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Looking Down Bob

Never forget. It's about the people, not the politicians.

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.

That day, 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 downtown 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 Street PATH Station. The crowd trudged up the stairs, taking me with it. Outside a church bell tolled continuously. I 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" and "that rules out an accident, 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 the sound of 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. Damn Verizon. 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 wasn’t in any danger. During that time, a line of people formed behind me, so I hung up the phone 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 fireflies 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 it mixed with the bells, shouts, screams and sirens. The sound 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 a New York City firefighter. Other coworkers who had evacuated from the building where I worked were far closer than I was. They were running for shelter in the subways, in the doorways of buildings and under cars, covered with pulverized concrete dust.

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 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. I also noticed the tears in his eyes. At that moment, I gave up the thought of meeting up with my coworkers. Instead I decided to let people know I was ok and then get 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 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 on the march. We had no idea if we would be attacked again, if anyplace was safe.

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 any place 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.

Suddenly, 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 a blackened, boiling sky. Screams and sirens hung in the air. I stood and looked at the empty space for a long time, not really knowing what to do except to get moving.

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 hoping it's dying batteries would hold out for one more call.

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 phone 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 bodega and stood in fromt 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. 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 the street was suddenly deserted and 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 Continental Airlines and Shea worked for a Projekt Records. 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. It was surreal, watching the same scene from different angles. 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. They were still trying to get all of the stuff out of their hair when they contacted Elisabeth. 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.

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 one of my coworkers calling me 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 and learned about the plane crash in Pennsylvania. We 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 black and oily smoke plume from the fires obscured all traces of Chase Manhattan Plaza, the building where I worked.

I worried 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 also wanted to do something, anything to help. 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. 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 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 children 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 sound. 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 the source of the sound. It was then that I smelled the acrid odor of burning plastic.

I turned down one block that would have taken me past the Courthouse, past a knot of police officers standing on a corner. A female officer stopped me and asked me where I was going. She 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 crew 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 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 and being 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. A few hours ago, I thought, 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 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 still couldn't see it. 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.” I wonder how many more times he’s said that since that day.

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 macabre version of the aftermath of a ticker tape parade. It felt like it took an eternity for the boat filled up with passengers. But it finally did and then 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 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. All kinds of 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.

ONE YEAR LATER: 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 people what I witnessed, first hand. I wasn't a hero, I wasn't hurt, but I was there.
TWO YEARS LATER: Now two years have passed since that day. I’ve rewritten small parts of this because I remembered some small detail or found something slightly out of sequence. Since that day I married Angela Weller, the woman who makes my life complete. My grandmother has passed on. My niece, Alexandra, was born. I was laid-off from my job at Royal and was unemployed for almost 9 months. Now, however, I have a temp job in downtown New York City, only a few blocks from the site of the disaster. During one a lunch break, I went back to the site of the disaster and so much has changed. There is now a history of the World Trade Center, New York City and the downtown NYC area posted the fence surrounding the site. Construction of the new PATH station has made the site show the hope of its renewal. Plans to construct a new World Trade Center have been put in place, while the plans for a memorial are still being debated. I can’t wait to see what arises from the site. Whatever it is, I hope it’s a magnificent and fitting tribute.
THREE YEARS LATER: Three years have gone by. Still, in some ways, this seems like it just happened. I made some minor changes to the text, but now I find that I am forgetting more details than I remember. Today is the first time since the tragedy that 9/11 falls on a Saturday. Today is also the first time that I have not been in NYC on the anniversary. Looking back and find that I have much to be thankful for. Angel and I have moved to find a new life in Tampa, Florida. We now own a cute little bungalow. Angel is working for Coca-Cola and I just started a new job as a supervisor at Nielsen Media Research. My niece, Jennifer, graduated from high school and started college. Although I miss my family and friends, I know that things will be better for us here. I also miss the city, but I know it will go on without me. More importantly, Angel and I have much to look forward to and I can't wait to see what the future will bring.
People who went to work that morning, with the brilliant sunlight on their faces and the crisp breeze on their skins had no clue what the rest of the day would bring, no more than any of us did; that day or any other. Each day is a blank page on which to write. Fill it with good things.

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*hugs* much love to you today. :)

I was actually just relaying your experience to a friend last night, whom I'm going to give the link to this entry to. Glad you posted this.

Thank you. Yours is becoming the only re-telling of 9/11 that I want to hear because it's simple & real, with none of the mawkish or patriotic trappings that this day has become prey to. Thanks for reminding me it's about the people.

This is right on the money... I know I've told you before, but, as trystbat has said, yours is one of the only ones I want to hear: honest, simple, and about the people. As always, thank you for this.

The most powerful account of that day I have heard yet. Many hugs to you.

The way you tell it I can visualize almost everything.

**hugs** Thank you for sharing this with us. I think trystbat said it best, so I'll leave it there.

trystbat posted a link to this.

Thank you for your post. I enjoyed reading it for a number of reasons.

Thanks so much for sharing this Bob. It was really special. Hope things are going well in your new home, they seem to be... hugs.

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