It was Twenty Years Ago Today
Updated: Sep 24, 2021
The one thing everyone remembers clearly is that it began as a remarkably beautiful day...
I arrived at my office at the corner of Houston and Varick Streets in Manhattan at 8am after an hour and a half commute by train and subway from Connecticut. My windows faced southwest and the Twin Towers stood above a sea of low-level buildings thirty blocks away. They dominated the view.
Around 8:45 one of my favorite account planners came into my office and said, “Shit man, something just hit one of the towers.” I’d been head down on my laptop and hadn’t seen the skyscraper burning outside my window. It was the North Tower. The flames from the jet fuel were orange, the smoke pitch black against a bright blue sky.
Someone joined us with a radio and the all-news station was reporting that something had "veered off course" and hit one of the Twin Towers.
A little after 9am several of us stood staring out my window as a commercial jet banked hard and tore through the South Tower. There was a second stunning fireball and we all knew it was no accident.
My cell phone started ringing non-stop with calls from friends and family. The first was from a good friend in the city on business from Texas who said I could come uptown to an apartment he was staying at. I said thanks but thought I’d be heading home to Connecitcut at some point...
People were already planning how to get out of the city or how and where to hunker down for whatever was going on.
I called my wife; told her I was fine; made sure she knew where our three kids were, could get them home quickly, and I promised her I’d see her at some point soon.
After that all the cell phones started failing; the networks were overloaded. The wire lines were also over run and near useless. Everyone just kept dialing.
People began showing up at our office and some weren’t doing well. We sat a few folks down, got the office phone list out and began sorting who was where: in the office, confirmed at home, or presumed on the way in.
We tuned all the televisions to CNN. They said passengers had phoned reports into the airlines saying hijackers had attacked flight attendants to break into the cockpits. Then they showed video of what looked like people jumping out of the Towers. We talked about that for a long time…
Bush made a statement around 9:30am.
Then we began hearing F15s that were soaring up and down the Hudson. We heard them well before we saw them. They were flying very, very low.
CNN cited someone called bin Laden and something called al-Qaeda as most likely responsible.
Giuliani ordered all of lower Manhattan evacuated.
The South Tower collapsed on itself around 10am. I watched it on television. I went back to my office assuming it wouldn’t be long till the North Tower collapsed. I saw it pancake through my window. It went down, it just disappeared, in what seemed like seconds. The World Trade Center, the two tallest buildings in the world, had disappeared. The plume of smoke and debris was enormous; it looked like a mushroom cloud.
I went outside and saw a steady stream of ambulances, fire engines, EMS trucks and police cars screaming south. Before long they were joined by state police cars, fire engines, and ambulances from upstate New York and Connecticut. I saw ambulances with license plates from as far north as Rhode Island and Massachusetts…
We made progress in locating our people. Some weren’t dealing with it well. Most were understandably concerned for their own safety but far more were frightened for husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, and children who worked further downtown in the financial district.
No one knew what to do.
Should we stay or should we go?
I told my team transit hubs like Grand Central Station were likely less safe at the moment than sitting tight in the office. (Then again we were directly across the street from a Federal immigration courthouse and lockup; within hours we saw they’d put snipers on the roof in FBI windbreakers.)
People began making up their minds. Many stayed; most left. All on foot; no one wanted to risk going into the subway.
The television was on in our large conference room and a lot of people gathered there. We were trying to adjust to whatever was happening when CNN showed that the Pentagon had been hit. At that point even those who’d been pretty calm throughout were rattled. And angry.
But there was nothing to do.
A good friend and neighbor who commuted with me got through on my cell. She was pretty scared and desperately wanted to get back to her eleven-year-old son, one of my youngest son’s best friends. There was nothing more to do at the office. People were trailing away. Any organized approach to what to do had evaporated.
I decided to head home and told Margaret to meet me at the arch at Washington Square Park and I’d walk her up to Grand Central and see if we could get out together on a train.
Outside there were now waves of people walking uptown from the wreckage. They were almost completely covered in dust and variously in shock; a sea of people who just kept walking away from the point of impact.
People spoke to them - and no one speaks to anyone on the streets of New York - “Are you ok?” “Can I help you?” “Where are you coming from?” “When did you leave?” “What did you see?”
Many of them wanted to talk; many didn’t and just kept walking.
I met Margaret at Washington Square and we walked up Fifth Avenue to Grand Central Station at 42nd Street. The bars and bistros along the way were full to bursting. People were drinking on the sidewalks. There was only one topic of conversation.
Grand Central was full of soldiers in desert fatigues with automatic rifles and lots of police with bomb sniffing dogs. Most of them were wearing helmets. Some of them struck me as incredibly calm; some looked pretty nervous.
We were able to get on the first train loading and leaving. It was terribly crowded. Four people to a bench seat that sat three; the aisles completely jammed; people standing on top of one another.
The tracks from Grand Central run below Park Avenue for about ten minutes as you leave the city. The Park Avenue tunnel is usually full of traffic coming and going and alive with all the lights and horns and whistles of trains. We were the only train moving in either direction and the only sound was the squeaking of the wheels on the rails.
No one said a word; everyone praying that we’d live through the tunnel.
There were two twenty-somethings sitting in front of us. As we emerged from the tunnel and approached 125th Street Station one turned to the other and said, “I didn’t vote for the bastards but I’m sure glad the Republicans are in the White House”.
Margaret and I made it home. It seemed a world away from where we’d just been.
I went down to the beach with my family and you could see what some people were already calling "ground zero" burning forty miles away across Long Island Sound. I was glad to be home and comforting my family as best I could but I also wanted to go back to New York. I wanted to be there. Not the next day but the day after. My wife wouldn’t hear of it. I told her that’s where I made my living and unless we really wanted to move – and lots of people were talking about leaving – it would always be that way.
September 11th was a Tuesday; I went back to work early Friday morning the 14th.
There was a New York or Connecticut State Police trooper in every train car. The conductors gave everyone the thumbs up sign but many of them looked scared to death.
There were squads of cops and soldiers patrolling Grand Central. These were the first I saw with black bags hanging off their belts, strapped to their legs. I asked one of the cops what they were and he told me they’d all been issued gas masks.
The waiting room walls and subway entrances were covered with hundreds of notes and photos. These weren’t the memorials they later became; these were postings by people urgently looking for husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, and adult children. They were all handmade and desperately urgent. “Do you know?” “Have you seen?” “Will you help me find?”
By then everyone knew none of these people were likely to be found alive but we all had to stop and look. Every picture told a story.
The next few weeks were difficult.
Everyone was going to a funeral. Memorial services because there weren’t any bodies. This went on for weeks.
A friend from the class ahead of me in high school was killed.
A classmate’s husband was killed. His memorial was held at the Episcopal church I grew up in. A thousand people came and they broadcast the service to out-buildings. She’s been very active representing the families.
A lot of women lost their husbands across Fairfield County. People starting calling them “9/11 widows” because now that’s what they were.
My next-door neighbor worked in the South Tower for fifteen years. On 9/11, for the first time ever, he scheduled a breakfast meeting in mid-town. He missed it all. His office was two floors above where the second plane hit.
A good friend walked up out of the subway station at One World Trade Center on his way to work just as the first plane struck. He ran right back down onto the subway platform, caught the next train out of Grand Central before the system froze up, and watched it all on television from his house in Connecticut.
Another friend spent hours in the stairwell of the second tower. He saw more than anyone I know; in the building and on the ground after the second collapse. But he made it...He moved his family to California. He’s suffered recurring nightmares for years and once told me the thing he dreads most are the 9/11 anniversaries.
Margaret and I have never discussed our walk uptown on 9/11, not once in the last twenty years.