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Eyewitness Account of Temporary WTC Station

 

Hi: I enjoy your site and thought you'd be interested in reading an account of the first "public" PATH train ride my friend took. His name is Tony Borelli. He lives in Jersey City was a regular rider into Manhattan until being laid off from his job. He is a freelance writer and his first hand account of the first trip back to WTC worth reading.   Thanks and keep up the good  work...Larry Higgs  
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Hey, Tony Borelli here.

I just got back from the World Trade Center.

Today was the first day of service to the new temporary WTC station on our little PATH subway.

New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, other bigwigs and the press pool rode the first train, which was not open to the public. The train was essentially the same train that had been the last one to leave the WTC on 9/11.

I rode the next train in, supposedly the first one open to the public, as I had known I'd do for the last two years.

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I arrived for my ride around 2 p.m. at Grove Street station in Jersey City near my apartment, my usual PATH boarding point. A crowd of people waited with me for the train to pull in. Over our heads, the new track indicator sign had its "World Trade Center" listing uncovered and lit up for the first time. The Pathvision television screens announced "WORLD TRADE CENTER TRAIN LEFT JOURNAL SQUARE," then "WORLD TRADE CENTER TRAIN NEXT."

Looking down the tunnel, we saw the train approaching, making out first its headlights, then its two red route lights (indicating the Newark-World Trade Center line). Moments later, we could just make out the backlighted destination sign on the front of the train, reading "WTC." The crowd burst into cheers and applause as the train pulled in, taking pictures like crazy.

I bustled into the front door of the front car to get near the coveted
"railfan window" with a forward view. I was squashed in place, along with more press, my fellow train nerds, and others.

Our first stop was the Exchange Place station, the last stop in New Jersey, on the west bank of the Hudson River. The station had been closed after 9/11, then renovated to allow trains to switch directions. Until today, it had been the temporary last stop on the line from Newark. As we pulled in, we could see more camera flashes and about a hundred more people applauding on the platform. Most of them got on board.

Then it was into a tunnel under the Hudson. These low-lying tunnels had been catastrophically flooded on and after 9/11 by water washing back from the disaster site. Since then, on many mornings, I had stood on the platform at Grove Street and watched hard-hatted workmen trundle towards the flooded tunnels on work trains, emerging later with hopper cars full of wet stone, mud and other debris. Today, the Manhattan-bound tunnel looked clean and
modernized, with better lighting and (I think) some updated signal
equipment.

A few minutes later -- how quickly we forgot how short a trip it always was! -- we looked at each other, waiting for the once-familiar signs that we were nearing the World Trade Center: a long, fairly sharp curve in the track, and the wheel-squeal that always accompanied it.

But by the time they came, we were outdoors.

First we saw light, then suddenly we were in the Pit, on the floor of the Bathtub, the first uninvited guests in the footprints of the Twin Towers (well, except maybe for a few earlier looters).

The train crawled along the south edge of the Bathtub, then ran along the eastern side near Church Street and into the temporary station. I think all of this trackage is in about the same place as it was before 9/11. As we squealed around the Pit, we could see the Woolworth Building towering overhead in the afternoon sun. We also saw the usual huge variety of construction equipment, barricades, ramps, trucks, dirt, etc., that normally litters the WTC site. But this time we could see it at eye level, and up close.

We pulled into the temporary station, to more cheers from the crowds on the platform -- people who had come in to ride to Jersey.

The temporary station itself is mostly exposed metal, beams and concrete. Some walls are open to the Pit, with only hurricane fence covered with mesh or fabric panels partially blocking the view and the wind. The panels are covered with giant quotations about New York City.


Just as in the old station, we got off the train, then went up one level to a larger concourse, the one that used to be called the PATH Concourse. Here there is a Hudson News newsstand, just as there was before 9/11 (and seeing this newssstand was, strangely, one of the eeriest moments of the trip for me).

This is also the level that used to include a somewhat skeevy bar, the Commuters Cafe, where I often swigged a screwdriver or two while watching a couple innings of a Yankee game on my way home from work. A bank of elevators has now taken its place, if my spatial reckoning was correct.

You've probably seen photos and video of the Commuters Cafe, though you may not realize it. It's the place where 9/11 recovery workers found people's drinks and snack pretzels still sitting on the bar, lightly coated with the brownish-gray dust from the towers' collapse. The place was otherwise unharmed in the disaster. It was a favorite place for journalists and workers to visit during the "unbuilding" of the disaster site -- and also a favorite metaphor.

The place narrowly escaped the 1993 bombing as well: the crater apparently stopped just short of its doors. And it had an interesting early history, too. Supposedly, it was once located in Radio Row, the old commercial neighborhood that was demolished to make way for the World Trade Center. Many of the merchants in the neighborhood unsuccessfully banded together to oppose the demolition, and they used to hold some of their biggest strategy meetings and rallies in the Commuters Cafe. 

Anyway ...

On the PATH concourse, there were maybe 50 protesters, families and friends of victims who are upset that the new station and tracks encroach on the towers' footprints, where most of the dead were found -- or not found. Several held signs reading "Preserve Sacred Ground."

From the PATH concourse, I ascended a very long and very wide bank of escalators. Yes, these are basically the same escalators that were there before 9/11, though they have been fixed up considerably and look shiny and new, like everything else in the station. This was also a strange moment for me. I rode those escalators hundreds of times before 9/11.

The escalators brought me to the main concourse -- the level where nearly all the shopping was in the old WTC. Now it's pretty much empty, just a great big open space with exposed metal columns, and exits for the subways and the street. It seems to extend a little further east, that is, a little further under Church Street, than the old concourse, but I think that's because the stores are gone now. (Remember the Warner Brothers store, with the big Bugs Bunny and Daffy and Elmer statues in the display windows? That was right under Church Street.)

As I wandered the concourse, a familiar voice said, "How're ya doing?"

I turned to recognize the one person it was most appropriate for me to run into: one Willie Melia -- former bartender at the Commuters Cafe, who had served me many a drink in his day.

"I haven't worked at all since then," said Willie. I've run into Willie a
few times over the last two years, since he also lives in Jersey City. Last he told me, he was going to computer school.

Willie and I ducked into the tunnel to the N, R, W & Q subway lines, looking for the big, wonderful ceramic relief murals that used to adorn the side walls. Sadly, we couldn't find them, so I guess they must have been destroyed in the collapse or demolished later.

Then we checked out the entrance to the A, C, E, 2 & 3 lines to the
northeast. For about 20 or 30 feet, between the new floor of the new PATH station and that of the subway system, there's a stretch of the old floor from the old WTC, looking stained, cracked and worn. A marker points it out as a piece of history.

Climbing another flight of stairs brought us to street level opposite the Millennium hotel and St. Paul's Church, pretty much where I used to exit the WTC every weekday on my way to work. Another eerie moment.

The entrance/exit is sheltered by the large metal roof/canopy thing that you've probably seen in the news. Across its front edge there are big metal letters reading "World Trade Center PATH Station." It actually looks pretty grand, kind of like a concert stage. Behind it, you can still see the Pit, looking pretty much like it has for the last year or so, like a giant construction site, with the World Financial Center and its famous Winter Garden, newly repaired and reopened, standing in the background. The PATH station below really doesn't look like anything from the top, just concrete and metal walls. If you wait for the wheel-squeals, and look down into the Pit from the right vantage points, you can make out the trains snaking along the bottom as they enter and leave the station.

And of course, everything's quite open and well lit by the sun these days. It's way too sunny, and not nearly claustrophobic enough.

Anyway, Willie went off to say hello to his buddy, the doorman at the hotel, and I headed back home. But first I took a moment to stand there on Church Street and watch a few airplanes and a few wispy clouds drift by, across a beautiful blue New York autumn sky.

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