As soon as the train neared Manhattan, everyone rushed to the right side to see the skyline. We gasped and fell silent.
There it wasn't.
It was Sept. 14, 2001, three days after the 9/11 attacks and only a pillar of smoke remained over Lower Manhattan, a floating ghost where the World Trade Center once stood.
All my reporter's bravado vanished. More than 2,600 people died when two planes destroyed those emblems of New York, bringing this muscular, arrogant, bragging city, the city everyone loves to hate, to its knees. What might happen next?
On that Friday, the Portland Tribune sent photographer L.E. Baskow and me to New York. With the New York airports still closed, we flew to Philadelphia and boarded a train.
This was a big deal for the Trib. We'd been around for only seven months and knew this would make a splash. It made sense for us. More than 500 Oregonians had gone to New York to help with the recovery and we needed to tell their stories.
Upon arrival, we went first, as instructed, to police headquarters in Lower Manhattan for press passes. Sometime after 3 p.m. we joined a long line with media crews from around the world. Pretty soon taxis disgorged more news teams from the newly opened New York airports.
The line moved painfully slow. People left and returned with boxes of pizza, sharing slices. Eight hours later we made it to the head of the line and found one overworked clerk filling out forms on a manual typewriter, another laminating badges.
It was near midnight when L.E. and I walked out to dark and empty streets, that ghostly smoke above Ground Zero bright in the floodlights and surprisingly close. We started walking to see how close we could get, passing one police barricade after another. No one said anything, just glanced and nodded, so we kept walking and came to St. Paul's Chapel, the little 1766 church at Broadway and Fulton Street, a block from Ground Zero. The chapel was dark, its cemetery headstones covered in gray ash.
Down the block, we saw three- and four-story pieces of those distinctive World Trade Center panels sitting cockeyed in the street, lit up and surrounded by workers. That's when police spotted us and chased us away. But we were there. We saw it.
In the days ahead, we could tell how this city where I was born had changed. People actually looked into each other's eyes. Are you OK? How are your people? Exhaustion, fear, loss, disbelief.
All around the city, families and friends of the lost posted leaflets, thousands of them, most with a picture of a loved one. Have you seen her? Last seen on the 101st floor. Maybe she's just injured, wandering and lost. If you see her tell her to call home.
You knew they would never come home.
Spontaneous memorials appeared everywhere with candles, photos, notes and personal belongings, everyone gathered talking quietly. In Union Square, flight attendants put up a memorial to lost colleagues.
One night, L.E. crossed the Hudson River to New Jersey and scrambled out onto an abandoned pier for a photo of the Statue of Liberty silhouetted by the lights and smoke of Ground Zero. He took a stunning image that the Tribune turned into a poster, the proceeds going to charity.
We've all changed in the last 20 years. The replacement, One World Trade Center, will always remind us of what happened. The rest of America even started liking New York a little more. Maybe we were scared then but not anymore.
Don Hamilton is a public information officer for the Oregon Department of Transportation. He worked as a reporter for the Portland Tribune from 2001 to 2005.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this online column implied that The Oregonian did not send a reporter to New York City after the 9/11 attacks. If fact, staff writer Tom Detzel, part of a two-person team The Oregonian dispatched to the crash site outside Washington, D.C., did go to New York and reported from ground zero.
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