Primary day for the Mayoral election in New York City. I walk from my house the block to PS 84 to cast my vote.
Rather than wait for the bus, I walk the 8 blocks from PS 84 to Ditmars Station, because it is such a stunning day. I grab a coffee before climbing the stairs up to the station and getting on the N train.
I had taken to crossing the platform at Queensboro Plaza from the N train to the 7 train, allowing me to avoid the crowds at Times Square. After leaving Court House Square the train makes the bend around 5Pointz and before going under the East River I’d catch a view of the Towers.
I get off the train at 5th Avenue in Manhattan and come above ground at Bryant Park. As I cross 5th Avenue making my way to my office on Madison Avenue, looking left I could see the Towers again. I probably didn’t that morning, no reason to; besides I was busy looking right to make my way across the street.
When I get to my office the longest part of my commute begins, the interminable wait for the damn elevator. It always took forever. Most days a collection of co-workers formed and the morning ritual of complaining about the elevator commenced. This day however, the conversation was about the weather. It was glorious! The most amazing blue sky, I remember talking to people about it, even strangers on the train were talking to each other about it, it was truly remarkable. One of the very few perfect New York City days between our horrifically muggy summers and windswept winters. I was already thinking about lunch at Bryant Park and the best time to get there to get a chair on the lawn.
The elevator eventually brought me to my office on the 8th floor. Sitting at my desk I must have been checking my email or something. At some point I called a co-worker downstairs. She couldn’t talk, a plane had crashed at the World Trade Center and she was trying to get in touch with a friend downtown.
A plane crash? Today? How? Must’ve been some small plane with an inexperienced pilot, mechanical problem, maybe the pilot had a heart attack or something.
I pulled up CNN on my computer, ever so slowly the page loaded. A photo on the home page of a hole in the side of the World Trade Center.
I called out to my boss, his office was across from my desk. “A plane hit the World Trade Center.” Across the room my co-worker’s head swings toward me, “what?” “Yes, it’s on CNN.”
No one can get the internet to load, people come out of their offices over to my desk, where I still have CNN’s homepage loaded, others are trying to make phone calls, already the lines are getting tied up.
I call my mother’s house, I get the machine. “You’re going to hear some crazy news about a plane hitting a building in New York, I’m like 90 blocks away and fine.”
With the photographic evidence confronting us, the World Trade Center with a giant smoking hole in it, the reality of what is happening still does not grab us. It must be an accident, how could someone crash..? The skies are stupendously clear. Someone recalls that plane that hit the Empire State Building in the ’40s. But that was a foggy day, not today, not this impossibly blue sky day.
My boss is the President of the company, so as we try to make sense of what is happening, my internal line is ringing off the hook, and executives are making their way up to our office. HR is moving into crisis mode, at least those of them that have started to grasp that this might be a crisis situation.
Someone comes out of her office, “another plane crashed.”
“It isn’t an accident.”
It is all still too unbelievable.
We find out the subways are shut down, “what if they close the city, what if we can’t leave?” It is decided that we need to be prepared to stay the night in the city. Someone heads out for supplies, someone tells him to buy a TV.
Fuck this, I need a cigarette, or ten.
I use the stairs, make my way to the street, light a cigarette and walk the block from Madison to 5th Avenue. I look downtown, thousands of people are on the sidewalks, in the road, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, all up and down the Avenue all looking downtown, to the Towers, burning.
Impossible amounts of smoke billowing toward the east, blotting out the impossibly blue sky.
I head back into the building, back up to my office. The TV is here.
The person who got it tells us what it is like outside, pandemonium. He was making his way down 42nd Street, a crowd of people, panicked, ran toward him, then like a flock of birds they all turned and ran the other way. He grabs someone and asks why they are running, “I don’t know! Everyone else is!”
We don’t have cable, the only station we can tune in with the rabbit ears is Telemundo. One of the housekeepers is pressed into translation duty.
I stand watching the TV, no translation is needed really. I mutter, “they’re gonna have to tear them down.” Then the first tower falls. “Well I guess they don’t need to tear them down.” So flip, so callous, but how am I supposed to react, what is happening?
I head back to my desk, call my sister. As we’re talking, the fire alarm goes off, someone comes over the PA telling us to head to the basement. There is a bomb threat at Grand Central, a block away. “Shit, I have to go!” click.
I couldn’t get back through for hours to let her know I was alright.
We all huddle in the basement, mostly quiet. Not knowing what to say, what is real, why the hell we’re in the basement.
Later we head back upstairs, then back to the basement again. Someone mentions the Met Life building. It sits atop Grand Central, could a bomb at Grand Central bring it down, and if so, would it land on us? Next time we’re ordered to the basement, most of us head for the sidewalk instead. We don’t want to be in the basement if the Met Life building comes down.
At some point the second tower falls. We hear rumors, catch snippets of information off of Telemundo or the radio or someone gets the internet to load a page. Someone says there was a car bomb outside the White House, someone else hears a plane hit the Pentagon, one’s heading toward Chicago. No one is allowed below Canal Street, someone else chimes in, “1010WINS says it’s 14th Street.” “The Mayor is saying that people who can leave Manhattan should.”
We start talking about who lives where and how people will get home without the trains running. The bridges are all open, outbound only.
A co-worker’s husband is making his way uptown to our office then they are going to walk to Queens. “Over the Queensboro Bridge?” “Yes.” “I’ll walk with you.”
Someone is in charge of accounting for everyone and where they are going and how they are getting there. Someone else says some of the subways are running, outbound only.
My co-worker and I decide we’d feel safer walking, we’ll see if we can get a train once we get to Queensboro Plaza.
As we make our way uptown from 44th Street to 59th Street we actually just start chatting, we’d never really interacted much in the office and I’d never met her husband. We talk about where we live, where we grew, how they met…
The sidewalks are jammed and pedestrians are spilling over into the street, everyone heading uptown. Women who hadn’t planned on evacuating Manhattan on foot remove their shoes.
Heading uptown, the sky is still wondrous. That brilliant September sky is as blue as it was that morning. We’d all forgotten about it.
We get to 59th Street and make our way across town to the bridge. The lanes heading to Queens are jammed with cars, the lanes coming from Queens are jammed with people, walking out of Manhattan, as are the pedestrian paths and the upper deck.
Someone in a box truck stops and loads a bunch of people who are having trouble walking into the truck to drive them over the bridge. In the weeks and months to come box trucks will become a symbol of threat, all stopped and searched before being allowed into Manhattan, today though, the box truck is a godsend for those people struggling to make their way home.
As we make our way onto the bridge and out over the river, we look back downtown. The brilliant blue sky becomes a distant memory again, clouds of black and grey smoke are billowing up from downtown and blowing across Brooklyn. No one says anything, we just look and continue walking, look again, and continue walking.
Over a mile later we’re over the bridge and in Queensboro Plaza. On any other day the Plaza would be jammed with traffic, people on the sidewalks making their way up to Queensboro Plaza Station or heading underground to Queens Plaza Station. Today the Plaza is wall to wall people. The bodegas and fast food restaurants have pulled cases of bottled water out of their storage rooms and are handing them out to weary walkers.
My co-worker and her husband decide to try to get on a train, they live way out in Eastern Queens. I look at the lines to get on the subway; I can’t see the end. I decide I’ve walked this far, I’ll just keep walking.
I struggle through the crowds in the Plaza and over to 31st Street. A train goes by overhead. Heading towards Ditmars I take some of the back blocks through the more residential areas. I walk by a house, a woman in her yard talking to another woman standing on the sidewalk on the other side of the fence. They are talking about remodeling the first woman’s kitchen. Really?
I make my way to my street. I stop at the bodega on the corner and buy a ham and cheese sandwich and a Coke.
I fall on the futon in my apartment, turn on the TV. I don’t have cable and many stations had their transmitters on the World Trade Center towers, those transmitters aren’t there anymore. I can get a grainy Tom Brokaw to tune in, and Channel 13, the PBS station. Later, Channel 13 simulcasted CBS and I spent most of Wednesday with Dan Rather.
I have a few bites of the ham and cheese sandwich and try to make some phone calls, mostly I can’t get a dial tone, when I can get a dial tone, I can’t get a call to connect. My internet is dial-up, I don’t even bother trying that.
I stay up most of the night with Tom Brokaw, I’m able to make a few calls connect and tell the people I reach to tell other people I’m fine. Tom tells me Manhattan is closed on Wednesday. I fall in and out of sleep.
Wednesday is much the same, flipping the channels between Tom and Dan, trying to make phone calls, fruitlessly trying to get the dial-up to work, and equally as fruitlessly trying to eat.
Thursday I get out of bed, in no hurry to head to work in the City. I make my way to the N train and make the cross-platform transfer at Queensboro Plaza to the 7. I hear announcements at Queensboro about stations all across Manhattan being closed. “Police action.” That would become a familiar refrain during the coming months, “oh, more ‘Police Action’.”
The train rounds the bend at 5Pointz and all that is in the sky is smoke. I tense up as we head into the tunnels under the East River. The train is held at the Hunters Point station, on the Queens side of the river. People sit nervously. We move under the river to Grand Central, the first stop in Manhattan. Grand Central whose bomb threats had me rushing to the basement two days earlier.
We pass through Grand Central and over to 5th Avenue where I get off.
As I climb the stairs up to Bryant Park a light haze of dust is falling, glinting in the sun. Dust, smoke, bodies. I make my way to 44th Street, up the elevator, no one discusses it’s slowness.
Soon after sitting at my desk, an announcement to go the basement, thanks a lot Grand Central, I head for the street, and have 3 or 4 cigarettes.
We’re given the all clear and I head back up to the 8th floor. I walk into the HR Director’s office. I tell her I’m going home. “That’s fine,” she says. “To Massachusetts,” I say. “Are you coming back?” “If I’m not going to be here on Monday, I’ll call.”
I leave the office and like Tuesday afternoon, I start walking uptown. I don’t want to go to Penn Station to get Amtrak or to Port Authority to get a bus, they are being closed every 20 minutes for bomb threats just as Grand Central is, and even though we all know intellectually the bomb threats don’t amount to anything, I still think, there could be a bomb.
I decide to make my way to 125th Street and get the MetroNorth to New Haven, I’ll figure out what to do once I get there. Once I get past 59th Street, I hop on a bus to Harlem.
As the MetroNorth comes from Grand Central, and as Grand Central keeps closing due to bomb threats, the trains are not remotely adhering to a schedule. I buy a ticket and wait, smoke cigarettes on the platform, no one stops me.
Eventually I get a train and make my way to New Haven. In New Haven I buy an Amtrak ticket to Boston, the person at the counter tells me trains are delayed all up and down the coast and they don’t know when the next one will be. That’s fine, I buy more cigarettes, make some phone calls (phones work in New Haven!), and stare slack-jawed with everyone else at the video monitors playing CNN.
Sometime after midnight I finally make it to Boston, with only the clothes on my back. I head to the ATM then buy more cigarettes. I spend the night at a friends house.
Friday is cold and rainy, I take a bus to Marshall’s and buy what to this day I call my ‘refugee clothes.’ Some clean socks, a sweater with a hood, pants, underwear.
Eventually I take a bus to the Cape and spend Friday night and Saturday at my parents.
It is different there. People are of course aware of what happened, but – I don’t know. Somehow, it is on CNN. There’s a ‘what are ya gonna do? Let’s make dinner’ attitude. It is comforting but somehow off-putting. I just fled Manhattan twice in one week. Certainly all of your reactions should be more, more, I don’t know, manic, like me.
Sunday I take a bus back to Boston and visit another friend. I feel like I need to see people. I board an Amtrak back to New York. The trains are more or less back on schedule.
As the train switches engines at New Haven, I jump onto the platform for a cigarette.
We make our way into New York after dark and pass over the Hell Gate Bridge. Out the window to the south is Manhattan. Over downtown the wind has slackened. The plume that had been blowing over Brooklyn when I left is now a cloud over the city. It looks like – a mushroom cloud. People on the train weep quietly, others look away, move to the other side of the train. Many are returning home for the first time after being stranded by the planes being grounded.
The train makes it’s way through Queens and under the East River into Penn Station. I come above ground at 34th Street. That dust, the bodies. I move on, there are papers taped up to every flat surface – the missing.
Police are everywhere, with machine guns, I hail a cab and head home.
The next day, Monday, I get on the N train in the morning, make the cross platform transfer to the 7, the loud speaker blares about ‘Police Actions.’ We make the bend at 5Pointz, the view, empty.
Please feel free to share your own thoughts and memories.
I am not sure I have ever seen the sky as blue as it was that Tuesday morning.
I was at my office, on Washington Street, IMing with my sister in CT when I heard on BBC World News that there was an accident in New York, a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
We both tried to call up a news website, and nothing would load. I remembered there was a tv in the lobby of URI downtown’s campus, just across the street and I ran over there and stood with the security guard, with students walking in, glancing up and continuing on their way, while the horror unfolded live. So many people, faculty, students, and folks who just cut through stopped for a moment, maybe more, but it clearly was not resonating with them.
I could not bear to leave the lobby, and the TV, more people were stopping, and staying now, some openly sobbing, and I felt anxious and claustrophobic and lightheaded from holding my breath. I moved back across the street to my office, alerted my office mates that there was a terror attack (they were strangely non-plussed) packed up my book bag and headed home to my little house on Federal Hill.
We had had a feral cat in our backyard–Girlfriend– and she had had a litter of kittens a few weeks before, and upset with my meddling, she had moved them elsewhere. But when I got home that day, I wanted nothing more than to see those tiny kittens under the curly willow in the garden, and there they were and the mother cat looked at me with her wary feral cat eyes and we sat outside in the garden, me, Girlfriend, the little kittens and the dog, until it got dark.
I didn’t leave the house for almost two weeks as reports of the missing and dead hit home, the brother of a friend, the father of the drycleaner, friends of friends, and it would be several years before I could see a blue blue early fall sky and not feel that familiar combination of panic and pain and anxiety and fear and sadness.
I wish we as a nation had a day of meditation, a day of atonement, a day of reflection, September 11 would be that day. This one day that connected us all regardless of our political affiliations or believes or values, this one set of incidences in New York and Washington and a field in Pennsylvania, but now, 10 years later, the country is more divided, more fractured, more hopeless, more politically charged and angry. And it shouldn’t take another tragedy of epic proportions to bring the populace to some kind of understanding with each other, but the path we’re on now most certainly isn’t going to get us there.
The sky is not as blue today as it was that day, and for that I am grateful.
I was in college at UConn with a girlfriend at NYU, living at the corner of 5th ave and 10th St. I woke up that morning, got on my computer, and, as normal, we IM’d each other. She told me “a plane crashed into the WTC”. She didn’t know anything of it. Her friend’s father said something to them and that’s how she found out. We both thought the same as you… that it was a small plane, an accident. She heard the second plane fly over. I told a friend of mine down the hall. He said “noooo, you’re joking”. Then I get an IM from him… “turn on your TV”. It didn’t matter what channel. They all had the same thing. I had to get ready for class. I showered and headed to my class. One of my friends from class was coming out of the elevator I was about to get into. He said “class is canceled” with this grim look on his face. He was ROTC. I spent the day watching the news and checking to be sure that my girlfriend was ok. She couldn’t call anyone because the cell towers were all overloaded. Luckily, she had NYU’s network to use to contact her family and friends. When the class I had on Tuesday met on Thursday, the professor told us that he felt that classes should have been canceled all week. He lived in NYC for quite some time and had a certain love and connection to the city. Two weeks later I had visited my girlfriend in the city. It was pretty surreal still (National Guard in Grand Central, cops with machine guns in random subway stations, bomb sniffing dogs all over the place…). We went to a show on Broadway (I think it was Chicago). At the end the actors thanked everyone for coming out and talked about the resilience of the city and New Yorkers even in the face of terror and tragedy.
I got up early that Tuesday to vote in the primary before going to work. It was a stunning clear, sunny day. I voted, then took the train from the Upper West Side to Wall Street where I worked at an architecture firm.
I arrived well before 9:00. A few others from my small group trickled in. I noticed debris floating outside the windows. We were on the 25th floor. A young woman from India across from me joyfully blurted out that there must have been a tickertape parade because of the election. I gently responded no, something was really wrong. We were too high up and part of the debris was hand-sized chunks of yellow fiberglass insulation, besides other construction materials and paper.
Our office usually had about 200 people on this floor. My group faced east and north and a building blocked the north side view. Someone came running over from the other side of the floor and said that a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. I imagined it was a small prop plane or corporate jet.
Office phones and cell phones were already having difficulty with outgoing and incoming calls. My boss who had health problems and difficulty walking was on her way to the office in a limousine. She called complaining that traffic was stopped and argued that she would be late for a meeting. I explained what was happening and for her to return home.
I walked across to a window on the west side of the floor and saw black smoke billowing out of the tower. As I went back to my desk, I heard a commentator on a transistor radio announce a suspected terrorist attack. At 14 Wall Street we were directly across from the New York Stock Exchange. If this were true, the stock exchange could be next. I ran back and told my group to leave immediately and go home.
I finally reached my girlfriend who worked in Midtown. Her office was letting everyone go. We naively thought we would meet in front of the Plaza Hotel a few blocks away from her, so we could walk home together.
I grabbed my backpack and as I was about to leave, went back to look at the burning tower one last time. Two people stood at the window where we could see the towers. I waited for them to move. When they quickly stepped away, I looked out the window and saw the north tower burning. Then suddenly the south tower exploded. A quarter mile away, I could feel the heat on my face from the blast through the glass. It was almost too hot to keep standing, but I was transfixed staring at the ongoing explosion. I couldn’t understand how the building exploded and assumed explosives were pre-set in the building, having not seen the second plane strike.
I went straight to the elevators and down to the lobby, then walked east to Williams Street and north. At Chambers and Centre Streets behind City Hall there were several hundred people standing in the street just staring at the burning towers. I wondered how they would be able put out the fires and fix the buildings. I kept walking. When I got to Houston Street, people were saying that one of the towers collapsed. I couldn’t believe it and continued my sad, six-and-a-half-mile walk home.
As was the case for me and probably countless other New Yorkers who were living through this experience without the advantage of television or radio, the events were fragmented and confusing.
I was living in Astoria too and working down in the East Village. I remember I got up that morning and turned on the radio while I ironed a shirt for work. I can still hear the DJs’ gasps as they watched the 2nd plane fly into Tower 2 on the tv in their studio. At that point, I was still thinking “this must be some kind of crazy accident. There must be a disruption in their signals, or their equipment is on the fritz.” I refused to even consider that this was a deliberate attack.
I headed to the N train, and everyone was talking about it. As we inched towards Manhattan, the train made that westward turn into QB Plaza. I saw the black smoke spilling out of the towers and stretching across that beautiful blue sky. Both towers were still standing at this point and I thought, “oh no, how are they going to fix those holes?”
We headed underground and, after an interminable length of time, we were forced off the train at Union Square. We were told that due to “an incident” at the World Trade Center, all trains were stopping at 14th St. Yeah, “an incident”.
I came above ground and was immediately hit by a wall of dust- and ash-covered people trudging north on 4th Ave. There were thousands of them, looking like extras in a zombie movie. Some were crying, some were shouting, but most of them looked shocked, numb, unable to comprehend what I can only imagine they had seen.
I got down to Astor Place where I met up with a co-worker outside our building. I just stared at him and he said “Tell me you don’t know what’s going on.” I mumbled something about planes and WTC and that’s when I learned that the first tower had already fallen. A woman stumbled up to us then clutching a bent cigarette in her fingers. She asked for a light and then, before my friend could even lift his lighter, she burst into tears. He took her in his arms and held her while she sobbed – a perfect stranger. I’ll never forget that image for as long as I live.
I headed inside where the entire staff was huddled around the conference room tv. It’s there that I saw the 2nd tower fall. Half the room fell to their knees when that happened, the sobbing was so loud I couldn’t hear the tv.
We were told to leave immediately, head north and “just get out of the city.” I gathered some co-workers and headed to a bar (Telephone Bar, now closed, on 2nd Ave). We stood there for hours, drinking beer and watching the tv and desperately trying to reach friends and family on our cell phones. What I remember most are the blank stares from the strangers and friends that surrounded me. Never had any of us ever contemplated that something like this would happen. I remember thinking that I felt like I was in a Ridley Scott movie, but where the hell was the hero to save us?
Finally, I started my long walk home to Queens. At this point I was numb and I honestly don’t remember that walk home at all. I got home and my feet were on fire (you try walking 6 miles in flip flops). I collapsed on the couch and stayed there for 2 days, flipping between news channels. I don’t even think I really slept.
I heard my dad cry for the first and only time when I managed to get through that night on the phone. It never occurred to me how horrific that day had also been for my family, not knowing where I was or if I had survived. They knew I worked “downtown” and my mother later admitted that she really started to contemplate the fact, as the hours and hours went by, that I had been killed.
To this day, if I see a plane flying low overhead my very first thought is “Oh no, not again….”
Who can forget?
My first semester off, pre-retirement, Libby and I were kayaking on the Narrow River in Narragansett. Had no idea, only enjoyed the unusually quiet skies. Nor did the attendant when I returned the kayaks who had no radio. The car radio told the story.
Like the Cape in the post, RI had a bit of a detachment, but not me. I was born, grew up and in and went to college in New York. Always a New Yorker. I felt violated.
I even bought a hokey “I (heart) New York T-shirt” right away.
I remember almost the entire country, even the world, coming together for a little while afterward. My cousin in NY called a family reunion in NYC a month after, I visited the fire stations with all the heartfelt condolences from everywhere. Nous sommes tous Americains. I think we threw away that feeling when we attacked Iraq.