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Sunday, 23 September, 2001, 14:08 GMT 15:08 UK
Ghastliness of Ground Zero
The disaster site of the World Trade Center
The devastation at Ground Zero is hard to grasp
As BBC NI's Spotlight team put together a special report on Irish Americans caught up in the World Trade Center devastation, producer Marie Irvine describes the atmosphere at Ground Zero.

I had been in New York for three days before I visited Ground Zero but perhaps it is not fully possible to prepare yourself for what it is like there.

To gain the closest access to the site for our filming purposes we decided to take a subway train from Grand Central Station to the World Trade Center site.

We would be travelling under the ground coming up on the street only a few blocks away from the disaster area.

Muffled conversation

Office Worker, New York
Many office workers keep their masks on all the time
As we drew close to our exit point at Bowling Alley in the now grey heart of downtown Manhattan, the atmosphere grew somehow different.

Two women got on board at the last open station before the WTC. They were in their working clothes but wore the familiar white felt masks around their faces.

They carried on a muffled conversation across the aisle of the quiet carriage through the masks rather than push them up to talk.

We shot looks at each other; they made us feel exposed but we didn't know what to.

Deserted platforms

As we reached Fulton Street Station, the train slowed but didn't stop.

Rescue worker dwarfed by rubble
A silhouetted firefighter pauses in the rubble
It was long enough though to take in the glimpses of a gang of New York firefighters swarming about the deserted platforms.

The silver on their reflective jackets caught the light in flashes as they carried out their tasks among the cables.

We exchanged glances and talked in lowered tones about what kind of sight we might expect to greet us up top.

As we did emerge, the faint smell which had accompanied the train in the last five minutes became more pronounced.

It was an acrid, chemical kind of odour, not overwhelming nine days after the attacks but distinct all the same.

'Gotham City'

The sky was white and heavy with rain.

As we trudged in the direction of the office workers who had filed off the train ahead of us the only colour was provided by the various uniforms of the policemen and marines.

Fire-fighter in WTC rubble
A fire-fighter calls for 10 more rescue workers
They stood on every junction and the long black raincoats of the NYPD officers seemed to add a 1940's touch to a scene that felt and looked like Gotham City.

As the rain pelted down we reached the dead zone, the heart of Ground Zero.

We were about a hundred yards from the edge of the wreckage that was visible through a gap in the tall, tall buildings on either side.

A faint plume of white smoke merged with the rain-filled sky. Ragged shards of metal punctuated a hellish landscape that was 40 shades of grey.

It was impossible to forget that this is a mass grave yet difficult to comprehend the enormity of the numbers of lives lost here.

Ground Zero, Downtown Manhattan
National guard troops on duty in the war zone that is Ground Zero
A woman ahead of me talked defiantly of how she would refuse to go back to work in the office block to the left of us.

"No way am I going in there," she protested to her companion.

"Uh, uh, aint nobody can tell me that building's safe."

The building she spoke of had clearly once sparkled with dark shaded glass.

The whiteout of the week before was now giving way to windows streaked with a film of streaky dusty grey paste.

Not even Walter Kronkite is getting over onto this side of the road

NYPD officer

We set up in nightmarish filming conditions on the sidewalk to record a piece to camera.

Politely we asked if we could move to the police side of the cordon to film for a minute or two.

"I tell ya," said the officer, "not even Walter Kronkite is getting over onto this side of the road."

It had been 16 years since my only other fleeting visit to New York.

I could never have dreamed I would be back under these circumstances.

And you can watch the report of the Spotlight team on BBC1 Northern Ireland on 25 September at 2235 BST.

Links to more Northern Ireland stories are at the foot of the page.

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