9/11 Stories

Lawrence Reif

On Thursday, September 13, 2001 at 2:00 p.m., about 53 hours after the first people perished at the World Trade Center, I took a ride on my bicycle. I rode around my neighborhood in Manhattan, my home of 11 years. I have ridden my bike hundreds of times along the same routes, and the story below was a mere three hours out of my life, but what I saw has changed me forever.

I had not exposed myself personally to the tragedy in public yet; had not cried in public yet. My father, who rode an ambulance around the entire zone eight hours after attack, had described to me his travels of 14 hours, including his position five blocks north of WTC 7, when that 47-story, block-long structure collapsed. A doctor friend, assigned to the pathology department of the city’s medical examiners office, spoke about the dead bodies (or their parts) identified. These and other conversations had kept me in, as if I was not “missing anything.” Nevertheless, by Thursday, I knew it was time to go out.

I write this for the victims, but I share it with you, for strength, unity, healing and remembrance. I did not take my camera. I have a strange feeling when I look at my camera now. I photographed the WTC twin towers burning and then collapsing. The view was unobstructed from the roof of my six-story building. Graphic photos captured on three rolls of film that I cannot yet bring myself to develop. I am not ready to take any more photos yet. Before I sat down to begin this writing, I looked out my window at the rainy skies of New York. Out of my bedroom window, where I had shown hundreds of friends and family from around the world the grandeur of those buildings; beacons of free commerce, speech and our democratic system of governance. Once again, I was sickened by the sight of a gaping space in the skyline, filled only by smoke and ash. My view now represents the anguish of the people lost, their friends, family, and co-workers, as well as the people working in that plaza right now.

The afternoon was hot, sunny and dry. Such a bright clear day, that my senses were confused by the odor of smoke and soot in the air (more about that odor later). I was instantly struck by the dozens of posters of missing persons plastered on the payphones and businesses just outside the entrance to my home. Immediately sobering. The posters are well done, with photos and information, a testament to this computer age. One reason so many posters are by my home is because I live on the same block as Saint Vincents Hospital, the closest trauma center to Ground Zero. People were photographing the sight of missing persons posters on the booths, but I redecided not to get my camera.

I live below 14th Street; so all roads were closed to non-rescue vehicles. There was some pedestrian traffic, and some other cyclists, but the streets were eerily empty and silent. A silence abruptly, and rudely it seemed, shattered by the siren and lights of rescue vehicles (so many types). I turned west on 11th Street to travel to Seventh Avenue. I initially planned to head south. I paused at the famous Ray’s Pizza of Greenwich Village, on the corner of 11th Street and the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue), because so many missing person posters were plastered all over the windows, and a mini shrine comprised of candles, flowers and photos was evident, with a large crowd of people gathered, looking intently. I continued on to Saint Vincents. Police presence was high, with barricades, people, and hospital workers all about. The sad thing missing were survivors who needed treatment. There were not any of those.

I pedaled down Seventh Avenue. The now familiar cloud of dust and smoke, whose color changes when new fires start and more buildings collapse, was even closer than I had grown used to. At Houston Street, where Seventh Avenue changes into Varick Street, there were police barricades. To travel south of Houston, proper identification was required. The rule was strictly enforced all day. People gathered around the barricades, tried to stay out of the way, and gawked. I headed west towards the West Side Highway (West Street). I saw NYC (New York City) police, FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), INS (Immigration and Naturalization) police in full flack gear (those guys are scary), U.S. army, and of course the firefighters.

The intersection of Houston Street and West Street was the last staging area for volunteer work. I crossed the highway. A table was set up with volunteers making sandwiches. Groups of civilians stood on the corners, offering water to persons and vehicles exiting and entering the death zone of Ground Zero, and cheering them on for support. A group of 20 or so firefighters, in full gear, looking tired, dirty and determined, walked past. Everyone started to clap and cheer. It felt good to clap for them. They looked at us as if to say, “hey, we are not the New York Yankees taking the field, we are used to being taken for granted (until your house is on fire!),” but there is no doubt that they appreciated it very much. They were being humble; I was humbled just clapping for them.

It was surreal as various vehicles entered and exited the zone. At that point, the disaster area is quite close (about 20 city blocks or one mile), and the backdrop is one of horror and dismay at the extent of the devastation. I crossed to the side, and looked south, behind the Travelers Building and managed to block out the confusion around me. I saw nothing but smoke and dust, and I began to cry. I still could not believe that the towers had fallen, killing so many of my fellow New Yorkers, and so many innocent people from all over the globe.

I stayed and watched the volunteers, and the vehicles pass. In addition to sedans and SUV’s of all types, I saw a tractor trailer from a local large grocery supplier, a huge wide body trailer transporting two bulldozers, and an SUV brimming with huge bags of ice pass south. Many of you know first hand how crowded those streets were with the buildings standing, or not in danger of collapsing; I was amazed with the drivers of the vehicles, knowing what obstacles they would soon be navigating. A NYC Police Department three quarter ton truck pulled up, and the volunteers sprang into action, piling up the sandwiches, bread and water on the back. It seemed to me as if there just was not enough food loaded on. The volunteers had formed a hierarchy, I assumed based upon seniority, as our society usually dictates. Two of the volunteers were “honored” to accompany the officers to distribute food. Two more people would see, firsthand, the unimaginable. Two-dimensional pictures from print and television are just not the same. In a way, I was jealous, as I have a natural curiosity, but must believe that I am better off, never having visited Ground Zero in person.

Before heading north on the West Side Highway, I paused at a barricade to listen to a police officer telling a woman who was speaking on a cell phone and ostensibly trying to get to work, that two more buildings had just collapsed. My heart pounded as I thought, “the Financial District is falling down, as I stand by helplessly.”

There was no traffic on the West Side Highway; that in itself was mind numbing. I took my time, pausing frequently to let emergency vehicles pass. Media trucks lined the side streets. WKYC Houston Channel 2, I saw. Had they driven here? So many things I was seeing were puzzling. At one point, “the Donald” (that is how many New Yorkers refer to Mr. Donald Trump, the real estate magnate) walked quickly passed in a suit, with two assistants. I did not even have the heart to say Hey Mr. Trump (I usually address famous people I pass on the streets of New York with a friendly and quick hello). I continued north. At 14th Street and the West Side Highway, another major intersection, after a large convoy of sedans, sirens screaming, passed, police rolled their eyes at me and asked me to dismount my bike and take it to the sidewalk please. “We almost lost several bikers today” one officer explained to me. I crossed obediently, and walked for a bit. I paused to watch a fleet of twenty (I counted) Federal Express delivery trucks roll past. They are all identical, that looked cool.

I stared pedaling again, on my way to the Chelsea Piers Sports Complex, where there was an area for medical personnel and other volunteers to report, as well as a makeshift morgue, set up on the ice rink within. Beginning at about 19th Street, were rows of tractor-trailer refrigeration trucks, their generators humming. Huge standalone trailers, dozens of them, stretching three blocks on each side of the highway. I was near the meat packing district, and it took a moment to register in my mind why refrigeration trucks were lined up, but the bodies of most of our innocent fellows now gone and eternally lost were not destined to fill up gigantic refrigerator trailer trucks. Outside Chelsea Piers was the now familiar sight wherever there was an activity hub. Police barricades, rescue vehicles and media vans parked, as well as lots of people, uniformed and not, stubbornly dealing with each mini-problem at hand.

I decided to travel east, cross-town to the state armory building located at 26th Street and Lexington Avenue; the place to register and look for missing persons. I joined the city traffic for my journey cross-town. No more empty streets. 23rd Street and all of the Avenues were jammed. Lots of cars, busses, trucks, pedestrians, police, and me, all stopping and starting as rescue vehicles took the right of way. Arriving at the Amory was not an easy feat, but I am adept on my bike and managed to pierce the intense crowds and traffic. At the Armory, was a tense, crowded scene of frustration, anguish and controlled chaos. Each street corner was filled with people and media; barricades were everywhere. I saw hundreds of people lined up, the line stretching around the block, as if playoff or concert tickets were to go on sale. Once again, my mind went numb as I realized that these were the people waiting anxiously to check for, or report a missing loved one. The sight was overwhelming, and traffic was very tight. In order not to interfere, I left the scene quickly.

My next destination was Union Square, where Park Avenue South intersects with 14th Street. Traffic was busy, but I was not far from the Square. I was shocked to find so many people “vigiling” at the Square. The scene was intense. In one corner, relief workers were receiving donations of all good types in huge plastic containers. “Donate and please clear the area” the bullhorn sounded. I locked my bicycle and continued on foot. Mingling with the mass of humanity gathered within a two block radius at the south end of the Square bordering 14th Street, I donated to the Red Cross and received a ribbon for my shirt from one of the volunteers (working in groups of two) carrying upside down water cooler containers. “Every little bit helps” my brain tried to think, but the refrigerator trucks and lines of people surrounding the Armory were fresh in my mind, and I wondered “how could my contribution stack up against that?” Here, as in many places I had visited, American flags were out in abundance. All along the pavement of the Square were long strips of construction paper taped down. Magic markers lay on top of the paper, and people had written prayers and pleas. Most of the space was full. Some had drawn peace signs, doves and flowers, while others demanded immediate retribution. Burned out candles remained from an earlier vigil. The melted, flattened and charred wax brought my thoughts back to Ground Zero, and my father’s eyewitness statement (from his Tuesday visit to the exact site and his position so close to WTC building 7, when it imploded into a gigantic heap of rubble after burning unchecked for more than 5 hours) that firefighters were battling the blazes and commencing demolition and clean-up at that very moment upon collapsed buildings that made them look like ants. I read for a while, in the hot sun, the stench in my nostrils, my eyes (extra sensitive, and ordinarily painful and dry from a poor LASIK eye surgery outcome, as many of you know) screaming in pain, and my head beginning to ache. My heart had ached since Tuesday; no let up there. I knelt to write my prayer. It felt good to write what I had been praying for days. A prayer for those lost, their families, friends and co-workers, the volunteers, the tireless workers at the disaster site, and my fellow New Yorkers and Americans. I said a prayer to myself for the perpetrators of this abomination, because I know they are doomed, but I did not write that one. All the while, unknowingly, I was leaning on the marker, writing in red, in my red shirt, not noticing that it was a two-sided marker, the other side blue and also uncapped. I stood and watched the ink spread across my shirt. I reminded myself to be careful on my bike; to be safe, even though my senses were bursting.

I was not done yet, and knew where I had to go next. To Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. “My” park. Where I sometimes run, sit, or just enjoy the tourists and my neighbors. The place where I took all my tourist friends for a special view of the Towers, directly down Thompson Street, where that road ends at the south side of the Park. I traveled west over to Fifth Avenue and 14th Street. Bicycles and pedestrians could pass without ID, unlike at Houston Street, a mere 14 blocks away. I sped down Fifth Avenue, enjoying the absence of cars, since Fifth Avenue is not a through street, there where no cars, but my heart was sinking. I knew Washington Square Park was forever changed, just like everywhere else in Manhattan, everywhere else in the world. I parked the bike in my usual spot and proceeded on foot, I stopped by the famous arch at the north end. Dozens of people were gathered around the fence surrounding the monument (when will that fence come down anyway, but I digress), because it was plastered from top to bottom with missing person’s posters, flowers, writings and renditions representing hope, strength, and unity. Yet another impromptu shrine. I gazed at the fence, once again feeling the hot sun, and imagining how it might feel while outfitted in a firefighter’s turnout gear. Only a somber saxophone player in the distance disturbing the silence (oh, except for the occasional siren). I then walked to my spot. When I looked down Thompson Street, suddenly afraid to look up, a feeling of dread so palpable entered my soul that my knees were weak. I mustered every bit of strength to lift my head and once again see only a raising cloud of dust and smoke where the Towers once stood. Tears streamed down my face, and I sobbed quietly as the now familiar feelings of sadness, anger, and frustration physically ruled me once again. I will never forget that view, or the same view with the Towers standing. Both shall accompany me forever.

Back to my bicycle and down to where Houston Street intersects the Avenue of the Americas. A busy barricade with police and army personal shooing away pedestrians. I decided to ride east along Houston to the East River and the FDR Drive. I enjoyed Houston Street without traffic. At every road leading south, barricades were set up, always with people showing ID to get through, or being turned away. I sped by a row of about sixty NYC Sanitation dump trucks double parked, and empty. So eerie. York Corporation had eight tractor trailers loads of building-bridging stacked high and ready to go. The scale of the entire operation was flabbergasting. Broadway was a very busy intersection, with lots of vehicles exiting and entering the quadrant.

Once past Broadway, the smoke was worse. It was a stench difficult to describe. Smoke, dust and an inexpressible and nauseating odor of death. I have never smelled such horror before. Everyone east of Broadway was wearing a mask. As I looked right and south onto the smaller streets east of Broadway, they seemed lifeless and abandoned. I saw the bunting up in high arches, row after row, down Mulberry Street, and wondered if it would be appropriate to enjoy the Feast of San Genero Festival this year. We attend at least one night of San Genero to enjoy the food, drink, games and people of New York City. When is that appropriate after a catastrophe of such proportion, when an act of war has been perpetrated against “my city,” and our nation. A war whose first blow has been struck by unseen cowards who refuse to take responsibility for their twisted actions, a type of war that has yet to be fought in the history of mankind. When, if ever, does life return to “normal,” without forgetting those who suffer and work and fight and defend, in order to show our enemies that they cannot break our spirit and free way of life?

I continued on to the East Side Drive (FDR), of course closed, paused and looked up at the Williamsburg Bridge. It was strange to see that beautiful structure devoid of all traffic. I turned around and traveled west. I was headed home, but paused at Bowery and Houston and looked north. There you will find a stupendous view of the gold domed top of the New York Life Insurance Building with the incredible Empire State Building as a back drop. What a sight. However, I had re-entered the heavy smoke zone, and the stench filled my eyes and nostrils. I suddenly thought of the volunteer rescue workers and how they might now understand the eye pain of a poor LASIK candidate after surgery or the lungs of an asthma sufferer struggling to breathe. I stared at the Empire State Building and prayed that it never fall down. Nevertheless, after witnessing the Towers implode, I could all too easily envision the collapse of that grand structure. I shuddered in the heat and tried to think positive thoughts. I continued west and did not look south, to my left for a while.

When I reached Sixth Avenue and its busy barricade at Houston Street, I knew it was time to go home. I traveled north the last 12 blocks slowly and deliberately. I was exhausted and thankful to be alive.

Reflecting on my journey, I realized that everybody shall remember where he or she was just a few minutes before 9:00 a.m. on September 11, 2001. If more than 6,000 people are missing, then 60,000 must have a story like mine. I was set to leave my apartment and bike downtown to Joint Effort Physical Therapy located at 7 Dey Street on the Mezzanine Level, less than one short city block east of what is now called Ground Zero. My sprained ankle has refused to heal properly, and on my doctor’s advice, I was set to try a new physical therapist. I thought to travel downtown twice a week for a bit would be a pleasant change. My initial appointment was for 9:20 a.m., the day of the atrocity. I have never met Jean, who had spent almost 20 minutes on the phone with me the morning of September 6 five days before, and faxed me the introductory paperwork to complete at home so I would not have to arrive 20 minutes early. I had already built a nice rapport with her, she was very kind, with not an easy job. Nor have I ever met Lauren who was to be my new PT. I pray they are safe.

I was on my way out the door when my brother Steven called and told me to get up on the roof and photograph the World Trade Center burning. I had no clue, and was totally focused on leaving my apartment to be on time for my appointment. I joined my building superintendent and porter, the three of us in shock on the roof of my six-story building. The fire raging in WTC Tower 1 was worse than I imagined, and coming from a family of Mohegan volunteer firefighters, I knew it was a fire impossible to extinguish. People were gathered on the street below, necks craning upward. I turned to re-enter my apartment to grab a radio and a wide-angle lens. When I reached the top of the fire escape stairs, the buildings momentarily out of sight, I heard a loud thump and people scream. My brain, still overwhelmed and not yet registering the immensity and brutality of the attack, thought that a car on Sixth Avenue had hit a gawking pedestrian. Therefore, I thankfully did not witness United Airlines Flight 175 smash through WTC Tower 2. However, when I returned to my perch and, through binoculars, watched the flames spread, I knew WTC Tower 2 would fall, and I began to cry. I turned around, looked north to the Empire State building, and screamed where are our F-15 fighters? They arrived seemingly too many minutes later. As we heard that the Pentagon was also burning, our shock and dismay increased. I just felt like ducking, as the pit in my stomach deepened.

My mind drifted back to the summer of 1987. I was a summer associate with the large New York City law firm Thacher Proffitt and Wood, formerly housed in WTC Tower 2. I thought of Stony Jackson who took me to lunch at Windows on the World, Tom Talley who hired me, and Jeannie Flynn, the wonderful director of recruiting and attorney personnel, all still with the firm. I remembered my office view from the 41st floor, facing south and west, overlooking the Statue of Liberty. I enjoyed watching many wonderful sunsets that summer; the view was stupendous.

As I watched WTC Tower 2 implode and collapse (not tip over as I had envisioned it), choking on rage, I surreally envisioned the beautiful law library, and books turning to dust. I could not bear to think of the people. Thankfully, all of Thacher Proffitt’s employees have been accounted for.

WTC Tower 1 was burning out of control, and WTC Tower 2 was gone, when my friend Seth approached me on the roof. Seth works for Lehman in World Financial Center 3, and after having witnessed American Airlines Flight 11 smash into WTC Tower 1 (Seth was outside his office running an errand), he checked back with his office, and then walked to my house and safely spent the day with me. We hugged and proceeded to watch, unobstructed, from the rooftop of a six-story building two miles directly north of the Towers, WTC Tower 1 collapse, seemingly in slow motion, as my camera shutter, my lens on full telephoto, clicked. As I photographed the unimaginable, I began to weep. I walked to the center of my roof, sobbing. I looked at the Empire State Building through my tears and hoped that the jets now screaming overhead (a common sound for Israelis, but not New Yorkers) would prevent any more airliners from crashing into the city. I dropped to my knees, my body racked by sobs, and prayed for this tragedy to end, but knew, after having witnessed the unspeakable, that this was only the beginning.

I attach three photos to this e-mail. First, my beautiful niece Julia, who is ten months old in the picture. We must rebuild for her, and all of us, and pray for all the children who have lost parents in this horrific catastrophe. Second, the men raising the American flag, who are leading the effort to rebuild, and last, a photo of the Statue of Liberty with the Towers as they stood in the background.

I cried everyday feeling shock, sadness, anger, frustration and helplessness. Post traumatic stress syndrome is real I realized as I slept little, winced at the sirens continually running past my window and cried often. When my mom called me on Friday the 14th, and I burst into tears, she invited me home for a dinner of chicken soup. I went, ate, and realized that I was done crying.

On Sunday, September 16, 2001, five days after the attack, I once again rode around Manhattan on my bicycle. Also a beautiful day weather wise. This trip, I did not cry, I brought my camera, took some amazing photos, and dropped off all five rolls of film for developing. For us left here to carry on, life continues. Photos from September 11, as well as my journey on the 16th shall be sent in a follow-up e-mail transmission.

Lawrence standing by the wall

My thoughts and prayers are with every Israeli. I wrote the following before the recent attacks, but my message and update remain as important as ever. I thank you for taking the time to read it. I tried to keep it short (two pages; 1097 words).

What a wonderful trip I had to Israel last month! I visited (in chronological order) Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Yaffo, Haifa, Akko, Cesariya, Rehovot, Holon, the Dead Sea at Einbokek, Kibbutz Ketura, Moshavim Yinon, Bait Yitzhak, and Herev Leat, Qiriat Gat, Safed, Rosh Pina, Tiberias, and a good portion of the Ramat ha Golan (Heights). I saw friends and family I had not seen for extended periods (one to over 11 years), and made some new friends along the way.

I went to Israel with my aunt and uncle after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because I did not feel well inside my heart and soul. I looked forward to seeing my cousin, who has been traveling for two years. I also wanted to travel by air once again and support the world economy, to keep it free (so to speak). My desires also included prayer, healing and having some real fun. After a shaky start, I accomplished all those goals.

When I landed in Israel, and transferred to Tel Aviv, it was very early in the morning, and the beginning of a very long day. The hotel was great, the sea and sand were wonderful, and we all were physically fine. I was not “right” though. I met an old and dear friend for lunch, but my head and heart were still back in scarred New York; Israel seemed to have lost the entire luster I remembered so well. “You are not here yet,” my aunt said to me, “tomorrow we go to Jerusalem.” We did, and as we entered the old city and made our way through the now hauntingly empty Arab shuk, the lump in my throat grew as I knew the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, the Kotel was nearing.

When I first viewed the Wall, from afar, on the rooftop of a school in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City where children were playing soccer, I thought back to the last time I was there, more than 11 years ago, and realized that I had been away for too long. I stopped to photo, to do something, to slow down, before the inevitable sobs. We all split up, and I approached the Wall alone. I had not yet written the note of prayer and remembrance, customarily placed in one of the many cracks and gaps between the large stones comprising the Wall. I sat down in the plaza, opposite the Wailing Wall, and took out my pen and paper. As I looked at those implements, my hands began to shake, and my vision grew gray. How to write about anything after watching the Twin Towers fall, and knowing the suffering induced by people who hate me, because I am free to write this to you? I began to weep and sob. I rocked back and forth and knew that God had not abandoned me, but rather that God was letting me heal, right then and there, in His presence.

I wrote my note, through a cloud of tears. I cried and cried, softer now, but steady, like after the thunderstorm has passed, but the rainfall has not stopped. When I finished the note, I took a reality check with my family, as we posed together for photos as joyful tourists visiting our most holy place. It felt right to do something familiar and memorializing. After a short time, I went to the Wall, kissed it, prayed, placed my note, and cried some more. As I walked away from that place (knowing that, God-willing, I would return there before I left Israel – I did), my feet fell an inch above the ground. Such was the weight lifted from my shoulders. I had been carrying the weight of the Trade Centers on my back for more than a month, and after that visit, God only left me with enough of a burden to remember, until the day I die, what I witnessed on September 11, 2001, and do everything I can do to ensure it never happens again. Boy did I fell better.

Israel is a safe place. I spoke to many Israeli people, and found that Israelis generally support and love Americans. They believe us to be their brothers, and comrades – now even more so. They cannot understand why they get so much bad press and pressure after they defend themselves from terrorist attacks. Israelis are also hated by many people. I did not feel the warmth and hospitality I remember from the Islamic Arabs in Israel. Of course, I had visited Israel last before the Intefadeh began, and then resurrected last year. The Druze and Catholic Arab Israelis like Americans in general, and do not get on so well with the Moslems. It is all such a long-enduring and complicated problem. My Israeli “uncle” summed it up before I left, when he told me to tell my fellow Americans that times in Israel have been better, but that things are OK, and not to be worried for them, but instead, come to visit, and of course break bread.

After witnessing the destruction on September 11, 2001, I do not believe I am any safer here in New York than I was in Israel. I will not leave New York City though. I take a lesson from the Israelis. I stood outside Pacha nightclub in Tel Aviv one Friday night at 2:00 am with my cousin Michael, and laughed with him at the scene of hundreds of young adults waiting to enter, exiting or just hanging around. A place where a suicide bomber had killed so many people one Friday night not too long ago. I walked passed and made up part of the hustle and bustle of city center Jerusalem at the intersection of King George and Jaffa Streets, where another suicide bomber had killed so many eating in the Sbarros Italian fast-food restaurant. I had just partaken in a lovely schwarma sandwich at an old favorite place of mine (still there, whew), so I did not join the dozens of people in the Sbarros. Instead, I take a lesson home. Rebuild, live, do not forget, and do everything you must to ensure that it never happens again.

That is my message. Thanks for letting me share it with you.