A GLIMPSE OF HELL
At 6:15 A.M. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Mario Musso and I boarded Jet Blue flight 281 out of Buffalo. We landed at JFK ahead of schedule at 7:38. Shortly after 8:00 an airport shuttle took us to the Howard Beach station. We boarded the express “A” train bound for Manhattan and reached our destination in less than an hour. I don’t recall what time it was when we ascended from the depths of the Nassau-Fulton subway station into the shadow of the Federal Reserve Building. As we set out for our Cortlandt Street office we realized something was wrong.
A bewildered frown crossed Mario’s face as he scanned the restless throng of pedestrians before us. “Everybody’s looking up,” he said, “but they’re not tourists.” Only tourists gawk at the novelty of towering buildings. We were surrounded by office workers, couriers on bicycles, kiosk merchants, construction laborers. New Yorkers.
The thought crossed my mind that someone was threatening suicide by jumping from a nearby building. We, too, looked up as we stepped into the brilliant sunshine at the intersection of Broadway and Fulton. The north tower of the World Trade Center emerged from behind the massive edifice of the Federal Reserve. The abstract thought of a stranger’s suicide threat evaporated in the face of real horror: the tower was burning.
We stood transfixed, staring at a gaping rent that ran the width of the skyscraper some twenty floors from the roof. Curtains of flame rose from dozens of windows. Plumes of thick black smoke billowed from the wreckage. It was surreal: a titanic silvery monolith stark against the perfect blue sky, burning amid a dreamy cascade of white butterflies. The butterflies were sheets of paper fluttering down from the heights. Memos, invoices, and who knows what else?
“It was a plane!” someone shouted nearby. I immediately thought of the bomber that had crashed into the Empire State Building at the end of World War II. Could such an awful thing have happened again?
Suddenly, a human figure plummeted down the face of the tower and vanished behind a smaller building. Oh, no. Oh, no, I thought. My God. I began to feel sick. Someone trapped by the fire had jumped rather than roast to death or asphyxiate.
I turned to Mario. “Did you see that? Was that what I think it was?”
“Yeah,” he responded grimly. “I think so.”
We were stupefied, disbelieving. It was oddly quiet, save for the gathering dirge of wailing sirens. As I wondered what sort of criminal would build a skyscraper of materials that burned so readily, and how anyone in the upper floors could survive, another body dropped through the smoke and fell earthward, arms flailing. A moment later I watched as a third human being plunged into oblivion.
Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes after we had left the subway a great orange fireball erupted horizontally from behind the upper stories of the Federal Reserve Building. The air reverberated with a tremendous thunderclap.
I instinctively bolted for the safety of the Federal Reserve, running along the wall up Fulton Street. When the debris shower I expected didn’t materialize, I slowed and began to look back over my shoulder. The crowd had reeled away from the threat, too, like a herd of wildebeest fleeing a great cat or a crocodile. There were wild stares and gaping mouths, but no screams, no real panic. It was an orderly, almost reluctant retreat. And like a herd, the crowd returned to the scene of the catastrophe as soon as the immediate threat vanished.
I found myself at William Street or Gold Street—I don’t recall which. I looked for Mario, but he was gone, absorbed by the crowd. I walked cautiously back to Broadway until both Towers of the World Trade Center came into view. The damage to the south tower seemed much like that to the north, but at a lower level. It was then I realized that this was no accident. But who was responsible? How had they done it? Why had they done it?
At the corner of Broadway and Fulton the sidewalk was a field of splintered glass—a storefront had been blown out by the concussion. An old man paced amid the debris. “Look at this,” he said repeatedly, waving his arms as he shuffled among the fragments of plate glass. “Just look at this!” A slim young man with oriental features scurried by arm-in-arm with a pretty, freckled girl with red hair; his arm was bandaged and splinted, the gauze below his shoulder blood-soaked. People milled about, shaking their heads in disbelief, always gazing upward.
A burly black man next to me gasped, “Look,” and pointed up at the north tower. Another person jumped as if on cue, a man, I think. He was spread-eagled, descending with sickening speed in a horrific belly flop.
I left that place. I had seen enough jumpers. I walked back to Nassau Street then down to John, where I had a clear view of the south tower. My brain whirled with speculation. It couldn’t have been a plane. The damage incurred by the two towers had taken place at too great an interval. The fireball looked like a gasoline fire. How could terrorists get gasoline bombs of that size past building security? How many people were dead? How many were yet to die? What in hell was going on?
I reversed course and headed back up Nassau toward Pace University. I stopped now and again to look around to see where I was and what other people were doing. Emergency vehicles and cops on foot made their way through the crowds toward the burning towers. The only sounds I heard were the sirens. A multitude of sirens.
I looked up at a billboard somewhere near Beekman Street. At first glance I thought it said “HELL” in great block letters. Below that I read, “We’re Open.” It was an advertisement for a store named Moshell’s. A utility pole had obscured the first part of the name; my agitated mind had blanked out the apostrophe and ess.
I found myself near City Hall Park where thousands had gathered. No sooner had I arrived than a man with a bullhorn dispersed the crowd by announcing that City Hall might be a terrorist target. I circled behind the university and back down Gold Street, back toward the Nassau-Fulton Subway Station. Along the way, I passed the emergency room of the New York University Downtown Hospital. A handful of ambulances bearing victims had already arrived. More were on the way.
I ended up once again at the Federal Reserve Building, taking care to keep the burning towers and the jumpers out of view. All I could think to do was to try once more to find Mario or anyone from our office. I waited about a half block from the subway entrance, scanning the crowd for familiar faces.
Suddenly, the people jamming the intersection at Broadway and Fulton wheeled about and ran toward me. I turned and ran, too, just as the air filled with a long ripping crackle that ended in another booming thunderclap. I didn’t know what had happened, but it sounded like a terrific explosion.
A man ahead of me ducked into a large opening on the side of a building undergoing renovation. I followed him, hoping to avoid anything that might fall out of the sky. We ran through a corridor of some sort, then over a metal bridge encased in wire mesh. We exited the building near William Street, I think. As I came out into the sunshine again, I was surprised not to see flames and debris. There were just hundreds of people running toward the river. Further ahead was another torrent of humanity running north along Pearl Street.
The scene was like one of the many dreams I have had in which I was pursued by some unnameable evil; dreams in which my legs refused to work or I could run only in slow motion. The only difference was that I could—and did—run like hell.
I stopped only once before I reached Pearl. A young woman had fallen near the curb, but she wasn’t injured or ill. She was hysterical. I had the odd impression that I was in her dream, that she couldn’t run from the unnamable evil. She lay at the edge of the street wailing, trying to curl into a ball. A man I guessed to be her boyfriend was trying to haul her to her feet, but she wouldn’t budge. She just screamed and tried to cover her face. I grabbed her by one arm and started tugging. I shouted something like, “Come on! At least get against the wall!”
I helped get her into the lee of a building before moving on. As I ran, it occurred to me she was going to die for lack of trying to stay alive, and that she would take her friend with her. When I reached Pearl Street I joined the torrent of people moving north toward the Brooklyn Bridge. I looked back and saw a huge black cloud boiling slowly up the street. It seemed to be at least a block away.
Oddly, I wasn’t afraid at all. I didn’t know if I was fleeing the residue of a tactical nuclear strike or a large conventional explosion, but I was determined to get away from whatever that menacing cloud meant. I felt good: I wasn’t tired and I wasn’t short of breath. I was heading upwind, which was a good thing, but I wanted to get away from the crowd. That proved impossible, because all the cross streets to the west were like tributaries adding to the flow of the human river in which I found myself.
The black cloud dissipated into a gray fog long before it reached me. Then it began to snow. A fine gray dust intermingled with tiny flakes of ash began to settle upon us. It wasn’t especially dense, but it burned eyes and throats. If this is Sarin gas, I thought, then I’m dead, and so is everyone around me. But it’s only ash and dust, I told myself. I covered my mouth with my shirt as I hurried along, alternately trotting and walking. I hopped up into a window cutout in a granite wall to take stock of my situation.
Many thousands of people were fleeing north. I was a couple of blocks from the East River. Swarms of people were coming from the west. I was afraid the Brooklyn Bridge would be bombed, but there was no other path to take. I rejoined the traffic on Pearl Street.
A moment later I was breathing fresh air beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. By the time I reached Chatham Green there was no ash and few people. The sky and the streets ahead were clear. The bridge was teeming with refugees. The dirge of sirens continued unabated.
Refugee. The word kicked about in my head as I walked through Chinatown, through the stink of rotten fish and restaurant garbage, through broken conversations in languages I had heard spoken only in movies. I was now a refugee.
I don’t recall when I first got a clear view of the World Trade Center after the second explosion. It may have been near Columbus Park. It may have been in a Chinatown. There was now only a single tower standing in the midst of a storm cloud. The enormity of the calamity struck me then. Thousands were dead, certainly. We were at war, I guessed. The dreamy unfolding of events became grimly real. I felt hollow, exhausted, depressed.
I began to look for a pay phone. I had to call my wife and kids to tell them I was alive. I had to find out if Mario was alive. I wondered if he been as foolish as I and returned to look for coworkers. Had he been crazy enough to go to Cortlandt Street and our offices there?
I know I checked my wristwatch repeatedly, but the time somehow eluded me. I think it was around eleven A.M. when I reached Canal Street. The public telephones I tried were out of order. Many had lines of people waiting to try them even though it was clear they weren’t functioning. I stood in line once myself, hoping to prove that the people ahead of me were idiots. They weren’t.
Eventually I reached Broadway and made my way to 18th Street or 20th, trying telephones along the way. The streets were lined with people. Some were still shopping, despite the morning’s events. Some were clearly dismayed and wandering aimlessly. Many gazed at the gray cloud that rose above the south end of Broadway. I gazed, too, and saw that the second tower had disappeared. By this time I had overheard radio broadcasts describing what had happened. It was airplanes, after all. Highjackers. Terrorists. Our enemies. My enemies. I wasn’t too tired to cast a curse at them. Baby killers. Monsters. Stuff like that whirled through my brain. I wiped tears from my eyes more than once.
Police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, black sedans with flashing red lights on their dashboards, public utility vans-all manner of emergency vehicle roared through midtown Manhattan toward the devastation. Incredibly, jet fighters roared overhead, circling Manhattan. I craned my neck and saw what appeared to be an F-14 Tomcat with its wings swept back. A passerby stopped and said, “That’s an F-16 up there. You’re not gonna see that baby.” It was a man a few years older than myself, silver-haired and smiling. I suppressed the urge to correct him, and walked on.
I only saw two jets, but I heard many. Each time the rumble of jet engines drew close I edged toward the nearest building. So did the people around me. Who knew what would happen next on a day such as this?
Many shops and businesses were already closed or closing, but I found a drug store with only a handful of people waiting at the cashiers. I bought a bottle of water and a box of Band-Aids for the blisters that had already blossomed on my feet. I continued looking for a working telephone.
The manager of an Italian pastry shop tried to give me a free soft drink. Before closing up shop she let me use her telephone to call my wife. The long distance lines still weren’t working.
At about 12:30 Rick Sanchez, the manager of a midtown Radio Shack, let me use the store’s DSL line to send an e-mail to my department’s Albany offices. I couldn’t remember anyone’s address, so I had to look up a public contact e-mail address on the Internet. A Radio Shack employee let me use her Hot Mail account. I composed a brief-and probably ridiculous-message asking anyone who might read it to contact my Buffalo office or my wife to tell her I was alive and well. Little did I know that my office had already closed in response to the emergency.
I felt somewhat relieved that there was now a chance my wife would get my message, but I still searched for a telephone. I was apprehensive about getting close to the Empire State Building-it was possibly a target. I circled several blocks in the Gramercy Park area spanning Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Park Avenue. I figured the best thing for me would be to find a room and hunker down until the phones were working again. I found three hotels in short order, but none had vacant rooms.
I finally found a working telephone on Park Avenue near 22nd Street. I called home. My wife picked up on the third ring. I told her how much I loved her and the kids. She told me Mario was safe.
After considerable inconvenience, Mario and I found rooms for the night. We returned to Buffalo by Amtrak the next evening to the hugs and kisses of our families and the glare of television camera lights. My small part in the horror of September 11, 2001 was over.
I now have a greater role as an American citizen-to make sure that no one forgets what evil has been done to us. I will not rest until those innocent thousands who died so near to where I stood are avenged.