Illustration by Caty Bartholomew
I was on air in the Clare FM studios in Ennis when it happened. The discussion on the current affairs show was about coping with bereavement when the newsroom advised me on the headphones that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York.

We switched on the mute TV screen in the studio in time to watch what might have been a tragic accident evolving into an atrocity in apparent slow-mo over New York.

Tears began running down the cheeks of the bereavement counselor. She had been dealing with bereavement coping for families minutes before. Now she was watching mass bereavement being inflicted on one of the world's greatest cities.
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I remember saying there had to be a major Irish consequence of the horror we were watching because of the ethnic percentages of New York's population.

A few raw months later the progressive little radio station in Clare sent me with a microphone to Ground Zero. The atmosphere was still electricated and heavy with residual shock and horror.

Incredible that it is a decade ago. It still feels like the dreadful day before yesterday.

Is it not strange the things you remember from scenes like that? Do ye know what I remember strongest? The timber hoardings around the wooden stairway reaching up to the viewing area rose up above one corner of a little city cemetery.

Somebody told me it was a Protestant cemetery. It had old grey headstones rather than modern marble stones.

There were a few stubby surviving shrubs and bushes between them. And in between those shrubs and stones there flitted again small hardy city sparrows and finches! Survivors.

I stood on the stairs and heard their resilient tiny songsounds against the background of light traffic up and down Fulton Street. It was life on the sidelines of death.

They flitted and fluttered between the silent stones of those old New Yorkers who had died and been buried decently and honorably in their time and season only a few yards away from the gaping craters where thousands had died and been pulverized horrifically long before their time and season.

That tiny volume of birdsong is what I remember strongest. That and the poignant pleading photos tacked to the hoardings around tragedy.

They were still bright and young and somehow alive, those who are now granite names around the remembrance ponds. They were black and white and Latino, and so many of them were beautiful and handsome and wearing the broad smiles of happy times.
And there were so many of them. So terribly many.

I was a working hack on the day. Life goes on and there was a living to be earned.
In such circumstances a professional dissociation is necessary. I've seen many horrors in my time as a journalist but nothing on this vast scale. It was difficult to hold one's composure but I just about managed.

I had the mike in my hand and the team began recording. I took no notes. I just verbally registered what I was seeing and hearing and feeling for the next seven or eight minutes without stopping at all lest I might not be able to continue. It was like that.

There were scores of people on the viewing platform. Many were comforting each other amidst hugs and silent tears, but there was one middle aged, olive skinned mother standing alone and weeping loudly.

Ever and anon she would slap the outsides of her hips with clenched fists. I've rarely witnessed such public pain.

Away far below the searchers in their yellow safety helmets were swarming like ants over the bleeding grey face of Ground Zero. There were a lot of them and they were constantly placing pieces of debris on a conveyor belt.

Skulls? Bones? Body parts? One did not know what the belt was ferrying away from the scene.

There was the pungent stench of fish from some nearby fish market and that was surreally apt for the dreadful place and time. Already, on one of the hoardings, there was a dull copper plate profile honoring all the firefighters and police and first responders who had died in the bedlam. And the mother wept on and on.

I clutched my microphone and I said all I had to say. I emptied my head and my mouth of all I was seeing and hearing and feeling. The team recorded it all. There were silent policemen standing around. They were standing stiffly to attention for the most part.

Many who climbed the wooden stairs shook hands with them or simply patted them on the shoulders en passant with shared silent sympathy for their losses.
I only recall a few of things I said in those minutes. One was about those little birds down below and all the cars still parked in Fulton Street with their windscreens covered in gray dust as they waited for drivers that would never return.

And the smell of fish. And the way the tall skyscrapers on the edge of Ground Zero, towering over all, resembled tall dignified nuns standing at the graveside of two of their own as a mother wept and tears fell.

And men in yellow helmets worked like farmers tilling soil among pulverized bone splinters and spaces once filled by lost souls and spirits.

And then I had nothing left to say and they switched off the recording machine.
There was a silent policeman standing close to me all the time. He had an Irish face on him. When I concluded he reached out his big hand and shook mine so powerfully that it hurt a bit.

There were tears in his eyes and there were tears in mine too when it was over. The policeman did not speak at all. He just shook his head sorrowfully up and down. On the way back down the stairs I stopped and looked into the old cemetery. The small birds of resurrection were singing away among the tombstones.
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