9-11 Attacks Stun the World (September 11, 2001)
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.)
It was the calmest of days.
I heard about the first plane hitting the tower from my coffee cart guy, of all places. After making my daily walk across town from Port Authority to 46th and 3rd, I couldn’t help but notice all the commotion going on to my right, all the traffic and emergency vehicles speeding downtown. I saw smoke billowing into the air, but as it had just happened, it hadn’t been overwhelming –yet.
“A plane just flew into the World Trade Center,” he told me. I think he had a radio on in his cart. We probably both had assumed as most of us had, that it was probably a small Piper Cub or something. It wasn’t until I got up to my office that I found out what had really struck the tower. At that point, most of our 12-person department had gathered in my boss’ office to watch the carnage on her TV. Although we were only a couple of miles uptown, we felt both safe and completely vulnerable, all at the same time. Midtown, from a New Yorker’s point of view, is light-years away from the World Trade Center. But it’s really not so far in human distance.
There was a bizarre feeling of helplessness and isolation that day. While we watched gathered in that office, this horror was going on so close that you could smell it. We watched the replays, over and over, sharing whatever stunned thoughts we may have had with each other.
My wife was closer to the site – she was doing some freelance work in an office in the Chelsea Piers complex. She saw the second tower fall from where she was. They cleared out early. She went back to our Weehawken apartment instead of staying long. I was lucky enough to get through to my wife by phone, before the call was dropped, so we each knew we were safe.
It took us at my agency longer to come to our senses and go home to our loved ones. We finally peeled ourselves away from the coverage and found ourselves faced with the now daunting task of crossing the Hudson River. The bridges and tunnels had naturally been closed – how do you leave town?
The three Jersey people of our group left together; somehow we found out that they were using a makeshift ferry service to NJ. As we made our walk across town, we watched as others filed uptown, many covered with dust and ash. Everyone had the same faraway dazed look in their eyes. We were watching an exodus from Hell. No one said a word; none were sufficient.
I don’t even know where we boarded the boats that day, nor do I remember what type of boat it was. I think it was some sort of Circle Line type of day cruiser. We sat on the top deck, the three of us among the hundred or two others who had merely followed the stream of people to these charity boats. As the ship launched from the docks, naturally, all of our eyes were fixated on lower Manhattan. One of the most striking things about it – and the entire journey past my office walls – was the silence. Apart from the sirens of emergency vehicles, the sound of the boat’s engine, and lap of the water against the hull, it was purely silent.
The silence continued until we reached the Jersey side of the Hudson. From there, chaos reigned as everyone struggled to find which bus would take them closest to home. I had no such worry as the boats had docked less than a mile from my apartment. I helped my friends as best as I could to figure out where they should go, and then I began to walk home.
Suddenly, I was actually alone for the first time since this started. The entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel was between where I was and where I had to go, and there was no one there. It had been closed to traffic, and there was no one else walking that way, somehow. So I found myself walking towards the Tunnel, on a typically congested thoroughfare, completely alone. It felt, quite appropriately, post-apocalyptic.
I finally reached my apartment and my new wife. We had been married for less than a month when the attacks happened. We’d only been back from our honeymoon for about two weeks, probably less. I can’t imagine what we would have done had this been 9/01 rather than 9/11.
The calls and emails, when they could get through, brought in the important news. Our friends and loved ones were accounted for. A friend couldn’t find a pair of shoes that she planned to wear that morning and was running really late for work in her office in the South Tower. The devil may wear Prada, but I think her angel wears Nine West.
We found out later that my brother-in-law lost a friend in the collapse that day. Doug’s a strong man, a happy man, a positive man. Yet years later, at a holiday dinner, I saw this strong man fall apart as we briefly talked about that day.
My experiences of that day were nothing. To thousands of others, they were everything.
Now, my office is directly across the street from Ground Zero, this most hallowed of American ground. I can’t help but marvel at the sights around me every day. Not at this huge, gaping, national hole, but of the surviving neighborhood. It is unfathomable to me that my building – directly across the street from this carnage – is still standing. But here I sit, every day in my 12th floor office, amazed that this could have happened right here, that so many could have perished that day, for doing nothing than what I’m doing right now. I’m at work, and it’s the calmest of days.
Posted by: www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=545889601 | 09/09/2009 at 12:21 PM
I was probably a bit ahead of Rob that morning because I was in the voting booth when my cell phone rang. It was my boyfriend. I jokingly said, "Are you trying to tamper with the primary?" He said in sharp seriousness that he'd seen a plane hit the WTC from his office in Jersey City, and they were evacuating the building he was in, and he wasn't sure if he'd be able to get into the city, but if he could he'd come over. He was almost hysterical.
An aside, since the primary was interrupted, it had to be rescheduled. The rescheduled primary resulted in a tie and so we had to vote yet again.
I went home. My ex-husband said he'd get our daughter, and he took her to the roof of his apartment building, where they saw the towers fall. I was on a different mission. I really wasn't upset at all. I did know logically that this was a disaster, but I wasn't scared or anxious. I decided that people would probably be coming by if they got stranded, so I should get food...nothing too frivolous; this was a disaster after all. Maybe something like hors d'oeuvres.
My mom called saying I should hoard cash and water. Always thinking like a model citizen, that woman. I did go get $400 out of the ATM, thinking she might be right about that. Water seemed silly to me. I did get some Lillet, though. And cookies for my kid. Then we went home. I shampooed my rugs, figuring when would the next time arise when I'd be forced to stay home but I wasn't sick.
Sure enough a friend did come by. We watched TV coverage and ate. At around 5:00 I cracked the Lillet, and then I tried to call my boyfriend's (psychotic, lunatic, dopey sister) in Jersey, figuring he must have gone there if he couldn't get into the city. She picks up the phone and says, weeping, "I knew this would happen." I said, "Well, yeah, we've been kind of bullying the whole globe, eventually someone was going to get super pissed off at us." She said, "No. No. I dreamed this exact thing happened, and now it did, and I feel responsible." I said, "Is Joe there?" She puts Joe on the phone. When they open the public transportation back to the city, he'll come over.
I take a sleeping pill (Ambien) and go to sleep. It feels like immediately when Joe is knocking on my door. My daughter and guest are trying to wake me out of this alcohol and drug-induced comatose sleep. I get up. We all hang out for another three hours. We go back to sleep. Nothing else is happening. For three days we just wandered around. I did have an ob-gyn appointment a day or two after, and her office was open.
So, the day after the event my daughter and her friends, who were 13, bought flowers and put one flower in front of every door in my building (44 units). I asked them why, and Ariel said, "Yesterday, something very bad and unexpected happened. Today, something good and unexpected happened." They also bought donuts (I love the stereotype) to give to the police officers manning the barrier to downtown, which was right near our building. Some school children gave all the children at Ariel's school stuffed animals. She chose a black teddy bear, which we still have. I jokingly named him Al Qaeda, but she didn't like the name and changed it.
As you can tell, to me, it was sort of like hearing about a tragedy anywhere in the world. I didn't know that I knew anyone who was killed or even close to the site. I later found out the mom of one of Ariel's classmates was killed, but I didn't know her well. Beth, the mom, was a sweet woman; I liked her, but we weren't friends. So, I had the ability and the drive to be emotionally distant about this.
But, I walk past the Armory on 25th Street on my way to work every day, and it became a shine of missing posters and flowers and candles and keepsakes and mementos. And it got harder and harder to walk that route. I also used to run to Battery Park City and back most mornings, and I stopped doing it, because, I reasoned, it was getting cold and dark, but that wasn't the reason. The air in the apartment became chokingly acrid, and that lasted for many months, maybe a year. Ariel and I developed persistent coughs. My boyfriend's company (a tech stock market maker) downsized and then was taken over. He had to change jobs.
I, however, didn't get hit very hard until I was in a car heading to downtown Manhattan, and we passed the site, and I saw the utter destruction close up, and I fell apart crying. I terrified me, and made me lose every shred of composure I had, until then, found so easy to come by. And then, as time went on, I ran into people who were directly and indirectly affected in very big ways by that day. And now, as time has gone on, even more has come around.
I just started a relationship with someone who was so moved by that day that he makes me feel callous and detached just reading his account of the events in his life. They were in some ways no different than the events in my day except he felt so much more emotional about it.
My daughter also became terrified of flying. I cured her of this by taking her on a cruise to Bermuda. She was even more terrified of being at sea with just a horizon around her...next vacation...right back on a plane.
I send my love to the missing and all those whose lives were so altered.
Posted by: Ann K. | 09/09/2009 at 02:23 PM
One other thing that I forgot to mention in my comment (along with my name, somehow) was that this was the first time that I noticed people gathering around news vans covering the story - not to rubberneck, but to try to piggyback on the signal from the satellite dishes on the news vans to get their cell phone calls to go through.
- Don Seaman
Posted by: Don S. | 09/10/2009 at 12:16 PM