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Reporter's notebook: A visit to Ground Zero

By Alex Walker
CNN New York Bureau

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Light glints off shiny machinery. The cranes and digging equipment gleam in sunlight undiffused by cloud cover in an azure autumn sky. It is a beautiful fall day in Manhattan, even at Ground Zero.

The sounds are not unlike those of a construction site -- the loud, sonorous tones of trucks unloading, the shouts of workmen, and the incessant beep-beep-beeps of heavy equipment backing up.

Two policemen chat as one squints at a sports event on the tiny 2-inch screen of his pocket television. He complains about the static. The scene is ironic: The largest broadcast antenna in the city was atop the World Trade Center.

It is comfortable weather. The warm sun is compromised only by a slight chill in the wind whipping down narrow streets in the financial district.

But the wind carries an emotional chill when a gust blows the acrid smell of smoke into the faces of passersby. Nearly two months later, the odor is still there. It smells like an electrical fire.

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For some, that is the hint of reality: This is no construction site.

From the streets east of Ground Zero, it is difficult to see the devastation. Police barricades and large blue particle boards obstruct the views. Crowds are kept behind chain link fences even farther back. Cranes are visible, as are American flags flapping atop surrounding buildings, but the actual site is somewhat mercifully hidden.

At almost any time during the day throngs of people jam the streets around Ground Zero. On the day I visited, many were crying and holding hands. Visitors grasped the chain link fences and stared blankly toward the site. Some were taking photographs.

The mood was very somber, punctuated distastefully by vendors hawking American flag pins and souvenir pictures of the twin towers. Even so, the items were snapped up by the visitors.

Faded signs and bouquets of wilted flowers straddle fences and barricades. "Ottawa will always remember" and "Prayers from the children of North Carolina" are among the thousands of handwritten condolences.

Yet there are still remnants of the life that preceded what we now call 9/11.

On one kiosk, obscured by dust and ash, five posters promote the "Fifth Annual Dining Around Downtown" fair for which 30 area restaurants planned an afternoon of culinary delight on World Trade Plaza on Wednesday, September 12 (rain date, September 13).

On Liberty Street, just two blocks east of Ground Zero, a dust-covered bicycle is locked to a parking meter. Its chain looks as if it has rusted to the point of immobility, and a bouquet of flowers, long wilted, is stuck in the rear wheel well.

Emotions are still raw. Missing person signs are stapled to utility poles, as they were in the weeks following the attacks. There are fewer of them now, even though nearly 4,000 people are still officially missing.

The picture of Carmen A. Rivera, 33, stares at passersby from a pole on Broadway. According to the flyer, she is 5 feet 4 inches tall with green eyes. She was last seen on the 78th Floor of Tower 2.

The scene a few blocks south of Ground Zero is more painful to take than from the east side. As visitors turn north on Washington Street to face the site, no barricades block the view. Just two blocks ahead is the shell of one of the towers. Here, police ask people not to snap photographs.

The crowds fall eerily quiet. The view is gut-wrenching. Arched cathedral-like window frames, not unlike those of nearby Trinity Church, rise from what were the bottom floors of the tower. They are gray with ashes. The buildings around the site are also devastated.

It looks as if a meteor landed here in a massive explosion, leaving nothing but a blackened crater. Many onlookers start to weep.

At construction sites all over the city, cranes and the sounds of workmen typically signify what is to come, a landmark, a reminder of an intersection or a part of town.

At Ground Zero, it is painfully apparent that this is not what will be.

It is what was.

-- Alex Walker is a producer for CNN on assignment in New York.


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