My Rollerblades squeaked as I sprinted through yet another set of red lights. I had come five miles but still had two more to go. Over my back hung a bag containing a hefty first aid kit, my old 8mm camera, and a small bottle of Chanel No. 5.
I quickly glanced at the sidewalks filled with people gathered around radios and television sets dragged outside from corner stores, and I picked up speed. As I got closer to my destination, I had to battle my way through crowds of people streaming in the opposite direction. Although they walked in an orderly, quiet fashion, their hair and clothes were covered in white soot, and they held on to one another like invalids. They looked like the victims of the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima, whose black-and-white photos Id seen in books. There was no color anywhere. People all seemed to be holding cellphones to their ears but none of them were speaking. They were in shock. I turned onto the cobblestone streets, which were less crowded though more difficult to navigate on skates, and continued to make my way to the World Trade Center. Soon, I found myself alone in a blizzard of ash and smoke that burned my eyes and throat.
Inside the cloud, I found a Latino man in his late forties dressed in an expensive blue business suit, lying unconscious on the ground. I loosened his Gucci tie and tilted his chin back to start giving him CPR, all the while calling out into the fog for help. What felt like hours later but was probably only minutes, two EMS workers ran over and carried him away.
Deeper into the smoke, I saw an arm elegantly pointing out of the rubble toward me. I began ripping at the chunks of cement, reaching in to yank the person free. When I pulled on it, only the arm came with methere wasnt a body attached. I screamed in horror and threw it on the ground. When I looked down at it, I saw a ring with small sapphires and diamonds on the delicate wedding finger.
Still wobbling on my skates, I looked at my worst nightmare. A million pieces of paper danced around in the air currents like oversized confetti. I caught one and read someones private bank statement, then tucked it in my backpack. The air smelled of burned plastic. There was almost no sound except for tiny beeping noises coming from underneath the rubble at regular intervals and an occasional thud on the ground. I later found out that the thuds were the sounds of people who had jumped from the skyscraper crashing to earth, and the beeps were the sounds of the alarms embedded in the uniforms of the recently buried firemen. My heart was beating louder than rain, yet I felt compelled to push farther into the darkness.
It was 10:27 a.m. on September 11, 2001, and something even bigger was about to happen.
I felt the ground moving beneath me and looked up to see the World Trade Centers nearby north tower tumbling toward me like a stack of cards. I sprinted away, frantically attempting to outskate the avalanche that was trying to eat me alive, but then gave up and dove under a parked UPS truck.
Twenty bucket-loads of prayers later, I crawled out into the now even denser fog of sooty darkness. I saw pieces of bodies scattered about like roadkill and collected them into a pile. I counted five legs, three arms, two torsos, and half a head. All the other stuff was unrecognizable. Inside a computer monitor I saw someones charred skull.
I found some trash bags in a destroyed shop nearby. Even though I had worked for eight years as a nurses aide in my mothers hospital when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I had always been squeamish at the sight of blood. I felt queasy as I stuffed the torn flesh into the bags. My thoughts froze and my nose wrinkled up as I readied myself to perform the task at hand.
Then I remembered what Id placed in my bag at the last minute, and took out my precious bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume. I dabbed a little bit under my nose to mask the smell of burned bodies, and it worked. I continued shuffling around like an astronaut on my first moon landing, looking for more signs of life.
Excerpted from The Third Wave by Alison Thompson. Copyright © 2011 by Alison Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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