Robert j. Dorn
One person’s recollection of Sept 11, 2001.
By Robert j .Dorn (Rev vers)
What is my reasoning for writing up my own story of events of that morning? Is it because I am just tired of repeating to friends and family the events of that morning? Yes. Is it because I am a historian (of a minor scale) or because I think it’s an event that any ‘eye witness’ should keep his/her memories of? Is it to sort it out in my own mind and try to get through it? Yes, It’s all of these.
(Below: one of the many ‘make-shift’ memorials, just around the corner from where I work)
Firstly, I should explain that I work at 75 Varick (7th Ave.), now called 1 Hudson Square, the building that stands ‘almost’ on top of the Holland Tunnel, which, as of this writing is still closed. I am approximately 9 or 10 blocks just north of the WTC area. I work on the 12th floor of the building, and my Library office faced the beautiful view of the former Twin Towers to the South, and the Jersey City and NJ shore to the west. I am a librarian at Audrey Cohen College.
At approximately, 9 AM morning I was on the Q train, in the middle of the Manhattan bridge (for neophytes, this bridge is Parallel and just north of its more famous neighbor, the Brooklyn Bridge) when an announcer/conductor came on over the speaker saying, “plane just crashed into World trade tower” [that’s the closest I can come his exact words at the moment.]
Most of the people on the train, leaned to the left side windows and we saw our first view of the towers - both of them - with large gaping holes and smoke and small flames coming out of them. Several of us began the flurry of small talk, trying to guess what had happened, no one really knew for sure. Lots of speculation. The thought of buying a small discardable camera came to me, and as we arrived in the Broadway station at Canal Street, I bought the camera at the small little newspaper shop there. As I exited the subway station at Broadway and Canal, I started walking west on Canal Street (my usual route, currently, to work at Varick St) towards the river. All during this time looking up at the two towers on fire with all the plumes of smoke. this was about 9:10 AM or so? At the same time on each corner I was taking pictures from different vantagepoints at each corner. Already the crowds had gathered at each corner with that awful look of unbelief on their faces. It was my own expression of disbelief and awe at the same time. At this point, I didn’t know what had occurred, and was hearing snippets of talk about airplanes and ‘attacks’ etc. What I saw was the now familiar gaping holes that I had described earlier. I was under the impression that perhaps this was something similar to the 93 attack, and perhaps there may have been some loss of life. I had no impression of the further disaster about to unfold before my eyes.
It was maybe ten minutes or so (don’t’ quote me) when I noticed sirens already sounding, policemen gathering on each corner, directing traffic away from areas below Canal Street area. The people in my building seem to have looks of haunted anxiety on their faces. I still had not seen anyone else who worked at the college. I don’t remember whether I was asked for ID as I entered the building, but as I got off at the 12 floor, got out and saw the Security officer, he was already shaking his head and telling me that the building was being evacuated. Also, the Vice President for Administration had come around the corner at the same time. I do not remember what I asked them, except whether anyone had gone/been in the library where I work. One librarian was mentioned, whom they said was sent home. I later found out that she had seen the whole event and the planes hitting the towers (which I was too late to see). At that point I exited down the elevators and went out to the street to gather more information. I had heard that there were deliberate attacks on the buildings, but there was still a lot of confusion.
In a few minutes I crossed the street to take more pictures of the burning disaster in front of me from the all too blue and beautiful sky of that morning. By this time, many fire engines, Emergency vehicles, Police cars and other emergency vehicles had rushed down Varick street (lower 7th avenue) sometimes having to blast their horns or sirens to get through the very confused menagerie that Varick street had become. On the other side of the street, I saw one and then several administration and faculty members of the college whom I acknowledged. I crossed over when I saw my friend and colleague Steve from the College.
Within the next few minutes, Steve and I listened to several others who had gathered on our corner, the rumors and other guesses at the origins of this. The fires and smoke were still billowing out of the towers. Debris was falling occasionally, and what I didn’t know at first that it was not all debris but also people jumping to certain death to escape, I suppose more certain and immediate death by the fire storms started by the airliner fuel that we were later to learn was well over 2000 degrees. I was sure by this time that I had the story straight that two airplanes had for some reason crashed into both towers and ignited them. Somewhere between photos and following up rumors, we were interrupted by a man who came running with a phone in his hand shouting that the Pentagon had been bombed or attacked or something similar to what had just happened here. I did not, could not, immediately believe him. But, eventually my doubts were preempted and we knew it was true from other reports around us. We knew no exact details and really did not still know what had occurred.
Steve and I decided after standing around for some time, to go look for a coffee house he knew which he thought would be open and where there was a TV where we could get the news and find out more. After walking up and over to Hudson street closer to the Hudson River side of town, we found that the café was closed. We decided to head back and Steve decided to depart and try to get uptown and home to Chelsea. I had already heard that there were no trains or subways running and the bridges were closed. In a while I would find out that most of this was already true and soon, everything would be closed down, except walkways for people to get across to Brooklyn or whatever borough they needed to get to get home. I was sidetracked again by wanting to hear and see more and take more photos. This was just minutes after the first tower had just collapsed. There was much confusion, shouting, crying, but no obvious violence. I crossed to the East Side of Varick in front of the Chase bank, and noticed that I couldn’t see the two towers, but just the North tower and a plume of smoke where the other had been. In disbelief I asked the hysterical woman next to me, who was about the burst into tears, where the tower was? She cried, “It just collapsed!” I stood there in dumb disbelief and really not knowing what was going on in my mind at that moment. I could only think of all the people who were obviously in the tower. Of course they hadn’t had time to all get out! There was a man with a set of binoculars who started talking about the people jumping. I looked up and it was obvious that some of the specks I was seeing amongst the debris were people jumping. Several people were crying out at that point, and the woman next to me was still crying. About a few minutes after that as I stood watching, someone yelled ‘It’s falling!” meaning the second tower. I quickly took up my camera snapped several pictures, still in denial of what I was seeing, but taking it all down in film anyway!
There was much crying and moaning after that. The situation around me just got worse and there was more and more confusion. I stayed around for probably another half-hour or so, trying to ascertain more information and whether there were any trains running and any way to get home. Soon after that I noticed a truck driver with his truck and a radio on parked on the east side of the street next to the Chase bank. Several people approached the truck, listening closely to this vehicle and radio. He confirmed the attacks on the Pentagon, but still no specifics. I realized that many people including myself were in shock and continued to try to understand that horrible sight of the falling tower we had just witnessed. I still cannot believe it. Within 20 - 30 minutes I started asking people and MTA employees what was running and decided to find a way to get home. I never expected I would be walking the entire 8 or more miles to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, but I did.
At this point, the area began to look like a war zone of sorts. There were many more emergency and police vehicles gathering into the area and slowly, they seemed to be blocking people from going south below Canal street, which is still the cutting off point.
Then I decided there was nothing more to be done, or certainly nothing I could do. I lost interest in taking any more photos, and ascertained that perhaps the bridges to Brooklyn were open to pedestrians. I started walking with a slowly increasing crowd of ‘refugees’ (we really were refugees at this point) east towards the Manhattan bridge which is just parallel to the Brooklyn bridge. As I got closer to the bridge I began to see the increase in crowds. I also noticed that despite the fact that some people along the street had said that the bridges and all subways were closed, the traffic and crowds were still going towards the bridge and it seemed in the distance that the bridge had pedestrians and traffic slowly going across.
I stopped once or twice to ask MTA employees who I saw blocking the subway entrances, whether the bridge was open to walkers. All they could tell me was that they ‘weren’t sure’ and I should go ahead and try. Once or twice I glanced back at the sky above what once ‘was’ the towers in the distance to see nothing but an increasingly large plume of smoke, sort of like a small nuclear bomb had been detonated. Also, there was a smoky, acrid smell in the air, which only increased as I approached the bridge.
I proceeded to the bridge entrance, and at first wasn’t sure whether I had to bear right and go on the pedestrian entrance and walkway or just walk across the bridge. There was a steady slow stream of cars and trucks on my left also entering the bridge entrance, but also a parallel line of pedestrians (‘refugees’ if you will) on the right side, which I then decided to join.
As I walked, I watched the people around me. I was astounded at the increasing amount of soot and debris covered souls who seemed to definitely be exiting a ‘war zone’ or a bombed out area, depending on how you viewed it.
I listened as I walked to several ‘stories’ of what had happened to those refugees. I heard some scary stories of ‘mere escapes’. Soon about 1/4 of the way across the bridge I started talking to a tall african-american gentleman, who had on a very expensive looking three piece suit completely covered in debris and soot, carrying his work, seemingly in his valise. As we talked he explained he had just escaped by exiting the (south) tower because he had gone down to go to the ATM across the street. If I remember correctly (not sure at this point) he had left the area as he saw the second tower attacked and then saw the first tower fall. My memory of our conversation at this point is rather unreliable and I cannot remember details that well.
I ended up walking for another hour or more, intermittently trying to flag a taxi, or catch one of the buses heading up Flatbush Avenue. All of this was to no avail and eventually I gave up and decided, since a gentleman had told me that Prospect park was only about 5 - 7 blocks ahead (that didn’t make much difference to my feet at that moment) I walked on.
One of the few uplifting moments of that disastrous morning was the different groups of people lined up along Flatbush Avenue (this is FLATBUSH AVE mind you!), giving out Water and soda for the walkers… or should I say, ‘refugees’. We must have looked like that as we walked slowly and quietly for the most part, across the Bridges towards our way home. I stopped by a group of young conservative Jewish girls who were handing out soda, and got something from them. This was the only highlight of that day. I kept walking, observing the human collateral from this attack. Finally, I reached Prospect Park, from the War Memorial side and started walking through on the East side. As I walked there were small groups of people who had obviously gathered together for their walk balk, or perhaps just joined each other on the way. I did not feel like talking much at that point, but merely wanted to get home, perhaps turn on the television for the news and find out more.
This event will forever be impressed upon my mind and I can only think of two other events which will have such significance; the day President Kennedy was shot and my own father’s death when I was eight years old in December of 1960.