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Looking Down Bob
theonebob

To all those who I didn't know but should have. To all those I knew but should have known better.

September 11, 2001

My name is Bob Westphal. On September 11, 2001 I lived in Clifton, NJ. I worked at Royal and SunAlliance, an insurance company, on the 38th floor of Chase Manhattan Plaza, only 2 blocks away from the World Trade Center.

The weather was beautiful. The skies, a clear deep blue, virtually cloudless. The air was warm with a hint of impending autumn. It was an almost perfect day. Me? Running late for work. My normal commute usually gets me to the WTC 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, oblivious to the world around me.

Around 8:50 as we arrived in Hoboken, there was a stir on the train about a fire on the World Trade Center. I was engrossed in my book. I did not see it. Out in the station, an announcement came over the PA: The PATH trains into the WTC were not running. There were no other details.

Damn, I thought. Now I'm going to be really late. Luckily, the other 33rd St. PATH train was still running. So I got on with the idea that I would go up to Christopher St. and take a subway to work. On the train someone mentioned that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. My first thought was that one of those small tour planes or helicopters had somehow gone out of control. A murmur of disbelief. What a horrible accident. The man standing next to me said his daughter worked in the building. Today, I thought, was going to be an interesting day.

It was about 9:10 when I got to the Christopher St Station. The crowd trudged up the stairs, taking me with it. Outside a church bell tolled continuously. Walked to the corner, looked south, saw the Twin Towers burning. A grim, broken slice 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 nearby. "A second jet has hit the buildings." "Probably the work of terrorists." Sirens whined as police cars and ambulances and fire trucks flew down the avenues toward the towers. The rest of the day would be accompanied by screaming sirens.

I tried to call my office to let them know where I am and find out what was going on but I couldn't get a connection on my cell phone. On top of that, its batteries were running low. Found a pay phone, I called my office's main number. The automated greeting played at me. Checked my voice mail, I heard a nervous sounding call 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 not in any danger. During that time, a line of people formed behind me, so I hung the phone up and started to make my way downtown toward work. I hoped they were all grouped somewhere close by and it wouldn't be too hard to find them. The thought that there was going to be danger 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. I found another unused pay phone and called my sister. She burst into tears at hearing my voice. I told her I was ok, don't worry, and to let the rest of the family know.

I kept walking downtown working my way over to 6th Avenue. I also tried to keep the towers in view to watch the progress of the fire. I thought it didn't look so bad and even that the fire might go out. Here and there, people were clustered around cars listening to the radios. I stopped several times to listen and to try to piece together what was happening. Sometime during that walk, I learned about the attack on the Pentagon. I heard about firemen rushing into the building. Still more police cars were rushing toward the disaster. I did not see it, but at this time people were jumping from the building from broken windows to escape the fires..

Finally, I got to Canal St. I was still determined to get to my coworkers and still unaware of the impending disaster. I was about to cross the street, when suddenly I heard shouting, screaming and crying. I looked to see one of the towers falling.

From where I was standing, it looked like the tower was a rapidly melting candle. Inside the falling debris, thousands of little flashes sparked. Electrical connections being yanked from their moorings looked like fireflys twinkling. Pulverized concrete poured out of the sides of the building and a few seconds later, all that was left was a tower of dust and fire. Then that was gone. Only one burning tower remained. A sick rumbling sound reached us and mixed with the bells, shouts, screams and sirens. It continued for a few long moments and then it was gone and only sirens and cries remained. We stood stunned. Until that moment, what we had just witnessed was inconceivable. The last thought on anyone's mind was that one of the towers would collapse. I briefly thought how weird the skyline would look with just one tower. I did not know, but at that moment, hundreds of people lost their lives. One of them a coworker who was attending a meeting in the WTC and the husband of another coworker, who was an NYC firefighter. Other coworkers who had evacuated from the building where I worked were far closer than me. They were running for shelter in the subways, in the doorways of buildings and under cars, covered with pulverized concrete dust.

Somehow 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 needed to let them know I was ok. I looked across Canal St and started to cross. A cop who was watching, stopped me shouting something like "Go north, there may be gas leaks." I looked at him and saw he was serious, noticing the tears in his eyes. I gave up meeting up with my coworkers and my thoughts turned to letting people know I was ok and getting to safety somehow.

I started in the opposite direction and a few of us were telling people to turn around. From time to time I would see someone overcome with fear or grief just sitting on the sidewalk or a stair. I went up to a few of them and started them northward. I sat down next to one woman who was staring at the ground and asked her if she was hurt.

She sobbed, " I know people who work there."

My throat clenched shut, I finally choked out "Me too."

She leaned against me. I said "We gotta move north. The cops were saying we can't stay here" I told her what the police said about gas leaks. She looked at me, nodded. We got up and started north. I lost her somewhere along the way.

It was beginning to remind me of scenes I had imagined from the War of the Worlds radio broadcast. We were like refugees on the march.

My cell phone still refused to connect, so I waited on line for a pay phone at a gas station. People were talking about terrorists, loved ones, and coworkers, wondering if more attacks would come, wondering if anyplace was safe. Miraculously, 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 left an outgoing voicemail message saying that I was OK.

Walking northward, I saw a distraught 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 saw people helping each other, consoling each other. In the dark horror of it all, I saw ordinary people performing little acts of heroism. The best part of New York came out that day. However there was still more horror to come.

People started screaming again, everyone stopped and turned to witness the fall of the second tower. I was further away but the effect was still the same. Another melting candle replaced by dust and smoke and finally blackened, boiling sky. Screams and sirens hung in the air. I stood and lookd at the empty space for a long time.

I started northward again thinking now about getting home, or if I couldn't do that where was I going to stay until I could. 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 Mayfield. She worked in PC Support at Montclair State College, 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 the 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 started 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 you's and I shut the phone. It was then that I realized that my phone charger was home.

I thought that it would probably be best for me to continue north. I was on Sullivan St. and noticed that the crowd was thinning a bit. While I stopped to use the phones a lot of the people had passed me. So I walked north with the rest of the stragglers. The sound of jet engines filled the sky. We all stopped, looked up and watched as two jet fighters cut through the air above us. Was it war? Nobody knew.

I came to 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 momentarily about going in to rest and pray, but something 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 convenience store and stood in fromt of racks 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. Now I had to make a choice. It was between two flavors. "Stress?" "Energy?" "Stress?" "Energy?" Chuckling 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 I was the only one in the street. 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 Dutton and Shea Hovey lived on the street I was standing on, Sullivan St. And that they were waiting for me. They said that if need be I could stay there overnight. Ian was a pilot for an airline and Shea worked for a small independent record label. 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 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 burst into tears. 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. The towers collapsed over and over 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. Covered with dust, they returned home. We sat there, watching the TV wondering what we could do, wondering if there would be more attacks, wondering if this was war. Silently I wondered if I would ever get home.

I asked if I could use their computer. I jumped online to check the Corpgoth list to see if everyone who worked in the city was accounted for. Then I sent an email to my friends on the Corpgoth list and I instant messaged a few others to let them know I was ok.

My phone vibrated again. It was my counterpart from San Francisco. I didn't get to talk to him for very long before the phone died completely. I don't remember if Ian and Shea's phone worked, I don't think it did because I didn't use it.


Shea served the sandwiches she made for lunch, while we continued to watch the news. We watched the planes crash and the towers fall again and again. We saw the fires at the Pentagon, learned about the plane crash in Pennsylvania, heard that the city was shut down tight and listened for things we could do to help. I worried about my friends and coworkers. The smoke plume from the fires obscured all traces on the building where I worked.

I worried about how I would get home. We talked about going to give blood and getting away from the apartment for a while, but then an announcement had come 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 should 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, toward the office. Back toward the site that would be called Ground Zero. The streets were mostly deserted of cars and pedestrians, except for the occasional police car or fire truck. 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 walked corner to corner, turning right then left and finally 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 children playing basketball in a playground, seemingly oblivious to what was going on a short distance away.

I still walked down the empty streets. There were more and more cops, mostly ignoring me, directing people whom were lost. As I got closer to the City Hall area of town I heard a faint but familiar sound. It was the sound of nails being hammered into wood. It echoed off the buildings, growing louder as I moved on. But I could not see the source of the sound. I also noticed the faint smell of something burning.

I turned down one block that would have taken me past the Court House. A female cop stopped me and told me all the streets except one were closed. I needed to backtrack 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 upon City Hall Park. Crowds of people were milling about. It was then I discovered the source of the sound. A bunch of men with hammers were building stretchers out of wood. I stopped and watched for a few moments, wondering if they needed help. Dozens of finished stretchers were being stacked up in anticipation of carrying the wounded to hospitals. I overheard someone say that he asked to pitch in and he was told there weren't enough hammers. I decided to move on.

I walked down Park Row toward the Brooklyn Bridge entrance, still aiming myself at 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 worse.

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 and blown about by the breeze. The breeze also brought singed paper floating out of the sky. On the ground, there were pages from books, calendars and newspapers littered about. Some of the calendar pages had writing on them. That morning all these things were 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 knew the air was 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 ambulance 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 created by the fires. I looked for the building where I worked, but I still couldn't see it. More people were walking with me, all heading to the ferry. I passed policemen, firemen and now members of the National Guard all looking grim and worried.

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 papers falling from the sky onto the pier, into the water. It was like a sick version of the aftermath of a ticker tape parade. I don't know how long it was before the boat filled up with passengers and finally 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 dragonflys 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. Debris floated in the water and formed a line 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 disaster. One of the buildings had part of its facade ripped away. Pieces of the World Trade Center stuck out of the building at odd angles and 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 incongruously 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. Rumor and speculation abounded. I ignored most of it, instead I walked with them and kept looking 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 cover with soot and ash were given showers and had their clothes cleaned.

Finally, I got on the train that would take me home. 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. I walked into my 2nd floor apartment and 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 my General Manager, Sue Kesselman, 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, then I went down the list I had made.

Now as I finish writing this, it is exactly one year later. This account has taken me months to finish. Much has changed, to me personally and to the city I love. I'm writing this, so I remember what happened to me that day. So I can tell my children and grandchildren what I witnessed, first hand. I wasn't a hero, I wasn't hurt, but I was there.

I can't even imagine what it must have been like.
Watching a flickering image on a TV could NEVER give me the feelings that you had.
Glad you are ok.


(((((HUGS))))) I Love You Brother.....

-A33

As I was reading your post with teary eyes...the paragraph on the tea decision made me chuckle as well. Thank you for sharing with us what were some of the most difficult hours of your life.

(((Bob))))

Thank you for sharing- I know what a hard day it was.

Love you, friend.

Dear Bob,

Thank you for that. I was hoping to experience some sort of catharsis today. I was not expecting it so soon. Your descriptions really convey that day, and definitely got me crying. I think sharing these stories really helps, and it's good to remember what it was like.

An amazing account. It seems that it's becoming easier to lose the importance of what happened in the wake of tacky commercialism (witness the singing red, white, and blue teddy bear). Thanks for reminding us what the events did to a person. *hugs*

Thank you for sharing your memories with all of us. I'm blessed to have you in my life.

Bob, I remember sitting by my computer, at work, waiting to hear from you and the other NYish corpgothers...

(((HUGS)))

Thanks for sharing...

(Anonymous)
Thanks for giving us a glimpse into what you experienced.

-david

*hugs*
Thank you for writing this.

Honestly, you are the only person that I "know" who was there. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

*hug*

I just wanted to thank you for sharing this with us. I could say lots of other useless stuff, but that's really what matters.

Thank you.

Bless you, Bob, and thank you.

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