I am a native-born New Yorker. I am a writer. I have lived in the East Village all my adult life. I watched it all from the roof of my building, from which there is…or was…an unimpeded line of sight to the World Trade Center, a mile to the southwest.
A friend in California called to wake me at a few minutes past nine in the morning. He sounded terrified, said on the answering machine there’s been a terrible disaster, don’t go out, oh my God don’t go outside. I couldn’t get to the phone in time, just jumped out of bed and turned on the TV, already panicking, but there was no signal, and I knew something must have happened at the Trade Center.
I dressed, ran upstairs, woke up some of my neighbors and we all ran up to the roof. I couldn’t figure out why both buildings were on fire, couldn’t wrap my mind around what I was seeing—-the thick, black smoke trailing off toward Brooklyn and New York Bay. There was, strangely, a hollow, total silence, then more sirens than I have ever heard in my life. It was obscenity beyond imagining, but we could not look away. Someone had brought a radio, and we knew by now what was happening; we had also heard the reports of the plane hitting the Pentagon and the plane in Pennsylvania.
We saw debris falling, but it was actually people…then the first tower went. Because of the angle of view, we saw only vast billows of smoke. At first we couldn’t even see that the tower had gone—-we thought there had been another explosion and it was still there behind the cloud, but then the smoke lifted a little and it just wasn’t there. We had an all too perfect view of the north wall of the remaining North Tower, which faced us unobscured by the smoke, which was all blowing south-southeast. So we could see the hole where the plane went in, and the flames edging it like the mouth of hell.
Twenty minutes later the fire suddenly flared out like a backdraft, just popped, and I said oh my God look look and it was gone. Then the shock wave hit, like a 3-point earthquake, only sustained; we could hear and actually see it coming. All the buildings around us shook, so that we had a hard time keeping our feet, and the seemingly endless rumble of sound that rolled over us was absolutely indescribable.
We just hung on each other and sobbed. A woman on the next roof over had been screaming “Where are you???” into a cell phone, and she collapsed when the second tower did. The woman with her told us her husband worked at the Trade Center and had been on the phone with her and had just been cut off. We don’t know if he made it. We think he did not.
My upstairs neighbor had four students working as interns at the Trade Center; my friend had a church member working there; we don’t know if any of them made it.
If my late cousin’s firefighter husband had been on duty at the time, he would have been gone with the twenty members of his company who perished inside the towers. As it was, he was off duty at the time, and couldn’t get over to Manhattan before the collapse; even so, it was several days before we heard he was safe.
It will be imprinted on the inside of my eyelids until the day I die. I close my eyes and I can see it, that horrible, majestic, billowing collapse, like a fountain, the tall antenna going down erect through it all like the mast of a foundered ship.
I forced myself up to the roof again that night to look, and unless you live here and know how it is, you cannot imagine how strange it is not to see them there, those giant towers. I’ve seen them there as long as I’ve lived here as an adult in the city where I was born; I watched them in all weathers, as people in hill country watch their hills. I saw them go up, and now I’ve seen them come down. And all that was there that night was evil glowing smoke.
But except for that first night, I had not yet been able to look at where they stood. In my East Village neighborhood the towers were omnipresent; you’d look downtown on First or Second or Third Avenues and there they were, looming over the low-rise buildings between, mountains standing tall behind a range of foothills, somehow making the other building around them look not smaller but taller themselves.
And yet I knew that I had to look, that I dishonored the people who died there and even, in some strange way, the towers themselves, by not being able to look.
So yesterday, Sunday September sixteenth, I went out for an immense walk. I went up to a park near my home, passing a hospital whose walls are covered with photos of the lost, and praying as I passed, then took a bus to the Hudson River side of town. I got off at Abingdon Square, walked the couple of blocks to the river edge, and just started walking south, as far as I could get.
And I MADE myself look, every step of the way. At where the towers were, at where they now were not. At the flame and smoke still pouring out of their graves, and the graves of those who died there, as out of the throat of a volcano.
They’re not there. They’re not there. They will never be there again. After a while your eyes start playing tricks and you think you see their ghosts rising up through the smoke. But they’re not there.