"I describe it as a national disgrace." Larry Silverstein, the 78-year-old New York City real estate tycoon, shook his head slowly as we stood over the muddy pit known around the world as Ground Zero. It took three cameramen from "60 Minutes" to photograph the expanse of the 16-acre hole that was once the basement of the World Trade Center. True, some construction had begun, but as I stood there with Silverstein looking at rainwater pooling down below, I thought, "Nobody's gonna believe this."
Pelley's report on Ground Zero airs Sunday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. ET/PT on "60 Minutes"
According to the plans announced with fanfare seven years ago, Silverstein and I should have been craning our necks at five skyscrapers, including America's tallest tower. We should have been jostled by commuters surging in and out of a spectacular, $2,000,000,000 train station. And, all around us, there should have been a gentle, cascading sound from the 9/11 memorial, two waterfalls laid out in the footprints of the Twin Towers, a whispering reminder of 2,752 people murdered here.
But as we stood near the center of the seven story pit, none of that was here. Nearly nine years after the attack on Manhattan, not one project was finished. Silverstein, who wears ship propeller cuff links owing to his affection for his massive yacht, was supposed to have built those five skyscrapers himself. He ended up with the job after what may be the worst timing in the history of commercial real estate. Silverstein signed a 99-year lease on the World Trade Center just six weeks before 9/11. Now he stood over the hole in the heart of Manhattan and spoke in his clipped Brooklyn accent as though he was revealing a dark, national secret, "It's hard to contemplate the amount of time that's gone by here, the tragic waste of time and what could have been instead of what is today."
This story began as so many stories do at "60 Minutes," with a simple question. Walking through the office one day last fall I asked one of our producers, Shawn Efran, "Hey, what ever happened to Ground Zero?" It seemed to me a lot should have been finished downtown, but I wasn't hearing anything about it. Shawn and I had been among the many 60 Minutes people who had raced downtown after the first 767 struck in 2001. Most everyone who witnessed the calamity will tell you it's never far from their minds, even now.
The morning of 9/11, the Twin Towers were still standing but mortally wounded. I left our 60 Minutes offices on the West Side and jumped into a cab. "World Trade Center," I said. "Ya nev'a gonna get there," the driver replied without looking back. Sure enough, after a couple of miles down the West Side Highway, the cops turned the cab around. I bailed out and started running along the Hudson River, trying to reach the scene. I pushed through what seemed like tens of thousands of Manhattan office workers, walking up all six lanes of the highway. They looked like refugees from combat, which, of course, they were. As I came into the neighborhood of the World Trade Center, I started to trip over and kick something scattered all over the road. They were women's high heals, hundreds of them, abandoned in the panic. I raised my eyes from the Blahniks and Ferragamos and up the burning facade of architect Minoru Yamasaki's Tower Number One.
My first sense was relief. The tower hadn't fallen. But just then, the building's television mast that reached to 1,727 feet appeared to sway, which struck me as incredibly odd. Amazing how you won't believe what's happening right in front of you when your mind is unequipped for the truth. I decided the sway was an illusion created by the heat of the fire but, just as I fabricated that reassuring thought, the top floors began to pancake. People say catastrophes appear to unfold in slow motion. I promise you, it's true. To my eye, the 110th floor fell on 109 which fell on 108. Bang, stop, bang, stop, bang, stop. I told myself it would quit - ten or 15 stories - but as the roar shook the air and the collapse picked up speed, I surrendered to what was happening. I dropped to both knees and prayed to God to take the souls without pain. It was the only thing left to hope for.
A hurricane of ghastly gray powder shot through the canyons of downtown and covered everything; survivors, flattened fire trucks and taxis that were now just 18 inches tall.
Then, silence. Like the first big snow of winter.
The powder blew and drifted. It struck me there was nothing left that was recognizable. How many thousands of computers had there been, office chairs, desks, filing cabinets, doors, telephones? Where were the people? All had been cremated by the titanic force of the collapse. The only thing that survived (and that rained down for more than an hour) was paper. There were stock trade receipts, appointment calendars, photos of a family on a ski vacation. Paper, ashes and silence.
At the end of that day, standing by the flaming neo-gothic arches that formed the base of the towers, I knew two things were true; the United States would have Osama bin Laden in a cage and Ground Zero would be rebuilt into a soaring statement of American Spirit.
Now standing with Larry Silverstein on the edge of the pit, an old thought came back to me, "Amazing how you won't believe what's happening when your mind is unequipped for the truth."