9/11: Disbelief on a Beautiful September Day

I recall that 9/11/2001 was one of those happy September conspiracies of late summer warmth and a radiantly crisp blue sky. I grooved on the weather, how good it looked and felt, wishing I was fishing at the beach, even as I headed downtown to a business meeting.  It’s that gorgeous sky, marred so horribly by the smoke, flames, death and destruction, which I remember most. And ever since, I’ve not been able to savor a tender September morning without sad longing for the way beautiful days existed before 9/11.  What follows is a memoir I published that fateful day.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: The digital clock above the entrance to Penn Station read 9:08 a.m. I was uncharacteristically early for a meeting near Battery Park in lower Manhattan. Biding my time at the Long Island Railroad station, I went street side to a bank, and then attempted a cell phone call or two. The calls did not go through. 

I thought little of it. Two emergency vehicles zoomed south on Seventh Avenue.  That didn’t seem unusual, either. Then one police cruiser sped past furiously weaving and dodging traffic with tires squealing on the turns.

I typically rode the IRT subway downtown from Penn to Rector Street, emerging literally in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers.  But at the Fourteenth Street station, service was terminated because of an “explosion downtown.” I switched to a local train across the track and, as it left the station, the conductor announced all passengers would have to exit at Chambers Street because of a “police action.” I contemplated how far I’d have to walk and congratulated myself for being ahead of schedule. But in the back of my mind, the image of that police cruiser and the sounds of sirens wailing at street level awakened an ominous fear.  

A horrible reality revealed itself as I emerged at Chambers and West Broadway. I was five blocks north of what was rapidly devolving into hell on earth. Dead ahead, the Twin Towers reached imperiously into a remarkably clear and brilliant September sky. I heard myself whisper: “My God!” With utter disbelief, I stared at thick black smoke billowing forth from a gaping multi-story wound high up on the north tower.

I could see the second tower also ablaze. Fire was visible within the building’s torn facade. At times, the flames emerged, licking three or four stories of the exterior. My eyes kept returning to the north face of tower number one. About eighty-five stories up, there was a huge triangular wound, perhaps 10 stories tall. It easily measured half the building’s width. Whatever ripped through that wall had definitely done so by entering it–not by exploding from within. I thought missile; a very large missile.

On the street, the stream of emergency vehicles was unrelenting. In ten minutes I counted no less than 30 ambulances, fire engines, police vans and cruisers as well as unmarked cars, speeding downtown toward this disaster unfolding a few blocks south. The streets were crowded with pedestrians who stood, as I did: awestruck, motionless, necks craned upward in silent, hypnotic horror. We were numb with the knowledge that we were witnessing a real life version of Towering Inferno.

My cell phone was useless and customers lined up a dozen deep for pay phones. Police officers began running north on the avenue, shouting for everyone to “get back, get back.” A cry went up from the crowd as we hastily retreated north without really knowing what we were running from. It was  9:45 a.m. 

I stepped into a corner deli and viewed a television news account explaining that two hijacked airliners had crashed into the twin towers and a third into the Pentagon. A fourth was crashed on the ground in rural Pennsylvania. On the screen was the same otherworldly view that held my eye-witness gaze on the street. Smoke and flames poured from the World Trade Center buildings in an eerie silence. On TV it seemed like a science fiction movie. Outside in the street, it most obviously was not.

I could only conjure questions as I returned to stare at the horror, which had no resolution. Were there passengers on those airliners? Certainly. Was there any warning before the crashes? Probably not. Was this the work of suicide terrorists? Without doubt. How could such an enormous and murderous plot be orchestrated? Whoever did this aimed to achieve major destruction and a multitude of death using the greatest of willful hate, uncommon malice, and elaborate planning. They didn’t come to bunt.

Pieces of the buildings steadily peeled away into the cobalt blue sky. Some plummeted to the ground. Other debris gently floated downward, almost poetically.  I learned later that some of what fell to earth was human beings. The viciously hot fire that continued to grow and consume the skyscrapers made a death leap preferable to roasting alive.  

The oily odor of the smoky fire filled my nose.  The chalky white dust that descended to the ground stuck to my sweaty forehead. Emergency vehicle sirens of every type screeched a loathsome soundtrack. The crowd remained mostly calm and quiet, transfixed by the unholy image of these majestic buildings slowly incinerating. Like me, I was sure, they were consumed by private thoughts of dismay, confusion and fear. How many people were in the buildings? How many were able to escape? What was the evacuation like? What had become of my colleagues? Were they okay?  Were they in harm’s way? Our meeting was to have begun just then. It was 10 a.m.

That’s when the unimaginable happened. As if in slow motion, the upper part of the south tower began to collapse. A deep rumble sounded as twenty or more of the uppermost floors compressed with only the slightest tilt. It seemed as if the steel framework simply melted. My mind raced with hope that the top would simply fall away. But with a quickening pace, the building literally compressed beneath the weight of its upper third. In seconds, smoke and dust plumed upward and the tower disappeared. The roar of its destruction increased in volume and pitch and the crowd gasped. Cries and wails quickly followed. 

In great haste, the crowd retreated uptown on the avenue. We were followed by a wall of dirty white smoke and dust some 10 to 15 stories high that filled the street canyons north of the tower. I stopped two blocks north, close to Franklin Street, and looked back. The North tower stood alone. Debris filled the air. Smoke and dust swirled where there was once a skyscraper. Surely nothing remained but rubble and carnage below. How many firefighters and policemen speeding to the scene in the last hour, were caught in the collapse? Nausea overcame me and I gulped for breath that I could not find. Tears welled in my eyes. This could not be happening.

I remained numbly in place as the crowd streamed by, crying openly or shouting invectives. “Lord help us. Lord help us,” said one weak and wobbly woman who would have collapsed but for the support of two companions. “Now we’ll see; now we’ll get them; now we’ll see,” one man repeated as he marched in a brisk, long-stepped pace, a tense grimace on his face. As if stumbling late to a sporting event, a middle-aged man asked me in halting English: “The small tower, it fell down?” 

“Yes,” I answered, not bothering to explain the optical illusion that led him to believe the towers were of different height. It was no longer relevant. But mostly, the crowd was silent as they trooped uptown; somber, like war-ravaged refugees deserting a bombed-out village. Weren’t they?

I continued to redial my cell phone, hoping to get through to my family, my office, and my colleagues who were somewhere near ground zero. Nothing. Fighter jets occasionally passed overhead. A helicopter danced dangerously close to the flaming tower. My eyes stayed glued to the remaining tower and I wondered if it too was doomed. The smoke thickened and poured more heavily from the top of the building. I guessed that the roof was breached.

Like blood from a mortal wound, a huge cloud of black smoke suddenly belched from the gash in the north building. It was clear that the second tower was going down. The gleaming communications antenna above the 110th floor had remained visible all morning; a brave, war-torn standard. Now, it tilted and sank into the smoke as a ship’s mast might surrender to the sea. A sickeningly familiar whoosh and rumble, the signal of a skyscraper consuming itself, repeated. The semi-solid smoke and dust rose in a fountain-like spray, arcing like leaves of a hideous giant houseplant. The blinding cloud reached ever higher as the building’s mass simply evaporated below. One long steel pillar remained staggering. I rooted for it as a symbol of survival, a sign that all was not lost, that the incomprehensible destruction I had witnessed in little more than an hour was not total. Then the beam wavered, collapsed, and was gone.

I looked on. But where the sky once had been backdrop to two glorious landmarks of New York’s grandeur, there was only air. Dirty, tomblike air. Emptiness filled my view. I bowed my head and turned to walk north, joining the throng in sad silence.

It was 10:28 a.m.

One Response to “9/11: Disbelief on a Beautiful September Day”

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