At approximately 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 11, at the intersection of West and Greenwich streets, a line of vehicles was forming: fire trucks, ambulances, dump trucks, tow trucks, city buses. Outside this convoy of city vehicles, city officials, police officers and volunteers paced. Frustrations were high. They had watched the very symbols of the city’s power crumble before their eyes. The light was fading, and people–civilians, police, tourists, New Yorkers–were dying in the rubble and the flames and soot. And no one could do anything.
So many wanted to help, to roll up their sleeves, to sublimate their anger and terror by digging and rescuing and shoring up the horribly disfigured façade of their urban lives. What they didn’t want to do was think about the events of this day–how they had been violated, how their sense of indestructibility had forever been altered. But wait was all anyone could do, besides sit and watch the television, and try to contact their loved ones, and pray that no one they cared for had been lost. As the night came, they still waited, along with the fire trucks and the rescue vehicles. They recounted the numbing events of the day and they kept vigil, waiting for the light to return.
The Sound of a Jet
Traffic Enforcement Officer Ismael Quinones was at the corner of Cortlandt and Church streets, on his scooter, when he saw the first plane hit. “I heard what appeared to be the sound of a jet,” he said. “I was one of the first to report it. I called it in, and they hadn’t heard about it yet–that there was an explosion in the World Trade Center.”
Not long after the first explosion, Mr. Quinones looked up to see a horrifying sight. “People were jumping out of windows of the World Trade Center off of the 100-something floor–over 20 people we observed right above and below the explosion,” he said.
After the second plane hit, Mr. Quinones had to take cover in a building: “Everything was pitch-black.” He said that in the course of the evacuation, “over a hundred officers were in the building when [the Trade Center towers] collapsed.
“When I looked back, that stuff was coming down on me,” Mr. Quinones said. His helmet was badly nicked and marked. He said he saved his life by jumping into a revolving door.
‘The Fire’s Pretty High Up’
On the morning of Sept. 11, Chuck Ocheret, the managing director of the online investment bank W.R. Hambrecht & Co., put on a black tennis shirt, black jeans and a pair of New Balance sneakers and took the Metro-North railroad from Scarsdale to Grand Central Terminal, where he hopped on a downtown No. 4 train to Fulton Street. He was running late for work. As Mr. Ocheret emerged from the subway and began walking to his office, located on the 33rd floor of 1 World Trade Center, his cell phone rang. “I heard somebody scream my name, but then I lost the signal,” Mr. Ocheret said. Shortly after that, he saw the smoke pouring from the building where he worked. “I was thinking, ‘The fire’s pretty high up. My friends on the 31st should be O.K.,’” he said.
Then he heard a woman near him scream. Objects were dropping from the Trade Center. “It was people jumping,” he said. “It was just so horrible.”
Another roar. Mr. Ocheret watched as the second plane hit 2 World Trade Center. When people started running, Mr. Ocheret sought refuge in an underground parking garage and began pulling people in with him.
When the debris and rubble from the building seemed to stop falling, Mr. Ocheret began to walk north on Broadway. He tried using the phone at one of the art galleries on Greene.
That was when he saw gallery worker Erin Greeson. Ms. Greeson, a 24-year-old from Oxford, Ohio, stood in tears on the street. “What happened?” she yelled to people running all around her. “What was that sound?”
No one was answering.
When Mr. Ocheret got to Ms. Greeson, he attempted to calm her down. “Let’s walk,” he said. The two decided to head north together; Ms. Greeson to her one-bedroom in Spanish Harlem, Mr. Ocheret to the office of his brother-in-law, a doctor, on 113th Street.
“I was so glad to see anyone,” Ms. Greeson said. “No one would talk to me. Everybody was isolated, alone in their terror.”
As Mr. Ocheret walked up Sixth Avenue, he said that his company’s headquarters were in San Francisco. “We were just about to make New York our disaster-recovery center in case of an earthquake,” he said.
On the Bridge
Not long after the second plane hit 2 World Trade Center, a mass exodus from Manhattan began taking place via the Brooklyn Bridge. People surged along the car lanes and the pedestrian walks. They wore dust masks and T-shirts tied over their faces. When 1 World Trade Center collapsed, people turned to see what was happening. Many broke into a run. Screams and sobs and the sounds of stampeding feet echoed along the high-tension wires.
‘Pearl Harbor 60 Years Later’
Between 9 and 10 a.m., hundreds of people gathered on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights. Many were weeping. Brooklyn Heights is like the epicenter for people who work in the financial district.
“I saw the explosion. It looked like one of those phony explosions on TV,” said A.C. Anderson, a white-haired man in his 60′s who had recently moved to New York from Texas. “I have a beautiful view. It’s not a beautiful view anymore.”
When 1 World Trade Center collapsed, the crowd of approximately 500 went silent. Then came a bloodcurdling rush of screams.
Christina Lombardi, an underwriter for the American International Group, stared at the scene across the river. She was dressed in a black business suit and Ralph Lauren sunglasses. A.I.G.’s offices, she said, were located in a building adjacent to the World Trade Center. “I have so many friends over there,” she said. “I am so glad I am late today.”
The thick smoke rose from the ravaged towers. “I can’t believe this is happening in New York City and America,” Ms. Lombardi said.
At one point, an argument broke out between two women over whether or not Arab terrorists were to blame. The argument grew, and people began screaming and yelling at each other. One woman reminded the other that Timothy McVeigh, an American, blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma. The other woman said, “I don’t give a shit.”
In the crowd, a young white man, wearing a white dress shirt and tie, stood screaming: “Pearl Harbor 60 years later! We are going to go! I don’t care where we are going to go! I got to fight! Put on your uniform, boy!”
Men with Guns
Axel Dumas, a 31-year-old financier who works near Rockefeller Center, was sent home at midday. Instead, he headed downtown to try to volunteer at the site of the disaster. “Cops were stopping people on Canal, but you could slip around and get through,” he said. Just South of City Hall, Mr. Dumas said, “it was eerie. There was dead silence. An occasional car drove by, but otherwise, nothing.” Mr. Dumas saw a stray shoe and a sweater on the empty streets–and thousands and thousands of sheets of paper.
“Most were from Morgan Stanley; many of them were printed-out e-mails,” Mr. Dumas said. “And people–civilians–were walking around making stacks of these pieces of paper, piling up the pages collecting mementos.”
As he got closer to the disaster site, the soot-filled air turned darker, the silence deepened.
East of where the World Trade Center once stood, near Fulton Street, Mr. Dumas came across an old Federal-style building that he thinks may have been the Federal Reserve. Every corner of the building was guarded by men with shotguns. Ladders had been propped up against the metal gates in front of the building and men stood atop them, cleaning the dust from the lenses of security cameras.
In downtown Brooklyn near Borough Hall, there were huge lines at pay phones and bus depots. At least two people were proselytizing in the street. “Christ is coming!” said one middle-aged black man, as people staggered past him with stricken looks on their faces.
‘They’re Not Picking Up’
Over at St. Vincent’s Hospital, a makeshift medical emergency center had been installed. Desks, chairs and wheelchairs covered with white sheets stood out on the sidewalks. Hundreds of medical personnel, in green and light blue, stood ready to get the wounded. On the West 11th Street side of the building, lines of blood donors–as many as 350–had assembled according to cardboard signs that displayed their blood type. The crowd was so large the hospital couldn’t handle all of them.
Every so often, a city bus deposited a group of shell-shocked civilians, some of them covered in white. Whenever a military jet roared by, the crowd turned silent–some cringed–and looked up Father Gerald Murray, from the Saint Vincent de Paul parish on 23rd street, stood by and gave absolution to the seriously injured.
At two tables in front of the hospital, family members of potential victims consulted the lists and tried to find the name of their kin among the almost 200 victims that had already been seen. Debra Sherry, a talent agent, had come from Brooklyn to ask about her brother John, a trader who worked on the 80th floor of one of the Trade Center buildings. She said that he had probably gone to work that morning around 8 a.m. Her voice broke as she explained that he would turn 33 next week. “I stayed at home, waiting for his call this morning,” she explained. “But I didn’t hear from him, so I’ve come so they can tell me if he’s here.” Supported by two friends, she stood behind metal barriers and waited for some news. Across the street, in a flower shop called Spruce, another woman used the phone to try to get news from her sister, who worked on the 105th floor of 1 World Trade Center. “They’re not picking up the phone! Why aren’t they picking up?” she said as she dialed the number again and again.
A False Alarm
At the 19th Precinct in Manhattan, officers there–many of whom live in Long Island–reported no problems getting into the city in response to the New York Police Department’s order that all officers report to duty.
“It’s a mess,” said one captain of the mood at the station house. “It’s a complete and utter disaster.” However, things seemed to grow more organized by the moment. Officers in the field called to report that the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic in the vicinity of the 59th Street bridge was down by half at 2 p.m. from just a short time earlier.
Little or no crime was reported on the Upper East Side. “As of now, I know of no real, major radio runs,” one captain reported. “Thank God,” replied a cop manning the front desk.
Meanwhile, someone had reported a suspicious vehicle parked on East 64th Street, between Madison and Park avenues. It contained paint cans and bags of debris. The NYPD responded and determined it to be a false alarm. One senior officer at the 19th said he expected many more such false alarms “over the next couple of weeks” from frightened New Yorkers.
–Ralph Gardner Jr.
‘A Lot of Kids Were Crying’
Twelve-year-old Niris Lopez, a seventh-grader at Middle School 51 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said that she and her fellow students watched the World Trade Center burn from the windows of three or four classrooms at her school.
The whole class crowded around the windows, and Ms. Lopez’s teacher called for a moment of silence and said that “everyone should say a prayer.” No one was allowed to leave until their parents came to get them. Ms. Lopez’s mom, Mayra Alvarez, called to say that she wanted to come get Niris, but that she was afraid to bring Niris’ 16-month-old sister out into the cloud of dust and debris that was sweeping through Park Slope. So Niris had to wait until her father came back from work.
“A lot of kids were crying,” Niris said. One of Ms. Lopez’s friends has a brother who works as a delivery man at the World Trade Center. “She was freaking out,” Ms. Lopez said.
Tahira Khalid, who’s 13 years old, said that her sister worked at HarperCollins in Manhattan. “I’m not sure where she is,” she said. “I’m scared.” Ms. Khalid also said she couldn’t believe that “one of the best parts of Manhattan–the skyscrapers–are gone.
“You never think that’s going to happen,” she said.
End of the Innocence
I was helping my friend Dave at his construction site in Garrison. We’d just finished stripping a roof, and I went to get the plywood. I brought Dave’s van around to a pile on the far side of the house and loaded it up with sheets of plywood. The radio was playing “Kind of Blue,” so when I brought the truck back and stacked the sheets, I left the doors open and the music going. It was WFUV, the Fordham station.
I was thinking how great Miles Davis is when the woman D.J. came on and said, “That is the greatest jazz album ever”–and then she said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. You couldn’t tell from her voice whether it was something trivial.
We tried to keep working even after we knew it wasn’t. I think we were numb, thinking about how our lives were going to change, that no one could escape this. FUV started playing Hendrix doing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It felt like a weird call to arms. It was like, O.K. kids, you’ve listened to this song every other which way–stoned, childish, in bed–now listen to it a different way.
“Right now, I’d volunteer for anything,” I said.
“Same here,” John the carpenter said. He has a gray ponytail down his back, and earrings.
“They don’t want us,” Dave said. “But I’ve got three sons that are all the age that could get sent overseas.”
He went back on the scaffold, and I went inside to use the homeowners’ phone. I called my machine, and my mother had called. I called her back, and she said my sister in the city was O.K., and she told me that the second tower had fallen. She was crying softly, the way she had when she watched the Kennedy funeral.
I went into the pit to pick up the shingles we’d knocked down. It’s a filthy job, but I liked it. I liked the mindlessness of carrying the torn asphalt and bent roofing nails to the dump truck and loading up the truck.
“I just want to keep working, like things are normal,” I said to John.
“I know,” he said. “Because when you stop working, you start thinking.”
Then a red pickup came crawling up the driveway, and Terry got out. He was on another job site. He’s one of the jokiest guys I know, always laughing. He had a blank look. The sun shone off his bald brown head.
“Have you guys heard the news?” he said.
“We have,” I said. We had the radio on.
“I just wanted to make sure you guys knew,” he said. “They say there are two other planes still up there, hijacked.”
Terry stood there on the brow of the hill looking at us, like someone had hit him with a board. “Guys, this is real serious shit,” he said.
I’d never seen Terry not laughing. But there was also something slightly thrilling about it, the sense of community, the sense of purpose. That my generation was at last going to be inflamed by purpose.
FUV seemed scared. They were playing the Beatles now, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Let It Be,” going back to the cradle of my generation. It was very disconcerting. I sort of wanted them to play the Stones. Then they played Richie Havens and the Who. They were taking requests, to comfort people.
We tried to make jokes–stuff about Gary Condit doing it, or towelheads in America. But they didn’t work.
“Don’t you think George Bush is curled up in the fetal position with his thumb in his mouth?” Dave said, from the scaffold.
I went back inside and tried to call my friend John on Hubert Street and couldn’t get through; then I tried to call another mutual friend at his office on Madison Avenue, but it was the same. Beep-beep-beep.
Somehow, John had reached his former wife on 66th Street.
“She was blubbering,” he said. “But the girls are O.K.”
I thought about everything that had ended for us. That we would look back on what had come before all this as mellow and great, and easy, and never realized we’d had it so good, that we’d been spoiled, that all that was prologue.
I thought about who that I knew could be dead, and when I would find out, and what that would be like, how that would change my life. I wondered what kind of work I would do, and who I could help. I thought about Walt Whitman nursing soldiers in the Civil War. I was having feelings I’d never had before, and was weirdly grateful to have them.
Across Route 9D, there were golfers playing golf. Every now and then, someone would hit a good shot and cry out. They didn’t know yet. But I didn’t envy them their innocence.
Follow Observer Staff via RSS.