9/11 Stories

Gary Welz

Until September 11th, I lived at 75 West Street, three blocks due South of the World Trade Center. When the first plane hit the North Tower I was lying in my bed. I heard a loud crash, like a very large auto accident or a street demolition crew. It was a nuisance, but not worth getting out of bed to investigate. Fifteen minutes later, the second plane crashed into the nearby South Tower and the noise was so loud that I had to get up and see what was happening. I turned on the TV to see if there was anything about it on a local station and saw the live national coverage of the fires in both towers and learned, to my astonishment, that they were caused by passenger airplanes.

I showered - didn’t want to go outside, even to see a disaster, with “pillow hair” - dressed and went downstairs to stand on Washington St. and look up at the burning buildings. I was amazed by the scale of the disaster, but not the least bit fearful. I behaved like a curious teenage bystander at the scene of a terrible train accident. Smoke poured from the gaping holes in the towers and dozens of local firemen and policemen ran toward the towers as civilians rushed away. Neighbors gathered on the street and repeated phrases like “Oh my God” and “Holy shit”.

After a moment, ran to the roof of my 18 story building to get a better view and joined others gazing in horror at the fires. Two inch diameter drops of blood spattered the roof and the deck furniture. One chair had an eight inch long strip of what looked like human flesh on it, but I couldn’t bring myself to examine it more closely. The blood was a strange orange color, I have no idea why. It immediately made me think of the fake blood used in the Werner Herzog film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”. Why, I wondered, would anyone crash an airplane into the WTC and then splash bad movie special effects blood on my roof.

Joe, my Super, said he had seen people jumping from the highest floors of Tower 1 to escape the flames. I heard that large human body parts had been seen on rooftops and my neighbor’s balconies. It was a strange, slow motion nightmare, like a mediocre disaster movie. It seemed unlikely that anything worse - or more spectacular - could happen. Surely, planes crashing into the Trade Center couldn’t bring it down. This disaster couldn’t put me in danger. I went down to my apartment on the 8th floor to watch reruns of the plane crashes on television.

I confess that at the time I felt a bit disappointed that I hadn’t been an eyewitness to the planes crashing into the towers - certainly one of the most staggering historical events of my lifetime. It happened right over my head, I thought, and I only saw it on television, the way the rest of the world did. I was annoyed that I stayed in bed through it all, though on reflection that might have saved my life.

My wife Lois, from whom I’m separated, called to see if I was okay and urged me to get out of the building. I appreciated her concern, but assured her that I was in no danger. Then the South Tower collapsed. The building shook, the sky went pitch black and the power went out. I fell to the floor and waited for the trembling to stop. She was right. I had to get out. I was able to turn my lights back on. Soot and smoke poured in my windows. I opened my door and saw that the hallway was filling with smoke. I went back inside my apartment and packed two small bags, one with clothes and the other with my laptop and some personal items.

I walked to the elevator bank and joined a group of neighbors including Michael Lupetin carrying his cat in a traveling bag. We began walking down the stairs. Near the third floor smoke began to fill the stairwell. Covering our faces, we continued down to the street level. When we opened the door onto Washington Street thick black smoke was blowing past us. The street resembled the post-nuclear war Lawrence, Kansas of the 80’s TV movie “The Day After”. Six inches of white powder (ash? pulverized concrete?) covered the ground. Acrid smoke and snowflakes of ash filled the air. I looked back toward the Trade Center, but visibility was less than 10 feet.

A policeman hailed us from the door of the 1st Precinct next door. He ushered us inside and down to the locker room in the basement. Their phones didn’t work. They couldn’t tell us anything about what was going on. The police offers were mostly quiet and glum. Not many of them were left in the station house. I imagine many of their colleagues were killed early in the crisis.

I sat with 15 other evacuees and waited out the disaster. They gave us soft drinks and towels to wipe the soot off our faces. A few minutes later an officer came down to tell us that the North Tower had also collapsed. Someone shared news reports about other planes being used in the attack and what might be happening now. Most of all, I craved access to a television so that I could know what was going on. Were we at war? Who was the enemy? Was the US launching a counterattack? I heard that eight planes had been hijacked, that the White House, Pentagon, Dallas and the Chicago Sears Tower had been hit and that our jets had shot down one of the hijacked planes.

About 11 AM the police let us out of the basement and instructed us to head toward Battery Park City where boats would evacuate us to New Jersey. We walked through the smoke and falling ash to the Esplanade where all manner of pleasure and sight seeing boats were evacuating people in a scene resembling the beaches of Dunkirk. The passengers on the boat were silent. We stared numbly at the burning hole in Manhattan as we crossed the Hudson. The collection of skyscrapers that I had often described as “Superman’s home city on the planet Krypton” was now a huge billowing mass of smoke.

We landed at Liberty State Park in New Jersey where aid workers politely offered us water and towels. The scene was very subdued, like a funeral with free snacks and soft drinks. Fifty people lined up to use a pay phone. Cell phone circuits were so overloaded that no one could call out or get a call in. A crowd huddled around a radio listening for the latest reports. I was struck most of all by the eerie calm and politeness surrounding the place. Everyone seemed to be helplessly and patiently waiting for the world to end.

A bus arrived to take anyone who wanted to go to the Liberty State Park light rail station where connections could be made to other transportation. I felt stranded in New Jersey and wanted to get back to New York, or at least to an accessible pay phone and most urgently a television so I could see what had happened to me. I left my neighbors behind and got on the bus.

On the light rail train I traded horror stories with other evacuees, also stunned, covered with ash and confused about where to go and what to do. No one had any certainty about where we could be safe or what we could do. I began to feel anxious about being alone and wanted to join with some other evacuees, but was unsure about who to follow and where to go.

I took the light rail to Exchange Place where police officers were anxiously herding people away from the tall buildings. The streets were devoid of cars and buses. Jersey office workers stood at the feet of their now evacuated buildings and stared at the burning wreckage of the WTC. I asked several police officers where I should go and how I could get back to New York. No one knew. I was only told to get away from where I was - they feared continuing attacks. “On New Jersey?” I thought. “Who did they think they were?”

I walked away from the police line and a light rail train stopped in front of me. Passengers jumped from all the cars and a police officer told me to get away from the train - a bomb had been discovered on board!

I ran down the street and around the nearest corner. When I stopped, I looked down at my bags and discovered that the bag containing my laptop was missing. I remembered last holding it when I got on the light rail car at Liberty State Park. I thought, “Oh God, could I have left it on the car?” I turned around and ran back to the site of the abandoned car. The officer who had told me to run was looking into the pockets of MY BAG! My laptop was on the sidewalk near him. I told him that the bag was mine. He looked up at me and laughed. It was probably the only laugh either of us had that day. I apologized for causing the panic, but he handed the bag back to me, smiling as though to say don’t worry, you’ve had enough trouble today, you’re going to need this stuff. He sounded an all clear and people began returning to the light rail train.

I walked away dazed. For a moment, I felt certain that this was all a dream. My bag had been out of my hands for nearly 20 minutes and returned to me. It was as though the entire experience was manufactured to teach me some lesson. What was it supposed to tell me? There was no time to think about that then.

I arrived at a corner where people where gathering to take special buses to various destinations in New Jersey. I spoke to several other evacuees from New York and decided to go with them to Newark hoping that I could return to the city by train. When the bus stopped in Newark we were told that we had to proceed through decontamination. “Decontamination for what?” we asked. Were chemical or biological or nuclear weapons used? The busload of evacuees was silent - not even children cried. Decontamination consisted of a water hose to wash the ash off our shoes, hands and heads. We were processed by “triage” and directed into the train station.

The waiting room at Newark’s Union Station was strangely normal. Although there was a crowd waiting to hear news of the train situation, panhandlers begged and local travelers complained the way they would for any typical rail delay. Again, there was no television and only a few people seemed to be aware of the enormity of what had taken place.

Around 5 PM, the Path trains resumed service to Penn Station and I was able to get back to Manhattan. When I came out of the station into Herald Square, I was made nauseous by the “burning brakes” smell from the fires downtown. A steady stream of people and cars was heading uptown, nothing moved downtown. I called a few friends and sat for moment in Herald Square trying to absorb all that had happened.

In the days since, I’ve stayed with friends got money from FEMA, food stamps from the State and toothpaste, plush toys and Ben Gay from the Red Cross. A few days ago, I visited 75 West St for the first time and was struck by the scale of the devastation to the WTC. Except for a coating of ash, my apartment was intact. National Guardsmen are stationed in our doorway and a team of rescuers from Puerto Rico had used our lobby as a command post. At the end of Washington Street a huge chunk of the metal façade of the Tower 2 - perhaps 100 feet tall - stands torn and bent like an abstract sculpture, the only recognizable part of the building I had loved and admired every day that I lived in its shadow.

Gary Welz