9/11 Stories

Ernest Hilbert

What Voices Arrived

“Thou hast seen all their vengeance and all their imaginations against me.” - Lamentations 3:60, King James Version

Perhaps the dirty light in the window seemed different that morning, even before he knew what had happened. It is impossible to know now.

The first screams he heard were on his phone, recorded messages. He raced to the top floor of his building in Queens, tossed back the heavy bolt, and stepped into the gray air. Far down the East River, one tower stood flooding darkness in a great river onto Brooklyn and the sea. He asked those on a neighboring roof where the other tower had gone, if it were shrouded in the smoke. “It fell,” the response over sirens and car horns. “That’s not possible,” he countered. “I walked through the lobby of the northern tower every morning to work for two years. That thing is solid. It couldn’t come down.” From another rooftop: “It’s gone.” He leapt down three stairs at a time and found the phones dead. Then he heard screams from the street. The second tower was following the first down.

What voices arrived that day were portions of an immense lamentation, one shared by millions, warnings, sometimes violent anger, enormous sadness of those in the gray city. When the phone lines and bridges again opened, words passed over his own as a frantic and at times heroic cascade.

One friend spoke swiftly, breathlessly onto the voicemail ether: “Some fucked up shit is going on. Get up. The whole world’s changed.”

Another, roused from a late hangover, counseled: “Stop yelling, hang up the phone and come over.”

Another, earlier thrown down in the streets by choking dust, calmly intoned, as papers swirled around him as though in a ghastly ticker tape parade: “Tell the others I’m alive. We’re being evacuated.”

Another, who worked in World Trade Center tower one, called to assure: “I was saved by my Latin sense of timing. I was sleeping in this morning. Everyone has always said I would be late for my own funeral. Today I was.”

Another: “Is Chris okay? We need to find him.”

Another called from Boston: “Be calm. The military is up. The Air Force is already over both coasts. SAC is up and Special Forces are being deployed. Just be calm.”

Another came from the Red Cross, embraced him, assured him: “I think it might be harder for those of you waiting here for news than it is at Ground Zero.”

No music played in those hours. The desolate city heard only sirens. They stood together looking at the ruins and, when the wind turned north, believed they could smell bodies burning. On the empty cobblestone streets, another screamed: “THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS!” into the empty sky.