Gasping my way through a grey tornado of metal and ash and glass with a handkerchief over my mouth, a bare-torsoed figure emerges from the waters of a fountain by the Holocaust Museum, near Manhattan’s southernmost tip. It is my friend Larry. He has asthma and is wetting his shirt to make it a more effective air filter. We walk home together across the Brooklyn Bridge, with thousands of other silent New Yorkers, as the smoke reaches out for us like a malevolent claw. He wheezes.
Eight years and a few thousand miles separate this World Trade Center attack and the last one I witnessed one sunny Bombay afternoon. Since then, I have maintained that I would only ever want to cover disaster stories as a foreign correspondent, and that it is impossible to even begin to be professional about tragedy in a place in which you have roots, knowing that the battered body on that stretcher they are carrying away could be your friend or your cousin.
With the conflagration crackling in the distance, I realise that my daily commute brings me to the subway station under the building every day, just as the tourists are lining up to ride the high-speed elevators to the viewing deck. The vistas were spectacular, I had been assured, but I had never seemed to find the time for the outing. The closest I had got to the top was the Windows of the World restaurant, to celebrate the wedding of a friend. I had had a lurid green cocktail and took ill soon after.
The exodus on the bridge presses on. A black teenager carries a battered orange surfboard under his arm. He is miles away from a beach. A middle-aged Hassidic Jewish man, sidelocks and beard flowing in the wind, kicks across the bridge on a tiny silver scooter.