The first plane hit when I was underground. I emerged from the F-train at 34th Street, and began walking down 33rd Street, which passes directly behind the Empire State Building. It was a lovely day, and I had no idea at all that something unusual was happening—until I noticed all the cell-phones. Normally you expect to see a few people here and there talking on cell-phones, but I suddenly realized that over half the people on the street were on their phones, more than a few looking anxiously upwards at the Empire State Building. I paused to look myself, and I noticed that a Korean delivery van was parked a bit in front of me, its back doors propped open the way some kids do when they want to introduce the neighborhood to the power of their stereos. The driver had turned up the radio, and a group of people were listening intently, though I couldn’t quite catch what the announcer was saying. I asked a businessman what was happening, and he told me that a plane had hit the Twin Towers, and they were now evacuating the Empire State Building.
Jesus, how weird, I remember thinking. I used to work in the Empire State Building, and I had become so fascinated with it that I’d read a few books on its history. I knew that years ago, a small plane had crashed into the building, causing some structural damage and loss of life, but surprising engineers in how little impact it had upon the infrastructure. The Twin Towers were even bigger, and constructed in a way that put the steel supports on the outside—the building essentially hung from its own industrial exoskeleton. I imagined a small plane nested somewhere within the tower like a burning wound, at rest after collapsing through a few floors of prime office space.
I walked to my office at the corner of 33rd and Fifth Avenue, literally in the shadow of the Empire State Building. There, in the distance beyond the canyon of Fifth Avenue, a plume of grey smoke could be seen trailing towards Brooklyn. People on the street were looking south, talking excitedly into their cell phones. One Asian tourist asked a bystander if the smoke was normal; a passing German laughed and said, “Not even in this city.”
I got to the eleventh floor and met two co-workers, Anthony and Karen. This were pretty chaotic, with rumors flying about, and everyone frantically trying to get a line out. I tried calling LJ, Judy, Andrew, Jeff—but no one was there. I imagined them all on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, watching the spectacle from across the East River. Although it sounds ghoulish, I felt a stab of jealousy which I immediately regretted—they would have such a good view! Of course, I was still under the impression that it was an accident, a small plane; I even called my mother and told her not to worry. “We all think it’s a little weird,” I said, “But it’s no big deal.” After all, if something happens once in a city this size, it becomes integrated into the psychic landscape. As I gathered my stuff together, Anthony told me that the Pentagon was also hit. I laughed and said that was “insane,” dismissing it as just another rumor. I suppose I must have felt like I knew a lot. Andrew checked online, and found out it was true—American was being subjected to a terrorist attack.
A terrorist attack! The words slapped my face. As my friend Michael Seeber said later, this was the default party conversation topic among New Yorkers. It didn’t seem really possible; after all, we had all talked about it so damn much, as if examining it from every angle would somehow eliminate or marginalize the thing, reducing it to a cliché, a story, something removed from reality. Sure it was a topic of conversation, somewhere between being stranded on a desert island and an alien invasion. I mean, we had a bomb in the World Trade Center just a few years ago, hadn’t we already joined this club?
Although it was probably not the most intelligent decision, Anthony and I went up to the roof of our office to get a better view. And there they were, the Twin Towers, smoke pouring out of them. We watched for a few moments, mostly in amazement. But still, it seemed to be a rational event; and though we knew a few people must have died, we never expected that it was more serious than the bomb had been. I still had no idea their was more than one plane; nor that the planes were passenger jets. The Towers seemed wounded, but strong; damaged but defiant. They were as solid as the bedrock of Manhattan itself.
Returning to our office, we picked up Karen and made our way down to the street. Anthony was intending to head to his girlfriend’s place in Chelsea; I was going to walk with them and then catch the F-train back home to Brooklyn. I was a little worried that I hadn’t heard from anyone I knew. I was also worried about my friends who worked in the Financial District; I hoped their companies had the good sense to evacuate them.
It was walking down Fifth Avenue that things began to get more surreal. Oddly enough, the more surreal things got, the more real the whole event seemed to become. It was as if only by wandering outside the framework of a choreographed movie could events impress themselves upon my sense of reality. Delivery vans, SUVs and trucks were pulled over against the curbs, double parked on rapidly emptying streets. All of them had their windows rolled down, doors and hatches open, and all radios tuned to the same channel. The radio announcers sounded strange—turned up to high volumes, their distorted voices seemed to grow in height while simultaneously losing depth, stretched out in two-dimensional taffy. Crowds gathered around the vans, others wandered into the center of the streets—it didn’t matter, the cars were stopped as well.
From our viewpoint on 25th Street, we could see only one tower. A nervous man standing in the middle of the street turned to us and said, “The other one collapsed.” I remarked sagely, “That’s impossible,” and he just shrugged and said, “Look at it, man; where is it?”
I honestly thought it was just obscured by the smoke, or out of sight. We walked onwards, with me delivering my analysis like some half-assed expert: “That’s impossible,” I said to Anthony and Karen, “The buildings are build to resist this sort of thing, the Empire State Building withstood a plane crash, and the Twin Towers are stronger still,” and so on. Then the radio confirmed that I knew nothing: “One tower has collapsed.”
Right there everything changed. Up until that point, it seemed like a strange interlude in my day. I was having trouble really connecting to it. To be honest, I found it a bit exciting. Here was a true “New York Moment,” walking down a stilled Fifth Avenue with hundreds of strangers, watching the Twin Towers smolder. Of course I thought the fires would be put out soon; of course I thought the towers would remain standing. This would be just another one of those things, a tragedy to the few involved, but a sensational, remarkable day to the rest of us.
But one of the towers had just collapsed. Things would never be the same. Thousands of people were probably dead. The New York skyline had permanently changed.
The three of us grew very quiet. I could feel my perception get heavier, as if the air had doubled in density and I was standing in the middle of a bowl, with events and people receding towards the rim. I watched Karen’s face, and saw her eyes redden and tears begin welling up; I remember thinking to myself that I was watching tears form before my very eyes, that I was seeing a piece of information forever change another human being. I suddenly flashed on a momentary image of a cartoonish tear factory beneath Karen’s skin, some Rube Goldberg sequence wherein bad data enters the ears, gets processed by the brain, and little workers are then sent to the eyes to produce redness, swelling, and tears. I thought of Woody Allen movies, I thought of people falling 110 stories, I thought that Karen looked beautiful in her grief. Anthony reached out to comfort her; I was too busy looking under her face for some version of the truth to take shape. I remember being in wonder that she could cry for strangers, and feeling embarrassment that Anthony had the humanity I lacked to simply reach out and touch her arm. I felt like an asshole, my head full of facts, assumptions, and pointless cartoons. I felt shame that I had found it all to be exciting, and I felt even more shame that deep down inside, I was wishing that I could have been closer, close enough to have seen the building fall.
We began moving again, in a much more somber mood. I expressed my disbelief that a single plane could do all this; I was probably still trying to defend my earlier know-it-all posturing and misplaced faith in simple stability. Anthony told me that he heard it wasn’t a small plane, that two jet liners had smashed into the towers. Two hijacked commercial flights.
I had a brief moment where I thought I was dreaming. It was all too much like a Tom Clancy novel. I couldn’t help but admire the attackers, the same way that Richard Dreyfuss’ character in Jaws admired sharks. Perfect killing machines, I thought; followed by an uneasy reflection on the way I was using books and movies as constant references for what I was experiencing.
As we neared 23rd Street, we moved west. I said good-bye to Anthony and Karen, and then set out to the F-Train. It was closed. All subways were closed. If I wanted to get home, I would have to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I angled back to Fifth Avenue, drawn south by the remaining tower. I must confess, I felt a desire to get closer, to take in as much as I could and view the source for myself. I even rationalized it by saying that later I would write it all down, as if that somehow justified my desire for spectacle. I told myself that I had a responsibility to see all that I could see, that just trying to get away would be a form of moral weakness. People were dying, and I wanted to get closer so I could have a sharper “life-experience.” And yet, I truly thought—and still believe—that some things should have witnesses. The ambiguity disturbs me. Was I going from being a half-assed expert in construction and terrorism to being a half-assed journalist?
Whatever the answer, I continued downtown. The streets were almost empty of vehicles; occasionally an ambulance or police car would whir down the street, sirens cutting over the strained voices on the radios. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the radios; one voice floating down over the island, resonating from every delivery van, magnetizing people into shocked clusters as it drew us further into the horror.
On 14th Street I paused to watch the surviving tower. It was burning, a wide horizontal band of flame surrounding it near the top. It was awe-inspiring; it just boggled the imagination. The fire was so high, I had no idea how they would put it out. All I could think about was how they had changed our skyline. How we would only have one tower from now on, and how angry that made me.
Then the second tower just collapsed. And though I had earlier felt a shameful pang of regret I hadn’t seen the first tower go down, after seeing the second tower collapse I lost any illusions I might have been holding. Though it only took a few seconds, I can’t even begin to described all the emotions and impressions that flooded through those seconds, stretching my senses out on a web of disbelief. First of all, how it collapsed. It fell downwards and inwards—the roof literally dropped in, the great antenna pushing it down like the handle of a plunger. Noiselessly it fell into itself, and immediately streamers of atomized dust and smoke began billowing downwards like the tendrils of a jellyfish. Strangely, just as many streamers were simultaneously flung upwards as well. It just devoured itself, and then it wasn’t there.
I have never seen anything like this. Although I’ve now watched it a hundred times on television, no images, no matter how terrible or spectacular, compare to that moment.
When I first saw the Grand Canyon, I couldn’t look away for quite a while. It filled my head, it overwrote itself onto my every sense, it flooded my consciousness and vanquished every thought I had that didn’t revolve around its own sense of presence. I had seen pictures, photos, even movies of the Grand Canyon, but seeing it in personŠ? I was unprepared. Some things fill you with themselves as they paradoxically take you into their own being. They eventually leave go; after awhile, the sight of the Grand Canyon simply exhausted my perceptions, and my mind began working normally again. It moved me to some non-rational epiphany, and then the tide of awe receded and I came back into myself.
Seeing the tower collapse was like that, but it overwhelmed with horror rather than wonder. I felt that my whole sense of reality was being violated. I finally understand why people stand and stare at disasters bearing down on them; they are hypnotic in their immensity, and the first reaction is simple awe. I recall having the unusual thought that if the tower fell on me, it would be its right. Writing it down now, I see how stupid that thought was, but it did enter my mind at the time. Perhaps this is what the wrath of God is like.
I said that the tower fell in silence, which was only partially true. The first hint I had that the tower was falling was from a woman’s scream—my attention had been diverted for a second by a man arguing with someone by a hot-dog cart. As it fell, everyone on the street began shouting. We were far enough away that we were in no danger—this was not the sound of people screaming in panic. I don’t think I can describe what it sounded like, but I will say that it’s the most horrible memory I have from the entire day. It was as if everyone who watched the tower fall was crying out, voluntarily or involuntarily; thousands upon thousands of voices were shouting across the city. Many of them were yelling, “No! No!,” including me. I suppose we all had the same thought; it was both a denial of what we were seeing, and a plea to the tower or God or both. “No, no!” I swear, I could never replicate the urgency, the pleading, the hoarse agony of the sound, one simple word plucked from thousands of souls.
After the tower’s collapse, a current of shock ran through everyone on the street. It was like reality had just started up again. Some remained staring in shock, a few men near me started cursing, “Fuck, fuck, fuck” over and over again, one woman began praying; many, many people burst into tears. Two women behind me cried and fell to the street holding each other, another woman started wailing in a language I didn’t know. I was crying, too. It felt like a plug had finally been pulled in my soul, and all my disbelief, grief, shame, and horror came swirling out. I sagged down on the street corner and just sobbed. A street vendor flatly remarked to no one, “There went ten thousand people. They’re dead. They’re just dead. They just died.” One woman began beating against the arms of her boyfriend, begging him to get her off the island. He was trying to calm her down, but she just kept crying that she wanted to get away, and get away now.
I understood. Although rationally I knew I was in no danger, I felt completely exposed; my flesh was tight with goose bumps and my gut was shriveled in terror. I wanted off the island so badly, I swear I thought the sheer power of my desire would teleport me back home. It seemed inconceivable that I had to actually physically travel the distance.
After I stood back up, I began moving east, cutting down through the East Village and into the Bowery. It was a strange voyage for many reasons, but the strangest thing of all was that each area had a distinctly different “feel” to it. Cutting across 14th Street, I was still in the heart of the “witnesses.” People were crying, comforting each other, or just standing like numb statues. But by the time I got to the East Village, it was a different scene—shielded from a view of the World Trade Center, the people here hadn’t actually seen the towers go down. They could only see the smoke, a low cloud building up in the southwest. Still gathered around radios and vans, they were more angry than shocked, although some of them were even laughing, probably going on with their lives. Some were probably tourists. One taxi driver had a cardboard sign in his window, “Let’s finally nuke the bastards. Bush, this is your time!” A crude eagle and flag were drawn on the cardboard, but the flag had the stripes passing through the field of stars in the corner, as if they were added on as an afterthought. The driver looked at me, and saw I had been crying, and he quickly glanced away. He looked Russian.
I felt very weird entering this area—I was still shaken up, and I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. At one point I sat down on a stoop. And elderly couple passed by, and the woman was sobbing, which started me crying again. I wanted someone to comfort me; I just wanted to walk up to someone and cling to them. In a few minutes I realized that I was talking to myself, just like a New York crazy. As if on cue, a homeless-looking hippie on a scooter passed me, proclaiming loudly as he passed, “That’s going to haunt me. Oh, yeah, that’ll be in my nightmares. Fuck! I’ll have nightmares—fuck!” over and over again. I think the three most common words said in New York that day were “No,” God,” and “Fuck.”
I knew how he felt; or at least, I was beginning to grasp it. Intellectually I knew thousands of people had died; but all I could connect with was the loss of the buildings themselves. My beloved Twin Towers. How many times did I pause to admire them from the Brooklyn Bridge, the Promenade, from any street in midtown? I knew that some people found them blocky and inelegant, but I had thought they were damn near perfect, the very quintessence of a skyscraper, each one a mirror to the other, like Narcissus gazing at his reflection in the pool. They grounded southern Manhattan; they rose up from the flat waterline like an impossibility, making you marvel at how the ground could even support them. They were strong and arrogant and uncompromisingly powerful, and I loved them. I remember seeing a Philip Glass concert on the plaza between the towers, LJ and I lying on our backs, gazing up at their endless, dreamy height. I drank and danced at the bar there, I ate the most expensive dinner of my life there, I took out of town visitors there every chance I could; they were the center of my “New York by Night” vampire fiction. Nothing in this city gave me a greater feeling than going up to The Greatest Bar on Earth at night and leaning against the tall, convex windows, suspended in space above the jeweled city. It made me feel like Superman, like a god, it made me happy to live in a time when people built things like this. I first fell in love with New York City because of the Twin Towers.
And now they were gone. The terrorists didn’t only kill thousands of people, they psychologically disfigured our city. Every image, every movie, every postcard, every photograph, every logo that contains the Twin Towers will now mock us, reminding us of what we’ve lost—our people, our skyline, our security.
I wish I could say that I was feeling more for the lost people, but at that point they didn’t seem real to me. I knew that when I watched the second tower collapse, thousands of people probably died; but I was too numb to really understand it. I felt the emptiness in the city itself. It made me feel vain and shallow for some reason, like the character in Joyce’s “Araby.” After a while, I wasn’t even sure why I was crying. Because of the loss? The dead or suffering wounded? Or just seeing all this without having any one I love near me? Hadn’t I wanted to be closer to the chaos? I took a few breaths, and began moving again.
Heading towards the Brooklyn Bridge, I made the foolish decision to stay as close to the eastern shore as I could—which actually took me a bit out of the way. I passed through a crazy-quilt of Lower East Side neighborhoods I hadn’t even known existed; a Jewish slum, a Hispanic tenement, some weird tentacle of Chinatown twisting towards the river. It only added to the surreal sense of everything, as if I had stumbled into an alternate city. Passing under the Manhattan Bridge, I saw that it was flooded by people walking to Brooklyn; but I decided to remain true to my original plan, and began cutting west.
It was around Knickerbocker Village that I saw my first “survivors.” A small tenement community in a sheltered niche between the bridges, there was an eerie sense of peace and quiet over the small neighborhood. The sun shone down through landscaped trees, the sky was blue, and the buildings blocked all views of the tragedy in the distance. The shady street was empty; I felt alone until a group of people turned the corner and walked towards me. A group of seven people, all black, five men dressed in dark suits and two women in their best Sunday dresses—Jehovah Witnesses. They were covered from head to toe in white dust. They looked prematurely aged, and I found it odd that none of the men had even so much as loosened their tie. They were dressed perfectly for the Apocalypse, dusty suitcases in hand.
Although I must have been staring rudely at them, they paused politely in front of me, and one of the men smiled. His face was cracked with chalk, his hair looked like it was floured to simulate age, and his eyes looked yellow and weary. With perfect politeness, he asked me if I could direct him to the Manhattan Bridge; I gave him the directions and he thanked me graciously. I could see a handprint on his sleeve where one of the women had been gripping him. They conferred for a second and walked on.
I was still surprised at their condition, until I turned the corner and began walking up Park Row in the direction of the courthouse. By now, I could smell the terrible odor in the air, and I know I was getting closer to the edges of the affected area. But I wasn’t prepared for what I saw turning the corner. Within one block, I went from a peaceful, beautiful day in the park to the middle of a chaotic evacuation. Hundreds of people were covered with the white dust, men in suits, women in dresses, many with paper masks strapped to their faces.
Attempting to avoid the crowd, I turned a corner and walked down an empty alley. At its end, a police officer was leaning against a brick wall, her hat in her hands and her dust mask dangling from her cell phone. She was crying silently, her shoulders shaking, her hand covering her mouth beneath her wide, red eyes. I paused for a second, not sure what I should do. I had the momentary impulse to just take her in my arms and tell her that I loved her. After a second I realized I had been staring at her, but she didn’t even notice me, and I continued down the alley and rounded another corner.
There, in front of a grocery store, at least sixty police officers were gathered in the parking lot. I had never seen so many cops in one place. All of them were covered head to-toe in white dust, a few forming small knots of conversation. They looked weary, weary beyond belief, and I passed through them and under the arches of a bridge. I thought for sure one would stop me and ask me why I was moving into the disaster area, but they paid me no attention at all. I felt completely insubstantial as I passed through a mass of blue and white uniforms.
Under the arches I made a left, and walked through an alley in between a church and a parochial school. Schoolchildren in Catholic uniforms were passing out orange juice, water, and half-pints of milk to the refugees; teachers were directing them all, with a few police officers on hand to keep the evacuation in progress. An elderly black man had set up a folding chair in front of the church, and a line of dust-covered people stood patiently behind it. One by one he set them down on the chair, and with a green garden hose in hand, he poured water over their heads. I paused to watch him for a second. A white businesswoman was currently in the chair, trembling uncontrollably. Her black hair filled with debris, blood caked her face, and her blouse was ripped. The old man soothed her while he washed the dirt away, and a Korean woman brought her some orange juice and a towel. I considered helping out, but I was afraid; though I don’t know why.
On my way to the Brooklyn Bridge, I passed another stream of evacuees. It was remarkable how the groups of refuges formed streams, flooding some streets and leaving others perfectly empty. I assumed there was a larger river of people flowing in from beyond the courthouse, but I had no desire to go that far. An ambulance turned the corner and went racing up the street; clouds of dust were blown from its roof like billows of snow, and I coughed violently for a few seconds. I thought of finding a dust-mask, especially if I was going to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. Two young kids in backpacks began to jump up and down, laughing and making explosion sounds; no one tried to stop them; but a dazed Chinese man started to cry.
I finally reached a point where I could get onto the bridge, but I was turned away, and told to use the Manhattan Bridge instead. I saw a few people on stretchers, one bleeding from a wounded leg, but all of them lucid. I thought about arguing with the officer—after all, I was so close to the Brooklyn Bridge—but I saw he was already back in the fray, and it just seemed pointless and egocentric to press my case. Although I was exhausted, dirty, stunned and scared, I made my way back north to the Manhattan Bridge. I didn’t need anyone to tell me how lucky I was. On my way there, a man handed me a cup of water and told me that God loved me; and I believed him.
Crossing the Manhattan Bridge was scene lifted from a movie, or a Bible story from Sunday School. The word “exodus” kept at the corners of my consciousness, and I finally had to say it aloud a few times, like a nervous tic demanding to be discharged. A few Asians looked at me and smiled sadly, but I don’t know if they understood what I said, and they soon began talking in Chinese to each other and taking pictures. Thousands of us crossed the bridge, every once in a while pausing to watch the smoke. The overall reaction was one of numbness, and most people walked in silence. I saw one Arab man walking very rapidly through the crowd, his head down, his eyes already haunted. A man stopped me just to say that we should “bomb all the fucking maniacs, the crazy fucking maniacs.” I was a bit afraid of his intensity so I just nodded blankly and looked away, pretending I didn’t speak English. He was Slavic; I remembered the taxi driver, and thought perhaps unfairly that Russians seemed particularly bloodthirsty. I wanted retribution as well, but I just wanted to get home first. He moved on, repeating his thoughts to a family of Jamaicans. They nervously agreed and hurried up their pace. Halfway across the bridge I paused once more to look at the smoke rising from lower Manhattan, but it seemed pointless. A black businessman loaned a white skater his cell-phone, and I almost burst into tears again. The businessman asked me what I had seen; and we traded stories like a pair of ancient mariners. Each of us had seen a different tower go down.
Brooklyn was like another world, although the burning smell was thicker here than in Manhattan. I passed the east access to the Brooklyn Bridge on my way home, and I realized why I was turned away—a small triage center was set up by CUNY, with paramedics and police receiving people being shipped across the bridge. For some reason I still don’t know, all the fire hydrants were open, flooding the streets. Atlantic Avenue, which has the highest number of Middle Eastern immigrants in the city, was completely shut down. Court Street was uncannily normal, although most of the stores were closed, and impassioned arguments were heard on every corner. The people here seemed clean and full of energy, and I walked through them feeling like a traveler returning from a foreign land. It was easy to spot people who had also come over the bridge; if their clothing wasn’t dusty, you could see it in their eyes. It may sound like a cliché, but it was true.
Soon I was home—and the first thing I did was begin crying again, holding LJ, then Mary, who had been through even worse. Slowly our friends began assembling, everyone bringing over beer, food, bottles of whisky. We watched the television, told our stories over and over again, and made lame jokes. I don’t remember when the “party” finally broke up, but I do recall being quietly drunk and finally falling asleep after a long shower.
Over the next few days, I watched as the disaster moved from a local news story to a national crisis, and finally to a smoothly produced event complete with logos and theme music. Watching CNN now, I find it hard to believe I was actually there. Although my three-hour journey was difficult, and watching the second tower collapse was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen, I’m so grateful that I and my loved ones are safe. Just today my friend Bun told me that her friend was actually in the financial district, and watched jumping workers crash down around him as he escaped. He says that he will never be the same.
On Tuesday, I was never more happy that I lived in Brooklyn, though even here we were touched. All the cars in my neighborhood were covered with white ash, and even now I can smell the fires, almost a week later. Brooklyn is full of those home-made posters, smiling faces labeled as “MISSING, last seen on the 88th floor of One World Trade Center.” Last week people’s computer printers were busy churning out stoop sale ads. As LJ says, it’s the desperation behind these posters that truly cuts the heart. Half-burnt legal documents scattered by the blast are, even now, free to be picked up from the street. I have one right here; the final page of an internal memo from an unnamed corporation. Covered with ash and filled with burn marks, it asks for input from John Gilbert in coping with problems caused by a decrease in methanol production and sales. It is signed by RGL Gallagher, who remarks, “As you’re aware we are proceeding with our evaluation of this matter, however additional information may be required as our review progresses. Please call with any questions you may have.”
Of course, I can’t help wonder if John Gilbert and Mr. Gallagher are still alive. I know it’s a horrible thought, but I wonder if they were among the many who jumped to their deaths. I wonder if their corporation even exists any more. I only hope that they are safe, and pray that one day soon, a decrease in methanol production will again be something they can lose sleep over.