By Ray O’Hanlon
For the almost nine months that Ground Zero operated as a rescue and recovery zone, Irish Times journalist Conor O’Clery was a near constant observer of its daily and nightly activity.
O’Clery’s home and office is perched 42 floors above street level in a building just yards to the west of the World Trade Center site.
On Sept. 11, the Belfast-born O’Clery was gearing up for another working day as his paper’s international business editor. He had no idea that he was about to be a witness to mass murder.
All that longest of days, O’Clery provided a searing eyewitness account of the attack and its aftermath, first to Irish radio listeners and TV viewers, and later to the readers of his paper.
O’Clery, a journalist who has reported from every corner of the globe, was shaken by what he saw and what he would continue to see in the days after 9/11.
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At one point, he and his wife, Zhanna, considered moving from Lower Manhattan. But that idea never took hold. They stayed put and absorbed Ground Zero into their everyday lives, both professionally and personally.
Last Thursday, as the official closing ceremony got under way, O’Clery was again looking from his window into a shattered world.
“For months now, often before going to bed, I would look down at Ground Zero, which of course was lit up with stadium lights after dark,” O’Clery said. “You would always know when a body had been found. They would line up in a guard of honor beside the ambulance.”
O’Clery remembers some moments more than others. One being the discovery of the remains of NYPD officer Moira Smith.
“There was another night when they had clearly found someone,” he said. “But then they found someone else and eventually it was four bodies. Moments like this were always very moving.”
However, it was the final act of carrying an empty stretcher from Ground Zero last Thursday that O’Clery found to be most especially poignant.
“It was a very profound moment,” he said. “For the families whose loved ones have not been found, there is now just the hope that remains can be identified by DNA testing. There’s still a lot of distress among the families.”
The end of recovery work at Ground Zero is, O’Clery knows, also a most profound event.
“The rescue workers were amazing,” he said. “They got the job done three months early. It’s obviously a moment of very mixed emotions for them too.”