My September 11th

Every once and awhile someone brings up September 11th and I end up telling my story. There’s no especial reason for me writing this at this point in time except for some reason the muse is telling me to, and it’s usually right. I came pretty close that day, although it doesn’t seem that close at first. To make sense of this story I suggest pulling up a map of lower Manhattan and looking around 65 Broadway, 10006

September 11th was a gorgeous day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the wind was perfectly calm, the day was still long, and the temperature was perfect: almost warm enough to make you sweat, but not quite. It was the type of day where you think about leaving work early and meeting your main squeeze in central park with a picnic basket and a bottle of nice sparkling wine. I was a bit sad about going to work it was so nice.

At the time I lived in upper Manhattan so my commute took me a bit less than an hour, say about 50 minutes. I left my apartment at around 8, it was 5 minutes to the 207th st A station, then about 40 minutes on the train to wall st. At Wall St I got out of the A and worked my way through the rabbit warren that is the Wall st subway station towards the corridor that would take me to Trinity Place to the left on which was my favorite deli for my breakfast which by that time I had decided would be a corn meal muffin toasted with butter. As I reached the Trinity Place side I heard a deep boom, which at the time I found curious, as it was too sustained to be an empty truck going over a pothole but I couldn’t thing of what else it might be. The time was 8:46am.

As I came out the corridor doors onto Trinity I immediately noticed a bunch of people all looking up and to the north. Ever the non-conformist, and remembering all the videos they showed in social psychology classes of everybody looking in a direction because one person was I determined I wasn’t falling for that old trick and started towards my office. I only got a couple of steps when I realized everyone, and I mean everyone was looking in the same direction, and not with the vacant curiosity of someone who doesn’t get the joke but with stares of alarm. Clearly something important was happening, so I joined the club and turned to look.

The first thing, or things I noticed were the thousands of pieces of paper floating down out of the sky. Reams and reams of letter-sized pages fluttering their way down, some on fire, most not. Behind them was a huge column of smoke. Nobody there realized what had happened because there was a building between us and the WTC; I thought the smoke and papers were from a building fire a block up. After a minute I couldn’t figure anything out from the people around or deduce anything more from the limited view I had so I figured I may as well get to work. My office at 65 Broadway had a window that opened up onto the roof at 67 Broadway about 18 stories or so up and I figured that was as good a place as any to see what was going on, so I briskly walked down to the deli and ordered. There was no wait that morning and in about 2 minutes I had my muffin and was paying when an overly calm man in a business suit came in and said he’d just seen an airplane crash into the World Trade Center and that was the cause of the fire.

I immediately knew that if an airplane had in fact crashed into the WTC (I didn’t know whether to believe this dude or not) that it had to be terrorism. The weather was perfectly clear, what we pilots call “severe clear”, there was no wind and little chance of turbulence so there was no possible way you could accidentally hit the WTC. Undoubtedly the weather was a factor in the terrorists’ choice of day as it would have been hard to pull that off in high winds or low cloud. At the time I thought they’d gotten ahold of a light aircraft and packed it with explosives, which would not have caused that much damage but would have made quite a show, but I never dreamed they had been able to hijack and take over the command of large passenger jets or I wouldn’t have gone up to the WTC site next.

The reason I went up to the WTC site was not to spectate, it’s that I have first aid training and I had always determined that I would volunteer if it was ever necessary so I trucked it up toward the WTC site, thinking as I went how crazy it was I’d just been at the bar on top of tower a few evenings before and now it was on fire. As I got up the street a bit I could see tower 2, but tower 1 was obscured so all I saw was smoke behind the south tower. A sizable crowd had gathered at the corner of Liberty and Church Streets but police were on the scene and everything was orderly. I worked my way behind the crowd to the corner of Church and Dey Streets where I could see what the situation was.

It was horrible. Fire raged across the whole structure engulfing several stories. As I watched I could see small pieces separating and falling the 1000 feet towards the ground although I couldn’t see the impacts because there was part of the complex in the way. I realize now what I was seeing was not pieces of structure falling but people jumping but I didn’t know that at the time. What was most staggering was the sound, or rather the lack of it; the fire was so intense that even 1000 feet away it was dampening all the noise so that I was in a pocket of quiet. It was bedlam around me: sirens converging from every direction, people screaming and shouting out of fear or adrenaline, and helicopters thumping overhead but I could have heard a pin drop. It was very surreal. I was stunned for a few moments as I took it all in, and then I shook myself out of it and decided that if I was going to volunteer to help I couldn’t do it standing on a corner with my jaw open; I was going to have to get closer, so I started across the street towards building 1. People were running like hell out of building 5 and I was the only one going to it. As I reached the other side suddenly all around my there were ringing noises, like pennies hitting the ground only not as loud, and I saw what looked vaguely like hail bouncing off the street all around me. I quickly realized that this was not a hail of ice but of metal that had melted off the building structure and solidified into BB-shaped pellets on the thousand feet down towards my unprotected body, that I possibly was getting in over my head, and maybe I should re-consider my present course of action. The first lesson with first aid is don’t become a victim. If a situation isn’t safe and can’t be made safe then you risk becoming one more person that needs rescuing, or worse, burying.

I hastily re-evaluated my plan of action. Fire engines, Ambulances, Police cars, trucks, bikes, even meter maids in 1-person buggies were converging on the WTC from all points of the compass. What was I going to do with no emergency equipment, little training, and no communications besides get in the way? Plus, if it was raining bits of aluminum what might be coming next? If you’re not part of the solution you are part of the problem in a situation like that so I decided to reverse course and get clear of the area. Once back across the street I turned south and walked very fast the 3 or so blocks to my office. As I approached the entrance to my building I became aware of a whining sound which in a few seconds grew and grew into the unmistakable roar of a pair of large jet engines at full power, and getting much too close to be normal. It got louder and louder, echoing through the concrete canyons of the financial district until it seemed to go overhead, and then a mere second or two later a loud crash-boom noise. It was just after 9am. The second plane had just crashed into the south tower, tower 2, and the debris and burning fuel from the impact landed where I had been standing 3 minutes before. That shower of metal from the building probably saved my life.

Some part of my brain was processing events because I did put 2 and 2 together and come to the conclusion that a second aircraft had crashed into a building, but at this point I was just reacting. Not knowing what had just happened or how close it was, and figuring being inside was safer than being out I grabbed the closest 2 people to me and shoved them into the lobby of my office building. It was a precaution that was completely unnecessary as besides more burning paper and smoke there wasn’t much going on where I was.

It’s amazing how we try to go on in the face of events. Nothing proves this more than the fact I still went to work after all this. I’d like to say that I went to work because I knew that I would be able to see what was going on, or to get on the internet and read about it, but the real reason I went was because it was familiar and comfortable. There was no expectation of getting any work done that day and it certainly wasn’t as safe as just going home, it was an attempt to regain normalcy; to get my balance and take stock. It didn’t work because my office was bedlam just like out on the street. If you opened our kitchen window you could climb onto the roof of the building to the north, and it was high enough to have a grandstand view of the twin towers. After the first plane had hit the whole office had gone out there to look and when the second hit they had all taken off in case debris came their way. While running one of the admins had smashed her foot on a pipe sticking out and shattered it. Everyone was in shock, but she was in pain and shock. From my vantage point I could see part of tower 1 and all of tower 2. The airplane that hit tower 2 had impacted near the corner and I could see flames coming out of both sides of the building. Somebody had a radio on and reported that a third airplane had hit the pentagon, but news was scare and rumor was plentiful so we still didn’t know what the hell was going on.

As I sat at my desk taking stock I forced myself to eat the muffin that 20 minutes ago had been the most important thing in my day. I don’t remember even tasting it. I was hungry for news however. I scoured the internet for news stories but all that came out of it was that bad things were happening, but nobody was sure what. We didn’t have a TV in the office but we really didn’t need one, all we had to do was look out the window. After 15 minutes or so most of us gave up any pretense of work, I just watched the towers burn and did rounds around the office to hear if anyone had any news. People were asking what we should do. I was fairly high up the pecking order as I reported to the head of the US office (who wasn’t there at the time) but we were a small shop so it wasn’t really a question of authority. We probably would have left right away if it wasn’t for our injured co-worker.

The rational part of me didn’t like what it was seeing but the emotional part of me was in denial mode and leaving would mean acknowledging the situation. I still had it in my head that they’d put the fires out and life would go on as normal. The rational part of me wanted us to leave but I wasn’t the most senior person in the office and I didn’t want to boss anyone around. At the same time I wouldn’t leave my co-workers, especially not with one of them hurt. As the minutes went by I watched the South-East corner of the Tower which was the one closest to the impact and little by little I could see it buckle. The orientation of the tower meant that the damaged corner was pointing straight to us so if it was going to topple it was going to come right at us. I knew a bit about the tower’s construction and that the outer skin bore most of the structural weight and I tried to figure out the stresses a bit but I was way too stressed myself for any hard thinking. In the end I made myself take a deep breath and to work out the worst-case scenario in the simplest arithmetic. I figured that tower 2 was about 1400 feet, and that the impact was about 2/3 up the structure, so assuming the damaged area was the pivot point we had about 450 feet of tower that might topple towards us. We were 800 feet or so away so we wouldn’t get hit directly, but the sheer size and weight of it would cause massive damage to the area and would throw out a huge amount of debris in our direction. I took another long, hard look at the south tower and I swear it looked like it was leaning towards us. As the same time someone mentioned that the radio said there was a 4th aircraft and nobody knew where it was but they thought it was coming our way.

It was time to leave, and if nobody else was going to organize it then it was up to me. I told everyone to pack up their laptops, and grab whatever documents they would need in the coming days because we might not get back for awhile. That was the extent of my business recovery plan and it ended up being a wise move because it was weeks before we could get back into our office. My plan at the time was to use one of the office chairs to roll our injured admin to a safe place where we could get her tended to. A couple of people argued the point a bit and I said if they wanted to stay feel free, but I was taking the rest with me and that pretty much settled it. I got the first group down in the elevator and was rounding up the second. There was only the receptionist left in the office who had gone back to pick up something she’d missed when the south tower collapsed.

It was like a volcano had erupted; the building shook, the lights flickered, a couple of ceiling tiles dropped, and there was this deep rumble that you could feel as much as hear. The receptionist’s eyes were wide as saucers as she watched the wave of dust and debris coming down the street, frozen in shock. It was one of those moments where there’s nothing you can do except wait and hope it ends well; I’d never experienced a moment of helplessness like that before and I hope never to again. As the cloud of pulverized building enveloped us it became almost dark as night. Trinity place is a narrow city street, about 4 cars wide, yet I couldn’t see the building across the way it was so thick, and this was 18 stories or so up! There was no way were were going anywhere in that! The dust looked thick and choking, so I went back to the office and grabbed as many bottles of water as I could carry and headed for the stairwell, which was already getting thick with the dust which had been forced through every gap by the sheer force of the event. After a few floors I left the stairwell and went to the one on the far side of the building which was much clearer.

The lobby was much calmer than I expected, people were milling around but there was no panic, no shouting. There was a police officer in the building who was doing a very good job at keeping things organized, and it became a waiting game for awhile. On the lower lobby a meter maid was being tended to, she was covered from head to toe with thick dust so she’d obviously been caught outside when it happened. She a few abrasions but otherwise looked fine except for deep shock. It’s the first time (and probably the last) that I’ve ever had sympathy for someone who writes parking tickets for a living.

The building management had turned off the AC pretty quickly but dust always finds a way in and the lobby was full of it, so the building guys had rounded up every rag they could and were handing them out as face masks. I cut off the sleeve of my polo shirt and used it to keep the cloth tight around my mouth. By then I’d told the cop we had an injured woman who needed an ambulance but I didn’t expect much to be honest due to the scale of the situation, then I went back to milling around like everyone else. I didn’t have anything else to do so I compiled a list of everyone in the office in case there was further drama, which wasn’t far away. After that I spent my time tying to get reception on my cellphone which turned out to be impossible.

By this time the milling around was getting tiring and most were sitting down on the bare floor, there must have been 150 people at least on the hard marble. I had struck up a conversation with some Eastern European construction-y looking types who seemed much calmer than most others when the rumble happened again and the building shook. Again there was no panic, someone cried out but quickly sucked it up, my heart certainly skipped a few beats. Another cloud of dust, slightly smaller this time. The eastern Europeans still looked calm:

me: “you seem to have been through this type of deal before…”

Eastern European guy: “Yes, Sarajevo.”

me: “Ah.” What could I possibly say?

Now it was really a waiting game. The phones were out, cellphones had no reception either. I desperately wanted to tell my family I was OK but there was no way to do it. We still didn’t know what had actually happened mind you. People watching TV were getting it blow by blow but without any media all we knew was that something had happened to the towers but we weren’t sure what. The dust had to settle before we could leave and it would be a good hour and a half at least. I don’t remember very much of the time passing, I remember talking about the routes we would take to get home once we could leave. We split into 3 groups: one group decided to take the Staten Island ferry, one decided to take the Brooklyn Bridge, and the rest (me included) walk east to clear the area and then north.

The emergency services were incredibly well organized, less than half an hour after we told the cop in the lobby about our injured co-worker she was in an ambulance on her way to the hospital. With nothing to keep us there we decided to move out as soon as it was safe. We watched as the air cleared outside. At first we could barely see the other side of the street, then gradually it cleared until you could see some daylight again. The choking dust had mostly settled to a thick layer coating every flat surface. It was grimy but it wasn’t going to get any better, so it was time to go. Again, it was organized; the police had deployed officers along the route to direct people and were evacuating the buildings one by one. I stepped out with my fellow survivors into one of the most surreal experiences of my life.

It was like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic movie. The air was tinged with the stench of concrete and metal, plus a mix of burning … everything – plastic, paper, people. Every surface was covered with 2-3 inches of fine gray powder, but what really got me was the silence. I’ve never experienced a city as abjectly quiet as that, not only were there no vehicles moving within 2 miles of us but all aircraft has been grounded. The dust also had a deadening effect, even muffling our footsteps so the only real sound were our voices as we cracked feeble jokes and spoke soft words of encouragement to each other. There was no foliage to rustle and no wind to rustle it if there had been. One of the clearest images I have is passing a car that had been abandoned, engine running, in the middle of the road. It was covered with the same dust as everything else and it was so thick that it wasn’t until I was right beside it that I could hear the engine ticking over, but the driver had left the door open and the warning bell was loudly going ting-tong, ting tong. It was so quiet everywhere I could still hear it a block later. I remember thinking that this was the closest I ever want to get to a nuclear winter. It was eeeeeeeerie.

The evacuation route went east, then turned north, I think up William St, or maybe Nassau. We passed by the cross-streets that led to the WTC site: Maiden Lane, John st, and Fulton and each time we looked we only saw twisted shapes of metal through a thick, gloomy pall of smoke and unsettled dust. If you’d told me at that point that both towers had completely collapsed I would not have believed you, and you couldn’t have proved it by looking.

As we neared the Brooklyn Bridge things went closer to being a city and not a war zone. We saw streets and people not covered in dust, the sun came out again as we got away from the dust and smoke, and the air became as clear as it ever gets in New York and we could dispense with our face masks. I notice I’m using the term we instead of I, and I’m doing it because that’s how it felt. We were all in it together. If one person managed to get a signal they would make calls for other people they didn’t know or try to pass on messages to others’ loved ones. We felt like one in a way. I can’t even remember who I was walking out with now, it’s all a blur, but I still get a good feeling thinking about it. This didn’t stop with those walking out of ground zero, the whole city came out to help us. People in offices brought their water dispensers outside and gave cups away to anyone who needed it. Others were offering to let people use their toilets or sit for awhile. Everyone who I know who walked out of ground zero was moved by the outpouring of human kindness from those along the way. I think if there’s one positive thing to have come out of that day it was that it made people get back in touch with their sense of community.

By this time it must have been early afternoon. The towers has been down at least 2 hours I’d guess and I still hadn’t gotten a signal on my cellphone or found a working payphone to let my family know I was still alive. Everyone was in the same boat and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it. The city was paralyzed: the subway system was closed, buses weren’t running so the only transportation were the 2 stick things attached below your hips. I was glad I was wearing comfortable shoes and I imagine the fashion victims were becoming victims of fashion after a couple of miles.

I don’t remember the exact route I took home but it was up the east side and I think we went up 2nd. My mother lived at 105th and Broadway (the west side) at the time so this was a bit out of my way but the rest of the group I was with was heading to the Queensboro bridge on East 59st street so I had decided to stick with them and see them over. I felt some responsibilityfor them as I’d organized the office evacuation and was supposed to keep track of where everyone went. By this time that was pretty unnecessary but it felt good as it was doing something. Along the way we passed the UN, city workers were using buses and garbage trucks to block the streets to it in case of further attacks. Soon after that I bid my co-workers farewell and we went our separate ways. It would be more than a week before we would meet up again.

At some point the subway and buses started going but I didn’t want to use them. The idea of going underground or getting stuffed in a box above it just seemed awful at the time, plus it felt good to walk which I’ve always found therapeutic. I finally found a working phone about west 63rd st, about 7 miles walk from where I’d started south of ground zero and was able to tell my very worried mother that I was all in one piece. I eschewed any offers of a ride and decided that I’d walk the 2 miles or so the rest of the way.

As I walked the shock was wearing off. I had walked halfway up Manhattan island and not felt a thing but now I started to tire and my feet began to hurt. As I trudged I expected to get looks of astonishment from people, but I guess seeing someone who is missing a sleeve and is a bit dusty didn’t penetrate the fug of the day’s events. Plus in NYC that’s nothing, you learn to tune out vagrants wearing fireman suits stuffed with human feces so what’s special about a reasonably well-dressed guy with one sleeve shorter than another looking a bit dirty? In some ways I wanted to be noticed because after being with people walking out I was missing human contact. I felt a bit disconnected after the whirlwind of events and I didn’t want to go back to being anonymous. Mostly I was confused.

When I got to my mother’s apartment I was treated like the prodigal son. I’d grown up there and only recently moved out so I knew everyone who worked in that building on a first-name basis. When the doorman saw my state he made sure I was all right and asked what had happened to me. He called to make sure they knew I was on my way up and my mother was hugging me before I even got out of the elevator.

I spent the next couple of hours watching CNN. There was no other news that day so I very quickly saw the footage of what I had felt rather than see. It was right there in perfect color. Part of me didn’t want to watch as it made me re-live it but another part of me was transfixed and couldn’t stop watching it over and over. Eventually I caught a ride home.

The next few months were difficult. We couldn’t get to our office so I worked from home day after day, sometimes not going out which was not good for my state of mind. Fortunately my girlfriend (now wife) was wonderful and helped me through it. The city pulled itself together and normal life established itself. I restored our company email by carrying (with help) a 50 pound server down 20 flights of stairs and then dragging it 20 blocks up past ground zero (which smoldered for months afterwards) to our data center. Services were restored to our office after a month and we were back in our office.

I was constantly reminded that I had got off pretty well and that others weren’t as lucky. Across the street from our office was a parking structure, the top floor of which was open. After the financial center was re-opened to traffic this started to clear but after a time is was plain that some of these cars weren’t going to be picked up. Eventually these started to go as well as the next of kin or the banks started having them collected but 6 months later there was this one car, a white Mercedes, that was still there, the remnant of a life that had been lost. Every time I looked out my window and saw that it made me a bit sad. Eventually it was gone too.

Other things took a bit longer to go. For a couple of years every time I’d feel the ground shake when a train went underneath me I’d be brought back to that horrible moment when the first tower collapsed and I stood in the corridor wondering if that was it, but that went away too.

September 11th was craziest day of my life. I was closer than I ever wanted to be to momentous events of that kind, and way, way closer to getting killed than I like to think about. In a short space of time I saw both the worst and the best that man has to offer. It was a day full of confusion and fear, yet also full of kindness and hope. I have no scars and I don’t feel particularly changed by the experience, and I don’t live my life differently because of it except for putting an emphasis on living it to the fullest. I feel like a boat that’s come undamaged through rapids: it’s been through a harrowing experience but you can’t tell by looking. It’s hard to come up with something to cap a narrative like this. I would like to say something meaningful and profound, but all that I can really say is that I survived and for that I’m grateful.

I came closer to being one of the dead than may be apparent from my story. I related how the wreckage from the second airplane came down on the street where I had very recently been, but I was far closer than that except it happened months before the attacks. To explain: I was working for an internet startup at the time as employee number 4 in the US and we were looking for permanent office space. We went all around the financial district looking at different options. There was some disagreement between the COO of the US office and the heads of the company in London as to the type of office we were looking for and how much they were willing to spend. The COO pressed on and actually signed on the dotted line of a lease when they fired him and somehow pulled out of the deal. I was disappointed because at the time as I would have liked to work in the 104th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

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