Richard S. Cisak
The Darkened Sky
As usual, I was late for work on Sept. 11. It was around 9 when I climbed out of the Canal St. Station on Broadway. I was pre-coffee groggy, pretty ignorant of my surroundings as I dragged myself west on Canal St., but I couldn’t help noticing the crowds of people standing on the street corners. My first thought was “It’s still summer, they must be filming another movie down here.” I kept walking, but I still saw more people standing around on the next corner.
As I was already late, I decided to stop for a minute and see what everyone was gawking at. I looked downtown, but I didn’t see anything unusual across the street. Then I looked up, and I saw it - the black, gaping, triangle shaped hole in the north side of one of the Twin Towers. It looked to be about half way up, about 20 or 30 stories tall, with giant flames shooting out. I think I said what a lot of people said the first time they saw it, “Holy Shit!”
I knew it had to be a plane that hit. There was nothing in the Twin Towers that could explode enough to make a hole that big. But what the hell was a plane doing that low over Manhattan, especially on a clear day? I yanked my Discman out of my knapsack, and turned on WABC to find out what the hell was going on. I kept walking towards work, picking up the pace, but not running. At every street corner, I stopped to join the crowds looking up at the burning tower.
“That’s gonna be a helluva fire to put out,” I thought. “The Towering Inferno” was one of my favorite movies, and here it was, right before my eyes. One of WABC’s weekend hosts was on the air, via phone from his high-rise apartment, describing the scene, and giving out what little info they had. It turned out I was right, it was a plane that had hit.
I got to 6th Ave., and I looked up at the Towers again, before crossing the street. The 2nd tower exploded. The inside of the building filled with flame, about 2/3 of the way up. Giant clouds of smoke instantly appeared on either side of the building, like obscene ears. I was standing north of the World Trade Center, so I couldn’t actually see the 2nd plane hit, but I could hear through my headphones, “Oh my God, another plane just hit the 2nd tower!” Right then and there, I knew this was no accident. One plane, maybe, but not two.
I didn’t stop for more than a moment or two, because I knew I had to get to the office and call my Dad. Today, of all days, I forgot my cell phone at home. Dad’s a real worrier, so I knew I had to call him to let him know that I was all right.
I started running through the list of the family in my head - was there anyone who could have been by the WTC? My Mom took the PATH train under the Twin Towers, but she would have gone through long before the first plane hit. Dad worked on 14th St., and his route to work took him nowhere near there. My brother Chris didn’t go to work until the afternoon, he was probably still home, asleep. My other brother Danny was a cop, but he was pulling election duty in Brooklyn, far from the trade center. Then I thought about my friends, and I realized - Marty. Marty was working in the Twin Towers back in 93, the last time they tried to blow it up, and I always liked to tell the story about how he walked down the stairs 90 stories. But did he still work there? I couldn’t remember.
I got to the office, and no work was being done. Everyone was huddled around those desks that had radios. My boss, Bill, said he had heard on the radio that the first plane was a commuter plane out of Westchester that had been hijacked, but he didn’t know about the 2nd. Maybe it was a small plane, or a traffic helicopter that had gotten lost in the smoke from the first fire, he wondered.
I had no problem getting Dad on the phone. He was fine, but he couldn’t get through to Mom, at her job. I called, and got her voicemail, so I left a message. Then I had to find out what the hell was going on with Marty. Along with my cell phone, I had left my phone book home. Rob, Marty’s best friend, would know, but his phone number was also in my phone book. I spoke to John, but he didn’t know, and he didn’t have Rob’s number. I called Louie’s office, and got his voicemail. I didn’t realize how upset I was, until I started choking up while I left the message.
Somebody in the office announced that all the cell phones were out. No surprise, the same thing happened at midnight last New Year’s Eve. I had my radio on really loud, and the reports that were coming in were incredible. Smoke pouring out of the White House, a car bomb at the State Department, a helicopter crash in the middle of the Pentagon. They knew at this point that planes had hit both towers, but no one was saying anything about hijacked airliners yet. Everyone in the office had different radio stations on, and we were all repeating what we were hearing.
Finally, Louie called me back, and told me Marty was safe; he had left the trade center a year ago. Rob had spoken to him, and he was safe. I felt like a knife had just been pulled out of my chest.
Our office is about a mile from the Twin Towers, but our windows faced the wrong way, so we couldn’t see anything. I told Bill that the view from 6th Ave. was pretty good, so the 2 of us, plus Stuart from Sales, decided to go downstairs to the street and take a look. We walked over to 6th, but we couldn’t see much, so we decided to go back over the West St., which led straight down to the World Trade Center. When we got there, we could see the tower with the TV antenna on it, but there was a huge cloud of smoke blocking the other tower. Or at least that’s what it looked like. Someone in the crowd on the street told us the other tower had collapsed.
I couldn’t believe it. When I saw the building after the plane hit, it looked like a bad fire, but nothing that should make it collapse. How the hell did this happen? We decided to go back upstairs. West St. was filled with people trudging up from downtown. These people were all clean; the ones covered with dust hadn’t made it up toward us yet. Bill wanted to stop and buy batteries for his radio, and I flirted with the idea of getting a disposable camera. I changed my mind right away; these were not pictures that I would want in my house.
When I got back to the office, Ginnette from Sales was hysterical. Her sister worked in the Twin Towers, but she couldn’t get through to her on the phone. Someone told me that the 2nd tower had collapsed. “No, only 1 tower is down,” I said, “We just saw the 2nd one from the street.” Nope, I was told, the 2nd tower had just collapsed, both towers were down.
Bill came back with his batteries, and he got the idea that we go over to El Diario, the Spanish newspaper down the hall. They had windows that faced the World Trade Center. We didn’t know anyone there, but they were very nice, and let us in. A lot of people were crying, and no one seemed to really notice us. We walked through the office over to window. There was an incredible view of the whole harbor, and the West Side of downtown. We could see the huge cloud of smoke where the Twin Towers used to be. I turned to Bill, “At least the Statue of Liberty is still there.”
We thanked the people who let us in, and we went back to our office. Around 10 or so, Joy, the office manager came on the P.A. system and announced the office was closing for the day.
I went to see my friend George, over in the Traffic Dept., to see what he was going to do. The radio had announced that the subways, busses, highways, and bridges were all being shut down, and no one knew for how long. George said he was going to walk up to his father’s office on 34th St., and wait to see what was going to happen.
I decided there was no way in hell I was going to stay in Manhattan. Who knew when the subways were going to come back on, I had no intention of spending the night in the office, and a hotel room would cost a fortune. Although the bridges to Brooklyn were all closed, I figured I’d take a chance that the pedestrian walkways would still be open. If I could get over the Williamsburg Bridge, I could hop on the first stop of the Nostrand Ave. bus. Or if that wasn’t running, I could just walk up Bedford Ave. to my apt. It would be a helluva long walk, but the exercise wouldn’t kill me.
I told Bill my plan. “Don’t you think you might be safer here in the office, than out on the street?” he asked. “I think I’ll be safer in my basement apartment in Brooklyn than this big tall office building in Manhattan.” He wished me luck, and said he was gonna hang around the office because there was no way he could get home without the LIRR.
I started packing up to leave, when my Sr. VP came to my desk, looking to have a conversation about some crummy $26 storage invoice. I just looked at him, and said I was going home. I went over to see George, but he was already on his way to see me. I told him I was going to try and get home. We shook hands, and I told him to call me when he got home; I almost felt like hugging him. If we weren’t in the office, I probably would have. I tried to call Dad, who was on 14th St., to find out what he was doing, or if he wanted to come with me, but all the phones were out.
I stopped at the cash machine, because who knew how long those were gonna be still up, and you’d never know if I was gonna need cash for a taxi or something. The candy store across the street was already closed, so I went to the food court down the block and bought a couple of big bottles of water. It was a warm day, and I had a long walk ahead of me.
I wasn’t sure where the pedestrian walkways for the bridges were, but I figured if I headed west, I’d come across signs or something. As I was walking, I started to think, “There’ll be a lot of injured people down by the Trade Center, and I bet most of the firemen and paramedics would be killed or hurt in the collapse.” - I had no idea how right I would be - “I know first aid, maybe I should go down there and see if I could help.” I turned south on 6th Ave., trying not to think about what it would be like down there. When I got to Canal St., the cops had the whole street, sidewalks and all, blocked off. They weren’t letting anyone through. There was a whole bunch of cops standing around some kind of mobile command post. This made me feel relieved - if all these cops were standing around here with nothing to do, they certainly didn’t need me. All I had to do was walk 80 gazzillion miles to get home.
I turned west and headed towards the bridges to Brooklyn. People were in the streets helping to direct traffic. There were lines at all the pay phones. However, I couldn’t believe the scene when I got to Chinatown. All the Chinese were going about their business like nothing had happened. They were bustling on the streets, shopping. Men were in the small parks, playing chess. They were in a world unto themselves. As I got closer to the courthouses, it started to get, well, interesting. Court officers in SWAT type gear, shotguns and all, were standing around in the streets. I saw a couple of guys who looked like some kind of federal agents carrying assault rifles.
I finally saw some signs; unfortunately they were for the Manhattan Bridge. Who knew where in Brooklyn that would leave me? The roadway was closed to traffic, but the pedestrian walkway was still open. I could have tried walking down to the Brooklyn Bridge, or up to the Manhattan Bridge, but who knew if they’d be letting pedestrians on those bridges. Let me just get to Brooklyn, and I’ll figure out what I’m gonna do from there.
As I trudged up the ramp to the walkway, I noticed that the guy in front of me was one of those poor bastards who were covered with dust. I dug out one of the water bottles from my knapsack, “Here, pal, I think you need this more than I do.” I figured he was gonna pour it over his head and clean himself up a little, but he just took a swig and handed it back to me. “Keep it,” I waved him off, “I’ve got another one.”
I was sort of surprised how few people were on the walkway, but it had just been re-opened after being closed for over 20 years. Most people probably just didn’t know about it. When I looked to my left, at the roadway, I saw that one of the traffic lanes had been closed off and was being used by pedestrians. Coming from Brooklyn were empty city busses, police cars, and ambulances from as far away as New Jersey and Connecticut.
I was still listening to the radio, the announcers said that the FBI was reporting that the Pentagon had been hit by a plane, another plane had crashed in Pennsylvania, and that the FAA had grounded all air traffic. A low flying plane whizzed overhead, and a woman cringed. I could see that it was an F-16 - one of ours, and I told her. She seemed to feel a little better.
I could have made better time, but every few hundred feet, I would stop and turn to look at downtown Manhattan. All that was visible of where the Twin Towers used to be was a giant cloud of smoke. It was spooky to see the FDR drive completely empty in the middle of the day. Not everyone on the bridge was walking; some were just standing and watching.
As I got closer to the Brooklyn side, I could see that the Manhattan Bridge emptied very near to the Brooklyn Bridge. Bingo, I knew where I was. The Brooklyn Bridge was only a few blocks from Uncle Stan’s apartment. If he was home, I could use his phone, call everyone to let them know that I had gotten out of Manhattan, and maybe rest for a little bit. If he wasn’t home, I knew exactly where Flatbush Ave. was. The Flatbush Ave. bus would get me pretty close to home, but if it wasn’t running, I knew the exact route I could take to walk home. God knows how many miles it would be.
Things were almost as chaotic in the streets of Brooklyn as they had been in Manhattan. The streets were all blocked off to traffic, but they were filled with people. A helluva lot more people had walked over the Brooklyn Bridge than the Manhattan Bridge. I was pretty hot and sweaty by now, but at least I had my water. A lot of other people didn’t have anything to drink. As I headed towards Uncle Stan’s apartment, I passed one of the big post offices; the postal workers had dragged their water coolers outside and were handing out paper cups of water to the people coming off the bridge. I passed a church that was open, and women were inviting people to come in and rest. Not me, I was going home.
As I passed the outlet from the Brooklyn Bridge, who did I spot standing across the street, looking lost, but Marie. Marie was godmother to my brother Danny, and one of my mother’s oldest friends. She also lived not too far from my neighborhood. As I told Danny later that night, I wanted to do one good thing that day, and it looked like getting Marie home was gonna be it.
I called her over, gave her some water, and we compared notes on how we got out of Manhattan. I told her about my plan to stop at Uncle Stan’s, and she said great, she had to go to the bathroom, too. It took us a little time to find Uncle Stan’s building. I had only been there once, and there were four buildings in the complex. We finally found the right building.
The doorman was really nice, he could tell where we had come from. He called upstairs, but Uncle Stan’s wasn’t home. Great. However, he let Marie use a bathroom, and he promised to tell Uncle Stan that his nephew Richie had stopped by, and that I was fine. I shook his hand when we left. Usually, you don’t shake hands with the doorman, but today wasn’t “usually.”
Right around the corner was Clark Street Station, a bar I had been in a few times. My first thought, a cold beer, but that wasn’t gonna fly since I had Marie with me. Even if I had been alone, I would have sat down, watched the news, and the next thing you knew, the afternoon would be gone. There’d be plenty of time for beer when I got home.
We quickly found the stop for the Flatbush Ave. bus. At least 2 or 3 busloads of people were waiting, but we decided to join the line. Buses from other routes, jammed with people, passed us by. There were also empty busses heading for the city. I guessed they were gonna be used for ambulances, or to move cops around. Then my Discman announced that the National Guard had been called out. We were near the Brooklyn Courthouses, and we saw court officers in the street, some handing out water, but none in the type of SWAT outfits that were in Manhattan.
Marie and I got into a discussion as to the best route to get home. I wanted to get on the Flatbush Ave. bus. If it was running, it would get us within easy walking distance to our neighborhood. If it wasn’t running, Flatbush Ave. would give us the most direct route to walk to our neighborhood. Marie, on the other hand, wanted to take the Court St. bus and transfer to the Coney Island Ave. bus. I told her that wasn’t a good idea, what would happen if we got off the Court St. bus, and the Coney Island Ave. bus wasn’t running? We’d be stuck, and we wouldn’t know how to get home from there.
A half-hour went by, with no buses coming. I wanted to start walking, but Marie was still married to the Court St. bus idea. “Forget the bus, the bus idea has gone, it’s over, it sailed away.” I was getting a little, well, excited, but it wouldn’t be right to lose my temper, not now, not over something like this. Marie is my mother’s best friend. I was getting the idea in my head of leaving Marie at the bus stop, while I walked, but I just couldn’t leave her behind like that. Marie made my decision for me, she agreed to start walking. “Maybe we’ll catch a bus on the way.”
We walked a few blocks over to Flatbush Ave., and started hiking south. The President’s short, tape delayed statement came over the radio; I relayed it to Marie. Lot’s of other people were walking, too. We walked a little bit with a guy who had heard some rumors; I don’t remember what they were now, but I didn’t believe them. It was a weird procession through downtown Brooklyn; most of the people walking were white, but the neighborhood was mostly black.
When we got to the Fulton St. Mall, most of the stores were closed, but the fast food businesses were doing a thriving business. I was starving, but I didn’t want to stop to eat. It was past noon, and I hadn’t had breakfast. Eureka! I found the peanut butter & jelly sandwich I had brought for lunch in my knapsack. I offered half to Marie, but she didn’t want any, so I scarfed it down myself. We actually came across a pay phone that worked, and didn’t have a huge line in front of it. Marie called her house, to let her family know she had made into Brooklyn OK. Everyone in her family was all right, and she asked her husband to call my parents’ house and let them know that I was OK.
So we walked, and walked, and walked. Past the Brooklyn Public Library, past the Botanical Gardens, past Prospect Park. The entrances to all the subway stops we past were closed off with police tape. We were both pretty beat, a good part of our route was uphill. We came across a subway station that looked open, I went down to check. The token booth attendant said the subways were still off.
When we got to Empire Boulevard, I said kidingly to Marie, “Hey, wanna go see where Ebbetts Field used to be?” I don’t think she even heard me, because she spotted a bus across the street that was actually stopping at the bus stop. We ran across the street, and yes, the city had just started running busses again. Empire Boulevard was going to be the first stop of this Flatbush Ave. bus. We even got seats!
The bus was jammed, but everyone was in reasonably good spirits. When we got off at the last stop, Kings Plaza, I made sure Marie knew to get on the Ave. U bus, which would be a short ride to her house. I got on the Ave. R bus, which was sitting there like it was waiting for me.
It was about 3:30 PM by the time I got home. I had left the office at about 10:30 AM. I really needed a shower and to get changed, but there was a bunch of messages on my answering machine, and I had a bunch of calls I needed to make. One of the calls was from Uncle Stan. Judging from the time of the message we had just missed him.
I called my parents’ house, but no one was home. My brother Chris called me back later; he wasn’t home because he had gone out to give blood. I turned on the TV, with the sound down, because I wanted to see the tape of what had happened to the Twin Towers. I didn’t have to wait long for the replay. I called my Aunt Jeannie in California; the 2 of us channel surfed over the phone, telling each other what we were seeing. I called Uncle Milton & Aunt Lorraine in Pennsylvania; they were happy to hear that everyone was safe. I returned Uncle Stan’s call; he wanted to know if I thought if the bottom 10 or 20 stories of the Twin Towers might be standing. I called my father’s office; the woman who answered the phone told me my father had gone down again to see if the train was running. My mother called, she thought she might be stuck spending the night in her office in New Jersey.
I then called most of my friends, to see if they had gotten home, and to make sure that their families were OK. Louie had walked all the way from Long Island City to Brooklyn, where some Good Samaritan picked him up under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, and actually drove him all the way home to Bay Ridge. Al called me, relieved as all hell that I was OK. He knew I worked downtown, but he didn’t know how close I was to the Twin Towers. He called my cell phone, got no answer, e-mailed work, got no answer, and was starting to fear that something happened to me. Rob told me that Marty (who now safely worked uptown) just hung around till the subways started running, and came home the usual way. My ear was starting to hurt as much as my feet because of all the phone calls.
My father called me when he got home - he took the subway home. He wanted me to come over, but I told him that I had done enough walking for the day. My brother Danny had called my parents to let them know that he was OK, but he was going to the World Trade Center, and didn’t know when he’d be home. My mother called me when she got home that night, after the PATH trains from Jersey started running again. It turned out she had seen both planes hit the Twin Towers from her office across the river.
Like everyone else, I had been watching TV all day. The TV networks were estimating that as much as 10,000 people were dead, and that an unknown number of cops and 200 firefighters were missing. It was a terrible, awful, thing, but I didn’t feel THAT bad. My family was safe, my friends were safe, and everyone I knew was safe. I even called Bill, my boss, to make sure he got home OK.
Then Chris called me. Danny had gotten home from work, and Timmy Stackpole was on the list of missing firefighters. I didn’t know him, but Timmy & his wife were friends with my parents; I drank with Timmy’s Dad, Ed, most Friday nights down at the Good Shepherd Catholic Club. Danny got on the phone. He sounded OK, considering the things he had seen that day. “He’s gone, no one could survive in there, no way.” I told him if he needed someone to talk to, he could talk to me. But Danny said he was OK, he had his moments, be he was OK.
Ed has not had it easy, but now this. Timmy had been badly burned in a fire a couple of years ago. The Fire Dept. offered him a disability pension, but Timmy insisted on going back to work. Timmy’s mother, Ed’s wife, had just died after a long bout with cancer. Now this.
I stayed up as late as I could to watch the news. I even fell asleep with the TV on, something I rarely do. I wasn’t the only one, I found out later that lot’s of people did the same thing, so they’d be woken up if something else happened. Everything south of 14th St. was closed on Sept. 12, so I was home the next day. Even if the office had been open, I was so sore & tired from the walk that I would have called in sick, anyway. Dad called and said 14th St. looked like the DMZ.
My friend John & I kept calling each other back and forth all day, as new things were reported on the news. Chris called on his way to work. He had run into one of the guys from the Catholic Club, and Mike Quinn’s son Jimmy was missing. He worked in Cantor Fitzgerald, near the top of one of the Twin Towers. I had met Jimmy maybe once or twice, tops. However, me & Mike had put in a lot of late nights at the bar in the Club, & some other places, and Mike was always telling stories about his sons. I didn’t know them, but I almost felt like I did.
It’s the end of the year, now. Timmy Stackpole’s body was found within a few days. My parents went to the wake - there was a 2-hour line just to get into the funeral parlor. As far as I know, nothing was ever found of Jimmy Quinn. His parents decided to hold a memorial service on Dec. 15, because of the college basketball schedule. Jimmy had been a big college basketball fan. I have never seen the Church that crowded in my life, except for the mass that was held the day after Sept. 11.