I’ve recently spent a few extraordinary days in New York with two police officers, Detective Inspectors Dennis Bootle and Pat Lanigan, researching for my new Roy Grace novel, which will be published next year, and which features a character who tries to benefit commercially from the attack on the World Trade Centre. Part of the novel is set back in time around the day of 9-11 and the immediately following days.
Pat and Dennis were among the very first officers one the scene at 9-11. They were in the NYPD in Brooklyn police station when the first plane struck the North Tower. Immediately they were despatched over the Brooklyn Bridge and arrived just as the second plane struck the South Tower. As they climbed out of the patrol car a burning jet engine bounced in Vesey Street, right in front of them. Then, as they ran across the plaza, they heard a thud, described in Pat’s words as “Like as sack of potatoes hitting the ground.” It was one of the first jumpers. At one point they were having to look up to dodge the falling bodies. Then when the South Tower began to collapse they had to run for their lives. Dennis went down below the Atrium and Pat ran for the river. Pat described the “crunching, roaring, rumble” of the tower coming down as the scariest sound he had ever heard in his life, as if the world was ending.
In the weeks and months following, both of them worked at Ground Zero “in the pit” or “on the pile” or “in the belly of the beast” as Dennis described it. Amid all the horror of recovering human remains – few bodies were intact – there were some extraordinary acts of humanity. One example is that people brought dogs around for the workers to stroke, to give them contact with something normal and comforting.
Pat became one of the people in charge of the Bereavement Centre on Pier 92, where relatives would bring items to help identify lost loved ones – such as a hairbrush or toothbrush from which DNA could be taken. Those suffering hardship were given instant cash handouts of between $1,500-2,500 – and, as human nature will, there were plenty of fraudsters who took advantage – and were all subsequently tracked down after the NYPD set up a “Scammers File”.
One of the grimmest places Dennis and Pat took me to was the presciently named “Fresh Kills” landfill site (it is an old Indian word for inlet) on Staten Island. Every square centimeter of rubble taken from Ground Zero was brought on barges to this site and examined with the thoroughness of an archaeological dig.
Like many of the rescue workers, both Pat and Dennis suffered mental and physical health problems subsequently. Interestingly the Scientologists, boosted with a $2m donation from Tom Cruise, have now set up a free detox program for all Emergency Service workers for 9-11.
One of the most macabre places we visited is right opposite the Manhattan Medical Examiner’s office. A tent filled with refrigerated trucks that contain many thousands of as yet unidentified parts. And more are still turning up, six years on – some in the sewers, and the week before I was there, some on the roof of the Deutsche Bank, at the edge of Ground Zero, which is due for demolition. One terrible aspect of the whole tragedy is that of the 2,792 people who died in the World Trade Center attacks, only half have been identified – and it is likely the majority of the others never will be.
The art director of my publishers, whose offices were then just a few blocks away from the Twin Towers, was in her office at 8.45 and by chance happened to be looking out of her window as the North Tower was hit. She told me that in those first moments following the impact, before the reality and horror of what she was looking at clarified in her brain, that from an artist’s standpoint it was a beautiful sight – the orange flame, the pure black of the smoke and the shimmering fragments of glass against the beautiful, cobalt sky.
There is a moving line at the beginning of one of the Nicci French novels: It reads: “Bad things happen on beautiful days.” It is a line I’ve never been able to get out of my head. When Peter Benchley wrote Jaws he managed to turn the beauty of the ocean into something sinister for many people. With 9-11, terrorists turned a clear blue sky into a thing of potential dread for far, far more people.
But it is not the horror of all that happened that is the most dominant thing I take away from that terrible day. It is the image of the rescue workers patting dogs. It is the inner strengths of Pat and Dennis (more on whom in my next blog) two of the most decent human beings I ever met. It is the knowledge of the triumphs of the human spirit and of friendship. Dr Martin Luther King said it best of all: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”