WORLD TRADE CENTER, next and last stop." As if summoned to life by the conductor's chant, the train lurches deeper into the darkness. It creaks and cries as it slinks beneath the Hudson River, lured ever forward by the promising green lights that disrupt the underworld dusk. Here, on the PATH train, unnatural light feels natural.
A few dozen yards from the last stop, though, the silvery train emerges into the invasive sunlight that shines upon ground zero. It snakes across the space where the twin towers once stood to provide a close-up view of men in white construction helmets, of steel girders on the ground, of massive spools of wire. Aboard that train, you feel the shiver of inappropriate intimacy, of psychic trespass.
It doesn't matter whether you take that ride once or 1,000 times, you never quite get used to it. So says the conductor.
"That's because I never saw daylight before," he says.
Six times a day, five days a week, Eugene Rogers is the conductor on one of the PATH trains wending their way to the renovated World Trade Center station. And just about every time, he finds himself gazing in silence at the ground zero panorama, until the train comes to a stop with an exhalation like a sigh.
"I knew so many people over so many years," he says. "My riders."
Mr. Rogers, 58, has been with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for his entire adult life, save for a two-year hitch in the Army that included three months in Vietnam. He started as a token clerk, and then moved up to conductor just as the finishing touches were being put on the trade center.
For more than 20 years of weekday mornings now, he has worked exclusively on the Newark-to-Trade Center line. That is by choice: he's the kind of man who thinks about the Hudson River when he's under it, and he liked how the Newark stretch of the trip stays above ground. He also wanted a schedule that would allow him to get to know his passengers.
"That's what makes my day go fast," he says. "I'm a sociable train."
On that Tuesday morning, around 9, the trainmaster back in Journal Square called him on his walkie-talkie. Evacuate your train at Exchange Place station, he recalls the boss saying. Pick up anyone at the trade center stop and get out. There's been an explosion of some kind.
Mr. Rogers and the train's engineer, Noel Roman, did as they were told. They picked up a maintenance man, a couple of PATH employees and a homeless man that Mr. Rogers roused from a bench. Theirs, he says, was the last PATH train to leave the station before the towers fell.
Who knows how many of his riders died that day. Riders who would nod to him, call him by name, wish him a good day. Whenever photographs of the victims appeared in print, he would look closely at their features and, occasionally, feel the pang of loss.
Mr. Rogers worked for two years as a conductor on the trains going to West 33rd Street, while construction crews tried to reconnect the PATH line to lower Manhattan. When his superior called to ask whether he would read some of the victims' names at the memorial service marking the first anniversary, he said that he would be honored.
"I read 14 names," he says. "I read in the P's."
SIX months ago, the PATH trains finally returned to the World Trade Center station - or, rather, an approximation of that station. Where there had been shops and bustle all cast in the false light beneath the towers, there is now an eerie grayness - in the concrete, in the escalators, in the exposed steel, in the stray pigeons pecking about.
And there is daylight.
Sometimes, especially after rush hour, Mr. Rogers has a few minutes until the train returns to Newark, so he stands on the barren platform, staring at the absence in daylight. Everything is so strange, he says, that he has yet to pinpoint where the conductors' locker room used to be.
Most of all, he says, he thinks about seats unfilled on his sociable train.
A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Rogers noticed a passenger staring at him. After a while, the man broke into a smile and said, "Gene." The man went on to explain that it was his first trip back to the trade center station since the collapse, and that he had remembered the conductor's name because it was the same as his own.
The man stood to shake the conductor's hand. Then the two Genes embraced, as another PATH train groaned toward daylight.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company