My September 11: The Edge of the Maelstrom

The World Trade Center halfway through its short lifetime. I took this during
the Statue of Liberty centennial, July 4th weekend, 1986. (Strangely, it wasn't
until a couple of months later, Sept. 11, 1986, that I brought the pictures in
to be developed--15 years to the day before the towers were destroyed.)

The morning of September 11, I was running behind schedule; sometime around 8:40 I left my Queens apartment in and walked the 10 minutes to the subway. After an uneventful ride into Manhattan, reading and musing about Manifold Time, a science fiction novel, I got off the train in Union Square at around 9:30. As I passed the police outpost within the subway station, I noticed a rather agitated woman inside; the police were gently trying to shoo her out. [Today, seven weeks later, a large area in front of that police station is filled with candles, flowers, and posters from well-wishers, a shrine to two fallen transit officers.] I exited the station at the west side of Union Square, to notice numerous people facing south; I thought it might have had something to do with that day’s mayoral election (maybe one of the candidates), but there was a feeling of wrongness about it.

It took me a minute to focus on what people were looking at, and then I saw the huge plume of black smoke rising from the World Trade Center, and the ugly, flame-lipped gashes in each tower; the north tower looked like a huge bite had been taken out of it. A man next to me told me that two planes, one large and one small, had collided with the towers—“some sort of air traffic mess-up.” I had no illusions that that was the case; my first cogent thought was “[expletive deleted] bin Laden.” I had been in New York during the 1993 bombing, was familiar with Ramzi Yusuff’s chilling words about how they would have taken the tower down if they could, and figured they had come back to finish the job. For about half a decade before September 11, I had been quite apprehensive about living in New York, ever since a friend of mine who had worked in the military in advanced weapons systems before becoming a peacenik told me how easy it might be for someone to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction (specifically a low-yield nuclear bomb) into New York. Although I was shocked to see the towers in flames, part of me wasn’t all that surprised.

After watching for several minutes, as long as I could bear, feeling sickened by the scene, I turned my back on the burning towers and walked the five blocks up to my office. Once at my desk, I turned on the radio. The co-worker in the cubicle next to me was quite distraught, worried about a friend who may have been in the WTC. I went about my business for a while with a strangely clear head (no doubt in shock). Then we heard about the first tower’s collapse (I ran down to our conference room, which has a view to the south, and confirmed that there was, indeed, only one tower standing), then the attack on the Pentagon.

Our CEO called us to a companywide meeting; he said we were free to stay or leave as we chose, but recommended that we stay rather than face a potential panic situation outside. I stuck around; to my surprise I was able to get through on the phone to both my mother and brother. Then word came that our building’s owners had ordered that the building be evacuated. As I was speaking to my brother (who had spent many years living and working in Manhattan), a co-worker looked into my cubicle and said “We’re walking to Queens.” The “we” proved to be about half a dozen co-workers who lived outside of Manhattan to the East (Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island). We made arrangements to meet in the lobby.

During the nearly two hours I spent at work that day, I heard the sound of hundreds of sirens passing on nearby streets, heading to the south. At the time, it wasn’t a detail that stood out, part of the scene and events of that morning. It wasn’t until afterwards, when the terrible toll on our emergency personnel, particularly the fire department, became known, that the full significance of that sound would hit.

As my co-workers gathered in the lobby, I went across the street to get food for the journey, as well as money. I looked down Fifth Avenue toward the World Trade Center site, to see nothing but a huge cloud of gray and black smoke. I suspected that the second tower had collapsed; the security guard in our building confirmed it.

When everyone was ready to go, we walked uptown towards the 59th Street Bridge that spans the East River from Manhattan to Queens, joining a large crowd of people on the move. I was quite impressed at how orderly the exodus from Manhattan was; despite a huge number of people trying to get out of the city, most everybody was outwardly calm and very considerate and helpful to the people around them. We had a radio, and heard the latest news as we walked (including more word about the crash in Pennsylvania; I figured it was a failed hijacking).

We headed for the bridge’s walkway, though there were also a lot of people walking in the vehicle lane among the traffic creeping to Queens. Among the vehicles were a pick-up, its back filled with people “hitching” a ride, and a bright red moving van, someone with the right idea and impeccable timing. Finally, we got far enough out over the water, away from the nearby buildings, that we could see the gash in the skyline and the enormous plume of smoke that was blowing out across Brooklyn. We got to talking to a man who worked on William Street, just a couple of blocks from the WTC, who told us of escaping; his hair and jacket were covered with fine dust. One of my co-workers stopped for a while to talk on her cell phone; even though I was aware that all air traffic had been grounded, I remarked “Maybe it’s not such a good idea that we stop in the middle of a bridge.” Finally, we completed the crossing and arrived in Queens; it turned out there was a bus, just a block away, that went very close to my home. As I bade my colleagues goodbye, I said “Let’s just not make a habit of this.”

At home, I had lost phone and e-mail service (they remained intermittant for over a week). I turned on CNN, and saw the endless replays of planes crashing into towers. They showed footage from Kabul; someone had launched an aerial attack against an ammo dump near its airfield. I was concerned that Bush was lashing out prematurely before getting all the information and before everything was in place, but it turned out to be the Northern Alliance launching a helicopter raid to avenge their fallen leader, whom al-Qaeda had assassinated a few days earlier. CNN also showed the efforts to try to fight the fire; they were afraid that 1 Liberty Plaza was also going to fall, but it didn’t. Later, they showed the eerie view of a part of the south tower’s façade, sheared at the top but otherwise strangely intact, through a cloud of smoke that had turned day into night.

Late in the evening, my phone actually rang. It was one of the co-workers with whom I had walked to Queens, telling me that the office would be closed the next day. “Enjoy your day off,” she said. “Okay,” I replied, but figured that was asking a bit too much.

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