Perched on a light pole, metres above the crowd, a man spread his arms like Superman and started chanting "U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!"
Behind him on the same thin piece of metal, his friend, with a can of beer in one hand and American flag in the other, roared "Ding dong the witch is dead".
The heaving mass below them joined in. Fists pumped in the air. Flags waved wildly. "U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!" They cried too, well into the early hours of the morning.
The scaffolding and cranes of half-built skyscrapers 500 metres away at Ground Zero towered over the maelstrom on the street corner. It was a reminder that nearly a decade after the country’s defining tragedy, the city is still trying to rebuild.
For many in the young crowd, this was the party of the decade — the moment they’d thought would never arrive. The man they’d grown up defining as evil incarnate was finally dead.
"This is like New Year’s and Christmas all rolled into one!" said David Rivera.
"We’re number one! America will always be number one!"
A stout man from Jersey, Rivera jumped up and down in the back of an SUV with five others, hooting and cheering.
He had seen the planes fly into the Twin Towers on September 11 — he was at work at the time and remembers the moment clearly, "I just thought to myself, this is a horrible day in America."
Rivera also lost a friend in the 911 attacks.
"I can’t talk about it too much, but brother…" he said as he placed his hand on his heart and gazed up at the sky, "I know you’re out there somewhere, this one is for you." He started up again: "America F*CK yeah!" The truck shook under his weight.
Brandon Heaves weaved through the throngs of people with ease. The huge white ghetto blaster on his shoulder helped. It was blaring ‘Proud to be an American’.
"I was asleep," Heaves told New Matilda, "and my mum called me and told me to get down here quick." Heaves got his outfit — an American flag tank top, a white bomber jacket emblazoned with Bush Beer logo, blue and red sunglasses and a star spangled hat — and his friends together and raced down to Ground Zero, ready to celebrate. The 24-year-old couldn’t peel the smile off his face as he hugged strangers in the crowd. Also smiling was the accordion player with the flower in his hat who, with his energetic renditions of the national anthem, worked the crowd into a swirling gypsy-esque frenzy of legs and laughter.
Not far away though, 19-year-old Carly stood quietly with her arms folded. She was subdued, but still keen to be at the centre of the action. She was in fourth grade when the attacks happened.
"I remember, we didn’t find out from school because they didn’t want to tell us," she said. When she got home her mum had told her that terrorists had flown planes into the Twin Towers. "Everything changed for us after the attacks, suddenly people were scared, we couldn’t just go out and do what we wanted. We needed permission and it felt like people were on edge for a very long time." Bin Laden’s death had been liberating, she said. She felt relieved.
"I know my friends do too. It’s like … he’s gone. Osama Bin Laden is dead. Wow."
The word about the party had got out through text messages and Twitter before President Obama had even made the speech that confirmed bin Laden’s death. "meet cnr versey and church 2 celebrate death of osama bin laden" one sms read. By 1am there were about 1000 people at this intersection. By 2am that mass had swollen to about 2000. If police were concerned about security, they weren’t showing it. Nobody stopped the illegal drinking in the streets and nobody stubbed out the joints. Nobody pulled down the three men who climbed the light poles. Nobody told the crowd-surfers and the mosh-pit that they couldn’t celebrate "rock and roll style".
Servicemen and women joined in too. At one stage, five pumped-up, crew-cut men wearing grey T-shirts with "ARMY" printed on them, stormed up to the periphery. They laughed and slapped each other with masculine outbursts of "Yeah!"
At the same time, 21-year-old navy cadet Andrew Gottstein tucked his immaculately pressed white shirt into his belt, planted his cap on his head and saluted. "I had to come down here, this is a moment I will never forget," Gottstein told New Matilda. "I’m so proud right now, I can’t even express it. It’s so great just to wear this uniform."
Leaning against a stone wall in the shadows, was a sombre reminder that America has lost many lives in 911’s aftermath, too — a piece of cardboard with the handwritten words, "Dedicated to all those who fought suffered and died to bring us this moment — your sacrifice will not be forgotten." In front of the makeshift memorial sat three small candles and a single red rose.
Away from the crowd, George McEvoy stood with his arms crossed, watching the party. In the background the chants continued to the drones of bagpipes and vuvuzelas. His brother John was a firefighter who had died trying to rescue people from the rubble of the twin towers. He wasn’t cheering or shouting.
"I feel bittersweet," he said "I’m satisfied that maybe justice has been done. I’m upset that so much killing has gone on in the name of religion. I hope that this will all stop."
McEvoy held little faith that the death of Osama bin Laden would end any conflicts or stop any wars. "A wise man once told me that the proclivity for mankind to live in delusion and self destruction is infinite. I believe him," he told New Matilda.
Next to him, his daughter Julia said little and gazed at the ground a lot. "Today isn’t a happy feeling for me. I’m not celebrating. Nothing will bring my uncle back," she said.
I wasn’t in New York in 2001 and I won’t ever presume to know what it was like. I also didn’t lose a loved one in the attacks. But for such a celebration to take place over someone’s death felt uneasy. It felt primal and raw. In this crowded street there was little sense that by killing the world’s most wanted man, the US had perhaps just kicked over another hornets’ nest — and that the consequences could not be predicted.
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