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Tamaño letra

That smell of wet ash and tiny particles of decayed flesh

The writer Antonio Muñoz Molina recalls how a day meant for sightseeing was transformed by the imperative need to document the horror caused when two planes were flown into the twin towers

One of the things I remember about those days is that I was walking around with the instinctive determination to record everything the way my eyes saw it, without any attempt at interpretation or opinion; I wanted to see, to hear, to smell, to isolate the feelings, to explain what I was seeing as if I were a camera, just like Christopher Isherwood in the opening lines of Goodbye to Berlin: "I am a camera." There were no commercial flights into the city. There were no EL PAÍS correspondents there at that particular moment. Elvira and I had arrived in New York just 10 days earlier with three of our children, to let her get some rest from the busy August she'd had in Spain writing a daily column. I was to start teaching at City University in early October. September was going to be the month of vacation we hadn't had that year. And because our children had never been here, we were going to don our tourist caps once more in order to show them around. Just one or two days earlier we'd taken the subway down to the World Trade Center. The kids had been really impressed by the fact that the station was inside the lobby of one of the towers, a great big concave space that echoed permanently with the busy steps of people going by, executives and tourists, delivery boys and office workers.

I'd been up there during my first trip to New York in 1990, with a group of Spanish writers that included Bernardo Atxaga and José María Guelbenzu. Together we'd ridden up to the observation deck on the top floor, sharing a camaraderie born out of amazement, looking north and taking in the jungle-like expanse of the city; to the west, the Hudson River; to the south, the mouth of the ocean, the horizon where it was barely possible to make out the pointy towers of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty through the mist. But on that very warm September day in 2001, it got too late for us to go up, or perhaps one of us adults simply felt too lazy and we put it off for another day. After all, we had an entire month ahead of us, and the towers would always be there, unchanging, much more attractive from a distance than up close, just as the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty would always be there, or the Colosseum in Rome and the Eiffel Tower in Paris - all those buildings located halfway between reality and a tourist's mirage, constituting visual fodder for postcards, souvenirs and kitsch memorabilia with fake gold plating and little blinking lights.

Imagination is fatalistic; it quickly gets used to that which has already happened: right now we are unable to properly recollect the bewilderment we felt at the realization that from one day to the next, the twin towers were no longer there - not even us, who were actually there and who in the course of these 10 years have so often answered the question of what it was like to be in New York on the morning of September 11, to go out on the street, to get as close as possible to the police line that was first set up on Houston Street, then a little further south on Canal Street, delimiting a portion of the city that became a ghost town as soon as darkness set in; when checkpoints only allowed through people wearing a police or a firefighter uniform, or individuals bearing ID that proved that they lived, or had lived, in the area.

The real scale of the horror remained veiled in secrecy. You could not go beyond a certain point, and for weeks the enormous pile of rubble that filled the site where those towers had once stood remained hidden behind tall screens made of plastic and canvas sheeting. There were no photographs of the dead or the wounded. The kind of visual pornography that a few heartless Spanish media outlets would indulge in after the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004 was not permitted in New York. Nor was there any room here for the unconscionable political wrangling at the victims' expense.

So from one day to the next, we were no longer tourists but special correspondents for EL PAÍS, and had to quickly file stories about what we saw, while adapting to a climate of uncertainty that was too absolute for me to have preserved a good memory of it. Memory is tricky because now we know what came after, just as memory plays tricks on us to make the outrageous seem natural. We had to notice everything and we had to overcome our fear of further atrocities. After a plane had crashed into one of the towers, a second aircraft had crossed the sky and sliced through the second tower in an inferno of flames. Just as we were adapting to the impossibility of seeing one tower collapse in a matter of seconds, the other one was crashing down too. Military planes were flying deafeningly low, projecting their precise silhouettes onto the streets and building fronts. But each new plane could well be the emissary of a fresh catastrophe, just like every wail of a siren might indicate a new attack. We were on an island connected to the outside world by a few bridges and tunnels. Suddenly, telephone lines were down. Perhaps at any moment now electricity and running water would be cut off. Nothing could possibly be less unlikely than that which had already happened. The radio was saying that an aircraft or a missile had crashed into the Pentagon, and that another plane could be on its way towards the White House. Our kids watched the TV set in amazement and ate their breakfast milk and cookies, looking far less scared than ourselves.

It was necessary to notice everything - to become a camera, an absolute witness. At the supermarket, people bought things methodically and in silence. What should be purchased in these circumstances? Bottles of water, sliced bread, frozen food, milk and cereal. But why not also light bulbs, candles, imperishable food items in case there was a power outage and the fridge stopped working ? who knew? Nobody knew. Not knowing led to a state of bewilderment rather than fear. We looked for plastic baskets to put things in, but there were none left. People carried the items they wanted in their hands. Without a plastic basket, the amount of things you can carry is very limited. Nobody spoke in the perfectly formed lines. All you heard was the keys of the cash registers and the beep of the laser code readers and the endless drone of the cashiers: "Next?"

Unlike the symbolic or the literary, reality is subduing because it is specific. On the morning of the attack on the World Trade Center, New York was not what we were seeing with our own eyes. Anybody could see the attack on their television screens in any part of the world. What we were seeing was a clean, serene sky - the wind was blowing the smoke east towards Brooklyn - and that square that forms at the crossroads of Broadway and Columbus Avenue at 66th St, where there is a subway entrance and an unfortunate bust of Leonard Bernstein surrounded by metal tables and chairs where people sit to catch some sunrays, eat a sandwich or talk on the phone. The subway entrance was open, but nobody was going in or coming out of it. The station is on the 1 line, the same one that went by the twin towers. There were no young musicians to be seen rehearsing through the glass windows of the Juilliard School. One could not perceive radical changes, just nuances of it: a little less traffic, more people walking up Broadway than usual for a midmorning, when they should have been in their offices. There were energetic-looking women wearing suits and running shoes, men in ties with their jackets slung over their shoulders, looking weary from the heat and the long trek. That was back in the far-off days when not everybody walked around with a cellphone glued to their ear. Somebody would stop at a corner phone booth, dial a number and get no reply. They pressed the receiver close with an astonished or panicked look on their faces.

We were puzzled to learn that normality and disaster can coexist simultaneously. At one end of the city, survivors were walking aimlessly across a desert of ash where smoke and dust blanketed everything in an apocalyptic night; yet a few kilometers uptown a waiter in a clean black coat wiped the tables of an outdoor restaurant while a homeless man talked and waved dementedly to himself, sitting all alone on a bench under a statue of Dante.

The next morning, heading south, a gauze of smoke and ash weakened the sunlight, giving it an orange hue. Around Union Square, Washington Square Park and the Village, many people were wearing face masks. Since there was no traffic, the multiplied sound of footsteps could be heard everywhere. From the far end of the streets where, just a day before, the twin towers had stood, there was just a single tower of dark smoke, much taller than the originals. Invisible particles of dust and smoke and ash made our throats tingle. Later we realized that the air we were breathing also contained volatilized particles of human bodies that nobody ever found. People went to and fro looking lost, as though unable to recognize everyday spots, which were suddenly different, as though everyone had become unhinged by the dislocation of our dreams. The day before, at 8.55am, a friend of ours had dropped off her two kids at school, just north of the towers, and had returned home to enjoy some time to herself on that still fresh morning. A few minutes later, as she sipped a cup of coffee and gazed lazily out the kitchen window, she suddenly saw the apocalypse framed in it, and ran out to the street to look for her children. In Brooklyn Heights, another friend was tending to the small garden in his terrace, and when he raised his eyes he saw a tower on fire and a plane heading straight for the other one, and felt that this could not possibly be true. An executive at a Spanish bank whom I met years later had just walked out of one of the towers, and when he looked up he saw a black sky crashing down upon him, and he started to run and cannot remember what he did for the next few minutes or how he managed to save his life.

Our state of bewilderment helped us to put on hold anything other than our sensory perception of things: the dirty filter of the light; the slight harshness of the air; the born-again looks on the faces of survivors as they walked out of St Vincent's Hospital; the unrelenting torment of the sirens, the forests of lit candles at dusk in Union Square and Washington Square and just about any street corner; the bouquets and the vases of flowers under the photographs of the missing; the small flags and the votive lamps; the dark deserted streets and the bluish blink of TV sets behind each and every window. And that smell that seemed like it would never go away, entrenched days later inside the subway stations closest to the catastrophe - that smell that, were we to perceive it again, would take us straight back to the exact atmosphere of that time: a smell of wet ash and infinitesimal particles of decayed flesh.