While New York and the nation struggled for metaphors with which to commemorate Sept. 11, 2001, nature provided perhaps the ultimate one, and it was startling, haunting and endangering.
Throughout the morning, a gusty, swirling wind had already evoked emotions and remembrance throughout New York City in a way words could not. It was impossible to see the eddies of dust and trash at every intersection, to fend off dirt blown forcefully into the eyes and mouth, without imparting to them some intent. It was as if visceral reminders were being provided to confirm the ones of emotion and intellect.
And then the wind turned entirely unsentimental.
Early Wednesday afternoon in Columbus Circle, at the southeast corner of Central Park, the winds, produced by Hurricane Gustav, reached speeds in excess of 45 miles an hour and cut through the largest construction site in the city. A large piece of plywood blew off an upper floor of what will become the new headquarters of AOL Time Warner. It struck the head of a 36-year-old carpenter who was eating his lunch while sitting on a sidewalk. He required surgery for serious head trauma. Two passersby were slightly hurt.
It was then that an ordinary glitch of life in a vertical city became fraught with symbolism. The AOL Time Warner Center consists of twin towers, and these 50-story buildings had suddenly become mortal threats.
As debris, big and small, began to dance in the air, the area was surrounded by dozens of fire trucks and ambulances from at least three area hospitals. Police, EMS workers, and firefighters were massed — in formation. And every horrible memory of a year ago was summoned anew on the streets of New York City.
Within minutes, 10 of Manhattan’s busiest blocks were cordoned off, yellow police tape flapping in the wind. Subway service was interrupted. Residents and office workers were ordered to stay indoors. And all the time, looming above the scene, was the image of the two identical, skeletal skyscrapers, now spitting out sheets of plastic wrapping, paper, even crushed soda cans. A plywood board, 4 or 5 feet high, and 6 feet wide at least, fluttered serenely, end over end, before settling gently in a corner of Central Park.
Workers rushed to tie down the board lumber and other construction material perched high above the city streets. By midafternoon, a New York Fire Department Emergency Command Center had been established on Central Park South, and surveying equipment was trained on the two towers, to ensure that their structural integrity was not in doubt. Motor traffic was blocked for 30 city blocks and foot traffic for about half that area; logistical chaos ensued. More than seven hours after the first debris fell, the streets finally reopened.
Twice elsewhere in New York, this eerie, uncanny wind brought minor harm — one police officer was hit by debris, at Church and Vesey Streets, just blocks from Ground Zero itself.
Practically speaking, these were no more than minor construction accidents, more inconvenience than threat. But they led to a perfect re-creation, in miniature, of the events of a year ago. Mercifully, they did not present anywhere near the level of seriousness; but the threat, the sense of immediate danger, the loss of a sense of safety, triggered all the same emotions that overtook New York a year ago today.
Trapped in their long-planned memorial coverage, few news organizations bothered to grasp the metaphor unfolding virtually before their eyes. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox News each have studios literally within walking distance of the threatened area. Few, if any, mentioned the fact of the danger, let alone its unnerving occurrence on the exact anniversary of the day on which events at two other skyscrapers changed the world.
Most of the memorials today in this city, in this country, recalled the thousands lost, or the sacrifice of firefighters and police, or the attack on freedom. But in Columbus Circle, the memorial was unintended, unplanned, unchoreographed, and it reminded us not of the humanity, but of the fear.