It rained hard the night of September 10, 2001. My friend Tim and I went to see Apocalypse Now Redux at the Astoria, New York City’s largest theater. The rain was torrential and we ran along 44th Street from awning to awning to get to our destination. The inside of the theater was over air-conditioned as NYC theaters often are. To keep warm we covered our arms with napkins. Apocalypse Now was one of our favorite movies — we often spoke together in lines from it — but Redux is real long and I fell asleep at parts. By the time we left, the rains had stopped. I took the bus, but Tim insisted on walking. With his long strides and the post-rain congestion, he keep pace for quite a while.
When I woke up the next day, my thoughts were dominated by the proposal I was to give that Friday at a customer. I was working at a company called Cysive, an internet development consulting firm born of the dotcom era and destined to die with it. Already the bust had set in, and projects were sparse. I hadn’t worked on anything since joining the firm in December and this represented a huge opportunity for the office.
My commute involved riding the 1/9 train down from 72nd Street to South Ferry. Our office was at 17 State Street, on the tip of Manhattan right next to the building which looks like a tin can. I often hopped on the express from 72nd Street to Chambers but don’t recall if I did that day. We arrived at the Cortlandt Street–World Trade Center station and everyone got off normally. But then there was some shouting. I thought I heard someone yell “HE’S GOT A GUN”. People rushed back onto the train, then things calmed down and about half of the returnees got off again. I didn’t think much of it – this was New York after all. It was about 8:50.
My first real inkling that something unusual had happened was when I got out of the South Ferry Station and saw I had several messages. One call was from Karla, my former girlfriend. After three years together, we had broken up earlier in the summer. I was on a low minutes plan so was gonna wait till I got to the office to listen to the messages. When I arrived, a couple of my co-workers, Peter and Sunil, and my boss Pat immediately greeted me with the news that there was a fire or something in the World Trade Center, possibly caused by a small plane crash. Their description didn’t seem like a major world event, and I now had another thing on my mind besides the proposal — I really needed to go to the bathroom.
The bathroom in our building was in the middle of the building and the concrete gave the sense of a bomb shelter. I passed a few minutes, gave the toilet a big flush, then returned to the office. Again I was greeted with news but this time with much more urgency. There had been a big explosion at the World Trade Center (I had heard absolutely nothing in the bathroom). Suddenly the proposal’s urgency began to recede.
We went downstairs and people were milling around, agitated. Some were crying. I remember hugging a black woman who was distraught. But I didn’t understand the tears yet.
We started walking up Broadway. I remember being with Pat and Lloyd. I was thinking of Karla, who worked in the World Financial Center. As we passed the Fidelity office, I could see that on the television President Bush was speaking about a terrorist attack. Paper was strewn everywhere and was still floating down from the heavens like confetti. There were other items intermingled: pictures, personal items, a shoe (this being New York I wondered whether it was from the towers or had been there already).
We reached the corner of Liberty Street and stopped. Before us stood the towers. Both with huge black smoking holes edged with a ring of fire. The atmosphere was calm. Police, people all stood looking up in shock. There was no crying, hardly any talking. Just shock. To see something so iconic, so expected, so everyday to the eyes of a New Yorker suddenly in a state was unthinkable.
It was even more personal for me because I had worked in both towers: during college as an intern at Shearson Lehman Hutton on the 102nd Floor of Tower 1, and on the 95-96th Floor of Tower 2 in 1993-94 at Sumitomo Bank, before they moved office to 277 Park. They had been spooked by the earlier World Trade Center bombing and proved prescient. I also had friends working there too. I had worked as a consultant at Marsh and McClennan several years back. At the time their office was in midtown, but several mergers later and they were on my old 96th floor of Tower Two. I had talked with my old boss, Sue Clyne, about a year earlier about a consulting assignment with them, but nothing had come of it. As it turned out, Sue was already dead. The other person I thought about was Jim, another consultant I had become close to during my stint at Marsh. Luckily, he had been late that morning and saw the events from the Jersey side.
As we stood there, shocked, someone jumped. It was in the distance, but he seemed a somewhat heavyset man in a yellow shirt. In my mind I picture John Candy. I think I heard him scream. The crowd cried out in horror.
After about twenty minutes, Lloyd looked at me, forlorn, and said let’s go back. I nodded. I still thought we’d give our presentation of Friday and the proposal began to again grip my thoughts. But not for long. We hadn’t gone two or three blocks back down Broadway when we heard a giant crash. Another plane? We had heard all planes had been grounded, but who knows? People were running panicked and yelling. Then came a big rumbling cloud of brown smoke from the first fallen tower. I was still young and in good shape and as I cantered away at 3/4 speed, I felt the strength of my legs and disdain for the smoke cloud I knew I could outrun. But then the smoke came from around the block and was before us as well. We were trapped. In the seconds it took to enclose us I wondered whether we would suffocate.
The smoke closed around me and suddenly everything was white. I was alone, not being able to see more than a few feet in front of me. I made my way to the left side of the street then groped my way along the building. There was a woman in front of me in a skirt also tottering along. I reached the entrance of the building and entered. It had a large open atrium where a crowd was taking refuge. A lone janitor was trying to tell people they couldn’t stay and at one point opened a door to try to usher people out before he was angrily shouted down.
I made my way to the lobby kiosk. It was attended by an Indian lady who was crying and giving out tissues. I wondered if anyone was grouping her with the terrorists. I wondered if she wondered that and was crying out of sorrow or fear or both.
I spent about half an hour in the building. The staff was giving out masks but becoming more adamant that people couldn’t stay. Anyway the air was clearing. I made my way back down to our office and met my colleagues outside. Already there were bitter jokes about I don’t remember what. Had we adjusted or were still just too shocked to realize the enormity of the circumstances. When we heard the second tower fall, we barely looked up. The air began to thicken again, so we headed to the shelter in the building basement.
After about another half hour, we returned to our office where we got on the Internet, emailed headquarters we were alright, and tried to contact our loved ones. I had an emotional message from my sister asking if I were alright. I couldn’t reach her but left a message. Karla called me from a pay phone she had stopped at on her way home. There was a big line. She was distraught. Her office was right near the towers and she had seen many people jump. She had taken refuge in a church or something near my office for a while but had gotten trampled, and though she didn’t know it yet, had broken her foot. She said she was heading home. I thought of going up there to make sure she was alright.
We passed some time in the office surfing the internet. Outside our building ambulances began to line up. As it turned out they had little to do. Generally, people either made it whole or they did’t.
It must have been 2 or 3 when Peter and I decided to leave the office and try to walk home to my apartment on West 82nd Street. The subways were all stopped so it would have been a long trek to his apartment in Brooklyn. We set out through Battery Park City determined to walk past the towers from along the water. Battery Park City looked like a war zone, covered in white chalky dust everywhere. We hardly passed a soul, but as we made our way to the walkway along the water we were stopped by police. They told us we couldn’t go through, and worse, that we had to get on a boat and get ferried over to Jersey. When we objected, they said either get on the boat or get arrested. We got on the boat.
The boat had its share of personalities. An old Irish lady and her daughter. The lady was having an anxiety attack and quietly murmuring about getting her medicines. Some drunk guy kept saying “parking lot, parking lot”, meaning that’s what we should turn the Arab Middle East into and that Palestinians were celebrating in the streets. He kept throwing beer cans into the river which struck me as somewhat less than patriotic. No one else shared his anger and at least one quietly whispered to me how silly he thought he was.
The boat made its way to the center of the Hudson. We were in the midst of a perfect late summer day, temperatures in the 70s, hardly a cloud in the sky… except for the huge brown smoke clouds around the towers. It reminded me of the pictures of smoking ships at Pearl Harbor. While we were on the water I reached my dad and he gave me the latest about the other attacks and rumors of planes still unaccounted for.
For some reason our boat wasn’t getting permission to land at Jersey City so they told us they’d try for midtown, which was fine with us, but that was disallowed too, so we ended up in Weehawken. There we were given the opportunity to ride buses to Giants Stadium, which we politely ignored. Luckily we were able to get a ride back to Manhattan from a ferry boat whose captain didn’t seem to care much. Besides us, the only one heading back was a photographer. He had been in town to cover a fashion show, but now had a different subject.
When we got to midtown, contrary to our expectations, empty cabs were everywhere. We got in with a Nigerian driver who laughlingly complained to us about how he got stuck getting from the Bronx to Manhattan, and how his silly supervisor wouldn’t cut him any slack despite the extraordinary circumstances. It reminded me of the janitors in the building, and the ships being denied landing. Even in a crisis, some people remain stuck in everyday mode.
We got to my aparment and I reached my sister. She asked me for a nearby pharmacy so she could get me an antibiotics prescription just in case the planes had been carrying anything biological.
Peter and I picked up the meds from a drugstore on 79th Street, then sat down for dinner outside at Cafe con Leche on Amsterdam Ave. Everyone was on their cellphones, reassuring friends and loved ones and relating events. The voices were calm and measured — very un-New York.
The trains were running again so Peter went home. I heard volunteers were needed so that night I rode my bike downtown, but was stopped at 14th Street and told this was not the case. This repeated. In the aftermath, the desire to help out far exceeded what could be done.
The next few days were muddled. The air quality downtown was bad so we all stayed home. Emails came from near and far, particularly Japan where I have friends.
A couple of weeks later I did the annual New York Cycle Club Escape New York century ride. Its name took on added significance. There we exchanged wild stories, such as that of someone who had been on the roof of the towers and floated down on a metal plate – untrue of course.
At karaoke, someone chose New York New York and everyone sang from the heart.
Marsh and McClennan had a memorial service and we recalled many who had died. Besides Sue, I wasn’t particularly close to any of them, but I remembered their faces, their mannerisms. Someone related he had been on the phone with a couple of our former colleagues who were stuck in a conference room desperately trying to use wet paper towels to keep the smoke from coming thru the door. Needless to say, they didn’t make it out.
The events of 9/11 dominated most every conversation I had for a long time. It was several months before I recalled spending a whole day where it didn’t come up. New York was a different place in the aftermath. People were soft-spoken — you could feel a reserve, and sympathy in much greater degree than usual. People gave each other the benefit of the doubt. I guess it had been brought home to us, on a very elemental level, that there were things much more important, and terrible, than the petty jostling and conflicts of our everyday lives. We had survived, and were wiser.