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By Martin Wolk
msnbc.com

After I escaped from the flaming wreckage of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, I spent the next seven days heading north and west, seeking out friends and family as I made my way slowly back home to Seattle.

I was in the grand ballroom of the Marriott World Trade Center, covering a conference of leading business economists, when the first plane hit some 80 stories above us. The chandeliers tinkled, the lights dimmed and there was an enormous bang. We raced into the lobby and saw debris raining down, but still had no idea what had happened. Within five minutes we were ushered out the south exit and it was then that we could see Tower One in flames.

Three hours later I had made my way north to my brother's office in Greenwich Village, where I was able to file one of the first eyewitness accounts of the tragedy.

Telephone service was unreliable, and I could not reach my office in Redmond, Wash., but I was able to reach my mother in Cleveland. She was able to call my editor on a second line, and held the telephones together while I dictated my story.

For the rest of the day I wandered the streets of Greenwich Village, eerily emptied of traffic other than emergency vehicles racing across the city. Thousands of pedestrians streamed south through the empty streets, quiet and stunned, trying to get a better look at the incredible site of a smoking hole in the sky where the twin towers once had stood. At St. Vincent's Hospital, dozens of gurneys and chairs were lined up waiting for casualties, but many doctors finally were sent home for the evening after it became apparent that few survivors would be arriving.

On the Upper West Side, stores were closed and streets were deserted, but bars and restaurants were doing a brisk business, filled with surprisingly boisterous crowds. New Yorkers are survivors, and we felt an irresistible urge to be out among people, sharing our stories.
The next morning, I awoke at 4:30 a.m., sobbing as I tried to absorb the magnitude of what had occurred. Many suffered far worse than I did. I escaped quickly from the ground floor of a hotel attached to Tower One, and others saw much more of the horror. I cannot imagine what rescue workers will go through in the months and years to come, nor the grief of those who lost loved ones and co-workers.

But in the immediate aftermath none of that mitigated the grievous sense of loss I felt for a city I love, and for a way of life that seemed to be forever changed.

I felt like a piece of my heart had been ripped out. In the days that followed, the tears came often, and with little warning.

As I walked along the Hudson River in the early morning sunlight, gazing at the ghostly pall of smoke that stretched across the southern horizon, I formed my plan to get out of Manhattan. I felt a brief pang of guilt that I was shirking my journalistic duty to stay and report on the aftermath of the attacks, but it passed quickly. My heart and my gut were telling me to go home. What follows is a scrapbook of impressions from my weeklong journey by car and train across the country.

PENN STATION, N.Y., Sept. 12 — Even in the best of times, Penn Station is hardly the most welcoming place in the city, with its low ceilings, confusing maze of narrow escalators and lack of centralized information. That day was more confusing than most, despite the reassuring presence of police every several hundred yards. Business people wearing yesterday's clothing thronged onto commuter trains and finally headed home after spending the night in the city. Out-of-towners tried to reunite with friends and patch together shattered vacation plans. Uniformed Amtrak representatives were besieged by people trying to figure out how to book travel to Boston, Washington and California.

New Jersey Transit trains were free all day, and I hopped on the Midtown Direct, heading west. As we passed through the swamplands of northern New Jersey, I got another glimpse of Manhattan burning in the background. On the seat next to me, a woman murmured into her cell phone, sobbing quietly.

MAPLEWOOD, N.J., Sept. 13 — From outward appearances, this bedroom community 18 miles from ground zero seemed little changed by the disaster still unfolding. The shady tree-lined streets and the wood-sided homes with front porches were a comforting vision, like some New England town in the 1930s.

But just 46 minutes by train from the World Trade Center, this was a community in mourning. Everybody here knew somebody who worked in the twin towers, and most people knew someone who was among the thousands of missing and presumed dead. My dear childhood friend Laurie, whom I came to visit, was no exception. On Sept. 20 she attended a memorial service for Douglas Cherry, 38, an insurance executive who worked on the 104th floor of Tower Two. His remains were discovered outside the tower and tentatively identified, leading some family members to speculate he had made it out and perhaps was killed by falling debris while trying to help someone else. The oldest of his three children, an 8-year-old girl, spoke at her father's memorial service.

Martin Wolk
Messages line a small wall that overlooks the New Jersey countryside and the still-smoldering World Trade Center site.
At nearby South Mountain Reservation, on a ridge overlooking the smoldering rubble of Lower Manhattan, a deeply moving memorial was taking shape. Somebody had left a ream of white paper and a roll of blue painter's masking tape, and dozens of people had taken up the invitation to pen their thoughts. About 100 letters and drawings in several languages had been taped to the low stone wall, expressing horror, grief and the hope that violence would not be met by violence. "A hole in the skyline. A hole in our hearts. Will we ever feel whole again?" said one. A small platoon of police officers from various departments bicycled up to the ridge and stopped to reflect on the scene. One officer knelt in prayer as others removed their helmets and bowed their heads.

HARRISBURG, Pa., Sept. 13 — Driving a rented Ford Taurus, I hit the highway by midafternoon. After a serendipitous wrong turn, I decided to drive through southern Pennsylvania, thinking vaguely of Gettysburg and the Civil War, with its immense destruction of life on American soil. A few hours later, I stopped for the night in Harrisburg and spent time staring at the dramatic dome of the Capitol, topped with the gilded bronze figure known as "Commonwealth," her right arm outstretched in mercy, her left arm grasping a staff of justice. A golden shaft of sunlight illuminated the sky as the sun slipped behind the black cloud of a rising thunderhead, painting the cloud's edges with a fiery glow.

At Fisaga, a wildly popular new bar and restaurant a few blocks away, a noisy crowd of smartly dressed professionals spilled out onto the sidewalk, sucking down margaritas and beer. Television sets showed continuous news coverage from four networks, and closed captioning made it easy to follow the still-developing story.  "We're all depressed — we all have PTSD," said Barbie Hartman, a 37-year-old divorced mother of two. "My nerves are shaken to the core." With the nearby presence of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, the state Capitol and several military bases, Hartman said she briefly considered fleeing the area, but now was  just hoping things will somehow be OK. "After all," she said, "it's the United States of America."

SHANKSVILLE, Pa., Sept. 14 -- By the time I got to site where United Flight 93 plunged into the ground in rural Pennsylvania, media trucks had been camped nearby for 72 hours, and the only suspense left was when the cockpit voice recorder would be found. "We'll hear it first on CNN," griped one cameraman good-naturedly. (The "black box" was found a few hours after I left.)

Martin Wolk
A woman kneels at a memorial for crash victims in Shanksville, Pa.
State Attorney General Mike Fisher came by, wearing a ridiculously loud American flag tie, and strained to make an official connection to the tragedy. As the defender of Pennsylvania's consumers, he warned against "profiteers" overcharging for flags and gasoline. "Merchants should know that people will remember who tried to gouge them in a time of national emergency," he declared.

With the crash site safely out of view around a bend in an old coal mining road, the scene invited reflection on the heroism of passengers and crew who apparently overcame the hijackers and averted further disaster, crashing the plane in a remote area hundreds of yards from the nearest home. Sen. Arlen Specter had been to the site earlier in the day, saying he planned to recommend the Presidential Medal of Freedom for passengers who exhibited bravery aboard the flight.

Every so often, somebody made it through the mile-long gantlet of state troopers to drop flowers on a makeshift memorial. "We just wanted to express our gratitude," said Roberta Sawyer, who was staying with her mother nearby while she figured out how to get home to Houston. "These people were heroes."

CLEVELAND, Sept. 15 — Beachwood Place, an upscale shopping mall a few miles from where I was born and raised, was jammed with shoppers despite a sign at Nieman Marcus that declared "WE GRIEVE" in 4-foot-high letters. With major sporting events still on hold, Clevelanders seemed ready for diversion after five days of non-stop television coverage, and consumer confidence did not seem to be an issue. My parents, needless to say, were glad to see me, if a bit curious about the circuitous route I had taken through southern Pennsylvania. Nobody complained about having to get up at 4 a.m. to take me to the train station.

ABOARD THE LAKE SHORE LIMITED, Sept. 16 — Dick Atwood helped me put things in perspective as he rode toward his home in Grand Junction, Colo., after a vacation in Maine that lasted a few days longer than planned.

Drafted to serve in World War II, Atwood, 82, stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day as a member of the 453rd Amphibious Truck Outfit. "The greatest generation," said his wife of 62 years, Hazel, patting his arm fondly.

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For 10 long, terrible days, Atwood and his comrades fought to hold their position. "We saw guys get blown up," Atwood said. "There were no such things as foxholes."

But that was not the worst of it. Nine months later, Atwood was one of the first American troops to enter newly liberated Buchenwald, the infamous German concentration camp. "We could not believe what we were seeing," he said. "Bodies stacked up everywhere. Lampshades made of human skin -- you could see the tattoos." Gen. George Patton himself ordered the troops to take pictures, Atwood said, "because otherwise nobody would believe us." For 55 years, Atwood has carried in his wallet two yellowing photos. The images are tiny, scarcely bigger than a quarter, but unmistakable: Piles of skeletal bodies, faces frozen in the grimace of death.

Atwood, who looks a decade younger than his years, has seen the worst our era has to offer, and yet it has been a "good life," he said. "I have my gulp of scotch at 3 o'clock every day while my wife has her tea. And wine with dinner every night."

Yet he worries about the meaning of this month's terror attack, and the impact it will have on his children and grandchildren.

"What I went through and spoke about pales in comparison to what happened Sept. 11," he wrote me in an e-mail after he got home. "In my generation we KNEW who the enemy was, knew what we had to do. (We) went through our own personal hell but accomplished the job, went home, rejoined our families, returned to job, school, raised kids and got on with our lives. This event that you now have to face is unspeakable. It is a faceless enemy which has no boundaries."

ABOARD THE EMPIRE BUILDER — As we departed the station in Chicago for the scheduled 46-hour journey across the American heartland, there was a buzz of excitement. Despite the awful circumstances, this was a great adventure for the hundreds of people who have rarely, if ever, traveled on an overnight train before. Most people on board probably would have flown had they been able, but everyone seemed to look forward to the spectacular scenery, if not the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements in coach.

Martin Wolk
Passengers watch the North Dakota landscape roll by while riding the train.
Linda Anderson-Carnahan, 42, a Seattle-based scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, booked three flights after Tuesday's attacks in an effort to get home from a business trip to Washington. All were canceled.

"So we just got on Amtrak," she said. "People in the office were second-guessing us, but for us it was the certainty. We were moving slowly, but we were moving west, and I felt much better because of the certainty."

Also on board was Mike Smith, 56, a retired Army colonel whose whole life revolves around flight. Last year he traveled 40,000 miles on United, and more in his own private plane, commuting between homes in Wenatchee, Wash., and Daly City, Calif., near San Francisco International Airport. Smith's wife Michele, a United flight attendant, often works Flight 93 but had been off work recuperating from a wrist injury. She knew two of the crew members killed in the crash.

Smith flew Chinook helicopters in Vietnam at the height of the war there, and he sees unsettling parallels with the current situation. "The military doesn't seem to have any particular goal or objective," he said. "And it's going to escalate. As soon as we strike, they're going to do more." Still, he said he was encouraged by the initial response of the Bush administration, and particularly by the team of experienced professionals around the president.

Lorraine Spotted Eagle, 18, a hotel housekeeper, boarded the train in Grand Forks, N.D., heading home to collect her 23-month-old daughter in Montana. In the aftermath of the attack, the young woman no longer feels comfortable being separated from her daughter, who was being cared for by her grandparents on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. She planned to bring her back to Grand Forks along with one her girlfriends to help provide child care.

"It's time to be around your loved ones, because you never know what will happen," she said. Spotted Eagle was changing sheets at the Grand Forks Holiday Inn when she first heard of the attack on Sept. 11, and she and other housekeepers  spent the next hours in a guest room, huddled around a TV, not believing what they were seeing. And even though she was hundreds of miles from the nearest big city, she felt like a target that day as she sat with a friend on a nearby military base. Suddenly the base alarm went off, television programming was replaced by a bomb threat warning and her friend grew increasingly hysterical as she searched for a child on the playground. The child was found, the bomb threat called off, but nerves were frayed like everywhere else.

HAVRE, Mont., Sept. 17 — After more than 25 hours aboard the train, we stopped for refueling and made our only extended daylight layover — about 45 minutes. Passengers streamed blinking into the sunlight, stretching aching limbs, doing a quick aerobic workout, buying ice cream, smoking cigarettes. A few of us scurried into the small business district for urgently needed supplies, or perhaps to browse for a cowboy hat or pair of Western boots. We were warned to be back on time: The last train left behind three passengers who had gone on a mission to the town liquor store.

In front of the station was a statue of James J. Hill (1838-1916), the "Empire Builder" after whom this train line is named. Smartly dressed in vest and waistcoat, top hat in hand, he gazes into the distance toward the Bearpaw Mountains rising up out of the Plains. Building the railway was his "great adventure," according to the plaque, which concludes with this quote: "I will make my mark on the face of this earth, and no man will ever wipe it out."

Martin Wolk
The sun breaks through clouds over the Rocky Mountains in Montana.

ABOARD THE EMPIRE BUILDER, Sept. 18 —This is Amtrak's great opportunity to generate repeat business, but I regret to say the staff was not quite up to the task. Needless to say, there is no pre-departure explanation of the safety features and emergency exits of this particular model. Instead the conductor loudly announced that he will answer all pressing questions after he is done collecting tickets, "including when this train was built."

But questions are never really answered. It simply is assumed that we know all the unwritten rules: Let the waiter fill out the order form in the dining car, do not walk between cars in your stocking feet, do not change seats, even if a better one becomes available, and above all, no food or drink in the smoking lounge. By the end of the trip, the passengers of Car 711 are in an open — but friendly — rebellion against Karen Rowe, the tiny spitfire attendant.

But if Amtrak personnel have a gruff, blue-collar sensibility foreign to the antiseptic corporate gleam of most U.S. airlines, it is clear they mean well. As the No. 7 train entered the final leg of its journey, Rowe came on the intercom and urged passengers to remember "the service boys" and the generations of soldiers before them who defended our freedom and made possible our way of life. Handling five times her normal passenger load with little sleep, she did an admirable job. In this "difficult time for our country," she says, "they also serve who stand and wait."

SEATTLE, Sept. 18 — In traveling west through 11 states, I saw some of the best of what this country has to offer, from the rolling hills of Pennsylvania Dutch Country to the stark beauty of the Rocky Mountains in Western Montana. North Dakota was a revelation with its ponds, lakes and potholes teeming with bird life, including majestic sandhill cranes flapping their prehistoric wings. Even western Montana was not nearly as desolate as I had been led to believe, at least from the comfort of the train's speeding observation car.

But for me, few scenes could match the drama of the sun rising over the rugged pine-covered Cascade Mountains of my home Washington state as the train snaked through canyons alongside swiftly flowing black waters. As we headed south along Puget Sound, hugging an embankment over the beach, I pointed out the familiar sights to my new train friends. Ferry terminal, marina, my son's preschool. Then we were pulling into the station, right on time after a journey of 3,098 miles coast to coast.

Martin Wolk
Wolk meets his family in Seattle.
One week, four hours and 32 minutes after a hijacked plane slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center and ended an era of peace, I was home. It was Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish New Year, and four hours later I found myself in synagogue. My wife and I wept as we held our two children and recited the traditional Jewish benediction: "May God bless you and keep you. May God make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May God lift His face toward you and grant you peace." Later we gathered with the congregation on the shore of Lake Washington and threw breadcrumbs onto the water, symbolically casting away our sins, as we entered the holy Days of Awe, praying for a better year ahead.

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