Apocalypse New York
Apocalypse New York
by--Cliff McKenzie--New York City Combat Correspondent
GROUND ZERO, New York City, Sept. 11, 2001--It came rushing towards us, the fist of Hell. A huge roiling cloud, angry, fuming, outraged. Convoluted balls of black and gray swirled and shoved toward me; driven by a tidal wave of smoke, debris, human parts; phlegm from Hell.
A few moments earlier I watched terrorized human beings leaping from the burning World Trade Center (WTC). Their bodies plummeted down, arms flailing, legs kicking wildly in the updrafts that fed the raging fires, signaling they were conscious, watching their death approach, choosing the window to the fire. The crowd around me moaned as the bodies disappeared from sight behind the smaller buildings—a silent death, muffled by the cacophony of Terror everywhere.
As I pressed to get closer, the police drove us away from where we stood. Perhaps it was fate, for in a moment the building would fall, and we might have all been killed gawking upwards. We filed down the street, a few blocks east of the building, stopping on another corner to peer up at the smoke pouring out and flames licking hungrily, feeding on the oxygen in the air.
Suddenly, the ground began to shake and rumble. At first it felt like an earthquake; the cement wobbled, buckled. A thunderous explosion filled the air, ringed with the sounds of screaming metal and crushing concrete. It seemed as if the ground was erupting, that the Terrorists had placed charges in the subway tunnels and they were now being ignited, eviscerating the ground, blowing everything beneath the city into the sky.
I grabbed the corner of the building and looked down the street. There it was, the Fist of the Beast. It was jabbing toward us, careening between the walls of the narrow street, squeezing its way past hundred-year-old brick buildings, accelerating, the convolutions making it appear as though it were an exposed brain of a giant beast, hunting us, seeking us out.
I blinked. Instead of a dirty, gray ball of anger flung at me by terrorists, walls of napalm flashed before my eyes--black and orange firestorms, boiling the earth bare, sucking oxygen from all living things, indiscriminately killing anything in its path—women, children, the innocent. Part of me was instantly back in Vietnam, thirty-five years ago, reliving the terror of war in this moment of terror of a new war. I was looking at the face of death.
A cop ran screaming down the street—“Run! Run! Run!”--as a host of secondary explosions echoed off the walls of a normally industrious street. His feet flew in Olympic sprinting time as he tried to beat the wave of debris and dust and smoke and God knew what else coughing toward us at incredible speed.
The streets were jammed with onlookers trying to see the horror of the WTC burning. As the unknown explosion cracked and roared its anger at us, the crowd panicked. People scrambled madly, screaming, shoving, pushing, driven by self-preservation. I turned and looked into their eyes--wide, glazed, dulled with adrenalin their systems hurriedly manufactured that to turn them into highly efficient locomotion machines, giving them bursts of power to escape the wrath of Hell bearing down upon us.
I grabbed three women stunned by the rushing herd of humanity and pushed them against a wall away from the blast. They sobbed and cried it was the end of the world. One woman moaned over and over, “We’re all going to die!”
The cloud from Hell hit the corner, hissing and dispersing itself like a shroud of death; a ghoulish darkness enveloped us, blackness, the soot of destruction, replaced the air. I shoved my face against the wall, trying to capture air in my lungs, fresh, uncontaminated air. Instead, I held my breath. No one could see. Day turned to the horror of night. We pressed against the wall, covering our mouths, shutting our eyes, unsure what it was that had fallen around our bodies, consumed them in its nothingness.
I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. I put my hands on the women’s shoulders on either side of me and took a short, gasping breath. I wanted to be touching a human being if I died. I waited for the sting in my chest, the sharp pain that would signal some biological weapon had been released, and I was contaminated, about to suffer some horrid death where my body would burst into a mass of blisters and I would writhe on the ground clutching my guts, wishing someone would come by and mercifully shoot me.
I waited. We all did. Waited for the unknown to happen. Gasping. Wheezing. Coughing.
Chunks of concrete dust covered my head and shoulders and backpack where my computer was waiting to come to life, to capture in words the horror, the madness. I thought of the people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, innocents like the ladies around me crying, unsure what the dust was, unaware it was burrowing into their bodies, killing their cells, destroying their innocence, and the world’s innocence. I wondered if this was retribution, payback.
“We’re all going to die!”
I put my arms on the women’s shoulders, dim figures in the haze. “Think of your happiest moment, think of something beautiful.” I urged them to take their minds off death. I just said it. It seemed to be the right thing, but it sounded bizarre. In a holocaust, thinking of something beautiful? But if my last thought was eternity, I’d rather spend eternity in beauty than horror. So it did make sense in the senselessness of it all.
“Think of something beautiful, happy,” I repeated.
I could not see any of their faces. Their identity was buried in handkerchiefs, pieces of cloth, scarves. But I knew what they all looked like. All fear looks the same.
I remembered the faces the young boys I rode with on choppers to their first combat operation in Vietnam. They were Okay until the artillery pounded the earth below. As the chopper turned on its side and slid down to dump us in the hot landing zone, their faces went pale. Their eyes flicked wildly. Their mouths hung open. Their faces whitened and they breathed in short gulps, like a rabbit staring into the eyes of the fox.
I didn’t say much to the boys back then to comfort the fear preceding potential death. I simply reached out and touched their shoulders—maybe the last human touch they would ever feel--and said, “It will be okay.” It was an instinct rather than a plan.
I did the same today three-and-a-half decades later. I reached out and placed my hand on the frightened shoulders of the unknown ladies and said, “It will be okay.”
When the cloud lifted enough we could see our hands before our faces, only a few of us were left on the street. The herds had rushed uptown toward safety. Around us, the air was still thick. Particles from the holocaust filtered down like dead snowflakes, fragments of beauty from a grand building turned to ugliness; it was civilization pulverized into volcanic ash; it was the present brutally returned to the past.
The women started moving uptown, sobbing, handkerchiefs in their faces, disappearing into terror’s mist. One young, thin, Asian woman was frozen, sobbing. I put my hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right? Do you want me to lead you out of here?”
“No,” she sobbed. “I’ll be Okay.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she sobbed, turning slowly, head lowered, tears streaming, sobs wracking her frail body, and headed uptown, out of the horror of the hell we were bathing in.
I wanted a closer look and moved toward the west, where the buildings were that had been attacked. I kept wondering when it would hit--the poison or anthrax or whatever might have been in the explosion that rained down the cloud of darkness upon us.
As I walked slowly down the deserted street, stepping over the rubble, alone, no other human being in sight through the fog of destruction, I wondered why I was here, strolling through the face of death. For what? For whom?
A few minutes before I had been sitting at Starbucks on Astor Place, outside, where I write as often as I can, or feel like writing. I was told it was therapeutic to write out my feelings about the Beast of Terror I felt within me, the one that was trying to kill me from the inside out, so I had been trying to expose it with words, reliving memories I had buried, feelings I had stuffed.
Above, I heard the scream of a plane and looked up. It was low and loud--a jetliner off course, I thought, dangerously off course. A minute later my cell phone rang and my son-in-law, Joe, told me the World Trade Center had just been attacked by a plane. I jammed my computer in my pack and rushed downtown to face the Beast of War—to challenge him, to capture him again in my words as I had thirty-five years ago in Vietnam when I was a U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondent in Vietnam. I felt the rush of the warrior. Something snapped inside me, driving me to face this moment.
I had hunted the Beast of Terror in Vietnam and upon my return, but he slipped from my fingers. He lay dormant in my mind for over three decades, only recently to return to me, to drive me to the point of self-destruction, self-defeat. It had begun last June when a man jumped out of a window at Roosevelt Hospital near Fifty-Seventh and Ninth Avenue. The body splattered at my feet, crushed from the ten-story fall, blood oozing into a scarlet pool around his head, his naked body lifeless.
I stood motionless, looking at his lifeless body, remembering the countless dead bodies I had seen dead, and some I had killed in combat. I thought about my life, my battles to deal with the horror of violence, to come to terms with its reasons, with my guilt and shame, with the horror of defeat in business, of financial ruin, of cancer, bankruptcy, foreclosure. I wondered who had it the best—me struggling to stay alive, or him, gone—dead, no longer struggling.
For those few seconds, we were alone. The dead splattered body and I. Just the two of us. I understood if he jumped. He jumped into a pit of darkness. A black hole of self nothingness that gripped me. It strangled my will to work...it emasculated my ability to support my family...to want to live in the pain of defeat. I was so tired of trying to fight for truth and justice...as I had all my life...in war...in business...in life. I just wanted to die...to splatter into a lifeless blob as that man had done.
But I fought that feeling of despair, that loomed over me like the black cloud at Ground Zero, that was filled with nothing, hopeless, empty. For months, almost a year, I buried myself in my despair. I began to see professionals, and to talk about my fears, my emptiness of the soul, my lack of desire to live. I began to write out my feelings--in a book I call The Pain Game--about the Terror of The Beast Within--about how it haunts and stalks and lurks to destroy the will to live....how it takes away the good of life and leaves the bad...how it strangles the joy of life and drowns out Hope with Fear and Futility.
Slowly, my words began to take shape. I began to see the face of the Beast of Terror in them. I looked back over the horror of my life in war and business, and my successes and failures, and saw the Beast’s Face glaring at me, laughing, eager to destroy me from the inside out.
After I saw the Beast’s Face, I began the battle of recovery. I fought with myself to look the Beast of Terror in the eye—to examine him from all vistas. I knew to win the battle I must know the enemy, must know his strengths and weaknesses. I also knew I had to arm myself with something I didn’t have—love—self love. I borrowed as much as I could from my wife and children, who cheered me on, who gave me hugs, who encouraged me. But I knew I would have to find the courage within to face the beast, and only hoped I could before I lost all the strength left to try.
I began to see both a psychiatrist and a psychologist, a man and a woman. I was skeptical of “doctors of the mind,” but I had no choice. I was desperate, crying all the time, lying in a fetal position on the couch, not wanting to see anyone, talk to anyone. I didn’t tell the one doctor I was seeing the other. I wanted to know if they came up with the same conclusions. The man had a Vietnam Vet background, the woman, a businessman background. They both told me the same things.
I was manic depressive, rising up in fits of passion only to sink into deeper depths of gloom. They urged me to love myself. To write out my feelings. To find something to love, some passion that would help return me back to life instead of wallowing in my defeats. I thought it a hopeless exercise, until I saw the Beast of Terror in my words come to life. Then, there was a fragment of Hope. If I could see my enemy, I might be able to conquer him.
Then, September 11, 2001 changed my life. Or, more accurately, it sparked me back to life.
As I stood in the mist ready to die, feeling death’s hand on my shoulder, I realized that all the pain and anguish I have suffered might be for a specific reason. It just might be so I could tell the world the Beast of Terror had come to New York City, come to America to haunt, to lurk, to devalue, to destroy our sense of worth, our ability to trust and believe in the future. But that was only part of it. I knew what it looked like. I knew where it hid. I knew what it fed upon. And, more than just announce its presence, the real value might be to hunt it down with my words, to corral it, to isolate it, and lock it up so it was harmless.
As I stumbled through the rubble, my mind whirring with emotions and reasons about life and death, I began to feel the need to expose the Beast of Terror. This was my chance to face him—in Manhattan—the heart of the civilized world. He had come of age. And I was beginning to get ready for him.
A knot grew in my guts as I wandered down the empty, ashen streets of Ground Zero Hell, realizing America was no longer invincible. The glorification of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor would be overshadowed henceforth by what had just happened. Now, the streets of Manhattan were not dissimilar to those of Jerusalem, or Serbia, or anywhere one felt unsafe, insecure. The Beast had come home.
I had been on over a hundred combat missions in Vietnam, and seen more violent death and destruction than anyone ever needs to witness. But this was different—this was history in the making. I was walking in the ashes of a new, horrible world of terror. I had to feel it in my bones, to write about it, to capture it for my own self-awareness, for my children, and grandchildren, for my own self-preservation.
I also wanted to find my daughter, a federal law enforcement agent. I wanted to be near her if she was here, in the bowels of Hell. I hoped I would stumble across her in the rubble and madness.
I wandered down a deserted alley and stumbled on a street person sitting on a ledge, guarding his meager possessions. I asked him if he was all right. He began to tell me that the Unified States military had done it--that Air Force officers had kami kazied the building and were taking over the government. That a coup by recalcitrant Americans fed up with President Bush was in progress. I shrugged. The insanity in the insanity.
I moved on down the alley. Out of the fog appeared a young, blonde man..
“Get in here, sir. With Lisa. Stay in here. I’m a Secret Service agent.”
He opened a door exposing a young woman, maybe nineteen, hunkering against the wall with a disposable camera in her hand. Tears streaked the white chalk powdering her face..
“Anyone else out there with you,” the Secret Service Agent asked.
“Just a street person, up the alley.”
“Yeah, I know. He won’t move. Stay here, we don’t know what’s coming next.” He shut the door.
Lisa shook, tears in her eyes. I put my hand on her shoulder. “Everything’s going to be okay,” I said. She was worried about her friends. She was separated from them when the herds ran, mashing and crashing over each other.
“Okay, move uptown,” the Secret Service agent said. Fear flanked his eyes, the same kind I had seen in the young men’s eyes who had never faced preeminent death before. “What was the explosion?” I asked.
“The building fell in,” he answered. “Do you have anything I can use to cover my face?”
“Sure,” I replied, and dug in my bag for a washcloth I carried to dust off my computer.
Lisa and I worked our way up through the haze until we found a street with people moving about. She said she’d be okay and went looking for her friends. I turned to get closer to the building, scanning the haze for signs of my daughter.
I passed stretchers with bodies on them. People lay in the streets, dazed or dead, EMT units hovering over them. Abandoned stores stood with no one guarding them. Ash covered ghosts brushed past me. Voices rang hollow down the streets.
My people. My country. My home. Attacked. Victimized. Peace turned to War in a blink of an eye. Safety and security crushed in a single few moments of terror.
I couldn’t help it. I thought what it must have been like for the villagers in Vietnam when we burned their homes, or shelled them, or dropped napalm on them, or released 500- or 1,000-pound bombs on their homes. They must have seen us the same way the people of Manhattan saw those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. We must have been terrorists invading their peace, their harmony, their security of life.
My guts ached.
I felt myself slide down the gullet and into the belly of the Beast of War again. I wallowed in its bowels. The waste of its violence singed that lingering sense of glory I once cherished when I first landed in Vietnam. As a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent my priorities were to “kill first and write second.” I was to “glorify killing.” And I did. I did it superbly. Then, I saw too much senseless killing. I realized the terror of killing was not glorious anymore, and my words stopped flowing. I struggled to shut out the horror to make room for the glory.
In Vietnam the mantra had been: “The only good gook is a dead one.” I wondered if this was payback time.
Did the terrorists think: “The only good American was a dead one?” I wondered. Back then we had been the terrorists. We had been fighting for our “just cause” at their expense. I hated to think I saw the terrorists’ point-of-view. I hated to even consider any justification for their act.
No, I thought, I wasn’t justifying anything. I was condemning myself for believing violence was justified then or now, for any reason. I was completing the circle of my soul, not healing anything, but coming to awareness, reaching the level of consciousness where a misguided warrior sees himself as he is, or was, without shame or guilt, but with limitless remorse. I trudged ahead, the ghost of past shadowing me.
I found another corner where I could view the remaining tower burning. More bodies were falling from it. Pieces of it sheared off, and crashed down. I stood with a few stragglers, watching the flames licking. They were red and orange, tongues of the devils who died igniting the fires. I could hear them laughing, praising themselves for a job well done, ignoring the waste of humanity, the innocence killed. It sickened me to think their political comment meant more than a human life. I cringed when I thought back to how to how I had laughed and cheered when our napalm gutted the earth of all living creatures. I felt joyous when the orange and red balls of gasoline filled the sky, glad the enemy was dead, neglectful of all the non-enemy that might have died.
For years I had justified my acts as “part of war’s price.” Now, under attack at home, I wondered: “What was the difference between the World Trade Center and a village in Quang Ngai province? “ Only the sounds of sirens, I thought. Only the sounds of sirens.
Someone next to me yelled, “It’s going!” I drew my attention back to the present.
Thunder roared as the second tower separated. It seemed the Grim Reaper himself swiped his scythe through the midsection of the WTC second tower. The cleaved structure hovered for a brief moment, as though suspended by wires. Then, as a drop of pooling water on a leaky faucet, it began to fall straight down, lazily at first, then faster and faster, imploding into itself, shrapnel flying everywhere.
Smoke and firestorm clouds knotted into fists of blacks and grays again, punching towards us as it had a few moments earlier when the first tower crumbled.
“Get behind the building,” I yelled.
We ran for cover, hugging the sides of the brick building. The blast swelled around us, blackening my world for a second time. I shoved my face into the corner of a doorjamb and took short breaths, inhaling the least pollution possible. A door opened. A Voice called us to safety. We dashed into a building hall, bodies covered with soot.
When it settled , I went outside and found a deserted street. A Con Ed van hummed next to me as I leaned back against a light pole and sat on the subway grate, looking down the ashen, littered street. I opened my backpack and pulled out my laptop and began to write out my feelings, capturing as best I could the combat zone, the aftermath of Hell..
I could barely see the screen as my fingers flew over the keys. It was covered with dust, causing the keys to stick. I pounded hard, knowing this moment would only be once, never again—I hoped.
“You okay?” A passerby stopped.
“Yeah, I’m just writing.’
“You should get out of here? It’s dangerous.”
“I will,” I said. “Thanks.”
I punched at the keys faster, not sure what I was capturing. I let my heart and fingers talk to me. I saw the horror for the first time Marlon Brando spoke about in Apocalypse Now Redux I had seen a month earlier. He recited the words...”the horror...the horror.” I had taken issue with them then. I felt Apocalypse Now was depressing, leaving the justice of war to die a sad death in his words—the horror, the horror.
Now I realized what he meant. He saw the horror from the victims’ eyes. I had only seen it from the warrior’s eyes. How blind I had been. Now, I knew what the victims felt like. There was nothing to laugh about, nothing to cheer over. There was only the silence of tears.
On the empty street I had taken possession of, pieces of papers fluttered about the dust. There were millions upon millions of them, remnants of one of the most powerful financial centers in the world. Now, they were fodder, fluttering in the ash.
The terrorists had blown a hole in my soul. I felt a path I had never felt before—a door, an opening to an understanding I had never faced. I was a victim, my country a victim. I could not afford to be weak any longer. There was a clear and present danger before me…something I could help resolve, help fight if I could muster the courage, the ambition, the energy.
I blew as much dust as I could from my laptop and stuck it in my backpack and headed uptown, to the East Village where I had moved to from Orange County, California a year and a half earlier.
I was covered with ash from head to foot.
The onlookers were crying, gawking, dazed. I thought about the Beast of Terror and how it consumed me once into thinking violence could be just.
I didn’t feel that way now. There was no justice in the killing of innocent people at the WTC, just as there wasn’t any justice in the killing of a little boy whose head was cut off by a five-inch artillery shell in Vietnam in 1965, or the razing of an entire village because one sniper took a shot at us that missed. My hands were bloody. I knew both sides of the coin—the victim and terrorist. I knew I could write about it. I knew I was an authority.
Once into the “safe zone,” I turned and watched the smoke rising from the rubble of the Twin Towers.
I saw America’s innocence dying in the flames. I knew no retaliation could ever compensate us for what had been just been done—even total annihilation of the enemy, whomever they were, couldn’t repair the pain of vulnerability that now existed. Terror had just given birth in America.
Pearl Harbor was passé. Our homeland was no longer a sanctuary of peace. We were, as all nations, now a country of victims. We were no different than the Israelis or Palestinians, or the oppressed people in Tibet, or those looking down the guns of China in Taiwan.
America was no longer a virgin of peace. Its citizens and security had just been raped in a most vicious and cruel way. Worse, the purity of a child’s safety was no longer sacrosanct within our shores.
The illusion of the invincible power and might of America had just been eaten by the Beast of War.
A tear fell from my eye. I hoped and prayed the children of the terrorists would one day cry too, for the sins of their fathers, and all those who had performed this most heinous act and promoted it.
My tear also fell for the Vietnamese we had terrorized in the name or justice. It was a long overdo tear, but it washed something dirty away inside me…I felt the shame and guilt being removed, and in its place, purpose and conviction took root. Now, it would be up to me to fight for what I believed in. I knew no one else would or could.
It was time for me to come alive again. It was time to return to my origins—to become a Combat Correspondent—only this time, without the glorification of war!