Thursday, September 11, 2014

On 9/11 I Watched People Die


I worked across the street from the Twin Towers and thought nothing of the loud bang I heard when the first plane hit the North Tower. It sounded like a trash dumpster hitting the ground.  At first we didn’t know it was a plane and no one was panicking.  I had an 11:00 job interview and thought I’d leave a bit early. Others, who were around for the WTC bombing years earlier, left immediately.

On the phone with my wife, she told me a plane crashed into the north side of the Trade Center, which didn’t seem right since I was looking at the south side of the tower and I could see a very large hole. It the plane hit the north side of the tower, why was there a hole on the south side.  It didn’t occur to me I was looking at the exit wound.  Over the PA, security told us to, “Use common sense and stay calm.”

A few of us went to a conference room to get a better view. Someone pointed at the tire from the plane, a dead body and body parts lying on West Street.  The wheel of the plane was south of Liberty Street, so it had traveled a distance of five or six blocks south of the impact. Police and fire were heading north.

I turned from the windows and in that moment there was another BOOM and one of my colleagues yelled, “ANOTHER FUCKING PLANE JUST CRASHED.  I JUST SAW IT CRASH.” 

Everyone started packing up, and this time over the PA security was telling us to evacuate the building.  We came out on the east side of the building, and looked back at the towers, both on fire.

Some memories are more indelible than others. As I looked at the burning towers with paper, as if from a ticker tape parade, and ash falling from the building, I saw people jump. The choice those poor souls faced still haunts me. How painful was it in that building that the better choice was to jump to a certain death?

Now what?  There weren’t many options. Someone was deliberately attacking New York.  Were there more attack planes on their way?  Were there bombs at Grand Central?  If I headed north along the Hudson I’d have to pass the World Financial Center buildings and they could be next.  Walking east towards the East River would put me in the middle of the Financial District with more tall buildings, and more plane attacks?  The only place without buildings nearby was Battery Park.  Besides, I could possibly catch the subway from Battery Park to Grand Central.  Or maybe I could wait out whatever it was that was happening and then make my way east to the East River and then north from there.

I headed south into Battery Park. At times I had a perfect view of the towers.  Both were still on fire, with smoke billowing out and the confetti still falling.  I was worried there would be more attacks.  Lots of people were heading south with me.  One man yelled to his colleagues (friends? Relatives?) “It is safe to go back” and gestures for them to follow.  I can’t imagine where he thinks it is safe.  Some followed him.

I heard someone say, “The parking lot is on fire.”  What parking lot?  Then I heard someone else say, “the Pentagon is on fire.”  Jesus, the Pentagon.  That morphs into the Pentagon and the White House are on fire.  There was no information on how the Pentagon had caught fire.  Others are saying all subways and ferries have stopped.

I stopped near Pearl Street and talked with a couple of men.  We don’t know much.  The subways closed, the bridges are closed, the ferries are closed, the Pentagon is on fire.  Has anyone claimed responsibility?  No one knows, but someone suggests it must have been Arafat, or some fanatical Muslim group. 

I walked further south on State.

As I was walking, I heard a big swoooom.  Is that ANOTHER plane???  Screams, people running towards me, so I RAN.  People tried to take cover under the awnings of the American CafĂ©.  There was a mother and father, standing next to an empty stroller, shouting the name of their child.  They keep yelling his name. No response.  There is a purse on the ground and people are yelling at each other to stay away from the purse.  I stay away from the purse.

Turned east towards the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.  All of a sudden another BANG and the crowd is now running away from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal towards me!!  I turn and run.  I jump over a low fence into an area that is surrounded by fences. 

I talked to a couple of men back near the American Cafe. One of them tells me the “swoon” sound I had heard was the sound of the trade center collapsing.  You mean the top fell off?  No, the whole building collapsed. I didn’t believe him. Such an idea was inconceivable to me.    

A big cloud of soot moved towards us.  Ash is falling.  It's like an apocalyptic aftermath. A man appears with bottles of bottled water, giving them away.  I grab one and give it to a couple of women huddling under a blanket. Another man arrives with more bottled water.  I grab another bottle and use it to spit some of the soot from my mouth.  I rinse my eyes.  I walk down to the water’s edge.

People are using Kleenex, paper towels, clothing, I used my tie, to cover mouths from the soot.  Some people have masks provided by their buildings. 

Some of the people walking past me are covered in the soot and ash from the collapsed buildings.  These people have a much heavier accumulation than I do.  Some have what looks like mud on their faces and clothes.

I borrowed someone’s phone and called home. I got voice mail.  I left the message I was safe, but I didn’t feel too safe.

The Staten Island Ferry was closed, smoke from the towers was blowing east, towards the East River so I turned west, towards the Hudson. There are a lot of people in the park. Workers employed to trim trees, tourists, police. About 1/4 inch of ash has fallen so far and I covered my face as best I could. My eyes are starting to hurt. Someone gave a paper towel to me.  I grabbed another bottle of water.

A little bit north of Pier A there are 4 ferries waiting.  A fireman is yelling at the crowd, “This is a secure area.  There is no other way off this island, other than these ferries.  And you HAVE to get off this island.  Now get on the ferries.”  It’s an orderly line.  The fireman lift some over the barrier to get on the ferry, most climb over on their own.

We start across the river, on the way to New Jersey. Almost across the Hudson, the ferry stops, and heads north in a hurry.  “Man overboard,” I hear on the PA.  We fish a man out of the river. He has a life-jacket on and flippers.  He was swimming from NY to Jersey or Jersey to NY. Either way, he’s nuts.  But then, two planes have crashed into the twin towers, both have collapsed and the Pentagon is on fire.  What isn’t nuts?

Another one of those memories that stick with me. The view from the Hudson of the NY skyline is eerie.  Smoke is billowing from the area where the twin towers USED to be, where my life used to be.  This shakes me.  I realize how close to danger I was.  It keeps going through my mind:  There are no more twin towers.  There are no more twin towers.  There are no more twin towers.  There are no more twin towers.  There are no more twin towers. I felt empty, crushed, defeated.

We got off the ferry in Jersey City.  The police directed us to one of two bus lines.  The first went to Hoboken.  The second went to Newark Penn Station.  The police keep repeating over a bullhorn: There is nothing going into New York City.

I get a hold of my wife on the cell phone.  I’m safe and in Jersey City.  She tells me I should contact her brother-in-law, in New Jersey. I can stay with him. I called my Mom to let her know I was safe.

I need to use a restroom.  I found a nursing home nearby.  They let me use the bathroom.  I shake the dust from my clothes, rinse my hair, and eyes and face.  I take my shirt off and try to shake the dust off.  They ask to copy my ID before I leave.  Anyone could be a terrorist, right?

As I stood in line for the bus to Newark. I finally noticed what a beautiful day it is.  For a few years a beautiful Fall-like day would bring with it a rush of memories. It still can. Also, for a couple of years seeing planes moving through the sky could bring back memories, or make me cringe. 

My boss called.  I told him I was safe and in Jersey City.  He told me of others who are safe and says the whereabouts of others are still unknown. Later, I would find out everyone in our office got home safely. 

The bus took at least 30 minutes to arrive.  The ride to Penn Station is another hour.  Traffic is slower than walking, literally.  Three men standing in the aisle are talking about the day.  One of them says his boss said they owed it to the company to get to New Jersey and keep working. Shits like that boss should never be put in a position of responsibility.

We get to Penn station and stand in a semi-mob while two EMTs ask if we want to see a doctor.  No, I want to go home.  He gives a yellow triangular piece of paper to me.  I think an ambulance is printed on it. I follow the others with the yellow triangle.

I go in the station and wait in line to get info on how to get to my brother-in-law’s house.  I hear the people in front of me say there is a quarantine because there were chemical and/or biological weapons on the plane.  I was wrong, the day can get worse.

Subway to bus, bus to brother-in-law. On the subway someone noticed my shoes were covered with soot and asked if I was “down there.” After dinner, my brother-in-law and I walked to a hill in his town with a view of lower Manhattan. We look at the smoke still coming from where the towers used to stand. The skyline is naked without the towers.

The next day I hired a car to bring me home.  My wife greeted me in the driveway. We went out to lunch with our two younger kids.  When we came home from lunch I went upstairs to rest.  Instead I lied down and cried.

It took about a week to find temp offices. I don’t know what the point was. We were being acquired and the likelihood I would continue with the new company was minimal. I went in, but worked little; there was little to do; and I had no heart to do anything. I spent a lot of time walking.

All over New York there were “Missing” posters on mailboxes, phone booths, blank walls. All over Grand Central there were posters with pictures of loved ones. They were gone. The only way someone could have survived was a miracle, and there were no miracles.

Another enduring memory. I walked from our office near Grand Central to Union Square on 14th street, about a 1.5 mile walk. Union Square for some time had vigils for those lost. As I approached I saw the side of a drug store, almost one-half of a city block, covered with the posters of those lost. It’s how I felt: lost. My family was looking for me too. It would take some time to find me. I guess there was a least one miracle.

I didn’t survive the acquisition, which closed in late 2001. I was out of work for about 6 months, finally finding a job at a salary 2/3 of my prior level. My unemployment benefits ran out at the same time I found a job. And even though the unemployment checks were nowhere near what I had previously earned, the absence of those checks certainly spurred me to exert greater efforts to find a job. That and it was time to get back to work.

I was angry for years. I drank more, a lot more. I don’t know how my marriage survived, but it did. Over time, the anger subsided. At some point you realize the anger is only inflicting self-harm.

I don’t think we recognize all the ways that day hurt our country. I think the Patriot Act was bad for us and continues to harms us. What good came from the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars is difficult for me to see, and I was an ardent supporter of both since I wanted, not revenge, but blood. The armor from those wars are now home in the US and pointed at us. I think that day put a wall between our government and its citizens. The government now assumes we are all terrorists, that’s why we have to take our shoes off to board a plane, that’s why the NSA captures meta data on all of our cell phone conversations. We are a citizenry treated like criminals, and told it is for our own good.

The good news is we can change.


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