I was running late for work that day. The weather was beautiful. The skies were a clear deep blue, virtually cloudless. The air was warm with a hint of impending autumn. It was an almost perfect day. My normal commute usually got me to the World Trade Center at around 8:45 but I missed the 8:00 train to Hoboken. Almost missed the 8:20. I ran for the train, got in, sat down and started reading a book, ignoring the world around me.
Around 8:50 as we arrived in Hoboken, there was a stir on the train. Something about a fire in the World Trade Center. I closed my book and looked toward the city, but the towers had already disappeared behind the train station building. As I left the train, an announcement came over the PA in the station: The PATH trains into the World Trade Center were not running. There were no other details.
The thought going through my head was, "Damn, now I'm going to be really late."
Luckily, the PATH train to 33rd Street was still running. So I boarded with the idea that I would go up to Christopher St. and take a downtown subway to work. On the train someone mentioned that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought it might be one of those small tour planes or helicopters somehow went out of control. There was a murmur of disbelief from the passengers traveling with me. “What a horrible accident.” The man standing beside me said his daughter worked in the building. Today was going to be an interesting day.
It was about 9:10 when I got to the Christopher Street PATH Station. The crowd trudged up the stairs and me along with it. Once outside I heard a church bell tolling non-stop. I walked to the street corner, looked south, and saw the Twin Towers burning. A grim, broken slice was carved into one tower. Dark ugly smoke and yellow-orange flames poured out. A smoky hole punched in the side of the other. A radio announcer's voice came from a SUV parked nearby. "A second jet has hit the buildings" and "that rules out an accident" and "probably the work of terrorists." Sirens whined as police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks flew down the avenues toward the towers. The rest of that day would be accompanied by the sound of screaming sirens.
I tried to call my office to let them know where I was and to find out what was going on there, but I couldn't get a connection on my cell phone. Damn Verizon. On top of that, its batteries were running low. I found a pay phone and called my office's main number. The automated greeting played at me. I checked my voice mail and heard a nervous sounding message from my sister Kathy, asking if I was OK. She forgot to leave me the number where I could reach her. So, instead, I called my parents. Not home. I left a message with them saying I wasn't hurt and I wasn’t in any danger. During that time, a line of people waiting to use the phone had formed behind me, so I hung up and started to make my way downtown toward work. I hoped my coworkers were all somewhere close by and it wouldn't be too hard to find them. The thought that there was going to be danger near the towers just hadn't occurred to me.
As I was making my way down 7th Avenue downtown, a steady stream of police cars, fire trucks , and ambulances headed toward the disaster site. Then I remembered that I had my Palm Pilot with me so I looked up my sister's work number and searched for another pay phone. Every single phone I found had a line of people waiting to use it. Finally, I found a pay phone that was not being used and called my sister. She burst into tears at hearing my voice. I told her not to worry, and to let the rest of our family know that I was OK.
I kept walking downtown, working my way over to 6th Avenue. As I walked, I tried to keep the towers in view to watch the progress of the fire. At the time, I thought it didn't look so bad and that the fire might even go out. Here and there, people were clustered around cars listening to the radios through the open windows. I stopped several times to listen and to try to piece together what was happening. I learned about the attack on the Pentagon. I heard about firemen rushing into the buildings. Still more police cars were speeding toward the scene of the disaster. It was around this time that people were jumping from the World Trade Center through broken windows to escape the fires. I'm glad I wasn't close enough to see that.
Finally, I got to Canal St. I was still determined to find my coworkers and as I was about to cross the street, I suddenly heard shouting, screaming and crying. I looked up. One of the World Trade Center towers was collapsing.
From where I was standing, it looked like the tower was a melting candle played in fast forward. Inside the falling debris, thousands of little flashes sparked. Shards of broken glass glinted like fireflies. The dust of pulverizing concrete poured out of the sides of the building. A few seconds later, all that was left was a tower of dust and fire. Then that was gone. Now only one burning tower remained. Then a low rumbling sound reached us and it mixed with the bells, shouts, screams and sirens. The sound continued for a few moments and then it faded and only sirens and cries remained. I and the people around me were stunned. Until that moment, what we had just witnessed was inconceivable. The last thought on anyone's mind was that one of the Twin Towers would collapse. I briefly thought how weird the skyline would look with just one tower.
This is what I didn't know. At that moment, hundreds of people lost their lives. One of them was a coworker who was attending a meeting in the WTC. The husband of another coworker was also killed. He was a New York City firefighter. Other coworkers who had evacuated from the building where I worked were far closer than I had been. At that moment, they were running for shelter in the subways, in the doorways of buildings and under cars, and covered with grey dust and ash.
For some reason, I still thought I should get to my friends and coworkers. Even with one tower down, I was sure that they would all be gathered together somewhere. I looked across Canal St and started to cross. A cop, who watched the towers fall with us, stopped me shouting something like "Go north, there may be gas leaks." I looked at him and saw he was serious. I also noticed the tears in his eyes.
So I gave up the thought of meeting up with my coworkers. But now I was without a goal. I didn't want to wander around aimlessly. So I took a moment to figure out my next steps. The was only one other way I could go. So I started in the opposite direction and a few of us were telling people coming the other way that the police were turning people around. From time to time I would see someone overcome with fear or grief just sitting on the sidewalk or a stair. I sat down next to one woman who was staring at the ground and asked her if she was OK.
She said, "I know people who work there."
My throat clenched shut, I finally said "Me too."
She leaned against me. I said "We gotta move north. The cops are saying we can't stay here" I told her what they said about gas leaks. She looked at me, nodded. We got up and started north. I lost her in the crowd somewhere along the way.
It was beginning to remind me of scenes I had imagined from listening to the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. We were like refugees. The general murmur of fear from people around me wondered if would we be attacked again and if anyplace was safe?
My cell phone still refused to connect, so I waited on another line for a pay phone at a gas station. People were talking about terrorists, loved ones, and coworkers. When my turn to use the phone finally came, I found that somehow the office phone system was still operating. I tried several numbers, but I still had no luck getting in touch with anyone from work. I decided to leave an outgoing voicemail message saying that I was OK.
Walking northward, I saw a crying woman pushing a baby in a stroller. An ambulance pulled up and an EMS worker started talking to her. People were in tears; men, women and children. I also saw people helping each other, consoling each other. It was ordinary people performing little acts of heroism. The best part of New York City came out that day.
Then people started screaming again. Everyone walking with me just stopped and turned to witness the fall of the second World Trade Center tower. I was further away than I was when the first tower fell, but the effect was still the same. Another melting candle, then a cloud of dust and smoke and finally a blackened, boiling sky. Screams and sirens were coming from everywhere. I stood and looked at the empty space for a long time, not really knowing what to do except to keep moving.
I started northward again thinking now about getting home, or if I couldn't do that, where to stay. I have friends who live in the city, but I had no clue where they lived or even what their phone numbers were. Then I thought of trying to call my girlfriend, Elisabeth. She worked in NJ. But when I finally got to another phone, I had no change and my calling card's toll free number wasn't working. In frustration, I flipped open my cell phone, hoping the batteries weren't dead yet. I dialed her work number and by some miracle it rang and she answered. I tried to hold back my tears.
I asked Elisabeth to see if she could email some of our friends who lived in the city to find out if I could stay with them. I wanted to tell her what was going on, but I was worried about the amount of juice left in my cell phone. So I said I would wait for her to get back to me or I would call in 45 minutes. Whichever came first. We exchanged I love yous and I shut the phone, hoping it's dying batteries would hold out for one more call.
I noticed that the crowd was thinning a bit. A lot of the crowd passed me by while I was talking on the phone. So I walked north on Sullivan Street with the rest of the stragglers. Then sound of jet engines filled the air. We all stopped, looked up and watched as two jet fighters cut through the sky above us. What did it mean? Was it war? Nobody knew.
More walking. I came to a corner and stopped when I heard the sound of organ music filtering into the street. I was outside a church on Sullivan St. and paused a moment. I thought briefly about going in to rest and pray, but the thought that my phone might not work inside stopped me. I felt guilty as I walked away.
I decided I was going to go to Washington Square Park. So I continued north on Sullivan. The day was getting a little warmer and I was starting to feel thirsty. I walked into a corner bodega and stood in front of a refrigerator case full of all different kinds of ice cold drinks. Trendy herbal teas with names like Memory, Health, Stress, Energy and Power stared back at me and I had to make a choice. I narrowed it down to stress or energy. "Stress?" "Energy?" "Stress?" "Energy?" Smirking at my indecision, I finally chose Energy. I paid for the drink and went out into the street. It may not have been this way, but I remember feeling like the street was suddenly deserted and I was the only one there. I opened the bottle and swallowed the green tea with exotic tropical and citrus fruits as it said on the label. Funny how I remember that, but not if there were people near me.
Then my phone started vibrating. It was Elisabeth. She told me that our friends, Ian and Shea, lived on Sullivan St, which happened to be the street I was standing on, and that they were waiting for me. They told her that if need be, I could stay there overnight. They are probably two of the coolest people I know. I thanked Elisabeth profusely and told her I was going to be OK.
Their address was south of where I was standing. So I turned around and walked back down the street. Now I noticed the crowd of people around me. I was walking against the flow. People's faces looked tired, scared, and haunted.
When I finally got to Ian and Shea's apartment they buzzed me in and I went up the stair and saw Ian coming the other way. I was so happy and relieved to see a familiar face that I finally let the tears fall. I went into their apartment and gave Shea a big hug. I sat down on their couch. The television was on. Images I had seen in real life were playing over and over on the screen. It was surreal, watching the same scene from different angles. The towers collapsed again and again.
Ian told me that they had been near City Hall taking pictures. They saw one of the jet's engines just laying on the street. They had been only a few blocks away and ran when the first tower fell. He said they returned home, covered with dust. They were still trying to get all of the stuff out of their hair when they saw Elisabeth's message online and contacted her. We sat there, watching the TV wondering what we could do, wondering if there would be more attacks, wondering if this was war. I wondered if I would ever get home.
They let me use their computer. I jumped on AIM to check the my friends list to see if everyone who worked in the city was accounted for. Then I sent an email to my friends and I instant messaged a few others to let them know I was ok.
My phone vibrated again. It was one of my coworkers calling me from San Francisco. I didn't get to talk to him for very long before the phone battery finally died completely.
Shea served the sandwiches she made for lunch, while we continued to watch the news. We watched the planes crash and the towers fall repeatedly. We saw the fires at the Pentagon and learned about the plane crash in Pennsylvania. We heard that the city was shut down tight. I worried about my friends and coworkers. On TV, I looked for Chase Plaza, the building where I worked. The black and oily smoke plume from the fires obscured all traces of it.
Then I started worrying about how I would get home. Ian said I could stay with them if I wanted. I was worried about who would take care of Anime, my cat. We had the urge to do something, anything, to help. We talked about going to give blood and getting away from the apartment for a while. Then an announcement came on the TV that ferry service had started to bring people back to New Jersey. Pier 11 down by the South Street Seaport was the closest point for me. I decided that, rather than stay in the city, I would go home. I could give blood another time.
So around 3:30 or so, Ian and Shea went to donate blood and I went the opposite way, back down Sullivan Street. Back downtown. Back toward the site that would be called Ground Zero. The streets were mostly deserted. No cars. except for the occasional police car or fire truck. Virtually no people. As I walked a zigzag pattern down the streets making my way southeast toward the seaport, cops stood at some of the intersections stopping cars, asking people where they were going. For some reason they didn't stop me. I just kept going.
I walked across one street, down the next until finally I came to Canal Street. At this particular corner there were no police. Once I crossed, I was further south than I had ever been that day. Each step took me closer to home, but each step also took me closer to the scene of the tragedy. On one block I saw teenagers playing basketball in a playground. They seemed oblivious to what was going on a short distance away.
I continued down the empty streets. There were more and more cops, mostly ignoring me, directing people to the "safe" zones. As I got closer to the City Hall area of town I heard a faint but familiar noise. It was the sound of nails being hammered into wood. It echoed off the buildings, growing louder as I moved closer but I could not see its source. It was then that I smelled the nose-stinging odor of burning plastic.
I turned to go down one block that would have taken me past the courthouse, past a knot of police officers standing on a corner, but a female officer stopped me and asked me where I was going. I told her I was trying to get to the ferries at the seaport. She told me all the streets except one were closed. I backtracked a block, then continued on the designated path. The eerie sound of hammers still echoed all around, growing louder and louder.
I continued down Elk Street and came to City Hall Park. Crowds of people were milling about. It was then that I discovered the source of the hammering sound. A crew of men were building what looked like stretchers out of wood. Dozens of finished stretchers were being stacked up in anticipation of carrying the wounded to hospitals. I stopped and watched for a few moments, wondering if they needed help. I overheard someone say there weren't enough hammers. I decided to move on.
I walked down Park Row toward the Brooklyn Bridge entrance, still navigating toward the Seaport. A breeze was blowing and I began to notice a thin covering of gray ash and dust on everything and everybody. The smell of burning petroleum, plastic, rubber and other stuff I didn't want to think about grew stronger.
I crossed over the Brooklyn Bridge entrance ramp and started down the sloping road that ran alongside the bridge ramp. I saw people with dust masks on, trying to keep from breathing in the soot that was falling from the sky like polluted snow blown about by the breeze. There was partially burnt paper floating out of the sky. On the ground pages from books, calendars and newspapers were littered about. Some of the calendar pages had writing on them. A few hours ago all these things might have been on peoples' desks. There were sneakers and shoes, purses and gym bags just laying on the street, looking as if they had just been dropped there. More dust blew up and I realized the air was probably toxic, so I moved on.
On Gold Street I walked past a hospital annex. Doctors and nurses waited on the sidewalk with empty stretchers. I thought it was odd that no ambulances were pulling up. The doctors looked tired and nervous. I wonder how I looked.
Down Fulton Street, the Seaport was in sight, past closed-up shops and evacuated offices. I turned on to South Street and headed to the ferry pier. I was practically under the smoke plume from the fires only a few blocks away. I looked for the building where I worked, but I couldn't see it because it was obscured by the smoke. Now more people were walking with me, all heading to the ferry. I passed policemen, firemen and members of the National Guard all looking grim and worried. I walked up to one fireman sitting on the front bumper of his truck, I thanked him, he said something like, “it’s my job.”
When I finally got to Pier 11, the ferry was waiting to pick us up. It was practically empty when I went and sat down on a bench seat next to the window. I just sat staring out, watching the charred and smoldering papers falling from the sky onto the pier, into the water. It was like a macabre version of the aftermath of a ticker tape parade. It felt like it took an eternity, but finally the boat to be filled up with passengers and we pulled away from the dock.
As the boat floated out into the East River, I noticed a half dozen or so black helicopters on the heliport pier. They looked like a squadron of shiny black dragonflies resting on a giant rock. As we passed one took off followed by another. They flew out over Brooklyn and disappeared.
The fire and smoke was visible from a different angle now. The hellish red-orange-yellow-black flames obscured all traces of the where the Trade Center stood, except for an occasional glimpse of the skeleton of twisted steel. In the water, all kinds of debris floated on top and just under the surface, forming a line paper and plastic in the water where the East River met the Hudson.
As the ferry continued on its way, we passed west of the disaster. The buildings of the World Financial Center stood against the backdrop of fire and smoke. One of the buildings had part of its facade ripped away. Pieces of the World Trade Center stuck out of the buildings at odd angles. The Winter Garden was full of smoke and debris.
Finally, the boat docked in Jersey City and Red Cross volunteers greeted us. One of them seemed oddly cheerful as he offered us a place to sit and something to eat or drink. I think I took a donut and some juice and started the trudge to the busses. People around me were all talking about their experiences; a lot of them were similar to mine. The air was full of rumor and speculation. I ignored most of it. Instead I walked with them and kept looking back toward the city to see what I could see of the fire and smoke. A short walk brought us to where a line of busses were parked, waiting to take us to Hoboken.
A short while later, the bus pulled out and we got as close to the train station as we could before traffic stopped us. We asked the driver to let us out and we walked past make shift disaster relief centers where people who were covered with soot and ash were given showers and had their clothes cleaned.
Finally, I entered the station, found the train that would take me home, got on and sat down. We waited while the train filled up and then pulled out. I felt alone in a train full of people. I wished there was someone I knew, or who knew me.
It was about 7pm when I finally got home, a second floor apartment in a two-family house. I sat on the kitchen floor, hugging Anime, my cat and cried. After a while I noticed that a half dozen messages flashed on my answering machine. The first message was from Sue Kesselman, the General Manager of my office, who wanted me to call and let her know I was all right. This was the first I heard from anyone from my office. At least someone was OK. I started making calls. First to my girlfriend, then to my family, going down the list I had made.
I wrote this to remember what happened that day without the hype, the drama, and the politics. I wrote it for me, so I didn't have to carry the memories around in my head. Not that I can ever forget, nor do I want to, but I made the decision during the year afterwards to get all my memories down, while they were stll crystal clear.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I wasn't running late. I'm pretty sure I would have been walking out of the World Trade Center at the very same time the first plane hit. I think about how lucky I was. I'm no hero, All I did was witness what happened and feel lost. I never got closer than 3/4 of a mile to the World Trade Center.
I also think about all the people who died. My wish for the world is that we learn to make peace and we learn to live together. The world is a very small place and there's no room for hate. We need to learn from the tragedy of September 11th or we are doomed. Say "I love you" to someone special every day. You may never get a second chance.
FIFTEEN YEARS LATER:
(I removed the rest of the epilogue. It was getting really long. If you want to read it. It's on the previous years' posts.)
Since last year there's been a lot of life happening.
My father passed away in December. He had full military honors at his funeral. The ceremony was exactly as he wanted. He taught us loyalty and devotion. My mother passed away around a month later in January. She taught us how to love. My little dog Josie died in February of a bad reaction to anesthesia during a dental procedure at the Vet's office. It was a shock and a surprise. She taught me how to have fun. I miss them all.
On the positive side, I'm in a new relationship and things are going very well. I'm very optimistic about it and I can't wait to see what happens. I am still living in Oldsmar. I was quoted in an article in the Washington Post. Ballroom dancing is still part of my life and my latest routines included dressing up as the Joker, complete with purple tuxedo and green hair, while Julie wore a Harley Quinn costume. We rocked the house.