimes just lending an ear. When no one was home, she listened to Arkady’s voice greeting her on the answering machine, and it comforted her.

I’d called Abby hoping that she would lead me back to find the end of a story, to make some sense of an intense and tragic night. But Abby, I found, could no better re-create where we’d been than I could.

By helping Arkady’s widow, however, Abby had found a way to move on without losing what she’d seen at Ground Zero. “I realized he was one of those bodies in the rubble when I was there,” she said. She still calls the Zaltsman family. It makes her feel less guilty about leaving. It’s enough, she said, except for one thing.

She still hasn’t found Officer Nick to thank him.