On Tuesday September 11, 2001 I had been a resident of Lower Manhattan for just two weeks. That day was my first day on a new job in an office at 330 Fifth Avenue, right next door to the Empire State Building. I must have been on my way down in the elevator of my apartment building when the first plane hit as I didn't hear it. And I expect it flew almost directly over my block. I was walking up 6th Avenue trying to catch a cab when a woman stopped me around 16th Street. New Yorkers tend to wear their blue steel faces on the street and mind their own business. But if something interesting happens, everyone talks like old friends. The veneer is actually very thin.
"Have you seen this?" she asked, "Turn around and look downtown." I did and saw the north tower of the World Trade Center with an oblique slice and (at that point) a thin plume of black smoke. It had just happened. People were already disagreeing about the size of the aircraft but the consensus was that it was a “commuter plane.” What everyone did seem to agree on was that it was a shocking, freak accident. The sky that day was crystalline blue with infinite visibility. The skies over NYC were usually crowded with air traffic for three airports. But it just didn't make any sense. A small crowd had gathered on the corner and a police officer, Moira Smith of the neighborhood's 13th Precinct, started taking statements from witnesses. "What did you see?" she asked me. I told her I didn't see it and she moved on to someone else. I was already running late for work on my first day so I didn't linger.
I caught a cab and zipped up to Greeley Square. I remember the cab driver, who was Muslim, telling me "I'm glad it was just an accident and not terrorism." As soon as I got to my office building I ran down to Starbucks to grab coffee. Very few people seemed to know what had just happened. The news hadn't really circulated yet. Other than what I had just seen, the city still seemed normal, stuck in the final moments of fleeting innocence. As I stood at the elevator bank, I overheard the doormen at the elevator bank saying it was a "jumbo jet" that hit the World Trade Center. I smiled to myself as I got on the elevator, marveling at how quickly wild gossip spread.
I went back to my office and chatted a bit with a colleague about what I had seen. We started having trouble getting news sites to load on the computer. They were overloaded with traffic. In 2001 news websites were still fairly nascent and aren’t what they are now. About 30 minutes later my colleague told me that CNN was saying that a second airplane had stuck the Twin Towers. I didn't believe it. I thought it must be wrong. The gravity of what was happening still hadn't sunk in.
Suddenly the building management came over the PA and said that the city was apparently under attack and that our office building was being evacuated as the adjacent Empire State Building was a possible target. We packed up quickly and left the office. I exited the building on 5th Avenue and didn't have a line of sight to the World Trade Center. But the instant I came out the door onto the sidewalk I reflexively looked downtown towards the Flatiron Building in the distance. At that moment a tremendous plume of gray dust filled the air behind it. I didn’t know it yet, but it was the moment the south tower collapsed. (Officer Moira Smith, who I had spoken to just an hour earlier, had been dispatched to the World Trade Center site to help with the evacuation of the south tower. She was killed in the collapse. A mother with small children, her body would be recovered months later. I wouldn’t make the connection until I would read a story about her in the NY Times a year later.)
I walked downtown toward my apartment. The city had changed entirely in 75 minutes time. People were flooding out of their offices. The sidewalks were packed as if it were lunchtime. In the distance I could hear what sounded like just about every emergency vehicle in the five boroughs headed downtown with sirens screaming. People were lined up at pay phones (which were famously scarce and non-functioning in NYC) as mobile networks were overloaded. I passed a woman who looked like a banker, dressed in an expensive-looking suit, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk sobbing into her cellphone.
I got to 23rd Street and walked one block west to 6th Avenue. As I turned the corner and looked south I got my first sight of the World Trade Center. The south tower was gone. Completely GONE. The remaining tower was gray and fuzzy on the horizon like I was watching some kind of special effects disaster movie. It was incomprehensible. The entire top of the north tower was enveloped in thick smoke now as the fires raged. As I walked down 6th Avenue in a daze, I there were some teenaged boys who seemed to be laughing and cheering what they were seeing amidst others who were crying. Adrenaline does strange things to people. I was about halfway home when I heard and saw fighter jets doing low passes overhead. I heard someone in the crowd yell “You’re too late!” People were exchanging information all around me as I walked. I gleaned from conversations that other planes were missing and that Washington and other places were under attack. I continued downtown, staring at the burning north tower the entire time.
I had just reached my block in Greenwich Village I froze when I saw the north tower cascade down, as if in slow motion. There was no sound at first, except for gasps and screams from the people all around me. Then I heard and felt the rumble. And it was gone as a massive, churning cloud of gray dust rose in its place. People continued to scream and wail.
I went up to my apartment. The answering machine was filled with messages from concerned friends and family. But there was no way to call them back as the phone lines were jammed with calls. I turned on the television and watched some of the coverage. But they kept replaying footage of the plane strikes and the collapses which quickly grew difficult to watch. There was a call for blood donors. So I walked over to nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital and stood for two hours in a line that stretched around the block. It was still a beautiful, perfect late summer day. And there was a real sense of community as people passed cookies and snacks down the line. Every so often, a cab or city bus (that had come up from downtown) would drive by in the distance with a thick coating of gray dust trailing off the back as they went by. I never did get in to give blood. They eventually thanked us all and told us to go home. Our blood wasn’t needed. They weren’t bringing in many victims. Everyone had died.
My office building was closed for a full week. Most of the bridges and tunnels were closed too so the city grew very peaceful and quiet. Planes were grounded so even the skies were empty. Supermarket shelves cleared out as there were no deliveries. Almost overnight, American flags popped up everywhere...in every window and hanging from every terrace. Lower Manhattan was closed to car traffic at 14th Street and during the day the streets were filled with pedestrians and people on bikes. Houston Street and the West Side Highway became main arteries for moving in heavy recovery equipment and National Guard vehicles. Union Square, just a few blocks from my apartment, became a de facto memorial, which filled up every night with crowds of people holding votive candles. It was all incredibly sad but it was also beautiful and peaceful too. I don’t think anything else could have made me feel a part of the community faster.
Then came the missing posters. Every light pole and wall was soon covered with hand-made, color copied postings made by loved ones looking for those they lost. They were just like what people put up when they lost a pet. Most of them listed the names, company information and the floor of the World Trade Center where they worked. The pictures showed the victims at a happier time in their lives, smiling at parties and posing on their wedding days. The families hoped that in the confusion of the collapse that their loved ones made it out and were being treated at one of a dozen local hospitals. But I think everyone knew the truth. All of those people were gone.
The fires continued to burn for weeks. Fortunately, the prevailing winds blew the smoke to Brooklyn for most of that time. But on the days when it did blow in the direction of my apartment it was horrible. It was like the smell of burning plastic. Each morning when I went out I’d look downtown in the hope that the smoke would be gone and the fires would be out. But it continued to bleed like an un-bandaged wound. There were horrible, morbid stories about the carnage that recovery teams were finding at the site. That was even worse than the smell of the fires.
About a week after that day they opened up a part of the Financial District east of the World Trade Center site. After work one early evening I rode the 6 train to the Brooklyn Bridge stop and walked the rest of the way. There was still no car traffic. And power had yet to be fully restored. It seemed that even parked cars had been removed from the streets. And the city had done something to remove a lot of that ubiquitous dust as the streets and sidewalks looked clean at the same time everything had a post-apocalyptic feeling. I walked down what must have been Cedar or Liberty Street, within about a block or two of the site. The National Guard had it barricaded and despite the murk of night the entire site was brightly lit with mercury vapor arc lights which gave it a silvery, angelic cast. Recovery crews were removing mountains of twisted metal and trucking it to barges at both the East and Hudson Rivers. Closer to the site the streets and sidewalks were still covered in ankle deep dust and some of the millions of pieces of paper that had fluttered out of the Twin Towers in a blizzard. Before I left that night I picked up a couple of pieces of paper – pages from a manual from the Port Authority of NY – and I scooped up some of the dust of the pulverized buildings. I didn’t know at that point all of the horrible, poisonous stuff that was in it. It is mostly cement, insulation and glass slivers. I sealed it in a glass vial, put it away and haven’t looked at it since.
That night I walked all the way back to my apartment. The cool, breezy late summer air was pleasant. I walked through Little Italy, the colorful banners for the San Gennaro festival had been hung before everything was cancelled. The cafes, usually full of tourists, were completely empty, as were the streets. A few dozen blocks to the north, Fashion Week had been cancelled too. It’s white tents in Bryant Park stood empty. Broadway had gone dark for a week. But one of the first signs that I knew the city would be alright was when I started to see lines forming at one of the theaters. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were currently doing The Producers and it was the hottest ticket in town, completely sold out. But opportunistic New Yorkers, realizing that out-of-towners would be canceling their plans to come to New York, got online to scoop up the tickets.
I cannot believe that ten years has elapsed since September 11, 2001. Those years have certainly rocketed past. Somehow I have found myself to be increasingly emotional about seeing footage from that day, and reading accounts of the people more closely involved than I was. It’s as if my emotions over that day have only grown more raw and real over time. As entirely horrible as it was to witness the murder of thousands of people with my own eyes, at the same time I have come to understand how horrible events can have a richness of experience in themselves. The events of that day will always be a part of me and I will always be a part of New York, more so as a result of having gone through that attack. That day dramatically changed the course of history. And on a more macro level, it also changed me indelibly. In a strange way, the experience gave me at least as much as it took from me.