Tuesday morning started out as another uneventful subway ride to work. I try to leave for work at 8:00 a.m. and it usually takes 45 minutes to one hour for me to get there. I was running a little late (as usual). I didn’t know anything unusual was taking place until I got to the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station (green line 4,5,6). When the train doors opened, I heard someone saying “It’s not funny!” and an emphatic agreement “No it’s not!” Doors closed, and someone who had just got on was saying something about a “plane hitting World Trade.” I couldn’t hear much more. He wasn’t talking that loudly, and I’m sure most of the people in the car didn’t hear anything.
Traveling south, the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall stop, Fulton Street stop, and Wall St. stop are all pretty close to each other. When we arrived at the Fulton St. station, the train did not stop, and instead, continued on to Wall St. which is exceedingly unusual. The mumblings that I’d overheard at the Brooklyn Bridge stop were first confirmed, for me, upon exiting the train at Wall St., and starting to climb the stairs to street level - I could smell smoke.
At street level, my first reaction was to look at the World Trade towers, but I was surrounded by skyscrapers. I looked straight up into the sky and saw a large line of grey-black smoke, heading in an east by southeast direction, at what appeared to be nearly cloud-height. I only had to walk about one block north along Broadway St. to get an open view of the Towers. They were, indeed and incredibly, on fire. (Both planes had already hit, by that time.)
On the southernmost Tower, I could see a big black hole in the southern face of the building, and flames, and a black line of damage along the eastern face. The north Tower was somewhat obstructed from my view, but I could see that there was damage higher up, and it seemed to burning with blacker smoke, and more intensely.
I normally purchase cigarettes when I get out at the Fulton St. Station. Cigarettes became an immediate priority for me despite, or because of, the current crisis. I was certain that, more than most days, I would not want to be without them. So I started walking north along Broadway, towards Fulton, which also allowed me to get more perspective on the damage to the Towers. It really was just an incredible sight. Even though they were two to four blocks away, you had to crane you neck to see the top floors. The smoke coming out of the north Tower was very black. Tiny flames were coming out of the walls (tiny flames that were several stories tall). I purchased my smokes from a street vendor a few blocks later. I considered walking further north so I could see the damage to the north faces of the Towers, but looking north, I could see a lot of flashing lights/emergency vehicles coming down Broadway, from uptown. Furthermore, there would be obstructing skyscrapers to the north. I realized that I had a better view of the mind-boggling event back to the south were I had started, so I headed back.
During my short trek up, and then back down Broadway, I’d overheard people talking and I joined brief conversations. Some of these people had actually been inside World Trade and had already escaped. There was talk about the planes. I asked how big the planes were. I heard anything from a 727, to a 767. A 727 was the largest I could imagine, and I dismissed 767 as utterly incomprehensible exaggeration. With one plane in each building, it was obvious that this not just a terrible accident. While I had some understanding of what had struck the Towers, nobody seemed to have any idea of who had caused this. I also heard mention of people jumping out of windows. This had not even entered my mind as a possibility. You hear stories about that, mostly from the stock market crash of ‘29, but that is not something that you really ever expect to see. My attention towards the blazing towers became more focused.
I went back to a good spot where I could watch events unfold. I was on the corner of Broadway and Cedar. Across the street (to the west) was a park that took up one city block. A little further to the northwest stood the south Tower. Because that block consisted of a park with small shade trees, instead of skyscrapers, I basically had an unobstructed view of the full height of the south Tower. I was only two to three blocks away from the base of the south Tower. A distance that is surely shorter than the height of the either Tower. (The north Tower was mostly obscured by 1 Liberty Plaza which is immediately north of the park.)
I watched the Towers burn for about 30 - 40 minutes along with hundreds or thousands of other people. During that time I saw people unsuccessfully trying to use their cell phones. Someone indicated the base station was at the top of the World Trade. A woman was desperately looking for information about a nearby high school. Tons of papers were flying out of the buildings. I actually saw someone grab a stapled bit of letterhead out of the air and start reading it, as if gaining access to some obscure trade secret. The ground was littered with paper. It was also littered with women’s shoes. I also saw a pair of normal prescription glasses on the ground. I need glasses and found that to be particularly poignant. There was evidence of a mass exodus which confused me. (I didn’t witness either of the plane impacts.)
Watching the Towers, I had a difficult time understanding the scope of the tragedy. It was tempting to assume that the Towers were mostly empty. After all, I’d had contact with people that were inside, and had already escaped. But then I was shocked to witness someone jump to their death. Though difficult to distinguish, that tiny, falling fleck was definitely a person. Those Towers were definitely not empty. Were all the floors above the plane impacts doomed? I couldn’t accept that. Certainly, at least some stairways could provide an escape. There was no way to tell. The human toll was nauseating to think about.
I did actually consider going to work. I work in a 60 story building (1 Chase Manhattan Plaza), only one block east of where I was standing. But the immensity of the situation was just to important to miss. I had to bear witness to this. I should note that I don’t personally know anyone that works in World Trade. I was not grieving over the mortality of anyone that is close to me. I was simply witnessing what was obviously a tremendously important event, and was driven to absorb as much of it as I could. I wished that I had a camera. (And at the time, I was not really aware that the whole world was also watching).
As I continued to watch the south Tower burn, I was noticing that it was ‘burning downward.’ A section of the floor beneath the initial impact would ignite, and over a period of several minutes, would circle around the building. Then the process would repeat with next floor below. Amidst all the chaos, this is the first pattern that I started to recognize. For the first time, I began extrapolating into the future. The fire was not going to self-extinguish. It was going to continue moving downward, floor by floor. I also realized that this fire was not going to be put out. Water could not be sprayed up high enough to reach the flames. If there was enough water pressure inside the building to reach that high, it would not be enough water. There is no way to make tons of water airborne, and spray it down onto the building. So, at the end of the day, there would either be a towering black skeleton, or the building was going to collapse. This seemed, paradoxically, both unimaginable, and inevitable. Could it really happen? Those immense towers - truly monuments to the might of mankind - if they had not fallen upon impact from the planes, certainly they would stand. I continued to think about it. The fire continued its slow relentless pace downward. At the same time I was becoming increasingly guilty of being late for work.
The ‘collapse issue’ was festering in my mind so much that I finally turned to the person next to me and said “What do think the chances are, of this thing collapsing, in a couple of hours?”. He wrinkled his face and shook his head, indicating “I don’t know” and also “not likely (incomprehensible)”. I turned and looked back at the Tower, and at that very moment the south Tower started to fall out of the sky!
Everyone ran, and seemed to be gone in an instant. I stood motionless. Completely dumbfounded by the fact that I had just said “Wouldn’t it be weird if…” and then “it” immediately happened. That’s one of those weird, seemingly paranormal experiences that I assume everyone has from time to time. (Maybe if I hadn’t opened my mouth, then it wouldn’t have happened.) That curious phenomenon, combined with the incredible significance of the event, further combined with the fact that I had been imagining the collapse for the last few minutes, stopped me cold.
Looking back I realize that an event of this magnitude provides more sensory and emotional stimulus than any person is really able to process. The sound was tremendous. It sounded like millions of firecrackers exploding, muffled by some blanket. I really didn’t process how loud it was until hours later, when I realized that my ears (and head) hurt from that roaring, rapid, girder-snapping sound of World Trade smashing down onto itself.
Visually, I recall: (1) Seeing the first fold of the fault line caused by the plane explosion, and then noticing the top of the building starting to crush down into it. (2) The top section of the building is maintaining it’s ‘block-shape’ as it continues to smash into the floors below it, still high in the sky. (3) My eye continues downward, watching massive smoke and debris plumes, splaying straight out to the sides, in rapid succession, as each floor gets smashed. The cumulative effect of the plumes resulted in an ‘upside-down umbrella’ shape, like a woman’s dress billowing up from some unseen updraft. (4) I took my eyes from that raging collapse, momentarily. All around me I could see every window in all the buildings shaking violently. I had a second to think “Are they all going to explode?”. (5) The Tower is mostly down and I am suddenly aware of a giant dust cloud coming at me at VERY high speed. It is highly questionable that I could have ever considered myself a spectator before. I surely was one no more. With millions of tons of ‘World Trade’ rushing at me in the form of a massive dust cloud, there was only one thing to do.
Everyone who had run upon the immediate sign of collapse was a good forty to fifty feet ahead of me. I was running east, away from the cloud, and toward work. I surely was not able to run more than ten to twenty feet. I looked over my shoulder once to check the status of oncoming pyroclastic flow. It was looming, monstrously large and incredibly fast, right above me. Still running, I turned my vision straight ahead, knowing what I would see next as the dust storm rapidly overtook me. First wisps of smoke, then more, more - can’t see. At the same time, I was being hit by fast-moving, but small debris, on my back. With dread, I anticipated the next thing would be fast-moving, life-threating, LARGE debris. Since I could not see, I realized that running was no good, and that if did so, I would run into the mass of people that I knew were ahead of me. At that time, I believed that I had made a decisive action to ‘hit the pavement.’ Apparently the debris hitting my back forced me down more than I recall, as evidenced by the current scrapes and bruises on my left elbow and shoulder. I hit the sidewalk forcefully, with my head landing on my left arm. My eyeglasses almost came off. Remembering the women’s shoes, and eyeglasses, from before, I thought, “No, don’t lose my glasses!” I opened and closed my eyes. Again. Again. Black, black, black. No difference. Keep them closed. Surely there was more debris, but I don’t remember the next minute very well. Incredibly, the large, life-threatening debris never came. But the air was more pulverized concrete, than air. Lying on the ground, with my ‘carry-bag’ over my head, I was inhaling chalk. It was building up in the back of my mouth at the entrance to my throat. I remember thinking, “Hold your breath!”. I did this for a short while, but there was no air in my lungs. I took-in a breath of air to hold, but it was full of chalk, and I coughed it out. Naturally, this attempt to get a lung full of holdable air repeated itself.
“If this doesn’t clear up soon, I am going to be in real trouble.”
I do not believe that I panicked at any time throughout this ordeal. Every action, and thought, while arguably wholly instinctual, seemed to be a deliberate, problem-solving endeavor contending with the current task at hand. I did not think “If this doesn’t clear up soon, I am going to die!”. That was something that I could not admit to myself.
I believe that it occurred to me that the sidewalk was a source of soot, and that getting my head away from it would provide better breathing. I recall being in a kneeling position, trying pathetically to use my fabric carry-bag as an air filter by holding it in front of my face. Putting my lips to it seemed ridiculous. I tried to think of something else. No handkerchief. Kneeling and blind from the surrounding soot, I could not think of anything. It did not occur to me that my shirt would be of any help. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was covered in inches of soot. There really wasn’t anything.
I spent an indefinite amount of time, focusing solely on breathing, in darkness.
At some point, while I was kneeling there, someone put their hand on my right shoulder. Someone was standing behind me. I was surprised that anyone would be standing already. I put my left hand on theirs. It was a man’s hand. I may have said “I’m alright.” Breathing was becoming somewhat (thankfully) achievable, and controllable. I don’t know if that person said anything. I patted his hand, as some form of basic, human communication. I still couldn’t see anything at all. That person was gone. I think that I had another rudimentary encounter, with a second individual, but I recall nothing of it now. My world was numbed. Shocked. My capacity to think was very fragmented, although I didn’t realize this until this writing.
I was standing. Perhaps there was some rustling. I still couldn’t see anything through the grey soot air. I heard a woman, behind me and to my left say “I need help.” I was trying to collect the dust out of my throat and mouth. I was spitting it out. I considered helping that voice behind me, but wasn’t sure how I could help. I was then distracted by something else (perhaps that second individual?), and did not think of her again, until hours later.
I had started stumbling forward. I still had some sense of direction, but no sight. At last, the first thing that I saw was white Christmas tree lights. White hazy embers twinkling dreamily out of nothingness. Naturally I was very confused by this. This is the last thing I would have expected to see. But then I understood. What little foliage lies around the financial district is heavily adorned, and lit up during Christmas time. The lights are not removed. I had never really noticed that they were always on (year round) before, but I knew of the shrubs that I was now facing, and I now had a definitive sense of direction.
I started walking towards work, which had been my original destination, all along - taking the same route that I take everyday. I had no thoughts of getting work done - It just a homing instinct. I was able to make out another lighted fixture on the building that I was walking along, to my left. Soon, I was able to make out footprints in the inches of soot in front of me. I continued ahead. I think there were other people there but I don’t recall them now. It was ghostly, foggy and dark. With no lights visible, I began to wonder if the power went out. (I had already forgotten the electric-powered christmas tree lights I’d seen just moments ago). I arrived at the end of the block. Visibility was getting better. I was walking inside a cocoon of dust that was perhaps twenty feet in diameter. I vividly remember noting that I now know what nuclear winter looks like. Eerie, surreal, and silent. Silent like the silence which results from falling snow. I crossed the street and made my way toward my workplace.
I saw other people walking - looking like zombies. Expressionless dust covered figures in thick fog. Almost by chance, I found a revolving door to gain access to my workplace. By the circle of dust and letterhead on the floor of the doorway, I could tell that the revolving doors had already been used. I used them too.
I was surprised that there was a good inch of powder on the floor inside of the large lobby. And the air was far from dust-free. This, inside of a skyscraper with no open windows. There were several other people in this relatively expansive space. I headed toward the same elevator bay I always use. There are eight elevators there. The first one was sitting there with doors open, and lights on, beckoning me in. I suddenly realized that, regardless of the chances, there was no way I was going to let myself get trapped in an elevator. I also realized that there was no way in Hell I was going to walk up 34 flights of stairs. At that moment, I firmly decided that I was not going to work that day.
I shuffled around aimlessly in the lobby for a bit, trying to decide on a best course of action. The building alarm started to go off. I overheard the emergency loudspeaker addressing the building at large: “stay where you are. It is safer to stay on the floor you are on.” I was glad that I wasn’t at work, on the 34th floor. Happy that I was not trapped in some glass cage of alleged safety, for what would surely be a long time. Empowered with the possession of my own volition, I walked out the same door that I came in, presumably, heading for home.
I do not remember much of this walk. I continued east, away from ground zero, along the Chase building. At some point I was aware that this was not just a really big problem. I had seen a lot of rescue vehicles heading for the bottom of the south Tower - they were now buried under that unfathomable collapse. The situation now merited the judgment of “utter Disaster.” It was such a mind-boggling realization. I had walked 100 feet, and the air was still terrible. To escape to better air, I stepped back into the Chase lobby through the other set of revolving doors.
The air inside was much better than the air outside. The few people that were inside were being corralled into the basement - or rather, the next floor down. I walked or rode down the escalator. The air was hazy down there too. There were more people on this level. I threw my carry-bag into a dusty corner and finally took a moment to shake myself off. I was amazed at the cloud of soot I created. I noticed what appeared to be a slug in the inside of one of the lenses of my glasses. Upon closer inspection, I realized that a combination of soot and teardrops had created a thick clump on the lens. There were other water marks. Evidently the coughing fit I endured, when first hit by the dust cloud, was quite intense. My front pockets where filled with ash. I found my keys only after emptying my pocket of the obscuring soot. Also a large volume of chalk had fallen down my back, inside my shirt, and some into the back of my pants. I untucked the back of my shirt to let the ash out, and then tucked it back in, since everyone else seemed to be maintaining a respectable dress code, despite the calamity.
A young woman (who obviously hadn’t been outside, yet) asked me if there was another floor below this one. I couldn’t think of one and said “No, I don’t think so.” She had a bottle of water and offered some to me. I took some and we parted ways. I was beginning to wonder what the benefit of being in the basement was to me, when I was trying to go home. Then I remembered the underground tunnel, from this level, to the subway station. I knew it was unlikely that the subway was running, but it was worth a chance. It would be the only way of avoiding a very long trek home. I headed in that direction. Along the way, I passed the escalator to the next level down, where the cafeteria is. I’ve eaten there many times in the five years that I’ve worked here. I felt bad that I couldn’t remember that, when that young woman asked me about it just moments ago. I wished that I could have been more helpful.
I was obviously the only person stupid enough to believe there was any chance that the subways would be running. (I had forgotten about the 30-40 minutes that had elapsed while I, and the rest of the world, gawked in amazement at the burning Towers). I did not meet a single soul in that spooky, hazy, underground path. I jumped the turnstile, instead of paying, and confirmed my suspicions upon reaching the platform. With no subway service, I went back up to street level.
Right back where I had started about an hour ago. At street level, above the Wall St. Station.
Just then, a NYPD van pulled to a stop in front of me. The cocoon of impenetrable dust that surrounded me, was larger now. I could mostly see one hundred feet in any direction. The officer got out and indicated to myself and a few others to walk east and north to escape the soot. I remembered the direction that the black mass of ‘cloud-height’ smoke had been traveling an hour ago. I was also aware of the inevitable fate of the remaining tower. The officer gave good advice. I followed it.
I resumed walking, randomly zig-zagging east and north at each intersection that I came upon. Though I was walking in familiar territory, the cityscape was utterly surreal. Inches of soot and letterhead obscured familiar surroundings. Due to this, and the disoriented numbness in, and between, my ears, my recollection of the route taken is a bit vague. I recall walking east down Wall St., and looking straight into the sun. It looked like the moon glowing in the thick air - so much so, that I had to reaffirm in my mind the time of day. I looked directly at the moon-like sun several times, simply because looking at the sun is something you are not normally able to do.
I passed an abandoned fruit stand. Each item topped in two inches of powder. Nearly everyone I saw was gray and chalky like the surroundings. Several blocks away from Wall St., I was aware that my nose was clogged and running, and that I couldn’t breathe through it. I saw that the lights were on inside a nearby Duane Reade pharmacy. I resolved to buy some kleenex, but the doors were locked. Just then, some guy ran by carrying a handful of paper towels. I stopped him and asked for one, and he gave me one. I was thankful to get a plethora of World Trade out of my nose.
Lighting a cigarette became a great source of consternation when I realized that my lighter was jammed with dust. Having cigarettes, but no light, after a stressful event is an always unjustifiable personal offense. It took several attempts, including rolling the flint-cylinder-thing in both directions, before I could get it working. After inhaling so much of that pulverized concrete (asbestos?), I smoked that cigarette guiltlessly.
Further away on another sooty street corner, I had in my hand my lighter, my metal card-case (for credit cards, ID, etc.) and a thin wad of cash. I was emptying my right front pocket of powder. Just then, I heard for the second time, and what will surely be the last time in my life, that now familiar snapping, smashing sound of 110 stories raging down into the earth. Well trained by this time, I ran immediately. Simultaneously, I was trying to get the three dusty, slippery, important items that were in my hand, back into the safety of my pocket. My chalky pocket was resisting my dust covered hand, so I was awkwardly running and hopping while desperately trying to find something to hide behind. I finally managed to secure my valuables, and had run a full block, only to realize that I was not in immediate danger from debris. I was easily ten blocks away.
I thankfully had not lost my wallet, yet I knew that I need to find cover. I was standing near what appeared to be either a make-shift, or actual, hospital that policemen were guiding people away from. Across the street was a building that obviously housed a large lobby. Like many people nearby, I went in there to wait out the inevitable dust storm.
Inside the crowded lobby there was a woman with a megaphone giving directions for the injured. In the middle of the room, a woman was lying on the floor, receiving attention and/or consolation. (There was no blood. perhaps she was asthmatic?) I was offered a paper cup full of water which I accepted. It was noisy, but relatively ordered. We were being urged to go to the back of the building or the basement. Again, I had no interest in being trapped with hundreds of people in some claustrophobic basement. However slim the chance - that is no place to die, as far as I concerned. I generally maintained my position near the front. Though anticipated, I was still surprised to see the world outside the large glass entranceway disappear behind a solid wall of fog. After 20 minutes or so, and upon the first mention that it was okay to leave, I walked back outside, heading for home.
I wasn’t alone. Above and to the north there were throngs of people walking the on-ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge. Further on I came upon parked cars blaring the news. I heard mention that the pentagon had been hit. At some point I was under the impression that the Sears Tower in Chicago had also been attacked. Walking through unknown, crooked streets of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, I was becoming increasingly conspicuous in my dusty attire. At one street corner, a Spanish family was listening to the news on the radio. I stopped in for listen, and they would not let me leave until I cleaned up. One woman was particularly insistent about the dust in my ears (there was a lot). We exchanged stories, and they gave me a bottle of water, which I carried with me all the way home.
It took me 4-5 hours to get to my home on the Upper East Side - a trip that usually takes me 45 minutes by subway. I managed a brief bus ride, along Grand St., up to 14th., but other than that, I walked. More than once, I was stopped by concerned citizens, who had observed me walking the street. Traffic was a mess, and taxis seemed to be nowhere in sight. I would intermittently look back to the south, and was always amazed by the huge volume of smoke coming from downtown. It just wasn’t going away.
Around the East 60s, and First Ave. I miraculously had a chance meeting with a good friend, who was also trying to get home and was waiting for a bus. It was good to finally talk to someone I knew after stumbling around the city, alone, for hours.
During my lengthy trek from ground zero to my apartment, I heard stories from many people. People who saw the first plane overhead, flying so low, while they were walking to work. Several stories from people who were inside of World Trade and got out in time. Those Towers were so tall that nearly everyone in New York City could watch in disbelief as the events transpired. Indeed, everyone in the nation and around the world has their own story of where they were, and when they heard. This is simply my story.
Mark Michaels 9/14/2001