The Syntax of Disaster



Broadway & Fulton St, New York, NY 10007

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

I remember… the sound and the smoke… the terror of the crowds rushing past… a dark cloud billowing toward me in a wave of debris, determined, absolute…

Searching for a meaning in this memory, I look at other stories born on September 11 and see a shared vocabulary that is at once horrifying and epiphanic: “It was the apocalypse.” “Like a revelation.” “I thought I died and went to heaven.” “There was only darkness.” “I saw the light.” “Then it hit me.” “The world came crashing down.” “My eyes were opened.” “Everything looked different.” “It was unreal.” “It felt like I was dreaming.” “I awoke into a nightmare.”

Taken from first-person accounts, this is the language of enlightenment. In its syntax, we hear the words of awakening, of the struggle to see again after a blinding flash of insight. It is Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. It is Arjuna’s moksha in the Bhagavad Gita. For me, it was a Buddhist lesson in impermanence that I wish I could unlearn. Or at least relearn, like during a meditation retreat, or through a course lecture, or even in one of the books on Buddhism that line my window ledge. As it happened, the lesson I learned that Tuesday morning occurred on the streets below my apartment, just blocks from Ground Zero.


The explosions arrive in swift succession during a hurried morning routine, the first as I’m getting out of the shower, and then again, inconceivably louder, as I’m preparing to leave my apartment. Even on the twelfth floor, I have to crane my neck to see the burning papers littering the sky seventy stories up. To the west, I glimpse a side of the south tower, on fire and smoking.

Riding down in the elevator with a neighbor who is groggy and half-dressed.

“What’s going on?” he asks. “I was asleep when an explosion woke me up.”

When I tell him what I know so far, what we all know by now, from the limited and confused news reports I have already heard–that two airline jets crashed, apparently intentionally, into both towers of the World Trade Center–he says nothing. We exit the elevator in silence and walk out of our building into chaos.

On the corner of Broadway and Fulton St., windows all along the block have been blown out by concussion force. Gazing upward, I see what I saw on the television, the towers ablaze, the same, yet different. From where I stand I observe balloons of flames twenty floors high roiling over each other, more orange than I thought possible. I smell the acrid black smoke pouring out, bleeding a deep scar east across the azure sky. It’s so bright out that it’s hard to determine where the heat emanates from, the sun or the fires, and if there is any difference at all. The exit wounds made by the planes look like two dark eyes gone frighteningly askew, and I stare back at them, uncomprehendingly. Later, people will say it was like a movie, like a war zone, like a natural disaster. But right now there are no metaphors. It’s like nothing that has ever happened. And, as it’s happening, there is nothing to understand.

Coming back to earth, I look at the people looking up, as if a closer inspection will reveal some deeper meaning. A woman walks past, covering her mouth, gasping.

“Oh God,” she moans, “I saw bodies falling.”

“They were jumping,” adds another dazed woman.

“It’s a nightmare,” someone else says. “I have to wake up. Somebody wake me up.”

Somewhere south of Chambers St., I’m on a corner standing in a group of people, crowded around a guy with a walkman, waiting for news. Behind me, somebody is talking about a heap of twisted metal that was a jet engine a block away, and two guys holding briefcases march off for a closer look.

“They hit the Pentagon,” the guy with the walkman finally says, his eyes fixed on the burning towers above us.

There is a pause as this information begins to sink in, as we weigh it against what we already know. Before we are allowed to mourn, though, a man announces, “Good! I’m glad they hit Washington, now they’ll have to do something about these lunatics! It’s about time they woke up!”

“It’s the Palestinians, I know it,” another man is saying and an argument erupts.

I’m waiting for more news to come over the radio, bracing myself for the next disaster. Anything can happen, I think. I have to be prepared. That’s when the city shudders. I look up to see the top fifty stories of the south tower begin to slide off, down, and to the east. Then the rest, in a deafening and unending crash, blanketing the corner where I’d stood minutes earlier, annihilating the rescue workers and vehicles that were still there when I’d left. I hear the cacophony of cries: “Oh my God!” “It’s coming this way!” “Run!”

And I run.


I have a recurring dream had by many. I’m running away from danger, but I’m not getting anywhere. The ground beneath me is like a treadmill preventing me from moving ahead, as though there was some invisible gravity holding me still. It’s absurd and frustrating. No matter how hard I run, I can’t go forward. When I finally wake up, I’m anxious, frightened.

Running north on Church St., there is no clear or straight path. People are everywhere, moving in every direction. Many, like me, are racing uptown. Some dart east or west. A few don’t move at all, paralyzed by their disbelief. Zigzagging through the crowds, I have the sense that I’m going nowhere, that the cloud is getting closer instead of moving farther away. I want to wake up, but there is no waking.

As I cross Canal St., my run turns into a tired stride, a slow-motion sleepwalk through a shattered city. Suddenly, something tears through the sky—three, two, one block away–and I instinctively duck behind a van as an F-16 flies into view overhead. I feel foolish in the eyes of commuters flowing out of the subways, unaware of the world that awaits them. We are all coming at this from different perspectives, I think, but we share a common nightmare. Maybe if I get inside, I can reverse the dream, erase what I have witnessed, delude myself into believing that the people are still alive, that the planes never hit.

I’m almost at Houston St., heading on auto pilot to a friend’s office to make a phone call, type an email, get a news update, do something, anything to escape the inevitability of what has happened from dawning on me. I’m entering the building when the north tower disappears from sight. I don’t look back. I’m awake now, and I’ve already seen too much of what is no longer there.


After a week spent displaced on the upper west side, I’m finally able to go home, back to the ruins of my neighborhood. For days now, I have been trying to sift through the experiences of that morning, excavating my grief from the helplessness that overwhelms me. I feel shell shocked, incapable of being outside for extended periods; every loud truck that passes, every siren that blares is like a sharp whack bringing me back to the present, to the harsh reality of what has happened.

I expect the worst on the way down to my apartment, imagining it carpeted with debris, glass shards blown everywhere, furniture soaked from the previous night’s rainstorm. It looks like a bomb went off, I muse darkly upon entering, only because this is exactly how I left it, neglected and in disarray, but for the smell of burnt plastic. Pale sunlight streams in through windows now spotted with filth and ash. A thin layer of chalky dust covers the window ledges and the books that line them. I wonder, even more darkly, how much of that dust is comprised of the towers, how much of the people who didn’t get out, of the firefighters who rushed in; how much of it is the airplanes, the passengers and crews, and how much the hijackers themselves, all of them, blown apart in a storm of whirling atoms. I wonder: How much equanimity can I bear?

I find refuge in a teaching by an 8th-century Zen master of the T’ang Dynasty named Quingyuan, who described the process of his own enlightenment in The Compendium of Five Lamps: “Thirty years ago, before I practiced [Zen], I saw that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. However, after having achieved intimate knowledge and having gotten a way in, I saw that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have found rest, as before, I see mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers.”

To the pre-enlightened eyes, in other words, the physical world is just that, physical and nothing more. A mountain is just a mountain. At the moment of enlightenment, there is a new perspective, a deeper understanding of the world as it truly is: The mountain is merely an illusion, a construct of our own preconceptions. Afterwards, the eyes adjust to take in everything, the physical world as well as the world of impermanence. When the enlightened mind can hold both perspectives simultaneously, there are mountains again. There, and not there. Inspired by the simplicity of Quingyuan’s teaching, sixties folk-singer Donovan distilled this koan even further when he sung,

First there is a mountain. Then there isn’t. Then there is.

Buried beneath the seeming incomprehensibility of these lyrics lies a sophisticated lesson still pertinent today.

Especially today. It strikes me as a kind of Zen reasoning that the Trade Towers are no longer visible precisely because their very visibility made them targets. They were attacked not only because of what they represented economically and politically. They were attacked because of what they stood for metaphorically. They were as much a part of this country’s geography as they were of my own neighborhood’s. In the news of the past week, they have been referred to as “America’s Pyramids” and “New York City’s compass.”

As early as 1976–three years after the completion of the second tower–Hollywood magic sent a giant gorilla climbing up them in a remake of the original King Kong. Even then, the towers were established symbols of both technological progress and financial prowess. They could be seen from around the world. At that height, King Kong’s confusion was unmistakable. That’s why he is up there in the first place, straddling the financial district, an ape foot squarely planted atop each tower, snarling and swatting at fighter jets. Kong’s confusion is our confusion. His anger, our anger.

It is the hijackers‚ anger as well. King Kong represents the monkey mind Buddhists describe, the incessant internal banter that, if allowed to run rampant, perpetuates the cause and effect of suffering, of which we are all clearly implicated. And the towers he climbs are the mountains of our own delusion. Now that they are gone, all that is left is a palpable fear, the terror associated with moments of awakening.

Listening to the news report that “Everything has changed,” I hear an old truth of impermanence. If the disaster on September 11 has transformed my perception at all, then I am still waiting to see how my eyes will adjust to the potential insight gained. For the enlightened mind, the vision is clear: The suffering of thousands of people is no different than the suffering of the hijackers; the destruction of the towers is proof that nothing remains unchanged. When I consider the sheer loss of life and degree of devastation, however, I know that I do not yet have Quingyuan’s clarity of mind for seeing past distinctions.

This, then, is where practice begins. Here, at the place of impact, the center of gravity from which all things radiate. There is a Ground Zero inside me wherever I go. It is the home I return to and the nowhere I can never outrun. When I sit in silence, breathing deeply, I try not to think about whom and what I am inhaling, and if it even matters. I breathe in, and the city breathes out.


It’s late now. My street is quiet. Only emergency vehicles are allowed this far downtown, and the urgency of their sirens have been long since negated. The smell of scorched debris is beginning to subside. It occurs to me that maybe it’s only making way for something worse, the stench of decomposition. Up the block, I can hear the rumble of heavy machinery, the low, steady thunder of a lightning flash that will sound for months to come.

Standing by my window, I remove a book from the shelf, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, by Zen Master Seung Sahn, and open to Stephen Mitchell’s translator’s preface. “Zen teaching is like a window,” he begins. “At first, we look at it, and see only the reflection of our own face. But as we learn, and as our vision becomes clear, the teaching becomes clear. Until at last it is perfectly transparent. We see through it. We see all things: our own face.”

I put the book back and squint through gray-streaked glass. The flood lamps of the recovery operation illuminate the night sky. Far from enlightenment, I strain for a new perspective on an altered landscape. To the west, through a smoky haze, I can see a skyscraper I couldn’t until now–the World Financial Center, blocked all these years by a mountain that first was there, and now isn’t. I wonder what else I’ll see tomorrow, when I wake up.

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