For me, the images down here will be the barges that chugged out of Battery Park carrying corpses bound for vast New Jersey morgues, the smoke and smell and noise, the gaunt and hollow-eyed looks of the cops and firemen digging desperately for their buddies with their bare hands, the relatives on their knees praying all over the place, the video of the couple jumping off one of the towers holding hands, crushed police cars and fire trucks, many with bodies inside, the distant figure on the water everybody said was the U.S.S. George Washington, an aircraft carrier sent to protect New York harbor, and the soldiers with machine guns that are guarding major roadways and airports.
Big stories like this now are covered two ways -- online and off. The former draws millions to websites like CNN's and USA Today's, and new kind of sites like this one. Bloggers and others put up sites so that people could describe what was happening in their own words. People in apartment complexes and news sites posted accounts, and looked for relatives and housing.
As interesting as the Net is -- some of the best and most graphic video of the tragedy was popping up all over the Web -- and as idiosyncratic, the dominant medium when stuff like this happens is still TV, by a wide margin. Hour by hour, TV culls and culls until it finds a handful of quickly familiar images burned into our national and global consciousness. In our time, somebody has a videocam aimed at everything all the time, and within minutes the pictures show up everywhere, on television and the Net. Almost nothing is our culture goes unrecorded or unobserved any longer. The immediacy was as astonishing as the images were unbelievable.
By nightfall, CNN, MSNBC and the networks were moving away from the dramatic video and the indescribable scenes of wreckage and carnage and calling in the policy wonks and propellerheads who hide out in Washington caves until something like this happens. The focal point of all the airtime then shifted from the devastation in New York to the parsing and analyzing of the political, governmental and intelligence communities. For future reference, that may be a good time to turn off the tube and get online, the medium of individual stories, feelings and experiences.
When things like this happen, TV, much more than the Net or the Web, reveals whether leaders rise or fall to the occasion. Mayor Guiliani of New York clearly rose to the tragedy. President Bush, sticking to his cautious sing-song monotone, fled to various bunkers and seemed to shrink throughout the day. Guiliani got bigger by the hour. Defying advice that he hide out until the shooting stopped, he rushed to the scene, was nearly killed, calmed the city down and took charge of the clean-up and rescue. Bush got on his best suit and stuck to the prompter. At least that was the image that TV brought of us of these two very different leaders.
If you love New York, your heart will break when the smoke clears. Something about the city is busted for good, no matter what the mayor says. The damage is not describable, and surely hasn't been captured on TV. There are dead firemen, cops and office workers all over the rubble, everybody is saying, and the dust is so thick even the cadaver dogs are getting sick. Five techs with thermal imaging probes were retreating uptown, their sensitive equipment almost useless in the mud (caused by water poured on the still-burning fires) and smoke and dirt.
The buzz from the cops and reporters standing around is that the death toll will be horrible -- between two and three thousand -- but nowhere near the much higher figures feared yesterday. It seems that many people did get out, calling wives and cops from their cell phones as they went, as did some of the doomed passengers on the hijacked planes. (And a number of the people buried under the towers are still calling for help on their cells. Others got calls from spouses and friends telling them to get out.)
Across the street, a group of structural engineers were reassuring reporters that the towers collapsed of their own structural weakness, the steel melting from the fires, the buildings designed to collapse inward -- rather than fall down -- to save lives.
With their usual hubris, reporters and politicians were promising us that everything was going to change. But if the attacks demonstrate nothing else, it is the folly of that kind of thinking. Terrorists change too, and for all the high-tech equipment pouring into Manhattan, sometimes there isn't a thing we can do to stop them.