Then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (from left), Henry Kissinger, George Ryan and Sneed aboard a boat enroute to Ground Zero soon after Sept. 11, 2001. | Provided

The sights and sounds and smells still linger two decades after that chance visit with then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Henry Kissinger and Gov. George Ryan.

Ground Zero. The beginning.

Twenty years ago — on Sept. 11, 2001 — America’s war on terrorism began on a bright blue New York day.

It has yet to end.

“Let me put you where the nightmare began,” I wrote two decades ago, weeks after two American planes, commandeered by terrorists, slammed into New York’s World Trade Center.

It would become a day like no other for this journalist due to an unexpected happenstance, a last-minute invitation and the result of nothing planned in advance of a chance.

“Let me put you there,” I wrote after standing shoulder to shoulder with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Gov. George Ryan “in the detritus of the still-smoldering Twin Towers.

“It is the rumble of motorized vehicles, the smell of rotting floral bouquets and the plastic basins where people wash their masks and scrub their boots before they go back to the devastating business of retrieving bodies and sifting through body parts where the World Trade Center towers once stood.

“Twisted metal juts from the American Express building as you enter a scene of tortured steel and buildings draped in red mesh bearing American flags. Dust swirls through the air as this scene stands before me, worse than any war zone clip in a Steven Spielberg movie.

“The air is acrid. Orange Mazzocchi tractors sift through the ash like caterpillars. Clouds of dust are released from the clothes of firefighters as Giuliani poses for pictures and pats them on the back.

“This is what I saw Tuesday as helmeted men with frozen faces milled through the debris. I don’t know what else to say, except I now know why people say, ‘Words cannot describe this.’ ”

The trip to Ground Zero had been a surprise.

What had begun as planned coverage of Ryan’s trip that Sept. 28 to New York with a group of businessmen “to encourage Americans to climb out of fear, get in the air and get back to business” led to an invitation from the then-governor to sit next to Giuliani as he worked his rectangular roundtable of daily briefings on 9/11 .

“The guy was amazing to watch in action back then,” Ryan says now. “He was magic; a tight ship corralling all the experts dealing with the devastation. He told them where to go, get permission and what to do. He was a general in full command.

“The country was shut down. No one was going anywhere. People were afraid. Almost like a lockdown. Not leaving their homes. Afraid to fly. So we flew to New York to meet Guiliani and help send a message.

“But it was devastating to see the smoldering destruction while flying over New York City.”

Then, the unexpected happened. Ryan was invited to accompany Giuliani and Kissinger on a New York Fire Department boat to Ground Zero … and Ryan invited me along.

These three men of the moment walked into the cramped quarters on the boat, sat at a small conference table exchanging ideas … and then stood shoulder to shoulder on a safety ramp at Ground Zero. It was extraordinary.

Provided
Henry Kissinger (from left) then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Gov. George Ryan.

Giuliani announced the city would provide an urn containing soil from the World Trade Center to each of the victims’ families ”in lieu of the body of their loved one.”

Cook County Sheriff’s Deputy Tamara Wuerffel, 27, who had volunteered with 14 of her comrades to provide security at the site, told Sneed then: “I watched a body being taken out this morning and body parts being placed in red body bags. A priest blessed the body, and all the firemen took off their hats, and I found myself tearing up again.”

“It was a terrible,” Ryan says. “But it’s important to keep reminding people what happened, like the Holocaust.”

The big question

Is our nation’s real homeland security solution actually taking care of each other?

Just a thought.

A farewell

A teary farewell to my much-loved former assistant Francesca Gattuso, who was always there when my Sunday column needed a quick tech fix and with a during her last few years in our marketing department.

Sneedlings

That Hillary Clinton has co-authored the novel “State of Terror” with boffo mystery author Louise Penny (with an audiobook featuring actress Joan Allen), is no shocker. She’d been a close friend of Penny and visited her in Canada with her best school chum Betsy Ebeling, who died a few years ago.

Saturday birthdays: Tom Dreesen, Harry Connick Jr. Sunday birthday: Jennifer Hudson. And a belated birthday to Beth McCormack.

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