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September 24, 2001

Reporting from the scene of the fall

Anna Bahney, a 1997 graduate of Emory College, is a news assistant for
The New York Times. She wrote this letter last week to friends at her alma mater.


It has been a week now since I sat here at my desk in Brooklyn and wrote to many of you about that day’s events. My purpose was simply to tell you that I was OK. Bodily safe. My purpose now is to let you know—as much as to let myself know—how I am doing otherwise. To tell you that I am, like most of the city and much of the country and many of you, emotionally drained and psychologically stunned and mostly just very, very tired.

As I wrote before, I spent most of last Tuesday in lower Manhattan feeding interviews with survivors and injured victims and rescue workers back to the Times. It was all about facts, documentation and details that were grisly, ugly and true.

On Wednesday the city was deserted, but I walked to work again. I had to. I had to walk. But more, I had to work. I had to help. This time at the Armory, where people who were missing a voice in their house or a body in their bed had begun to gather with photos of their loved ones. I collected fliers of smiling faces on their wedding days, mischievous lovers-of-life caught mid-swig at a party, proud professionals sitting for a studio photograph after getting that coveted job. And I talked to those brandishing these papers like they were playing rock, paper, scissors and could trump the still-smoldering mound of steel and cement with a color copy. I could hardly fathom the hundreds I held in my hands. How many more hundreds of handfuls would we have to hold?

I anticipated a pall to be laid over the tragedy with a tally, something concrete to put the mind around so as to grasp the severity of the attack. But it was almost worse that no numbers came. There were only comparisons—168 in Oklahoma City, 2,403 in Pearl Harbor—and the gut-wrenching certainty that there would be more in New York.

Without an empirical barometer for the severity, I found myself trying to intuitively understand from what I could see and smell and feel, with my mind getting caught in a loop of conditioned normalacy that was no longer there. All Starbucks were still closed, but Macy’s was open. The city was officially closed south of 14th Street, but the movie theater on 12th Street was busy. Some subways were running, but not with full service and not all stations. Most restaurants were open, but the few people who ate out were mostly in low-lit, womblike places that were eerily quiet. The acrid smell was getting worse. I still had—and still do have—only one television station, one radio station and no long-distance from my landline.

New Yorkers are now able to walk the streets and shove into one another without melting into the person they’ve bumped, their eyes searching to see if they’ve shattered an already splintered soul. But it has taken a good many days for us to become so comfortable.

Eye contact is not part of the physical vocabulary of New Yorkers. And yet on those three hazy days after the fall, it was the primary way we could absorb the catastrophe. To absorb that it was a catastrophe.

I came to understand when I saw a man on a stoop staring vacantly smoking a cigarette. We looked into each other’s eyes, and he asked me how I was. I told him I was not doing so good. He said he was tired, too, and gave me a hug. The catastrophe sunk in when there was a woman next to me on the train crying. I looked at her; she looked at me. I held her. Without words, we parted.

I became concerned about the extended family of Palestinians who run the delicatessens along the main street in my neighborhood. They are my normalcy, my Ben and Jerry’s at 2 a.m., my paper and coffee in the morning on my way to work. One man had been visiting his family in Ramallah on the West Bank at the same time I had been traveling Israel a year ago, and I had gone to stay with them for a few days. He had been troubled for my safety while I was in his country and had protected me from incidents.

Now here, in this country, I feared for the safety of him and his family and felt compelled to protect them from a backlash against Arabs. The day after the attack their eyes betrayed a Kafkaesque confusion of waking up to be indicted in a heinous crime they didn’t commit and couldn’t even understand. I spoke to them in the Arabic they have taught me, like I do every evening when
I stop by to buy provisions—such a simple routine seemed so different now.

At the Times I was placed on the news desk, where I have been ever since, working with the editors of the national desk as a liaison to reporters across the country. The investigation was dawning in Florida and Boston and Oklahoma, but the sky between the news and our correspondents was still silent.

I found myself calling the correspondents in Houston and Atlanta and New Orleans and telling them just to get in their cars and drive toward Florida: We don’t know where you’re going, just head toward Florida.

I have been logging 13-hour-plus days at the office tracking the investigation, plowing through the weekend without much of a break. Getting reporters where they need to go. Scouring the wires for more arrests, more leads, more connections. Assigning stringers to go knock on doors surrounding abandoned apartments. Dealing with documents that list the birthdates, driver’s license numbers, addresses, credit-card numbers and American Airlines Frequent Flier Advantage numbers of 19 dead terrorists. At this point, my knowledge of the event is so skewed: I can’t tell you what stage they are in removing the rubble, but can tell you that Marwan

Al-Shehhi lived at 3389 Sheridan St. in Hollywood, Fla., and bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles from Boston on on Aug. 26.

The general consensus at the Times is that this is a long haul. War is the word on everyone’s lips, tucked into sentences that trail off with the staggering power of the unknown.

But the air has changed. The rains washed away the smell of wreckage, and these past few days have been as sunny and bright as any. People are talking, and organizing, and banding, and honoring, and gathering together. We are only beginning to see the ramifications this has on our society, and there will be far more good than bad, as difficult as that is to believe right now.

A societal near-death experience like this strips not only a society but a person down to a basic operating procedure. And mine has been primarily objective. As the week went on, and I wore down, I have become more emotional. Like on Thursday night, when the rain came and the thunder, and I found myself sobbing in my bed, quite simply afraid of the dark. Or listening as the man on the radio recounted that his daughter had set up a lemonade stand to collect money for the “people we are lighting candles for.” Or hearing about the final phone calls of those who died on planes. And phone calls with you. Just hearing your voices.

Thank you again for all of your thoughts and concern this week.

All love,


Back to Emory Report September 24, 2001