Atlantic Monthly July-August 2002 page 64

Return Home

[Excerpt 1] .... nearby office towers, where they lodged. Ihe phone system, the fiber-optic network and the electric power grid were knocked out. Ambulances, cars, and fire trucks were smashed flat by falling debris, and some were hammered five floors down from the street into the insane turmoil erupting inside the World Trade Center's immense "bathtub": a ten-acre foundation hole, seventy feet deep, that suffered unimaginable violence as it absorbed the brunt of each tower's collapse.

The energy released within that wild, inaccessible core lit fires that cooked the ruins for months afterward. Outside of each tower's footprint, and still within the foundation hole, it demolished most of the six-story subterranean structure-consisting largely of parking garages that were either pulverized or badly broken and left to hang.

Deep underground it also destroyed part of the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) commuter line-a railroad from New Jersey that, having passed in a single-track tube through the watery muck of the river's bottom, emerged into the foundation hole and traveled to a station on the far side before looping back to a parallel tube and returning under the river to New Jersey.

The PATH tubes were century-old cast-iron structures, probably brittle in places, and now at immediate risk of failure. If either of them broke catastrophically, the Hudson River would flood into the foundation hole, filling it at high tide to a level just five feet below the street, and drowning unknown numbers of trapped survivors. Moreover, on the far side of the river a wall of water would flood the Jersey City station, and from there, via connecting rail links, would circle uncontrollably back into Manhattan, rush through the passages beneath Greenwich Village, and take out the West Side subways from the southern tip of the island nearly to Central Park.

 Vulnerability to sequential flooding was a known weakness of the PATH system, and it had been highlighted in a report circulated discreetly l among government officials after the earlier World Trade  Center attack: the parking garage bombing of February 26, 1993. But maybe because such flooding was also something of an apocalyptic vision and therefore some how unreal, no defenses were erected against it. Of course now it It was too late. And immediately as the Twin Towers collapsed,  it became obvious mat even in America apocalypses could come to pass.

[Excerpt 2] But the most popular place down there was always the two-story PATH station. which stretched along the eastern wall at the deepest levels of the foundation hole and was the most public of the World Trade Center spaces that remained ( at least partially) intact. Although it had suffered heavily, and continued to collapse throughout the fall and winter, it was considered to be relatively safe.

In the last days of September, Peter Rinaldi pioneered the early route in: down the North Projection to the PATH tube and then by rubber raft along the heavily flooded tracks, a River Styx flowing deep under the ruins of Building Six. It was Rinaldi's first underground exploration. Richard Garlock went along, as did two other young engineers, who worked for the famous foundation firm Mueser Rutledge and played important roles at the site --- a huge and garrulous man of a Ecuadorian origin named Pablo Lopez, who had attended Manhattan College, in the Bronx, on scholarship and still lived in the poor Hispanic neighborhood where he was raised; and his wry, cerebral partner, an ex-carpenter and Columbia graduate named Andrew Pontecorvo, who was small by comparison and did some tough duty crawling into tight spaces. They were accompanied by a typical phalanx  of firemen and cops.

They had three rafts, two of which were leaking air and which on a couple of occasions had to be reinflated. The men pushed and paddled the rafts for forty minutes up the railway, eventually through widening spaces as the tracks branched into the PATH station. The water came up almost to the level of the station platforms, which remained dry. The men disembarked, grounded the rafts, and began to explore.

Rinaldi was the one most familiar with the place, but he moved through it as if in a dream, noticing the complete silence and the little clouds of dust that rose in slow motion with every step he took. The darkness was so deep that it seemed to defeat his flashlight beam. A ghostly train stood there in an image of abandonment-the first cars crushed under heavy slabs, the remaining ones intact but empty, with their doors ajar. 

Rinaldi knew already that no one had been inside on September 11 -- the train had been sitting idle in the station all morning, and it had simply remained. Two other trains, full of passengers, had left New Jersey and were bound for New York when word of the first attack came. In one of the more elegant moves of the morning they did not stop but with typical Port Authority aplomb continued to roll smoothly through the Trade Center underground and, without rushing, slipped back beneath the Hudson to safety.

Rinaldi had the wit to appreciate that sort of thing, but he wasn't in the mood for it now. Others on the team had started into the technical work of the survey -- Garlock with  his close-up inspections, Lopez and Pontecorvo with more distant views that ultimately, after many more surveys, when a new permanent one was built. But that. of course, was the future, and for now Rinaldi was thinking more about the past.

He climbed a dormant escalator to the station's upper level, and for old times' sake continued to take in the sights: the melted plastic signs, the pay phones on pedestals, the turnstiles, the candy kiosk still offering sweets, and then the part of the station that became a photographed favorite -- the prominent Commuter Bar, with its bottles of booze, its racks of inverted glasses overhead, its open Heinekens on the counter: 

I could never really appreciate that place, which to me suggested the style in which too many people here must have lived-stacked in their fluorescent-lit towers, removed from the city outside, and wanting to drink in the morning. Rinaldi himself was not much of a drinker, though he liked a good Chianti with dinner. But during another survey of the PATH station, when I mentioned my dislike of the Commuter Bar scene, he grew upset and said he disagreed,  maybe because he still thought of all these ruins in some way as his home.

Return Home