September 11 Attacks When the Future Changed
Horrors No One Ever Expected to See
Close Up and Far Away
You all know exactly where you were when you heard about the September 11 attacks, right? You may even remember what you were doing. It changed everything about us.
I've felt shy about writing of being so close to the disaster in 2001. Maybe it's because I was lucky, a witness, not a victim.
But I walked through my stunned, adopted hometown, shocked at a safe distance in a wounded city.
I decided to share my grain of history, what it was like to get through that day and the strangeness of those that followed, to add it to the record.
On a Terrible and Beautiful Late Summer Morning
Early on the morning of September 11th, 2001, a day without the slightest foreboding, I was ready to get going with a busy schedule, pulling things together in the office I shared with my friend Elliot at our company headquarters on John Street, a few blocks east of the World Trade Center.
Our building shook.
"What was that?" Elliot asked.
A sonic boom or some activity in the construction that was going on all around Wall Street those days, that was our consensus. Then something really strange happened. Scraps of paper began floating by our window, out a beautiful, clear blue sky.
Close to Broadway and its Canyon of Heroes, we'd seen paper - full sheets, replacing no longer used ticker tape - drift by our 10th Floor window before, tossed by people celebrating the Yankees' World Series wins from the sky high towers around us.
But this was different. The papers were tinged with burn marks, and a sickening smell and smoke drifted with them.
The first of the September 11 attacks had blasted the papers out of offices in the top floors of the World Trade Center as the first jetliner slammed into and almost through the North Tower.
Just Another Day Becomes Unforgettable
A Mystery Filling the Sky with Smoke and Flame
As rumors started about what was going on, consensus being that a small plane had accidentally hit the tower, Elliot and I took the elevator downstairs and walked the three short blocks up John Street to Broadway.
All the way, we could see the top of the North Tower burning like a tortured candle. The intensity of the flames was really striking.
Weird what you remember, but my practical side observed the extent of the fire so high in the sky, guessing at about the 90th floor, and wondered if they would rebuild all of it or just repair it as a shorter tower.
The cops were not letting anyone cross Broadway, just a block from the tower, and the crowd we were in was thickening with the curious and awestruck.
Then a screeching sound tore through the narrow streets around us, echoing in all directions, just before a huge plume of pinkish smoke filled the entire plaza in front of us, billowing out from the South Tower toward its twin, already burning.
Any doubts we had about the origin of the first fire were erased instantly. The crowd turned away and ran back down John Street toward the river. I think we all shared the same instant insight - this was a terrorist attack. We were on the fringe of Wall Street and who knew where the next bomb or whatever it was would go off.
While it seems a little odd now that Elliot went back upstairs in our building, given the extraordinary situation, but we did.
When we got there, our office manager was on her knees with some coworkers, praying. It was surreal. A couple of doors away from hers, my boss was considering whether he should go out on an appointment scheduled nearby. He nodded silently when I told him I didn't think he'd get much of anyone's attention today.
My wife called and told me she'd watched the second jet crash into the South Tower live on Good Morning America. Charlie Gibson thought something was awry with the control tower at LaGuardia and planes were being directed into the World Trade Center.
Yes, surreal. Nothing like it. Nothing making sense.
I called Yuki, my contact at a company in midtown where I had an appointment to bring in an IT help desk candidate. I had to cancel. She understood, of course, but then one more strange thing happened.
The young man I'd planned to introduce, a Japanese native speaker with limited English skills, walked into our reception area. He'd boarded a subway train on a sunny morning in Queens and unexpectedly got off next door to hell.
I picked up the phone. "Yuki," I said. "We'll see you in a half-hour."
In The Middle, Almost - A City Shattered
The Impossible Becomes Possible
When things get extreme, my first instinct is to get into a regular routine, if one's available.
What I could do was get Joe, the job seeker I'd recruited from Seattle, on a train up to Midtown to meet Yuki.
The Chambers Street Station on the 7th Avenue IRT was just a block and half up John Street, and we entered with smoke billowing two blocks ahead of us like out of the mouth of a volcano. There were more people on the street as businesses and especially the government agencies were evacuating, sending their workers home.
On a crowded #1 train, a state worker told us about looking from their windows across Broadway while people leaned out the windows for air before jumping out of the North Tower to escape being burned alive.
Surreal, because it could be nothing else.
Our train went exactly one stop before stopping. The doors opened and closed, each time accompanied by the same safety warning. They opened again.
An announcement was made that our train, normally express, was going local. Then after some more door closings and openings, they announced it was going express.
A sense that panic was setting in was hard to avoid as was an awareness that we were a block away from the fire and stuck underground.
Finally, the train got moving, going express after all. Later, we found out that the first tower to collapse had fallen into the tunnel a hundred feet behind us.
Transferring to the Shuttle at Times Square, I overheard a woman tell a friend that the World Trade Center had fallen.
"Just a fire, lady," I thought derisively. One-hundred story buildings don't fall down from fires in the crown.
I led Joe through along the passages that led from the Shuttle stop in Grand Central to Yuki's building. By now, they weren't allowing any visitors upstairs.
Yuki came down to meet us. She walked across the elegant lobby where lunchtimes were normally treated with live piano music.
"Someone on the subway said one of towers came down..."
"It did," she interrupted, "and the other one just fell too."
The September 11 Disaster in Books
The magnitude of the September 11, 2001 disasters spawned a market full of books that explain, show and analyze.
The Streets Of New York To Pennsylvania And Washington - Never The Same After The Terrorist Attacks on 9/11
A smart, versatile office manager, Yuki interviewed Joe in a Starbucks while I sat out of hearing range, sipping coffee and discovering that my cellphone was out of service.
Later, we learned that many of the antennas cells depended on were at the top of the World Trade Center and, now, in a destroyed plaza full of rubble. I hadn't talked to my wife since before leaving my office or the towers' collapse.
Outside, Joe and I discovered that panic had set in. The City had overreacted and shut down all the subways, even though no one had attacked them or threatened to, leaving millions to find some other way to get home, often at great distances.
Hoping to get Joe on a Queens bound bus, I watched as several passed on Madison, too jammed full to allow new passengers. We caught some luck on Park Avenue where I'd been expecting to have no choice but to start walking Joe all the way out into Queens.
All he had for directions was a subway map with one stop circled, no address, no phone numbers. Then, just a couple of blocks up the street, a cab discharged its passengers right in front of us.
"Can you take my friend out to Queens?" I asked through the window.
"Yes," the cabbie agreed.
I put Joe and his subway map in the back seat.
I knew I'd be walking from here. Passing Saint Bartholomew's Church, I noticed that the priests had already set out signs offering refuge for anyone who needed it. A nice thought. Some people still had their heads on.
Going over to Second Avenue, hoping to find the Roosevelt Island Tram still running, expecting not to, I kept my eyes out for a pay phone to call home. Each one had long lines of people whose cellphones were also dead.
Rather than wait in line, I kept walking.
Rumors were filling conversations all around. A plane had crashed on the Washington Mall, someone said. Another was headed for Los Angeles.
Chilling, of course, later, that the reality turned out to be worse than the rumors.
At the Tram station on Second Avenue, I found, as expected, that it was also closed, relegating even more people to the count forced by the subways to long hikes without rational justification, compounding heartbreak and tragedy with unnecessary toil.
Crowds were already flowing in a steady stream across the roadway of the Queensboro Bridge, the only nearby aboveground route from Manhattan.
A few cars shared the lanes, and a pickup truck went by, too fast for safety, with people inside and hanging off the outside.
It reminded me of the news films I'd seen of refugees evacuating the Balkans, grim and determined, getting as far away as our legs would take us.
A fit long distance runner, I had it easier than most, even in dress clothes on a hot, late summer day.
The city was uncommonly quiet, the daily roar of traffic, the endless chatter, both diminished. The Bridge is more than a mile across, and as we neared the peak, the impossible plume of smoke rising on the southern horizon was deadening.
I'm sure I wasn't the only one wondering about my friends still there when the towers collapsed. Unaware they'd fallen straight down, hurling dust clouds for blocks, I wondered how far a falling building could spread its destruction.
I remembered meetings on the 100th floor and above where the streets below were like toys to a giant. How many were crushed under the collapse? What friends would I never see again?
And how lucky was I that fate had gotten me out of there moments before the worst happened?
Fighter jets screamed down river over the bridge, seeming close enough to hit with a well-thrown rock.
Theirs or ours?
The stars and stripes never looked better.
But where were they going? What terror were they racing to stop?
A few people cried, mostly quietly. After the jets passed, everyone stopped talking as we watched them disappear into the smoke downriver.
At the first exit, I walked off the bridge and started up toward home, passing the giant Ravenswood Power Plant, which struck me as a possible next target.
As I walked across the short drawbridge onto Roosevelt Island, a weird sort of normalcy took over.
You couldn't see smoke anymore, and the sirens had quieted an hour ago. Our building's work crew was cleaning up the little park in front.
The 9/1l Attacks, Fertile Ground For Questions - A Crop Ripens
Because the alternative is so monstrous, I'm inclined to accept the official story explaining the disasters that resulted from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But serious and important questions have been raised - and, some believe, just as seriously debunked.
These books offer both sides of an issue that will probably never be satisfied to everyone's satisfaction.
What About The Official Story? - Do One-Hundred Story Buildings Collapse Straight Down From Fires At The Top?
Harder to believe than the official explanations about the towers' collapse was the collapse of WTC Building 7 later in the day. 7 was nearly as large in square footage as one of the towers, shorter but not as narrow. It never caught fire but fell straight down too. Inside were the offices of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Scenes From 9/11 Forever In Memory
The September 11 attacks struck in three places, with the World Trade Center getting a double hit. Here is what some of it looked like.
Make Your Vote - The Official Story of Conspiracy
There are passionate views on either side. What do you think?
Were the 9/11 attacks what our government says they were or something else?
Anyone can vote.
Home, 9/11 Attacks On TV
Safely Home, In Shock
I've always enjoyed coming home to my wife and cats in our great apartment along the East River, but today, it was more a relief and a refuge.
The television was on and, I realize now, in shock, I sat there and watched them replay the airplane hitting the South Tower and the unbelievable, but undeniable collapse of the towers.
For the first time, I heard about the Pentagon and the plane that went down in Pennsylvania. I just sat there.
"All morning, the FDR was filled with firetrucks with their sirens blaring. Then, there weren't any more," my wife told me.
The FDR borders Manhattan across the river from us, and it was a main route for emergency vehicles hurrying to the disaster scene. Many of the emergency workers who passed that morning met their worst fears.
Police officers and firefighters always know tragedy is routinely close for them. A tragedy this big could not have been imagined by any sane person.
My sister called. I told her I agreed with Mayor Giuliani. The death toll was going to be more horrible anything we could be expected to bear.
The pain finally was so great it had to be reduced to numbers. No one could endure the mountain of individual tragedies that 3,000 deaths accounted for in New York, Pennsylvania, Washington and in so many other places touched across the world.
What struck me as the day wore on and the news reports accumulated was the tiny number of injuries.
Triage units had been set up at nearby hospitals, but victims never came.
A television reporter at St. Vincent's in Greenwich Village was left with shots of empty wheelchairs and stretchers, none of any help in a tragedy so powerful only a few were spared.
An Answer To Terror Rises From The Rubble
After the wreckage from the 9/11 attacks was cleared away, a new Freedom Tower rose to in the skyline, 1776 feet in the American tradition.
Back to Normal?
Now that the Freedom Tower has been topped off and it's readied for occupancy, it's hard to look back and wonder how much we've learned.
Sadly, as a country, we raised few objections as we responded to violence with greater violence. In Afghanistan, where the plot to destroy the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and more was said to be hatched, the loss of lives continued for ten terrible years.
Many more civilians and soldiers have died and continue to than all those on 9/11. Does anyone believe we're safer?
Have all the deaths been worth the costs or the loss of freedoms we once took for granted?
Maybe the worst thing in the long run is that few here or abroad expect America to reliably do the right thing anymore, to stand by our ideals and respect for freedoms. Trust may have been our greatest loss.
Still, after all the struggles involved in putting a new World Trade Center building up, we might take a lesson about fixing on a goal and working through to achieve it.
That goal, I hope, is no more war and no more of its closest relative, terrorism that claims innocent civilians.
© 2013 David Stone