Gerald J. Ferguson
At 8:30, I dropped Jeremy and Emily off at school in Brooklyn. That would be my last contact with time for several hours.
I walked Emily and Jeremy to their classrooms on the 3rd floor. Emily, being a big 4th grader, wanted me to hug and kiss her in the hallway. I walked Jeremy into his classroom and sat with him a bit. I hugged him good bye and told him I could not wait to see him that night.
Back on the street, I chatted with some parents for a few moments, and then walked up the street to PS 321 on 7th Avenue to vote in New York’s primary election. If it had not been for the election, I would have walked south to 4th Avenue to get on the R train which let me off under the World Trade Center complex. Because I went back to vote, I was closer to the 2 or 3 train which dropped me off on Wall Street several blocks from the complex.
There was a line of about 20 at the voting booth, which I considered unusual for a purely municipal primary. Further delayed getting into the City, I voted and headed for the subway station. Walking along 7th Avenue, I noticed a buzz of conversation. Even the poll workers no longer were promoting their candidates; they were distracted. I overheard something about a plane hitting a building. I imagined this happening in a faraway land.
In the Grand Army Plaza subway station, I heard a man talking to two young Asian women about this plane that had hit a building.
-A small plane, he said.
-Where is this, I asked.
-The World Trade Center.
-I work in the World Trade Center.
-You better go home and call your office to see if they are open.
No, I thought. I do not believe him. And if he is right, I want to be where I can do something useful.
A train pulled up to the station. I got in. It can’t be as bad as he says. The trains are still running.
The ride passed in silence. I did not look at my newspaper. The man who told me to “go home” got off the train in Borough Hall, Brooklyn. I continued under the river to Manhattan.
I got off at the Wall Street station and exited into the block long concourse under the Chase building. It was not crowded, but there were people scurrying in different directions.
-I hear the trains have stopped running, a woman said loudly to an acquaintance with a note of panic in her voice.
-Not true. I just got off of the 2 train, I said.
-Are they going uptown?
-I came from Brooklyn. The train just left the station heading uptown.
She ran toward the station.
I walked the length of the concourse, almost in a trance. I wanted to know the facts.
I emerged into the Chase Plaza, two blocks east and slightly south of the Trade Center. I emerged into what seemed to be the largest ticker tape parade I had ever seen. Paper. Paper everywhere. Filling the sky. Covering the ground. Floating past me.
I saw the South tower. A blackened ring around the tower, two thirds of the way up. Flame coming out of the windows. My feet moved as I stared up. I heard talk of the planes. The planes? The planes? There was more than one plane?
My feet carry me forward. The Chase concourse is filled with people. The streets are filled people. Some are running away. More are standing. Staring up. Mouths open.
-The flames are dying out, I hear someone say.
-No, they are getting worse, his companion says.
I reach for my cell phone. I must call Heidi, call Mom and Dad. Let them know I am OK. I look around. At least 60 people in my line of sight holding cell phones. No service.
The fire is two thirds of the way up the south tower. Thacher’s offices are half of the way up the south tower. Thacher is below the fire. They are evacuating. I think of my own evacuation after the bombing in 1993. I think of their measured steps down crowded stairs, halting as people enter the stairs from floors below.
I stare at my useless cell phone. I want to do something useful. I do not know what it could be.
We have an office in Jersey City. Jersey City is west, just across the Hudson River from the Trade Center. There is a marina, due west of the trade center where a regular ferry service runs to Jersey City. There will be working phones in the Jersey office. I can call the people I love. I can call my co-workers. I can be useful.
The police block Liberty Street (which runs past the South Tower) and tell the crowd to get back. I walk south several blocks and then east towards the Hudson river. Amazing I think. Those towers were jarred by a truck load of explosives in 1993. They stood. Now they have been hit by a plane or planes. They stand. What a feat of engineering.
I pass a man taking pictures of the burning towers with a disposable camera, perhaps just purchased from a deli. He makes me angry. Those are my friends in there.
I cross the West Side Highway, walk north and then west into the Battery Park City apartment complex, about 3 blocks south of the south tower. The street is almost empty. The air is clear and almost silent.
A loud crack startles me.
-My God. Its falling, someone yells.
I look up. I do not believe I see the tower falling. But I do. If it falls towards me, there is no where to run. But run I do.
I dive behind a parked car and wedge myself under it. I hear the crescendoing sound of floor collapsing upon floor like the approach of roaring churning wave. And then silence. Nothing has touched me. Nothing has fallen around me. The air is still clear. The sky is still blue. I am alive.
I stand up and look back. Where a tower once stood, a pillar of smoke rises. Greater than the height or width of the tower, the smoke rises, expands, rushes towards me. I run. Like a bit character in a B movie, I run, chased by a towering, expanding mound of smoke. I run to the river. I run south along the river, until the river path ends in a small dock, just south of the Battery Park City apartments. White smoke envelops me. The white smoke blackens. It blots out the sun. I can see only yards ahead of me.
Most people killed in fires, I remember, are not killed by the flame but by the smoke. I take off my sports jacket, wrap it around my face, get on my knees and start to breath slowly through my nose. So stupid. I walked into this. So stupid. Why did I not have the instinct to flee when I first heard murmurs of the brewing catastrophe, when I first saw something terribly, terribly wrong. I thought of that long walk down the dark stairwell in 1993 after the bombing. I remember that at that time I thought of Emily, only 4 months old, and how much I wanted her to have a father. Did I make it though that dark stairwell only to suffocate in this black smoke?
I got up and started slowly walking south, searching for a current of fresh air. I wondered if the fallen tower had ignited other buildings. I wondered if the buildings that surrounded me would start to blaze. If I had no other choice, if there were no air for me to breathe, I would swim. I took off my shoes to prepare for that possibility. I looked down at the dark, swift current and I started to walk south again.
I became aware of hundreds of others, trudging south with me, faces covered.
-I don’t want to die, a woman cried clutching a bottle of water.
-God save me, another woman said over and over again.
I prayed Hail Mary. The prayer calmed me.
-The wind is blowing the smoke south. Go north, they said.
I turned north. The air was black. I looked back south. The air was gray. I continued to walk south through Battery Park. I passed Fort Clinton. I saw a man and a woman sitting with a toddler under a recessed window, calming him and helping him to breathe. I passed children in strollers, children clutching the hands of nannies, all looking for air to breathe.
Although the breeze was to the south, I also felt a slight breeze to the east. I walked to the southwest corner of the island, leaned over a rail and breathed slowly. Gradually, the smoke thinned. The sun began to shine and then burst through the gray, a bright light of joy and life. I sucked in the clear air.
I turned and looked back across the island. The slight easterly breeze created only a narrow band of fresh air at the southwest tip of the island. A black wall of smoke continually blew by and hemmed me in. The protection offered by this breeze was fragile. It could so easily shift and direct the black smoke to me.
Most of all, I wanted to get back to Brooklyn, where Heidi, Emily and Jeremy waited. Perhaps I could go west through the black smoke to the Brooklyn Bridge on the other side of the island. I started into the thick darkness. I passed a police officer coming the other way.
-How far is it like this, I asked.
-A long way, he said.
-Can I get to the Brooklyn Bridge?
-I think that it is closed.
I headed back west to the pocket of clear air. At the rail along the river, I leaned over and looked north. Due to the slightly eastward breeze, the smoke seemed a little thinner along the Hudson River. If I stayed pressed against the rail along the river, perhaps I could make it north without taking in too much smoke.
Sports jacket over my face, breathing slowly through my nose, I made my way north. I had just about reached the the pier where I had withstood the initial blast of debris from the south tower, when I heard an unmistakable sound. Although I could see nothing in the gray haze before me, I heard the crescendoing wave of floor collapsing upon floor. It was the collapse of the north tower.
Again I turned and ran. Again the black debris enveloped me. Again I wrapped my jacket around my face and fell to my knees, breathing slowly through my nose.
Again the initial wave of debris thinned. Again I leaned over a rail at the southwest corner of the island till the smoke thinned and the sun burst through again.
My situation seemed more precarious than before. Who knew where else the damage might spread. Who knew if the black smoke carried cinders that could ignite Battery Park. Again I resolved to make my way north out of the pocket of fresh air and into the gray. As I walked along the river with a few others, a woman stood in front of me in a blue uniform.
-Stay where you are, she yelled. Go back. The best air is where you are.
I paused. She may be right. But I could not stand and wait for the wind to change. I continued north through the gray, covering my mouth and shielding my eyes.
I reached the small pier where I withstood the first blast of debris and heard the second collapse. In front of the pier was a boat, a black and yellow boat, a water taxi. Unbelieving, I ran down the pier.
-Are you taking passengers?
I climbed aboard and walked up the stairs to the top deck. Others being evacuated from the Battery Park City apartments filed aboard.
-Don’t stand or move suddenly, a crew member shouted. We are filled to capacity.
The boat shoved off. We quickly left the gray and the black and entered the blueness of the river. I looked back at my beautiful burning island. Where two towers had been, pillars of smoke rose. Only then did I understand it would never be the same.
It was over, but the ordeal continued. Walking and walking in stocking feet down a dirt path from Liberty Park to Jersey City. Again and again, trying to phone Heidi and Mom and Dad. A ring after a hundred failed attempts, only to reach answering machines. Jersey City evacuating. Going through in my mind who gets to work early and wondering if they got out. Talking to a school crossing guard crying for children whose parents died in the towers. Buying shoes in Payless that didn’t fit. Receiving a call from a friend who hurried to pick me up. Waiting in a restaurant for my friend, watching the towers fall on TV over and over again.
Shortly after 1 pm, I re-entered time. Heidi got through on my cell phone. I was alive. She knew it. Such joy. Such relief.
Soon after that my parents got through. Unknown to me, they were in New Jersey that day, driving from a funeral in Massachusetts back to Virginia. They would pick me up. In times of crisis, you want your mom and dad and you want to go home. Mom and Dad were taking me home.
And still the day went on. With all access into the City blocked, we drove far north of the City to cross the Hudson, east of the City to cross the Long Island Sound, and West from Queens into Brooklyn. Until finally, the door opened, and I held Heidi, and I held Emily, and I held Jeremy, and we all held each other.
This is my story. I know that there are many others, many that ended much more tragically than mine. For all the hardness of the day, I think that it was even harder for those I love. At all times, I had the advantage of knowing I was alive. They did not.
I am so thankful to be able to send this message.
Gerald J. Ferguson
Brooklyn, New York
September 16, 2001