On the morning of Sep. 11, 2001 I left my apartment 15-20 minutes earlier than usual because I wanted to vote in New York's primary election for mayor before going to work. It was about 8:40 when I left my apartment in the West Village. A few minutes later as I was walking along Christopher St. I took notice of the roar of an extremely low-flying plane overhead; however, I couldn't see it because of the trees lining the street. Perhaps 15 seconds later I heard a loud "boom" in the distance, but didn't think anything of it, and certainly didn't connect it with the plane. I figured it came from a construction site.
As I approached the corner of 6th Avenue and West 9th Street I saw a number of people looking intently southward so I turned to see what they were looking at and was stunned to see a large gaping black hole in the north tower of the World Trade Center with plumes of black smoke billowing out of it. My first thought was, "how did a plane crash into the building on such a crystal clear morning?" After 30 seconds or so of incredulous staring I continued on my way to the polling place a few blocks away (walking north). Traffic on 6th Avenue had mostly stopped as drivers and passengers got out of their vehicles to get a look. It was like a scene from a movie.
I voted, got on the subway and made my way to work at ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding, which was on East 42nd St. (At this point this was still just a terrible accident so there was no reason not to go into the office.) On the train I heard a woman tell someone that it was a passenger jet that had gone into the tower and not a wayward private plane. At the office I was walking to the other side of the floor for our weekly directors meeting but found everyone crowded into the media director's office watching the TV. A second plane had just crashed into the other tower and it was witnessed live on TV by millions (however, I didn't see it.)
This was no longer a horrible accident but something frighteningly more sinister. I watched a few replays of the plane going into the south tower and then walked back to my office. I called my mother in Pittsburgh who had seen the second plane on TV. Then I reviewed a few e-mails from friends living outside of New York checking to see if I was OK. A number of people in the office were frantically trying to get in touch with family members who worked in the Trade Center or in that neighborhood. It seemed like every 15 minutes something unimaginably horrible was happening, i.e. the Pentagon was hit, then the plane in Pennsylvania went down. I was listening to a live radio report from the WTC site when the south tower fell. Shortly thereafter the office closed, largely because we were considered at risk since our office was across the street from the landmark Chrysler Building, which made it a prime target.
I left my office and walked along 42nd Street to the New York Public Library at the corner of 42nd St./5th Ave. to meet my friend Nina. Nina lived on Long Island and couldn't get home since rail traffic had been suspended, so she stayed with me until travel restrictions were lifted. Not surprisingly, the streets were abuzz and crowded with people spilling out onto the streets, but it was a controlled panic. There were long lines at every pay phone. I think the day's bright sunshine helped to keep me calm.
Nina and I casually walked the 40 blocks down to my apartment against a wall of mostly disheveled office workers heading north from lower Manhattan. We stopped into a Starbucks near Penn Station to use the lavatory and while standing in line I overheard a man behind us telling someone that his sister in Chicago had called to say the Sears Tower had been hit. Because of all that was happening it didn't seem out of the realm of possibility. It wasn't until we got to my apartment and listened to news reports that we realized that he was just a crazy guy.
As we neared the block on which I lived we passed St. Vincent's Hospital which had set up chairs and gurneys on 7th Avenue covered in white bed sheets in anticipation of hundreds of injured who would need to be attended to - but none would be delivered. A strong odor similar to that given off by an electrical fire pervaded the air and the southern horizon was obscured by a thick wall of black, gray and white smoke (the north tower had collapsed by then as well). Fortunately for my neighborhood, the smoke was being blown out to Brooklyn by a northwesterly wind.
Later that afternoon the first "Have You Seen ...?" posters of missing office workers began appearing on lamp poles and walls. Rail service resumed later that afternoon and I walked Nina up to Penn Station (there was still no subway service). It was eerie because there were so few people on the streets and no vehicular traffic. The sheet-covered chairs and gurneys in front of St. Vincent's were now gone. Before going home I stopped into the supermarket across the street from my apartment (I was surprised it was still open) and while waiting in the checkout line I heard on the radio that the 50-story World Trade Center 7 had just collapsed.
For the next few months the odor from the fires lingered and was especially noticeable on days when the wind came out of the south. We were advised that dust in the air and collecting on surfaces in our apartments likely contained trace particles of pulverized bones from victims of the collapsed towers. The catastrophe turned out to be the impetus for me to finally get a cell phone. And to this day anytime the sky is clear and the temperature pleasantly warm I think back to the terrors of the morning of 9/11.
(The 9/11 Commission Report makes for riveting reading as it goes into great detail about the missed opportunities to thwart the 9-11 attacks as well as the events of that day as they unfolded.)