I got to work just around nine, having walked to 10th and 33rd in Hell’s Kitchen from my apartment on the Upper East Side. One of the guys was watching a newscast on his computer. Some commuter or sight-seeing plane had crashed into one of the twin towers.
We looked out the window and saw the smoke. Best get to the roof and see it clearer. There, we saw the news and police helicopters swarming to cover the scene and we were full of wisdom. “This had to happen sooner or later, the way those damn tourist planes buzz up and down the river.” Somebody figured a pilot had a heart attack and lost control.
Then we saw another jet flying near. Somebody said it must have been dispatched to inspect the damage from the air. At that moment, it sounded right. But the damn thing was getting too close.
Nobody panicked, nobody screamed, nobody made a damn sound when it hit. But it was in that instant that we all knew what it was.
You hear the cliche about blood freezing. Mine did. I know of no more sickening feeling.
My oldest son went to high school two blocks from the Trade Center, at the High School for Leadership and Public Service. Some mornings before class they would hang out under the Twin Towers. Kids would skateboard there and buy food from the cart guys. Some kids skipped school and stayed there.
My son. I ran off the roof into an elevator, out into the street, and up the block to the subway at Penn Station. People coming up the subway stairs didn’t know: they were still smiling. I bullied my way to the information booth and asked, shouted, probably incoherently, when the first plane hit. Was it after school started at 8:40 am? Or was it 8:30 am? I couldn’t remember.
The guy had no idea what I was talking about. I ran back up the stairs and started to jog, walk, push; anyway move south on Ninth Avenue. I imagined debris falling when the planes hit. Could people notice that fast enough to run away?
I can’t recall how far down past Houston I got before the tide turned against me. People down there knew what was happening and were moving north. I paused for breath when I came upon a large crowd looking up. What the hell was that stuff falling from the roof, so far away from the fire?
People were jumping. They looked so tiny.
A man tried to tell me something, then a big lady next to me screeched and fainted. I looked at the tower and felt dizzy. The top sort of tilted and just hung there. But the tilt was in my direction. I recall thinking, “Well, this is it.” I was certain it was going to keel over onto me. But it just went straight down.
Time to panic now. Everybody scattered. I started to run further south when I saw a tidal wave of smoke coming at me. I found a door and went in. A store? A bodega? A lobby? I can’t remember now. It had a window and I could see out.
After a while the smoke ceased roiling. I went back out and down Church and then over to the high school. It was intact. I couldn’t see more than a half a block so I didn’t know what was happening under the Towers. It was so quiet, like in a snowstorm.
I saw some guy. Fireman? Cop? Somebody official looking. I asked where were the kids from the school. Where was my son. He said he heard of some kids being evacuated. Some went south, others up to Chinatown.
Fifty-fifty. I chose Chinatown. I got there just as a swarm of hands pointed up. Down came Tower number two. I couldn’t find any kids or anybody who knew anything about any kids.
The subways were already shut down. I found a phone booth and called home. Nobody answered. But I knew my wife had taken my younger son to the orthodontist in Midtown, so they should be safe. I had no choice but to walk home.
It was the longest walk I ever took. I had only one thought that pressed me down, but I refused to think it. Everybody was walking north; thousands of people. Some were even cracking jokes. They didn’t know why they had to walk home.
It was hours until the phone finally rang. I was so relieved I was shaking. My son was safe.
The kids from the school went south, to Battery park. When the first Tower fell, my son and a friend broke into a restaurant so that all the other kids could have shelter. After a while, they went down to the ferries and got off the island. And then we got the phone call.
I got hold of my friend who lived in Jersey City, right across the river from Downtown. He picked up my son and friend and drove them to my Aunt & Uncles, who lived near Summit. My friend wanted to be as far away from the city as he could get. Nobody knew what else was going to happen.
That night was the quietest night I had ever seen Manhattan, quieter, even, than the great Blackout. The only cars running were police cars, a few ambulances. Nobody slept.
I was filled with a murderous rage and I wanted blood. We heard rumors that there were some people in some neighborhoods in Brooklyn that celebrated the attacks. I wanted to meet with some of these fine folks and rip their throats out.
My only fear afterwards was that we as a country would do nothing about it. Just like the first time the Trade Center was bombed. Remember that? That we would bend over and claim we “deserved” it. That we would dispatch a token force of FBI agents and New York Times reporters to “interview suspects.” Turn it into some kind of police action. My second time to feel relief was to learn that we were going to hit back. Finally.
I scarcely remember distinct days afterward. We sat watching television, unable and unwilling to miss any detail. It seems weeks later when we found ourselves sitting in St Catherine’s on a sunny afternoon, where we finally started feeling normal again.
God bless Rudy Guiliani, especially for all those press conferences, God bless and Godspeed to all those firemen and cops, and God bless all the people of the city who for once came together.
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