Sunday, September 6, 2009

Twin Towers


September 11, 2001.

You know what happened. I'm just going to give you the story as I experienced it.

I got to work at Columbia University at 08:00. It was a beautiful day. There was a huge hurricane out in the Atlantic pulling crisp cool air down from New England. The sky was a cloudless blue and the temperature was in the low 70s. We had the windows open in our offices to let in the fresh air. It was Tuesday in the second week of a new academic year.

A plane hit the North Tower at 08:46. The only person on our floor with a radio came around not too long afterwards, telling us that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers downtown. An accident of course. It was thought at first to be a small plane. Bad news on a beautiful day.

A plane hit the South Tower at 09:03. When we heard about this, we knew it was not an accident. New York was under attack. By whom, we did not know, and what else was coming, we could only wonder.

We had no television and just that one radio. The World Wide Web was young, and the news media web sites we thought of were overwhelmed and unreachable.

The South Tower fell at 09:59. We learned this by passing along what we were getting from the one radio. What did this mean? Did the 110-story tower fall on its side and take down blocks of other buildings? No, we were told it collapsed straight down. What? The strangeness of that idea made the news even more scary.

The North Tower fell at 10:28. There was a rumor that all of lower Manhattan was on fire. Soon after this, someone thought of trying the BBC web site. We were able to get onto that, and we started getting more accurate information. Images from a distance showed the smoke throughout lower Manhattan, but it was all coming from the site of the towers. The wind was blowing the smoke south. We saw none of it outside our windows.

The subways were shut down, and all bridges and tunnels were closed. We were trapped in Manhattan. I had moved to New Jersey four years earlier. I started to think where I would go that night. Some of my work friends lived in the city, and some of our offices had couches. We heard reports that some bank cash machines were not working, because of the power outages downtown. I checked how much cash I had in my wallet, and it wasn't much.

I was at that time postmaster (at), and back then people who knew email knew that the postmaster address should always work. Parents from far away were sending mail asking if Columbia was all right. Telephone connectivity was bad, but the Internet was still good. I answered all of the messages as quickly as I could. It's about seven miles from here, we're all fine on campus, certainly anyone living near campus is fine too, don't worry. It was my job, but now it seemed a great responsibility.

Sometime after noon, I had to go out. I was going to buy lunch and some extra food, in case the stores closed.

When I got up the street to Broadway, I saw them. People in business clothes, walking north, their blank faces, a few with white dust on their dark suits. At a reasonable three miles an hour, they had left downtown around 10:00 and had now reached the latitude of Columbia. It became real, the way something you know in your head becomes real when you finally see it right in front of you. I looked at them sadly. The sky was still brilliant blue, and the temperature as perfect as you could ask.

I got something for lunch at the corner and went back to the office, and answered more mail. We're OK, and your children on or near campus must be OK too, even if you can't get through on the phone, don't worry. I had to ask someone in management to put a message like that on the main Columbia web page.

I found out that some of my work friends knew someone who worked in the World Trade Center. He used to work in our group before I got there. Where was he?

In mid afternoon we heard that some of the bridges were being opened, including the George Washington Bridge, providing the only access to New Jersey. And my sister sent me email offering any help she could provide. I could possibly put together a way home.

And our former colleague showed up. He had walked to Columbia, thinking probably people he knew were around. He told us this:

I came to work early, to update a database. Only a few people were in the office. We were in the South Tower. The lights blinked around o8:45, and we said to each other, huh, what was that? Someone looked out the window and saw a big fire up in the North Tower. We didn't think an airplane hit. That would be crazy. We thought a bomb exploded.

I realized I was the senior person there. They were asking what we should do. I told them, I don't know what is happening but I don't want to be near it. I told them all to leave. They were young people and they couldn't believe what I was saying. We can leave? I told them, yes, we are all leaving, and we should walk away from the building, and not come back until we hear it is safe.

When we got to the lobby, the guards told us we couldn't go outside. But after a few minutes, they told us we should leave, on the side away from the North Tower. I walked over to Chinatown, and then I started walking north. I didn't stop until somewhere around 86th Street where I bought a bottle of water.

He had probably saved the lives of his office mates by convincing them to get out right away. It was only 17 minutes between plane strikes, and while I forget what floor he said they were on, I think it was high up. Oh, and he added later, in gallows humor:

The good news is, I never had to update that database.

I did get home that night. One of my work friends offered to take as many as he could in his car across the George. I ended up in the back of the SUV, in that little bit of trunk space behind the rear seat. We figured it was not a legal seat, but on this day, it would be all right.

We went to his house in Teaneck, and he called for some pizza to be delivered. I called my sister. She came in a little while, and had some pizza with us. She took me, our WTC survivor, and another work friend of mine. We dropped off the survivor in Montclair, and me and my friend in South Orange. I then drove her to Dover. On the way back home I got a police car light flash for doing 75 in a 65 zone, on a straight empty highway, but when I dropped speed, he left me alone. It was not a day for petty traffic stops.

That night, there were cars left overnight in the parking lots of our local railway stations. Some of the commuters just couldn't get out of the city. But some of them never came back. Their spouses and friends came for the cars after a day or so. I don't think they were ticketed. There are small memorial plaques now near several of the stations.


The World Trade Center was not a place I visited regularly, but I had been there enough times to be familiar with it, especially the street entrances, the PATH station below, and the large bookstore at ground level.

I didn't go down there for about a year. I wasn't ready to see the hole. When I did finally go, I could feel the open space where there should have been buildings. I had thought about what I would see but the emptiness was still a shock. I looked down into the pit, like the tourists around me. But how many had been there often enough to visualize what was missing? It was hard to believe that those huge buildings were totally gone.

I rode a PATH train from New Jersey into the World Trade Center station sometime after it reopened in 2003. It was the usual ride I remembered until we suddenly came into daylight, in the bottom of the pit. The reconstructed station was in the same place as it was when it was several stories underground. As I went up to the street I had a spooky muscle memory of being there before, because they had rebuilt the passageway and escalators exactly where they had been. Up stairs to a mezzanine (now in the open air), turn 90 degrees, up the short escalator, walk ahead and slightly left, and up the long escalator. But we didn't come up into the shopping mall concourse with the cream-colored stone wall panels and floors. Instead there was just a temporary-looking concrete space. (And by now, 2009, the escalators and concourse have been relocated to new positions.)

I was up in the towers themselves only a few times. Once I went to the New York State tax office on the 60th floor of one tower, to get some rare form we needed. It was a windy day and I could feel the building swaying. And Helen and I went to the observation deck twice. That's a lot considering we lived in the city. People who live in New York put off going to the stupid tourist destinations. If you can go any time, then what's the rush? And you end up never going to some of them.

The photos below are from one of our visits. They're scanned from fading prints made from grainy 110 Instamatic film. The color might seem off but it's pretty close to correct. We were there to see the sunset. Kind of appropriate now. And as you know, I can't go back and re-shoot better ones with the digital camera, so this will have to do.

Photos: Top 2, July 4, 1975. Bottom 8, November, 1977.

Last photo, left center, the statue of Liberty Enlightening the World.

Next time
: Whatstandwell.

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