Sept. 11, 2001
We tell our students, Asians, Europeans and South Americans, here at our school in the Empire State Building studying English, to gather their belongings and head toward the exits. This, after a colleague comes to the door to tell me a second plane hit the World Trade Center and “we are under terrorist attack.”
The morning began normal enough, even with a coworker announcing that a plane just flew into the World Trade Center. A piece of tragic news that someone in typical New York fashion, commented on and disposed of in two seconds flat, joking that the plane probably had Jersey plates. At that time, it was assumed by all of us, that some amateur crashed his Cessna into the city’s loftiest landmark. Then a few minutes later, after being told of the second attack, the scene becomes increasingly incomprehensible.
The lobby of the Empire State Building is packed. Everyone is headed out, away from the building. An announcement goes out over the p.a. about the World Trade Center attack but before it finishes I’m through the revolving door.
Instinctively, I turn south onto Fifth Avenue in the direction of Lower Manhattan, my home, and freeze for a moment along with countless others, awestruck, as one of the monolithic structures decomposes before our eyes. I continue walking south and the crowds thicken as they move away from the grim columns of smoke. Emergency vehicles with sirens screaming, head toward the financial district. The towers are burning. Cell phones are out. People line up at the phone booths, some crying. I stop on the corner of Union Square and take my place in line. “People were jumping from the windows,” a young man in a suit says. “Does anyone know if the Long Island Rail Road is running?” a woman asks me. “Nothing’s running,” someone tells her before I can answer. Information is exchanged while we wait. I learn that the Pentagon has been hit.
A woman crying uncontrollably is ushered to the front of the queue, no questions asked.
That’s when the second tower bursts into flame and crumbles. Glittering for a millisecond, tens of thousands of windows and tons of concrete are airborne. People are stunned. No one moves. “My God,” are the only words anyone can muster. A few people begin to sob, and then with a force that totally obscures our view the whole thing comes down. Implodes. And we are left looking at plumes of billowing smoke. All that there is.
I forego my phone call and head, once again, toward the wreckage and my home in Little Italy. A few cars covered with ash, soot, and broken windows, eerily thread their way across Broadway. Then come groups of people. Thousands. Determined and orderly, fleeing disaster. The site line down Broadway, into Lower Manhattan, normally a signature picture-postcard New York scene of contrast, with the Woolworth Building, a breathtaking 1913 spired gothic scraper (the world’s tallest until 1930) dwarfed by the Modernist Trade Center, is no more. Replacing the picturesque urbanscape are the dim amber lights flashing from within the depths of an ominous haze that has settled over the area.
At my door I watch the fire trucks and ambulances speeding down Delancy Street toward the disaster. Once inside the building, I walk past my apartment and straight up onto the roof. There are more than a few people out there already. No one speaks. We all just look toward the mushrooming gray pillars where the towers had once been, and then, one by one we go downstairs to turn on our televisions.