Journal Entry | 200 Liberty Street, NYC | September 11, 2001
Copyright Victor Colantonio
99 Franklin Street
Newton Massachusetts USA
United Airlines Flight 175 struck the 78th through 84th floors of the South Tower at almost 9:03 a.m., 16 1/2 minutes after a jet hit the North Tower.
On September 11, 2001, I was in a front row center seat at Ground Zero, Manhattan. Writing this journal was part of the healing process recommended by Todd Holzman of Cambridge. Dr. Holzman was highly recommended by the Red Cross because he was dealing with many grieving family members of the passengers and flight crews from the Boston area. I’m grateful he found time to talk with me. He set out on a program to get this experience out and in front of me; using words that gave the details meaning and that hopefully would also give my entire complex sixteen-hour ordeal some context; by doing so I might be able to put it in perspective and keep it there.
Low flying aircraft can still completely unnerve me, the dangling mannequins in the Upper Galleria at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts caused me horrific flashbacks the first time I saw them. I had to leave the building and I couldn’t return for a year. When I returned to the MFA it was because I couldn’t let 9/11 rob me any more than it already had. The healing process took a big step forward in 2007 when I visited Ground Zero and retraced my steps of that long ago Tuesday morning.
For the first ten years, my flashbacks could be deeply emotional and could rumble up from within until they become so paralyzing that I lose my breath; or, they can come on slowly like nostalgic tear-jerking final scenes of a Frank Capra movie. It is very personal, very deep from within and there is nothing that stops it until it stops itself.
If I close my eyes, sit quietly and think hard, I can go back there. I can see the events unfold almost exactly as they happened. Stale smells, the itch on my neck from the filth of the ash cloud being covered head to toe, and of course the desire not to die and never to be found in the bowels of this tragedy. I sometimes think about the people that passed on that day. They actually perished, there was nothing to be found, and they were incinerated or disintegrated and disappeared from this earth as totally as anything can, without a trace. To this day, I am struck by the total annihilation that occurred at Ground Zero. Contributors to this 911 Memorial & Museum bring first-person first-hand accounts; the only permanent witness to the history made that day. We saw events, each from our small vantage point, which together may cause a pattern to emerge, stitching the stories into an epic worthy of what actually happened to people. For me, memories are all that is left of Ground Zero. Piecemeal mental photos of survivors and witnesses who stood by the buildings, who stood by the injured, who emerged from the ashes and should write their story down as I have.
My experience that day of September 2001 is only a small snippet of the truth; only what I saw, did and felt. It is important because people can forget the events of that day; and some have already forgotten. To take the edge off the raw pain, to dull the history books with soft poetic phrases, politically correct biases or scripts of appeasement to the world’s body politic; to not tell the truth would be an eternal insult to 2,754 innocent people who died that day … on one city block in Manhattan.
Since September 11, 2001, I have come to realize that Americans don’t share the same dreams and aspirations; don’t share the same politics or ideologies; don’t share the same beliefs or value systems; but we do share the same nightmare. Lower Manhattan, at 8:46 a.m. that Tuesday morning in September 2001 began an American nightmare. I was there and this is my story.
On September 10th, I set two alarm clocks so I would be sure to be awake at 4:30 A.M on the morning of the 11th. I washed, shaved and put on a new blue blazer, gray slacks, an extra-stiff starched shirt, a crimson and navy stripe silk tie from Brooks Bros. and the most comfortable pair of loafers I owned. I was heading to Manhattan for an important meeting to discuss consolidating some business assets. The meeting was to be held with about fifteen or so utility executives representing power companies from Maine to Florida. In preparation for the meeting that was to run from 10:00 A.M. until 4:00 P.M., I spent the previous month developing PowerPoint slides, a rudimentary business plan, consolidation options, valuation considerations and the like – all in the hope of putting together a plan that the electric utility company executives could buy into and would be willing to sell within their respective organizations. In short, for me this was a really big deal and, if it closed, would be the perfect exclamation point to a 30 year entrepreneurial career; but it didn’t turn out that way.
The meeting was called for 10:00 A.M. at CIBC Oppenheimer’s 40th floor Conference Room F at 200 Liberty Street, World Financial Center, across the street from World Trade Center.
I left Newton, Massachusetts at 4:45 A.M. and made my way to a new US Air Shuttle in Logan Airport’s Terminal B. I entered the Mass Turnpike eastbound at Exit 17 in Newton Corner, passed through the Cambridge tolls, under the Prudential Center and Copley Place and eventually through the Sumner Tunnel to Logan Airport’s entrance.
I learned later that my route to the airport was likely the same route that two of the terrorists took later that morning from their motel room on the corner of Hammond Pond Parkway and Route 9 also in Newton. On September 10th, while I slept less than two miles away, Wail M. Alshehri, 27, and his younger brother Waleed, occupied a room at the Newton Park Hotel. They had two tickets for seats on American Airlines’ early morning, Flight 11, to Los Angeles. Authorities surmise they drove their rented car north on Hammond Pond to Beacon Street then to Centre Street and the Mass Turnpike eastbound entrance in Newton Corner. They retraced the route to the airport I had driven an hour earlier.
Also later, I learned that Fayez Al Qadi Banihammad, Ahmed Alghamdi, Hamza Alghamdi, Marwan Al-Shehhi and his cousin Mohand Al-Shehri stayed in Boston the evening of September 10th. Authorities believe they were in rooms at the Westin Hotel on the 9th floor. The following morning, these five would take over United Airlines Flight 175 that left Boston for Los Angeles at 8:00 A.M. I drove under the Westin Hotel, 150 feet under the 9th floor rooms they occupied. The hotel straddles the air space over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Copley Square.
My drive in the early morning hours of September 11th had intersected the time and place of all but two of the terrorists.
Only Mohammed Atta, 33, and his 29 year old Saudi Arabian associate using the alias Abdul Aziz al-Omari were missing from the intersecting events connected to my morning. Atta and al-Omari spent the night of the 10th in a rented a room at the Comfort Inn on Mall Road in Portland, Maine. They made an early morning flight to Boston on September 11 to join their co-conspirators. To do so, authorities say they checked in at the US Airways counter at Portland Jetport, passed through airport security and boarded Flight 5930’s turbo-prop for the 50 minute flight into Logan’s Terminal B in Boston. From the US Airways arrival gate they would walk across Terminal B to the American Airlines departure gate. Now an intersection to all the terrorists is complete because I departed US Airways 6:00 A.M. Shuttle left from Terminal B to LaGuardia, a few gates away and 50 minutes before the arrival of Flight 5930 carrying Atta and al-Omari into the same terminal across the same charcoal-gray carpet I walked on.
In 2 ½ hours we would all intersect again, and for the final time; me at sea level at Ground Zero when Fayez Al Qadi Banihammad, Ahmed Alghamdi, Hamza Alghamdi, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Mohand Al-Shehri would arrive 1000 feet overhead slamming United Airlines Flight 175 into the 78th floor of the South Tower; and 16 minutes later, while I stood on the street below, Mohamed Atta, al-Omari and Al Sugami would deliver American Airlines, Flight 11 into the North Tower.
Back at Logan, I marked Level 5, Section G in black ballpoint ink on my wrist and left the parking lot ticket, date stamped 5:33 A.M, in the Toyota’s ashtray. Up on the parking garage roof, one row of parked cars plus an aisle for a total of about 40 feet separated my stall from the Terminal B stairwell entrance door. I walked down the three flights of bleak concrete stairs to the departure gates. There, I marched left looking for the new US Airways NY Shuttle gate in Terminal B.
When I approached the ticket counter, the US Air attendant made small talk. Looking up my frequent flyer number he noticed that I had nearly been a commuter between Boston and New York for the past two years. He asked, “Why haven’t you flown us this summer? We miss you.” I told him, “I retired in May and besides US Air doesn’t have a runway in front of our summer cottage.” I produced my photo ID, credit card and purchased a round-trip Shuttle ticket and, with it, a round-trip Elite car service ride into the City. I replied, “No” to the obligatory bag-packing question and the same as to whether I left my stuff unattended at anytime, or if anyone asked me to carry any stuff for them. I walked through the metal detector and the alarm signaled my immediate failure. After someone used the magic wand to manually scan my body I was allowed to proceed.
Within minutes I boarded the Airbus, put my laptop in the space under the forward seat after pulling ten or so scribble-covered typewritten pages from the side pocket. My morning speech was alligator-binder-clipped with three last minute faxes about late, very last minute, ideas I had. While in an early morning sleepy haze, I intended to somehow work these ideas into my presentation before the flight landed. I got a black coffee, bagel, miniature tub of cream cheese and a couple of quarter-teaspoon sized packs of sugar.
At 7:05 A.M., US Airways Shuttle seat 13A arrived at LaGuardia with me in it. I was in high spirits after an uneventful 40 minute flight. Our approach took us down the Hudson River west of the World Trade towers and bent around the financial district and the Statute Liberty for a spectacular view.
I deplaned through the forward door and walked to the lower street level to the Elite Car Service desk. Elite took its usual half-minute to process my pre-purchased ticket. I crossed the bus and taxi lanes to the limo pick-up curb where Town Car #354 rolled up. I got in and we darted in and out of early rush hour traffic. We crossed the River through the Midtown Tunnel and proceeded south on FDR Drive to the World Trade Center. We turned onto Liberty Street and pulled up to the doorway at 7:50 AM in front of my destination, 200 Liberty, World Financial Center.
I was to meet my friend and banker Scott Whitlock, Senior Vice President CIBC Oppenheimer in the lobby of WFC, at the top of the escalator. Scott, starting from Nantucket, had taken the 6:30 Delta Shuttle from Logan and was scheduled to arrive at the Marine Air Terminal at 7:30 A.M. I recounted my timetable from Logan and, allowing 15 additional minutes for him to get thorough a thicker part of NY City’s rush hour, guessed his arrival time as 8:20ish. To kill a few minutes I walked around South Street Park. I gawked at the Statue Liberty like a tourist from the bend in the promenade by the Boat Basin. Then I walked back to 200 Liberty’s lobby. By 8:20 AM I had a coffee in-hand from Au Bon Pain, a shop at the top of the escalator, and had taken up a perch at the brass railing so as to have an unobstructed view of the Liberty Street entrance. Scott couldn’t slip by me. At 8:30 A.M., Scott called my cell to report that his plane was a few minutes late and that he would arrive in about ten minutes.
At 8:43, Scott arrived and shelled out the forty bucks for the taxi fare and tip. In the next few minutes he got his receipt and the cab drove away as the World Trade North Tower exploded. I was at the top of the escalator in World Financial when my body felt the blast.
Within seconds, people inside World Financial ran in all directions seeming to disappear into the crevices of the granite slabs in the lobby. Some that were outside ran in, others inside dashed out, people at the top of the stairs went down, and others ran up. I thought, as did most, that the World Financial Center had been bombed – the explosion sounded like it was somewhere deep inside 200 Liberty, not a thousand or so feet away. I watched as, within a few more seconds, scores of people ran out from the skywalk opening onto the mezzanine level where the elevated air walks connected Building One World Financial center to Building Two and a second air walk, South Bridge, crossed over West Street to WTC property. People bolted from the air-walks into the gigantic space that is the lower lobby. I heard what seemed to be the cracklings and pops of John Wayne Hollywood-style automatic weapons. I thought that there were armed gunmen in the skywalk chasing people into the lobby. People moved past me toward the security desk. Then everything suddenly looked very small. The cavernous volume of the lobby shrank miserably, diminishing my hope of finding a place to take cover.
Most every person, a moment earlier, in their work-a-day routine striding regally through the lobby was now instantly reduced to frail, hunched-backed cowering humanoids. Necks disappeared into hunched up shoulders; spines bent forward and people leaned into quick-stepped strides heading toward wherever a modicum of safety was thought to reside. Over my right shoulder I looked to the building’s security staff hoping they would make a move to tip me off as to a direction I should take. They stood by their post without moving. The increasing flurry of people flying through my vision snapped my attention away from the security desk and toward the front door.
Quickly sizing up my possible escape routes, I wondered if the revolving front doors would jam. Was the skywalk was an option? No one ran toward the skywalks. Why? The volume of sound in the lobby began to increase. Maybe a full minute or possibly two or three had passed since the first explosion caused my initial rush of adrenalin. I was unsure of my options other than wanting to call Elite and ask them to send a limo to get me out of this place.
Unfamiliar with the building, uncomfortable with my situation, not knowing my way around the ins-and-outs of the financial district, I was becoming very uneasy, and frightened, so I scooted down the stairs next to the escalator and fled through the fixed front doors onto the street. Scott, I forgot about Scott!
I immediately spotted him. He stood indelible, the only life form I recognized front and center in the street scene. The background contained scattered piles of smoldering rubble that had rocketed out of the World Trade Center. Still warm smoky piles blanketed the street and the small plaza surrounding us. Concrete, furniture and building parts blown out of the Tower were driven downward to the pavement, some as red-hot projectiles. My mind couldn’t put this puzzle together. Nothing registered. I first thought 200 Liberty was bombed and that the debris fell from directly overhead.
From the World Trade side of Liberty a fellow ran by yelling, “A plane crashed!” His running mate continued, “A twin-engine plane crashed into the World Trade Tower!” I had a quick flash of a small plane like a Piper. “Wow!” I thought, remembering reading about a plane that hit the Empire State Building. I stepped out from under the sheltered doorway area and looked up to an awful, horrible, frightening sight. Enormous, billowing black clouds of smoke began to pour from a number of floors about two-thirds of the way up the Tower. A few incredibly red flames were visible under the thick pitch-black smoke.
Nothing made sense, especially the idea of a plane crash. I glanced, a double take, up the wall of 200 Liberty. It looked O.K. “What happened,” I asked another person who was running by. “A plane was trying to land at LaGuardia. It crashed into the Tower!” A third person hollered, “There’s been a horrible accident! That plane was trying to land at the airport.” Scott turned toward me, “Bomb”, he said chillingly. “Terrorists,” he uttered, as a matter of fact, a few seconds later. I thought, “Maybe Scott is right,” discounting the notion of a plane being off course because it was too perfect a flying day, hardly any wind, deep blue sky and unlimited visibility.
Heavy demolition-type debris, concrete, façade metal and glass had rained down. Like speed-readers trying to absorb a chapter a second, we surveyed the buildings, roadways and intersections surrounding us. It was inconceivable that one bomb could cause this enormous destruction. I tried to relive the events of the past few minutes; an explosion and the popping of gunfire; a bomb, maybe a missile, possibly a plane, the World trade Center billowing smoke. Ok, most likely it was a terrorist attack.
The dumbfounding, paralyzing power of the moment’s confusion overwhelmed me. My feet were stuck to the pavement, yet the scene was fiendishly inebriating. My gaze was transfixed on the Tower. Then again, I looked down at the ground near us. It had been peppered with flying glass and building materials. The small arms fire was, apparently, the crackle of missilized debris imbedding itself into the skin of 200 Liberty and the air-walk.
I tried to connect the dots, relating the events of the prior few minutes with the vivid imagery of the Tower, blown out, a smoldering scar. The slow reality of envisioning the Tower’s demise was taking shape.
Face to face with this morning’s horror there were no neat little subconscious compartments for my conscious mind to hide. The visual collage could not, and did not fit a recognizable pattern. Then, all the red danger flags popped-up as my brain sent warnings for my body to protect itself. Like the eerie focus when looking through sandblasted glass, the pillars I had built for personal security, self-preservation and to support my family became hazy, then obscure and then began to crumble. I, the first person part of my mind’s picture, began to fade away leaving my family survivors at home fending for themselves. An instantaneous crystal clear TV image flashed through my mind’s eye now, as if in the third person, assured me that these were monumental events happening this morning and that somehow I was meant to be there; I was comforted.
My cell rang. “Hey guy, this is John Pinto”, he called from ConEd’s subsidiary, CECI’s offices at 111 Broadway, by Trinity Church, a few blocks away. “Look Peter Rust and I are looking out the window and there seems to be a lot of commotion going on. Are we still going to have this meeting at Oppenheimer?” “I don’t know John. This is a real dangerous place, there was another bombing or a plane hit the World Trade and I don’t think it’s going to work out today,” I answered, realizing for the first time that ConEd was just the tip of the iceberg. I had invited a lot of people to a still scheduled meeting at 10:00 a.m. in a conference room forty stories above me. “Well, think about it and call us back soon”, and with that, John concluded the call. “Scott I’ve got all these people coming to the meeting in an hour. I told them to stay at the Marriott World Trade and the Millennium Hotel, across the plaza.” “That’s not good, but they’ll be fine,” Scott consoled me.
I thought to myself, “Oh God.” I retrieved the page of the attendees list from my brief case. “Scott, I better get on the horn and call this off, what do you think?”
“You’d better”, he concurred.
My phone rang; it was Peter Rust offering to move the meeting to his office. He wanted to know how many people were expected so he could set up the conference room. I looked up and looked around, “Pete, this isn’t going to work today. The meeting is toast. I’ll call back when we can figure it out.”
My phone rang; it was Eric Woo from Westborough, Mass. He had heard about the meeting through the grapevine and wanted to wish me luck. He was upset he wasn’t there to help out. “Thanks. Eric, we have a problem,” and then I laid out the facts, as I knew them, about the bomb or plane incident. He knew nothing about it. I wrapped up the call, “Please call Dawn and tell her that, so far, I am OK.”
My phone rang; it was Jim Morozzi, President of Exelon Communications, a subsidiary of the former Philadelphia Electric. I was expecting Jim, maybe Greg Cucchi and Bob Shinn to make the meeting at Oppenheimer. Now I just wanted to welcome their excuses for not coming. “Hi this is Jim. I just came in on the Path and there is a lot stuff going on here. I’m at the Path under the World Trade Center. So, what’s going on?” There’s a train going back to Jersey, I can take it or I can come out to the street….” I immediately realized I had the chance to something good, so I cut him off in mid-sentence, “Jim, turn around get back on the train and go back right now. Do not leave the terminal! Who is with you,” I asked, thinking that Greg or Bob might have decided to come up. “No one’s with me, I’m alone”. I repeated, “Turn around and go back, there is no meeting, go home. Go now.”
With the attendance sheet in my hand I scanned it for the names of people I recommended stay at the Marriott World Trade or the Millennium Hotel the night before. Ron Mudrey, CEO of Progress Telecom was at the Millennium so was, I noted, Ben Easterling and Phil Franklin from Southern Telecom. Their assistant Darla Blalock had sent some mixed messages that, as far as I could tell, had the Southern Telecom guys staying at both hotels.
Charlene Jurkoshek of First Energy confirmed a few days earlier that she would be at the Marriott. Tony Pini of New England Electric Systems, Dick Hahn of Boston Edison, Gary Simon of Northeast Utilities, Wayne Cooper of Baltimore Gas & Edison, David Kelly of Pennsylvania Power & Light, and Bill Briney of General Public Utilities were all parts unknown.
Peter Rust, John Pinto and Felipe Alverez from ConEd were safely accounted for and Morozzi, with any luck, was on his way back to Philly. There was one other name in pencil whose status I couldn’t remember, Greg Kamper of Dominion; and that was it, except for me and Scott who were standing flatfooted and stiff-necked looking up the façade of the South Tower.
“What now”, I asked myself. These people are in the city for a meeting at 200 Liberty in less than an hour and I’m to blame. With only email addresses and not a single cell number, contacting them was impossible. I thought to myself, "Oh God." I became weak-kneed and even a little wobbly. I gazed back up the Tower, mesmerized, my eyes were glued, unblinking, on a new unfolding horror. I asked aloud, “Who is going to believe this?”
To my rear, people, totally oblivious of the real-time events were still walking to work, rounding the corner from West Street, out of view and on the protected side of WFC, drinking coffee, wearing headsets, listening to music. They were untouched by the calamity going on almost directly above them. They narrowly missed death by minutes yet continued to walk right into the path of bulletized-debris and scattered building materials. Looking to my right, west down Liberty, there were flattened taxis. Hundreds of shoes littered the ground, sneakers, and a singed bedroom slipper.... a slipper…. loafers, dress black loafers, one shoe, another with a foot still in it. Shards of glass were everywhere. We spotted a metal shape ripped up like crumbled Xerox paper that was, I believe to be the twisted remains of a jet engine. It was on the sidewalk not a hundred feet away. “It was a plane! There’s the engine. I think that’s a jet engine, could it be an engine?” someone ranted.
Debris of all types and descriptions landed everywhere. A shiny aluminum-sided delivery truck was half-flattened by a fallen wall section. Each piece of everyday going-to-work street furniture that, seconds ago, was functioning as part of the normal daily morning routine became, at of the moment of impact, motionless. Some part of nearly every vehicle, the taxis, limos and delivery trucks were damaged by rubble, building materials or slabs of concrete the size of conference tables. “If only we had a camera; this needs to recorded,” I lamented, while I tried to memorize the location of the taxis, limos and other piece parts. “I don’t have a camera,” replied Scott.
Tucking back into the shelter of 200 Liberty’s revolving doors, I announced to Scott, “I better call home”. Scott called Susan on his cell while I dialed Dawn simultaneously. Scott cursed, “Phone’s dead.” The instant I heard her voice, I level-set Dawn with a rapid fire, staccato outburst, “Dawn, don’t worry I am fine. Scott is safe too. Get a message to Susan that he is O.K. The devastation is incredible. I wish I had a camera! There is no one here yet. People are still walking to work and they don’t know what has happened. A plane or a bomb just blew up a World Trade Tower. We are across the street. I’ve got to get out of here, I love you.” She responded, “What are you talking about”. “Put on the TV now”, I yelled just as my phone signal died off.
We entered 200 Liberty’s lobby. People were pouring out of the elevators and draining from the stairwells running to the end of the building away from the Tower. Seeing us moving inside, against the grain, a man called to us “The roof is on fire, get out.” When we didn’t immediately turn to run, he stopped, looked me right in the eye and calmly but sternly repeated, “I said, the building is on fire ….get out now” in a slow cadence as if I didn’t speak English.”
“Scott, where do we go now? I think we’ve got to get back outside.” “There’s total chaos out there,” he replied, yet we stepped outside. “What can we do,” I wondered. “I wouldn’t know where to begin. There is nothing we can do”, he concluded.
We took a few minutes to clear our heads. We agreed to stick together and to leave the area by walking toward the Hudson River. There, we thought we would be safe. If anything happened, we reasoned, we could jump into the river and not be consumed by fire or anything else for that matter. We moved back to the Liberty Street door where we were shielded from the Tower by the shape of the building’s front entry overhang. We walked backward a few steps and looked to the Tower one last time. “Wait, what’s that?” Large pieces of the Tower were falling to the ground. The air handling systems, ducts, plenums, were being sucked out of the Tower and dropping like autumn leaves falling from a maple tree. Some heavier exterior sections fell away making dead drops, straight down.
Flames heightened and began to engulf the higher floors of the Tower. I watched as tens of thousands of pieces of paperwork blew out on the thermals created by the now glowing superheated structure. The fire roared and the updrafts, downdrafts and back drafts moved the smoke in billowing satanic harmonies. The Tower, acting like a gigantic chimney, roiled papers flue-like through the lower floors and then burst them from the building 1,000 feet or more above the ground. Each page was succinctly visible as a single sheet, not forced downward to the ground by gravity but rather flying upward, rising to a point where the air currents they rode cooled enough so the sheets floated parallel to the horizon and then rolled, individually, succinctly, almost in slow motion, beyond sight. The papers flickered brilliantly like mirrored reflectors playing off blinding sprays of sunlight against the brilliant blue sky. Back and forth into and out of the smoke for an instant, then to its edge and again into the day’s brightness like sun-illuminated wedding confetti catching a playful breeze in and out of darkened cathedral foyer.
Again we became paralyzed, lead-footed, amazed by these contrasting sights. A perfect September morning, a deep blue sky, clean fresh air and here was the City, our world for the moment, disintegrating before our eyes. The Tower, in the center of our view was crippled, hollowed and consumed by fire and smoke. As the Tower lost its fight, glistening cadmium red flames took on the appearance of blood in deep gaping wounds. There was no corner man in the ring to stop this bleeding nor could anyone throw in the towel to stop this enormous catastrophe. This was playing out to its conclusion.
I wondered again, a plane on its way to LaGuardia? Pilot error? A horrible accident? While we still looked up, a man jumped from the building .... White shirt, black pants, end-over-end tumbling to the ground. “Oh no.” “Oh, my God.” The muffled cries rippled through the small gathered crowd around us. At that instant, the towering glass and metal mass of billowing smoke became human. We nearly went into shock. The Tower, partially blown away, was irreparably damaged and in the process of being demolished. I understood what that meant and for all its scars, fire, smoke and fury, the building didn’t look and certainly didn’t act human. But, the very instant the first man jumped out, it breathed, it became human. Shock and disbelief were now layered with another different and more powerful dose of reality. All senses were triggered afresh.
The Tower was only important because the people inside made it so. And, there were lots of people inside. For the first few minutes, this was a building damaged by a bomb. Now, it became humanity being torn apart from the inside out.
After the first man jumped, we focused our attention on hundreds of the Tower’s prisoners, mostly white shirted, who were pressed against the Tower’s windows. Others were standing in the voids where the windows had melted away but near enough to the building’s skin so that their general shapes could be discerned as simple movements. They were trapped inside making the brick and mortar a living, breathing organism, a symbol of all that is human.
Here, in front of us, a building representing humanity’s fantastic construction, manifesting its mechanical ingenuity and artistic genius, entrapped its very creators. Here, a moment earlier, an airplane, no less ingenious, became the devil’s tool; a rocket detonated to cause one huge destructive nightmare; pain, death and devastation, as only mankind can deliver upon itself.
Standing just far enough from the Tower to have a full view of the tumultuous circumstances, we were filled with a heightening sense of helplessness caused by the absolute and total desperation we felt for the distant figures of those people blocked in the Tower’s upper floors. On that day and thereafter, my helplessness to act in those final minutes has been an unshakable agonizing memory.
One by one, men and women jumped from the Tower’s blown out shell. I felt an overwhelming obligation to witness the poor souls jumping to their death. Watching, it was the only thing we could do, it was the least we could, and, in the same breath, it was all that we could do. Even now, years later, I remember faceless, nameless shapes and I worry that their final desperate acts will be forgotten.
A man held onto the outer wall, bending himself to the façade, holding for a few seconds until the flames and heat intensified. He mercifully let go. Another man seemed to get a running jump and appeared to fly out by leaping what might have been twenty feet or more, so that his silhouette was fixed against a blue sky and not against the building’s exterior. My heart ached, certain their free falls were swift and final. Some dropped spread eagle, some like gliders, others cart wheeled over and over, some fell erect and stiff, a few dove headfirst. From our angle, we witnessed the first twenty-five people leap to their death.
Each plunge brought a groan from those in our small gathering of maybe ten people. Two or three dared look up. Each groan triggered screams and wails from the others who didn’t turn their eyes skyward but knew for sure what was happening. Two or three in our gathering wore the brown uniforms of WTC employees. They had successfully made the run from the opposite corner to our location in front of 200 Liberty. Tears filled our eyes while the scene was repeated over and over again. Ten, maybe twenty, probably more leapt from our side of the Tower. Scott and I were stunned and couldn’t bear more of the unfolding horror. On the ground, some men and women fainted and some others were frozen hard with dreadful fascination of the fast unfurling events. We had to leave so we set off toward the river. But, again my knees became weak with the first steps away so I sat on my briefcase for a moment to collect myself. Scott stood at my side.
Resting on the steps opposite me sat two men and a uniformed guy, maybe a Park Ranger. I hadn’t noticed them before. One man had about a third of the top of his head burned away like melted candle wax. He was also bleeding from a gash above his right ear. A second man was wearing what appeared to be a Hawaiian shirt, until I realized that it was his flesh, muscle, bone and blood that made up the gruesome colors of the print – he had no shirt. The Ranger could do nothing except sit nearby and console each of these fellows. I had to get away at that second. I stood to leave, aiming toward the River … the second plane roared overhead and exploded into the South Tower.
The second attack was different than the first. Being outside versus in the WFC lobby, the phenomenal ear-piercing roar of jet engines preceding the second crash was like being inside summer’s heat lightening. The rumbling roaring sound was directly aimed at our eardrums from all directions and from ricocheting reverberations off the glass, concrete and asphalt canyons comprising the buildings and streets surrounding us. The powerful concussion nearly knocked us to the ground. The blast was like a simultaneous lightning and thunder blast overhead, a total immersion of sound. Our bones vibrated, our clothing bounced off our skin. Then it was over.
We didn't know where to look, where to run, or where to hide. The jet delivered its payload with a fury more like the full volume surround-sound of a Saturn rocket trying to escape Earth’s gravity. The truth was quite the opposite; a plane had plunged downward through the South Tower toward the building’s core.
I was convinced the second blast was a missile; it was incomprehensible that it was another plane. But it was. A fully fueled 767 running at full throttle 500 miles an hour, 700 feet immediately overhead hitting an immovable object while carrying 15,000 gallons of jet fuel and 60 people. Absolutely unbelievable.
Scott and I became really scared. We thought for minute that maybe there were other rockets aimed our way. Would there be a third and a fourth? We tried to assess the worsening situation in a detached workman-like manner. Our physical proximity to the blast site caused our attention to be again riveted to the Towers. I was infuriated that the catastrophe was real and I was upset with my own need, my fascination, to see every detail unfold.
A few minutes after the second strike we realized we could soon be in big trouble so we started our walk in search of safety. As we left, our ears picked up the continuous drone of the crowd a block away and the repetition of whimpers as another, and another, and another trapped building victim leapt to finality, snatching from fate what I could only imagine to be an eternity in the Hell of the Towers’ fury.
We headed toward the Hudson River, determined to walk out of this nightmare and into the safety of our families deep in New England. We moved along methodically like machined parts in an assembly line, without looking back. We passed through intersections where vehicles of all descriptions were parked, abandoned some still with motors running. We walked on sidewalks cluttered with mothers and children in strollers, workers and bosses, police, fire, EMTs, Park Rangers and people still walking to work. A mass of humanity was flowing toward the scene of the disaster except for those huddled still or walking away after a full dose of the Towers’ misery. Very few walked away; but we did, we were done. During our exit, we learned that one jetliner hit each Tower. We heard people say that eight planes in all were hijacked. At some point over the next few minutes, we learned a plane hit the Pentagon, a car bomb blew up the Washington Memorial, a plane crashed into the Chicago’s Sears Tower, the Transamerica Building in San Francisco was destroyed, somewhere in Pittsburgh something went down and that there were four planes in the sky still at large. Looking up, I asked, “Where is the Air Force? Where are the fighters?” I picked out two NYPD traffic helicopters, hardly a force.
We ran into two Canadian steel workers that had just fled from high up a nearby construction site. They pointed out the impact of the second plane to us. There was precision to its attack angle, tilted to ensure that every inch of the plane was contained within the building’s dimensions. “Did this inflict maximum damage?” one wondered. “Maybe not,” I said. In one breath I unloaded a perverse thought, “Maximum damage? No”. I continued. “But, thank God they hit their mark. I could see maybe a half million people or more dead if either of the jets went down on Wall Street, Lexington or Fifth Avenue. I can’t imagine what 10,000 or 20,000 gallons of ignited jet fuel would do if it flowed into Manhattan’s subway system, manholes, exploding the gas lines, detonating electric transformers and high voltage lines and turning every automobile, truck and taxi into a lethal car bomb during the height of rush hour. If either plane missed, then you’re getting toward maximum damage, if both missed, then you’re there’ I told them. I couldn’t believe what I was saying, but it was true, those planes stayed in the Towers; it could have been a lot worse.
I also told the ironworkers, “The buildings will be coming down.” They replied, “Of course, both will be demolished, eventually.” “No”, I said, “I mean that they are going to come down today. They will implode. They are disintegrating now; they’re red hot and melting inside. We were just down there. Both buildings are coming down now, can’t you see that?” Their next thought was scary in its one-sided defense of structural steel and the architectural mathematics to withstand even a strike of this magnitude. As we walked away, I uttered under my breath to Scott, “They’re crazy. God help us all.”
The plane’s slanted silhouette was, for the next hour, etched into the Tower’s façade, burned into its skeleton and indelibly inscribed in my mind.
We were heading toward the Staten Island Ferry. The streets were horribly clogged with thousands of people, and impassable due to parked delivery trucks, cabs, Town Cars, stuck busses and emergency vehicles. The sounds of literally hundreds and hundreds of sirens became deafening in their many distinctive alarm shrills. We couldn’t tell where the siren sounds were coming from because they were coming from every direction and moving to every other direction, to the extent that they were moving at all. Fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars were stuck after making their own traffic jam. People overflowed the sidewalks and spilled into the streets. As we walked away from Ground Zero, the crowd’s groans always pulled our eyes back to the Towers. It almost seemed that our walking pace became a metronome to measure out the crowd groans. We took three steps, the crowd groaned, someone jumped. Step. Step. Step. Jump. UUUhhhh. …. Step. Step. Step. Jump. OOOhhhhh. Step. Step. Step. Groan. AAAhhhhh. We walked and walked; they jumped and they jumped. It was awful.
Scott and I stayed together but could barely talk to one another over the chorus of the folks that emptied onto the streets. Buildings were being evacuated by police commands and fire directives and others were emptied by an otherwise involuntarily curiosity for disasters. We walked single file, weaving in and out of clutches of office workers. Twenty feet, maybe fifty people or more separated us at times. In a thick crowd, 20 feet can be a long way. I was lagging behind because my foot was hurt somehow. But a wave of my raised hand always caught Scott’s eye and he prodded on leading the way. I followed. A raised hand became my location beacon for his assurance. Back and forth, our silent signals effectively marked our relative positions as opposed to screaming over the now blaring street noise.
At some point near Battery Park we could barely make progress against the weight and depth of the crowd. I couldn’t fit behind them; there was no room in front, so we marched through. I still carried my laptop in its case along with my cell phone and Palm Pilot. The case has a thick strap that slung over my shoulder opposite the hip where the case rode. I bumped forward against the crowd, earning expletives and deserved shoves from anyone that came in contact with the bang of my laptop’s case. At one point, I had trouble controlling my anger toward a group of worker bees that had their faces turned away from the Towers as they talked it up like at fourth grade class at recess. I felt like screaming at them, “Pay attention! This is really bad. A lot of people died today! What the hell is wrong with you people?” I wondered if I were to ring a bell and announce that the disaster was over whether they would have dutifully returned to their respective office cubicles. I bet they would have.
Most groups we moved through were glued to the catastrophe. Many people cried, some groups prayed aloud. Along our journey, we heard a cop tell a tourist that the Lexington line was operating from the Wall Street Station. Scott hatched the idea that we could get to that subway so we double-checked with the same cop. Having no other plan out of the maze from Battery Park, we began a beeline toward the Wall Street Subway Station.
Getting to Wall Street Station meant that we had to make sort of a U-turn back toward the World Trade Center carnage. I was initially cool to this idea because I convinced myself the towers would fall and being around there when that happened would be a nightmare I was not ready for. Without complaining and within a few minutes we made it to the subway entrance by the Charging Bull at Bowling Green. I tripped down the stairs when my sore foot gave way on some rubbish. “Wow! That hurt!” I told Scott. “I twisted my ankle, hurts like hell. Let’s go.”
Scott asked the caged cashier if trains were running. “Yes, they are! And it is faster and safer than walking” he passed on to me; he is always so positive. Scott bought two tokens. He was on the platform in a flash standing in front of an open train door. I fumbled putting my token in the token slot and instead, it slid into a card swipe slot. The metal bars were too low to go under and too high to climb over, so in a moment of genius I calmly took a business card from my shirt pocket, creased its center and used the card to cup the wayward token out of the wrong slot and into the right one, just as the train left the station. Standing there patiently, Scott said, “Don’t worry another will be along in a little while.” I stepped onto the platform. We waited forever, it seemed. In a few minutes, maybe six, a train came. We got on board headed toward 125th Street. The path of the line would take us toward World Trade but in a tunnel east of the disintegrating complex. The initial start-up speed of our underground passage was actually refreshing, a welcomed relief to the step-by-step pounding on the cluttered streets. No words can describe our sense of happiness, almost giddy with the notion that safety was just a few minutes away. As we smoothly glided away from the turmoil above, I turned to Scott, “We are really lucky”. “You bet we are!” he replied so optimistically.
The train linked eight or ten cars; each car contained about 15 people. We left the station and proceeded for about a minute or so then ground to an abrupt halt. After coming to its initial stop, our car jerked forward a few more times and then was idle and quiet. Scott and I were in a car toward the front of the train, away from the station. We were parked next to a second train stopped and aimed in the opposite direction they were namely, away from Wall Street. There were about two feet between the cars so I could easily peer inside and, eyeball to eyeball, inspect each passenger. In all, our train stayed motionless for about 45 minutes. After the tenth minute or so, the lights functioned but the motor and air conditioner were shut off. Soon, we watched the passengers in the opposite train march single file toward the station. “Should I be doing that”, I asked myself. They looked so organized and purposeful. I wondered where the Transit Authority conductor was. “Who was in charge here?” Time passed very slowly; “Yes, we should be doing that”, Scott concluded. So we did. It took us about 10 minutes to walk from our end of the train to the end aimed backward. As we moved from car to car, we opened and closed the exterior end doors. I now felt organized and purposeful. In reality we didn’t have the slightest idea whether our relocation bettered the likelihood of our survival. Like lemmings, a the other passengers followed us single file. We were merely shuffling the deck. People moved from one car to another, so that thinly populated cars got full, and full cars got crowded. While moving from car to car, we were exposed to the tunnel air, whenever we crossed through the short few feet between cars. During our passage, the tunnel became progressively smoky, heavy with soot and warmer. More troubling than fumes and smoke were the deep-geologic rumblings from far beyond the tunnel walls. The cars shook slightly. I began to wonder, “My God, more planes, the Empire State, the UN, the Exchange?”
I had every reason to believe that the four unaccounted for planes were now being accounted for by the bombardment above. The sounds were like the earth’s digestive system having stomach trouble. They were biblical. At this point, looking around, I realized that many of the people on the train didn’t know what was going on above the tunnel. Probably they got into their commute somewhere up town and had been traveling in the underground since before 8:46 a.m.
“What a way to go….” “Stuck in the bowels of Manhattan as the world went to hell in a hand basket,” I spoke aloud to no one in particular. Then my mind shifted to the Brits surviving in London’s underground during the Blitz. For a very brief moment I was overcome with a sense of safety and security. This faded when I thought of my recent trip to London and remembered the center-of-the-earth feeling when descending the long escalators to reach the “Tube”. Reality reclaimed me. We were not in London and the lowest bidder built Manhattan’s subway system. The subway tunnel started to fill with smoke and an unusual stench like of burning rags. I began to get nervous, feeling our outlook was bleak. The temperature in the car was rising. I perspired and felt flushed. It was getting hotter. The smoke started to hurt my eyes, then a tickle cough started, “Ah-hum, ah-hum”, I cleared my dry throat. My nose began stinging just at the openings of my nostrils. I knew my stinging eyes were getting red, I could feel it happen like having shampoo running off the top of your head into your eyeballs.
About this time, Scott and I maneuvered the length of the train to the second car from the end. I looked into the train sitting aside ours and thought that everyone had left. It was empty. “Great”, I thought out loud, "They must have been led out; we would be too." But then, peering deeper into the window I noticed a few people sitting on the seats and still more squatting lower down or sitting on the floor. They weren’t gone at all; we were all in the same pickle. The temperature was probably rising through the mid-ninety degree range I calculated it would reach 100 degrees or more in short order. I guessed were going to cook. The smoke became thicker, a mustard haze and it began choking me, and those around me. I tied my hanky over my nose and mouth to filter out the finer particles. Scott took my cue and used the armhole in his suit coat sleeve. It looked like bellows, or better an elephants’ trunk as he breathed in and out of his coat sleeve.
I was now standing by a thin black woman about 25-30 years old who sat still in her seat and hadn’t budged since we found our way into this last car. She looked around nervously, fidgeting with her handbag but kept her composure better than most others. To this day, I can see sitting there, her large soft brown eyes and remarkably white pupils searching the car for a clue to our fate. Her clothing was loose and colorful, like the beautiful prints the women wear in East Africa or in Jamaica. She was lovely; her doe-in-the-headlight innocence drew me in. I wanted to protect her, like I would my daughter, but I couldn’t. I didn’t even tell her what was going on in the streets above. In fact we didn’t speak because it just really didn’t matter. We were down here in the personal prison cell of the subway not in the Hell that was going on above us. I found some comfort in her young innocence and I thought God might spare us all because he couldn’t bear to lose this lovely creature of his making. I flew an awful lot and sometimes before I boarded a plane or when I walked down the aisle to my seat I would check out the other passengers. I like to see lots of young people on board, especially young kids and babies. I have always had the feeling that my plane would be safe; the flight calm and enjoyable because God would not dare hurt all these little kids. There was a certain irrational comfort I got from this idea. For a moment, that is just how I felt; God wouldn’t dare hurt this lovely young woman. Me? Sure I am expendable, Scott too. But not this girl, she was going to get out.
My daydreaming was cut short when I began gagging on something. I tried to spit out the first few grains of grit or flakes of something that my tongue slid off my front teeth.
Turning back to the girl, she rose a few inches from her seat, reached under her skirt and pulled off a white slip. I thought she would fashion a mouth covering from the cloth and protect herself, but she didn’t. She ripped her slip right down the seam from the waistband to the hem. She pulled off the elasticized band and then tore the fabric into one-foot square sections. She reached below her seat and retrieved her lunch bag. Not speaking, she pulled out a 16-ounce bottle of water. I couldn’t believe her kindness to hand out to everyone near her a torn section of her slip after dampening it with the water from her lunch bag. When she was done she reached for my cotton hanky and wet it. I retightened it over the bridge of my nose and held the dangling part tight against my chin. I smiled back to her my gratitude but she couldn’t see it because it was hidden under my mask. I pressed my eyeglasses on top of the bridge of my nose to snug up any potential opening there.
Again, I looked to the other train; some people were back in their seats; no one stood because the cooler air was down low. Now, maybe 20 minutes into this Hellhole, desperation began to spread amongst the passengers in our car. It didn’t matter whether people had been riding for a while, that they had no idea what was going on above us, or like us had seen everything; we all wanted out and we wanted it now. It was a strange feeling, realizing we were all felt the same thing at the very same time, like an amulet broke open, and spread an outpouring of emotion over us or it was like everybody came out of a trance at the same instant and decided to do the very same thing; extricate ourselves from the worsening situation. It was definitely a do-or-die feeling that swept over the group in our car. In a minute, oddly the mood died as quickly as it formed, but it would reappear soon enough.
If anyone had thought we were in a normal breakdown or a power outage that notion was surely dismissed by the increasing temperature, smoke, soot, and the stench of burning rags. The rear door opened and a passenger in the car further back stuck his head in our car, “How’s it going in here?” the stranger asked. He was met with an angry series of replies; “Hey, shut the door!” “Get in or out!” “Close the door!” “Get out!”
Maybe we could last another hour, but that would be a stretch, especially if the people from the cars behind us opened our connecting doors and moved to cars toward the station. We would surely suffocate. The tunnel air deteriorated quickly. I spotted a metal ladder bolted to the tunnel wall outside my window. “Could that lead to a manhole in the street”, I wondered. “Is that a way out?”
I was sure I would die in the subway this day. This was it, the end, the last chapter; my goose was finally cooked, figuratively and literally. Looking into the eyes of those around me there was little hope to draw on.
Scott drifted five people away. He looked flushed; his face was long, drawn, and ashen. His eyes spoke volumes as they darted around the car searching for any opportunity of an escape. He began hyperventilating. I called him over to an open seat next to me where he regained control of his breathing. After a few minutes he stood and said he was ready to crash a door and start walking out. My feelings about our circumstances were equally intolerant. The heat and smoke stung my eyes, nose and now reached into my lungs. I was feeling almost cheated and becoming angry, resigned that my life would end in this dank subway chamber.
But my mood swung from high to low in seconds. I thought, “Well, this is bullshit! This is supposed to be the place to go to when you want to be safe.” Then, I imagined gasping for whatever final oxygen I could inhale until I choked off dead. I thought of my obituary, “…. found dead in the 125th Street line.” I thought of making sure my wallet was handy so they would know it’s me. Crazy, when you come to this point and there are no viable options. I said a few prayers, thought of my family, thought of some things undone, others things unsaid. Then I thought, “Why pray?”, after what we’ve seen and been through, God isn’t on duty today.
There was an awareness that someone had to organize and lead an escape plan, and on cue, the survival mood began to build anew. I could sense some positive upwelling take over my individual and, at the same time, the collective attitude of my fellow prisoners. Mummers and whispers became audible. Scuttlebutt moved around the car and it became apparent that drastic action had to be implemented sooner rather than later. If we delayed, we would not have the energy to save ourselves. The undercurrents gained momentum and the whole car voiced, in unison, its intentions, “We’re getting out of here.”
I don’t know who asked the questions, “What’s a third rail?” “How do you not get electrocuted?” “Let’s check the end door!” “Is it this way to the station?“ “Let’s gather up our things.” “Anyone have a flashlight?” This was decision time; we were ready to give it a try.
Behind me there sat another fellow who, in his own element on a dark empty street in the early morning hours, could be my worst enemy. A 25ish black man; shaven head from his neck to a ring like a bowl cut, beginning at the top of his ears, then, blossoms of hair erupting upward like a mushroom cap. He had a self-inflicted tattoo on the bare part of his neck, a scared forehead, and broad powerful biceps that he intentionally flexed where they protruded from the tattered fringes of his shirtsleeves. A second tattoo was partly visible as a round design hanging off the crest of his shoulder so that it finished by the dangling threads of his intentionally torn-away designer shirt. It was apparent to me that he had no knowledge of what had gone on at the World Trade. In a voice no louder than anyone else’s, and spoken to no one in particular, this young man abruptly cut off all discussion.
“No one is going to kick out a window or break down a door, I’ll see to that,” he emphatically stated. “We got in here together and we gonna' get out together,” his voice firmed up as he looked for a challenge. “We don’t need a hero. We need to stick together. We all Brothers, now.” So, in two seconds this guy took control of rumors, strategies and the single-mindedness of our yet to develop escape plan. I thought to myself, “If he is serious, we are going to have to kill him to get of here.” He was very strong, young, worked out, and he doesn’t want a hero, but that is exactly what the rest of us do want. We want Rambo or John McClane to save our bacon. Maybe someone has got to step on all the rails so we can figure out which one carries the current and the rest of us can get out alive.
As far as I was concerned, this young guy didn’t have a plan at all and the sticking together thing amounted to little more than a mass suicide if conditions continued to worsen. And they did. Smoke thickened and continued to fill up the tunnel and as it did we became more a more pathetic lot.
His soul mate, an attractive black female with tattoos of her own spun around the stainless steel grab pole like a stripper, smiled, slid lower and chortled, “You all his gang, now.” Then she fluttered her eyelids like my Aunt Mildred used to do and gave her man a big shit-eating grin. I couldn’t believe it but our thread bare optimism was now squashed. For the next 5 or six minutes we became each other’s keeper with no plan to get out of there unless this guy blinked. We would need to go around, over or through him and that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
Then at one of our darkest moments, as smoke-filled air flooded the car, folks coughed, wheezed, sat on the floor red-eyed, again when all seemed lost, a turban-headed transit worker opened our car’s end door from the Fulton Street side of the caravan and walked through the aisle, “S'cuse me. S'cuse me. Step aside please,” in a clipped Indian accent. He had purpose, no doubt. In his hand he grasped one key on a ring with a fistful of other keys. The ring in his hand was chained to another ring clipped to his belt holding about a hundred more keys. He looked very official, “That must be an important key”, I thought. The Indian was our first sign that someone knew something about subways; that someone would be our leader; that Rambo, in the form of this indescribably simple, plain slight guy might get us out. I’d guessed that he, the conductor of the train, sensed an impending mutiny and came to mercifully lead us out. But no, while the turban headed guy made his way through the passengers, the conductor called for our attention on the intercom. He announced that the train would be reversed. No one could really hear all the actual details of his idea over the muffled crackling speakers but he continued to talk for about a half minute. We passengers turned to each other repeating in an echo sounding-way, “What’d he say?" “What’d he say?" All I knew was he said something about “brakes”, something about, “doing my best” and “Sit down and hold on tight.”
A few minutes later, the train engine fired up and revved to a very high RPM but we didn’t move. Then “Wow!!” It felt like the train shot through the air and landed a hundred yards down the track. Everyone was flung back and then violently jammed forward. Luckily, I sat on the floor wrapping my legs and arms around the ‘stripper pole” holding it tight to my chest. Bang! “Wow!!!” My face bounced off the stainless steel pole. The conductor commenced a series of six or eight of these crashing lunges in reverse. We didn’t crash into anything but one of the other passengers said we were ‘reversing over the brakes”, apparently designed to permit a train to back up when it is in a tunnel. I can’t imagine this maneuver being used in any other circumstance other than a dire emergency like the one we were in. While the crash was solid, like ramming another train, we didn’t hit anything. When the motor revved up for the second, third, and fourth lunge we all had enough time to grab on tight and brace ourselves. It felt like we did this for twenty minutes. Revving, lunging, crashing … waiting three or four minutes for the dust to settle and then doing it again, and again, and again. Maybe he pounded the crap out of that train as many as eight or ten times.
We had closed in on the dim single bulb lighting the platform at the station. On the last lunge, the train got to a track position where the end door was nearly opposite the end of the platform. Scott and I, along with the other people in our car pressed toward the end door. There stood the turban-headed fellow with the key still in his hand, he had taken a real beating. His hand reached out to the lock and with the special key he had been holding for the past 20 minutes, standing at what must have felt like the tip of a battering ram, he unlocked the door and pulled it open. We all drained from that door with a small hop onto the platform. The entire train empted out single-file nodding to the turbaned guy with the key and reaching out into the darkness for a helping-hand from someone on the platform. From one minute frozen in fear to the next, a cool, calm, collected bunch of survivors. There was no screaming, no shouts of joy, no pushing or shoving. We moved quickly and efficiently because we were still very scared as we left the train.
I shook the hand of the young black man, grateful we didn’t have to kill him; and I nodded to his sidekick who sort of wiggled her head back and forth like a bobble doll and she fluttered her eyelids in sort of Morse code I took to mean “Good luck”. I reached out for the lady without the slip, offered her my hand as she rose and guided her ahead of me to the train’s exit. Queued there for a few seconds in the thick haze, I thanked her, and told her how selfless I thought her act of kindness was. Knowing that our troubles were yet to resolve, I wished her luck, we touched hands as I helped her disappear to the platform. My attention turned back to locating Scott. There he stood, by the door.
I don’t know of any injuries suffered on the train. The station was very dark. I noticed only the one light bulb that seemed to hang from a bare wire like one in a 2-bit motel room. Soot, smoke and awful smells filled the station. There was no other life there but us. Finally free from our subway horror, our spirits were again up lifted, momentarily, by the terra firma security of the thick concrete platform. But as we made our way along the platform, little did we know that we were stepping from the frying pan into the fire.
The subway station had more than one set of stairs rising to the street. Scott and I chose one of them, probably the right side flight that we thought might lead us back to the street where we first arrived. I think the other passengers, used the stairs to the left because we lost them all; every one of them disappeared into thin air.
We made it up to the first landing, turned to make the scissor and just about at the top …. We got blasted! Deep earth-sounding rumblings that we heard in the subway three-quarters of an hour earlier came to us again on the stairs. Apparently the earlier rumble was the first Tower imploding into millions of tons of rubble that rattled the bedrock carved out for the subway. The new debris-roil that hit us straight on was caused by the superheated rubble of the second Towers’ collapse.
A stiff wind blew smoke, soot, ash and stench over us like the gagging smell and burn of a firebox while the embers glow red and a zephyr stirs up the coals’ dust into your nose. In an instant, enveloped totally, we made our way to the top of the steps not quite sure whether the source of the trouble was in front of us or from the subway behind. Visibility dropped to zero and we became fully swallowed in the ash cloud. It was caustic and warm. I held my hanky tight to my face and Scott, standing within feet of me, pulled his coat over his head. That was the last we would see of each other.
Breathing hurt, full of soot, I was sightless. In the cloud on the street, we were totally consumed. Seeing nothing, no pavement, no curb, no Charging Bull, nothing, I was swept up by the pulverized debris and into its silence. I called for Scott and he answered, but from where, I have no idea. The dust particles were very fine like the plume of a volcanic eruption, but rather than blowing up into the atmosphere, this cloud violently crashed down.
I stood still, afraid to move. Scott was somewhere near, I heard him call back. Blind, choking, coughing, hacking and gagging, I lifted my bandana to spit out caked and crusted soot from my mouth. My eyes burned hot. I was lost. The dust was colored syrupy-thick institutional cream. By even squinting, vision had no depth; there was no sunlight or shadows, nothing to see except the ash fall. We were sightless, blindfolded.
In the new and dangerous predicament of the roiling ash cloud, dust and debris of all descriptions; papers and the smoldering scent of soot exploded around us. The storm of suffocating talc-like concrete dust gypsum and plaster powder coated us. I moved left, tracing a building's wall with my hands against the yellow-gray confetti of ash-covered granite. I reversed, hoping to find the subway, no dice. I couldn't see and now could barely breathe. My eyes got worse, my nose and mouth became filled with accumulating super-fine grit with every breath. I felt very alone; it became very dark and I soon reached the point of complete and utter despair.
I again reversed direction to find the subway entrance but couldn’t. I became more disoriented and crouched down to feel the ground with my hands, “Was it even pavement?” I wondered. I could imagine walking for an hour in a circle the size of parlor train set, going nowhere. I searched for footprints in the ash but there were none, not even my own. The ash was so fine that lifting my shoe moved air just enough to rearrange the ash so as to obliterate any trace of my still warm print, so I had no proof that I was even where I was. I couldn’t control a strong desire to go from a squat to just lying down in it right there …. letting go. “OK, you win, I lose.” So I did. I got to my hands and knees and began to lean forward to press my cheek into the still accumulating ash. I leaned closer and turned my cheek toward the pavement, then paused. I am hopelessly lost, weak and completely defeated but I thought of Scott, he would try to find me and might die doing so. I called out with half-a-breath into the general area of where the street should be, “Scott, you go on without me. I’m holding you back.” I paused to gather breath to finish my swan song but before I could he called back, “I’m not leaving without you. We are in this together.” In a few seconds, as I digested his words, the slight presence of his shoe caught my attention only a few inches from my hand still set in the warm ash. I didn’t have the guts to finish my original statement. I couldn’t verbalize how I felt; “I give up, Scott. I can feel my life draining away. Save yourself”. So I bit my tongue, turned to the imaginary ghost that had beckoned me to call it in, got to my knees, “Goddamn it.” and stood up. Next to Scott, with the same feeble volume of my last declaration I spoke again. “Help, Help”. Again, “Help. Help. Someone help.” Over and over. Each call required as deep a breath as could be mustered, and each meant filling lungs with ash and soot. Each breath hurt. Standing still, blind by each other we listened intently, then “Help. Help.”
Like in the movies, a man’s voice, "O-ver here!" We took a few steps toward the sound. I repeated, "Help." And there followed the same voice, "O-ver here". Again I called out, after the voice called back. We hobbled slowly to the voice, avoiding the debris in the street.
The path we took led us up against fire trucks, ambulances and other commercial vehicles of all types. There were no people, just vehicles abandoned in the street. There were tens of thousands of sheets of paper and it was hard to walk through them, we had to feel every inch of our way. Searching for the source of the voice, we arrived aside a large, double glass doorway and we were able to make out a thin stream of single file humanoid shadows walking hand in hand from our right to left. I thought about reaching out to join the procession when the big arms of our ‘voice’ grabbed us from the side and yanked us into what we think was 20 Broadway. Our saving ‘voice’ was a security guard who heard our call when he opened the door to let another wayward soul into his building. The guard, matter-of-factly, guided us to the rear of the foyer by the permanent wall mounted building directory. There, two other guards stood with us for a few minutes before instructing us to either sit quietly on the floor in the small area by the elevators or move down the stairs into the subbasement where water and restrooms were available.
By the stairs to the basement, I noticed an EMT heroically attending to every one of the 100 hundred or so people in the upper lobby. He worked over one man who probably had a heart attack and had passed out. I walked by him. While in the lobby, we learned that both Towers fell and that the Empire State and UN were still standing. In a daze, we descended the stairs to the subbasement. The air was more breathable and, compared to the lobby, had a lot less stink. A man by the bottom of the stairs was having chest pains and some good Samaritans were removing his tie and shirt. A few people had allergy attacks or respiratory issues of one variety or another. There was one definite asthma seizure and a number of men who lay prone either sleeping or in the process of passing out or coming to. I overheard the general conversation of a small gathering sharing hopeful estimates of when the NYPD or NYFD will come to the rescue. That was the first moment I became aware that rescuers were nowhere near us.
Having been so close to giving up the ghost a few minutes before, I looked around the cavern of the subbasement and thought, where we were now huddled, is a comparatively safe environment. This space simply can’t be high on the NYFD’s rescue priority list. “Rescue is just not going to happen”, I thought out loud.
I went to the men’ room, the sign read “Out of Order.” I turned on the sink to wash my face but there was no water from the tap. I stepped to the toilet lifted the lid on the tank and it was full. I cupped my hands and lifted some to my lips; I washed my face and head with the clean cool water then thoroughly rinsed out my hanky, careful not to contaminate the water for Scott, and laid it over my eyes and thought to myself “This adventure has to continue if we are to get out alive”. I have no clue where this newfound courage was found.
I checked in with Scott who was sitting on the floor by the stairs. Then I walked up the stairs to revisit the guards by the elevators. I tried to look out the glass doors to assess the street conditions. The air was still very milky but not the heavy syrupy thickness of 15 minutes earlier. The street was dark and visibility didn’t extend to the far curb. I looked up and down the block, and there was nothing doing. Lines of police cars were stalled on the sidewalks and the ash could be measured in inches. It covered the stalled vehicles completely. I walked back downstairs to report my findings to Scott.
There were probably more than 250 buildings in the immediate area of the World Trade complex, I supposed. The buildings’ sizes, the manpower needed to visit them; the logistics to get into the buildings, to search them thoroughly to evacuate the people hidden there and to recover remains would be a monumental undertaking. I told Scott, “We should have no expectations about an evacuation from this building. We will not be rescued because, overall, this is a relatively safe place.” I thought we could be there for a day or more.
We decided we could not stay in the building more than we had, maybe 30 minutes in all. I especially wanted to move on, get out, get away, and get home. We had been through so much over the last four or five hours that I lost the fear of death that, in fact, a half hour earlier I nearly welcomed. Sure I was wheezing, having difficulty breathing and in a generally depleted funk but something just wasn’t right being in this building. We decided to leave. In dramatic fashion, we agreed. “It would be better to die in motion toward our survival than to give up in a heap of bodies deep in a subbasement”.
We moved back toward the big doors. My ankle hurt badly. We asked the building’s security guards to let us out by the door we entered. “No”, we were told, “No. Too much ash would come in. It’s better we wait here for the fire department,” they explained regrettably. “There is no fire department,” I said, having only seen the abandoned trucks and having no idea of the losses they sustained.
“Scott, let’s find a different way out.” We hunted around the ground floor until a different guard told us of small door facing 180 degrees from the main entrance, opening on a different street by a loading dock.
We followed his finger and found the door. Peeking out, the ash was so thick we couldn’t tell whether we were looking at a street, an alley or the Champs Elysee. To the left, like a miracle, we spotted a singular ray of sunshine that was framed in a few square yards of faint powder blue sky. Then it was gone. The ash consumed our sight again. “Did you see that?” I asked. “Sure did,” said Scott. “What do you think?” I queried. “I think the wind is coming from that direction”, Scott nodded toward the sunlight, “and we are seeing the edge of the smoke line. I think if we go left we can walk out of this by getting upwind of the cloud.”
Seeing the sun and sky for an instant gave us the direction we sought and the conviction to step out and move another step toward home. We opened the door, turned left and walked back into the nostril-singeing, eye-burning cloud of settling ash. After shuffling and scuffing along, blind for a block, I knew I was still holding Scott back. He could make faster progress alone. “Scott, go for it. Go ahead. I’ll be O.K.” I had no intention of giving up at this point, I actually felt that he should go ahead and I would, eventually catch up. He called back true and blue, “We’re staying together.” Then he stopped and waited for me to get up to him.
A half block further, I spied an alien-looking figure of an oxygen-tanked NYC firefighter in, what seemed to be, a space suit. With one motion like a hitchhiker, he confirmed the correct direction we were walking with his thumb. We were given all the hope we needed to validate our exit. After stumbling along another block, a voice called out, "Water. O-ver here. Water. O-ver here." There was a uniformed patrolman standing by the doorway of a bar yelling to us. We walked toward the voice. He had no breathing protection whatsoever. He pointed toward the door of a café, The Blarney Stone; I’ll never forget it. Someone from within opened the front door. I went in and could see that a fifteen or so cops had gathered.
The police were milling around. No one was talking. A few cops sat with their face in their hands like they were weeping. The place was a safe haven for the few that could find it and I was a lucky one. On a round table were about 30 glasses of water set up and a few cases of water bottles. I took a glass and poured its contents over my head to wash off the crusted soot I had collected since my meager little bath in the toilet tank. I used a glass to wash my face, the third glass I drank. I went to the bar and asked for an empty shot glass, then returned to the table, filled the shot with water, and cupped it over each socket as eyewash. I did this about three or four times. I took another glass half to gargle and half to drink. With that, I was back on the street completely confident that we would be safe; there were cops now. I have no recollection where Scott was while I took advantage of the Blarney Stone’s hospitality. I do know that we reunited on the street by the cop who still stood there calling out “O-ver here. Water.”
We walked on and got to the spot where the change over from ash, soot and smoke to clean air was noticeable not too far up ahead, by a park. But, before we got there, the air suddenly became transparent; it was a great relief. Like seeing a fog line appear and disappear, drifting in and out, on our home waters of Nantucket Sound, the wind was shifting to the southwest and we had finally gotten upwind of the ash into a perfectly beautiful day.
We walked out of the ash and smoke at Battery Park in front of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. We were right back at the same place we were when we made the decision to walk to the Wall Street Subway Station only it was a very long three or four hours later. We briskly covered the ground to the ferry terminal. The police had stationed two buses about a hundred yards away so that anyone with breathing difficulties could recover inside the air-conditioned coach. I approached the bus driver, not knowing his purpose, and asked, “Can you get us out of here?” “I wish I could, but I have to stay here. Why not come in for a few minutes and rest? “ he offered. I went up the four short steps to look in. It was empty. I sat down for a minute. He was alone. “What’s going on up there”, I asked pointing toward the Ferry. “It’s a staging area,” he said as I stepped back on the street, “They’re running buses. You can’t ride the ferry.”
We walked to the front of the Ferry Terminal. The air was clean, the sky was very blue, the water even bluer. The Statue of Liberty was beautiful in full sun. The thick gray ash and soot cloud hung northwest of us and periodically filled the sky with the smell of the death that was inflicted a few short hours before and a few short blocks away. At the ferry terminal we were, for the first time since 8:45 A.M., out of harm’s way. We walked up the stairs to the Terminal’s roof where we used the next half-hour to make a new plan. Scott summed up our situation, “It’s all downhill from here.”
A cop near us gave us the once over. After sizing up our situation, “Stay here, buses are coming, I don’t know when but don’t try to walk out.” We lined up for the evacuation busses. We were crusted in ash, gagging up phlegm and yellow globs of thick mucus rich in soot. My eyes looked like ripe cherries. Whenever I wiped my nose, there was blood. To me, Scott looked remarkably well, I was jealous.
Eventually, the buses came. There were two lines formed by the cops. Ours was mostly men but there were a few couples. The other line was all women. There were no children.
We stood around for ten minutes until empty buses began arriving, but these busses weren’t for us. Out of our sight there had gathered a few hundred firefighters who walked forward and boarded the busses. I don’t know where they came from; someone said they came in on the ferry. They were heading into battle. No oxygen tanks, no heavy equipment, just their regular gear with the stamp of NYFD on their heavy coats. Their disposition was solemn; expressionless faces forewarned of the depth of their losses that still were unknown to Scott and I.
We worked our way to the front of the line. Finally, it was our turn, the last two to board. Just then, Scott reached out to three women who were standing near us but not in the lady’s line because all the women, save for these three, had already left. He grabbed one by the arm and told her, “Hey you! Come on. Get on this bus. You! And you! Get on!” He pulled the three ladies from the sidelines and pushed them onto the bus. As they boarded, one of the women handed me a half of a roll of toilet paper, “Here,” she said, “Take this.” I took it and wiped my eyes and blew my nose; there was blood from both. At the time, I considered her gift of toilet paper a huge act of kindness, I cried. We stood on the sidewalk as the bus doors eased closed and a motorcycle cop led a one-vehicle motorcade to FDR Drive.
We waited for fifteen minutes until the next bus showed up and we were the first to board. The driver was cool, calm and collected. We sat in the very first row by the door. I asked, “Where we were going?” “Away from here,” was all he knew. “A motorcycle cop would lead us out. Wherever he goes, we follow.” The driver’s side window was open. The few dozen people that passed by asked, “Where are you going?” The answer was always the same, “Away from here.” Some people were taken aback by this seemingly curt reply. They were looking for legitimate bus routes versus the impromptu evacuation plan set in motion by the police.
Our bus was packed, no one stood. The cop controlling the door rose to the second step and yelled loudly, “Who’s from Brooklyn? Who’s going over the Brooklyn Bridge?” Nearly two thirds raised their hands or shouted out, “I am!” The cop picked out a man a few seats behind me on the opposite aisle. “You! You now have a buddy! “What’s your name?” “John Smith”, the passenger shot back. The cop began, “OK John Smith, take care of this guy. Get him to Brooklyn! That’s your job and don’t screw it up because if you do I’ll find you John Smith, from Brooklyn, and you’ll be a very sorry guy when I do!”
From the left hand of the cop stepped a blind man with his long white stick. He came up the few steps timidly and was carefully handled by everyone within reach of the aisle to get him back to where John Smith of Brooklyn gave up his seat, with the words, Don’t’ worry Buddy, I’ll get you home’. Just as the doors were about to close a female transit worker got on board. The exhilaration I felt when the bus’s motor built RPMs and we moved away from the curb was almost more than I could bear.
Led by one motorcycle cop, our evacuation swerved past makeshift police barricades through a series of very tight turns toward the river. We dodged, by inches, people that were walking four abreast on the FDR. The motorcycle siren wailed, but no one moved aside to make way for the bus. Who could blame them, they were walking and we were riding in the lap of air-conditioned luxury. We made our way past some people who tried to wave the bus down as if they were everyday commuters stuck between stops. At the Brooklyn Bridge almost everyone stepped out. The sightless man was given vocal encouragement and was helped to the ground by outstretched hands. He hobbled away onto the bridge’s entry ramp arm-in-arm with John Smith from Brooklyn.
I asked the driver, “Where is the bus going to turn around?” “Up ahead,” he said. The woman transit worker turned to Scott and me and said, “Stay there. Don’t move.” We sat still. We really looked like hell. She talked to a few cops that were guiding people onto the Bridge; she knew we couldn't make it across. The bus was mostly empty when the lady announced we were going to north toward 42nd, nearer to Grand Central. “Where are you fellas going,” she asked. “Boston. We were down there this morning,” I told her. Soon after the disaster, even without really knowing the magnitude of what was going on, I felt being at Ground Zero earned us a badge of courage. I was vacillating between a ‘Don’t screw with me I was there’, a raw chip on my shoulder attitude, and the opposite, the idea of some small act of kindness like sharing a square of a wetted slip or getting few sheets of toilet paper causing me well up in tears. Emotionally, I was all over the place and very fragile.
Scott felt it was the right thing to get out at 42nd Street. From there we could get to Grand Central. Being thickheaded, I argued that Grand Central was adjacent to the Empire State Building, which of course, it is not. I was frightened that more attacks were imminent. I believed that the UN and the Empire State were still targets of pending attacks. I was scared that the chain of disasters could actually follow us north through Manhattan.
Disoriented, confused and exhausted, we reached 42nd Street and the bus pulled over. The remaining passengers got out. We stood to leave. The lady snapped, ”Sit down for a second. Then spotting a superior, “You two, stay here.”
She had a brief conversation with the driver of another bus and some other official on the ground. She wanted to take us up to 59th Street. Our driver didn’t seem to object, so our bus went to 59th Street. We got off and it turned around headed back toward the Ferry Terminal to collect more evacuees. I stepped onto the pavement and repeated Scott’s words, “It’s all downhill from here.”
We walked toward Lexington Avenue. At a gas station by York, I purchased two bottles of water. When I paid the three fifty, I wept with relief. On the way to Lexington we walked past a moving van unloading household furniture. The truck door was open and news blared over the radio. We sat on a stoop and listened to the reports and drank our water. The movers didn’t break their rhythm. We walked to the next corner, then the next. Scott announced, “I’m starved”. We stopped at a sidewalk café. I washed up in the men’s room in a miniature sink and was amazed at how clean I looked in the crazed chest high mirror. My pink shirt was mostly gray, my blue blazer was mostly gray, my pants were charcoal anyway, and my shoes were caked with gray/yellow soot. I was a step above looking like a vagrant, but being it was New York, no one paid attention to me.
Scott bought two turkey sandwiches and two ice teas and planted them on the top of an iron legged table outside the cafe. Others around us ate their lunch, sipped wine and make small talk. Street life was almost normal. The only commotion was about spotty cell service and the payphone lines being too long. We ate the sandwiches, drank the tea and left.
We visited the office of Scott’s friend. We washed up again and made lots of phone calls. We called home, relieved our wives and spoke to the kids. I talked to my brother who had a friend who could help us. I called my office. Barbara, my admin assistant, offered to pick us up, “Anywhere, anytime”. Then, I got an incoming cell call from another friend, Joe Krecman, who thought that his boss was visiting me on Martha’s Vineyard. He said, “I was evacuated from the Grand Hyatt. I’m attending a conference and they called it off, they threw me out!” He continued, “I don’t have a place to sleep, New York is in total chaos, the Port Authority is closed, the airport is shut down and nothing is leaving Grand Central. Is Bob Shinn with you?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Joe, tell me exactly where you are, right now, this second", I demanded. “I’m sitting at the street bar in the Fitzpatrick Hotel on Lexington between 56th and 57th,” he answered somewhat surprised.
“Joe, listen carefully. Whatever you’re drinking …. Order another.” “Scott, do you want a drink.” He chuckled, amused at my question, “Sure. Right. O.K., I’ll have a vodka and tonic.”
“Joe, get me whatever you’re having and then a vodka and tonic for my pal, Scott I’ll see you in two minutes,” I pressed the red disconnect button on my phone as my battery flashed its lowest strength. "What's the odds that we'd be standing two blocks away, on the corner of 55th and 3rd when I get a call from a guy sitting at a bar at 57th and Lex?" I asked Scott. "100 percent?” he answered. “Yep, 100%.”
We met Joe. I had a Black & Tan by the bar TV where network news ran continuously. There was a rumor that a bomb was found under the GW Bridge. We heard that 800 died at the Pentagon. We were told that the terrorists aimed to take out America’s top symbols of commerce, military power and politics.
The television scenes of Manhattan were our first sight of the massive scale of the destruction. It was brutal. I couldn’t watch it so I moved to a spot under the tube so that I couldn’t see the picture but could hear the audio. The national announcer switched to a local announcement that Mayor Giuliani might run a northbound commuter train to New Haven at about 4:00 P.M. This was our cue to scram, because from all that we knew the City was shut down.
The three of us walked the 12 blocks to Grand Central. I can’t believe I made it. We passed the blood donor lines that stretched around and around the block. We hobbled into Grand Central and said good-bye to Joe who made his way back to the Hyatt.
Stepping into the Station an announcer called out “Track 107, departing at 4:07 to Stamford and New Haven.” It was exactly 3:55 P.M. We walked to the stairs leading to the track. “Scott, I can’t go down there. I’m having flashbacks of the subway.” “No. This is fine. We are OK, ” he comforted me. Still, I wasn’t ready. “I need a restroom,” I said buying time. “Fine. I’ll wait for you right here. We need to get on this train,” Scott warned firmly.
I crossed the lobby, found the men’s room and soon rejoined Scott by the stairs at 4:03. I took a deep breath and we headed underground. We passed six cars before we spotted two side-by-side seats. In a minute or less the doors closed and we were making our way to points north.
The surrounding passengers drew us into small talk. Our smell got their attention. One fellow offered what remained of his water bottle; another, a piece of fruit; a third, part of an uneaten sandwich. In return we shared abbreviated versions of what we saw.
We told them we were trying to get to Boston and we learned that car rental agencies were next to the Stamford Train Station and the general thinking of the nearby passengers was that we should get off in Stamford. We did but not for the rental car. We stepped from the train to the platform and to a row of ambulances that were parked along the sidewalk. The consensus of the train riders was that we needed medical attention first and then we could think about a car later. There was also a reporter from a Bridgeport newspaper looking for a story. I walked to the first EMT in line; the reporter cornered Scott.
I said, “My eyes, they’re killing me, I can’t see. The fellow said, “ We can’t do anything for you but take you to the hospital.” His female partner thankfully interrupted, “Get on the stretcher.” She reached for a couple of IV bags. She laid me back on the pillow and holding one of my eyelids open, she drained a saline bag into my left eye, then my right. She unwrapped Q-Tips and swabbed my nose and ears. She took the second IV bag and drained it into my mouth. Lifting my head, “Gargle. Now spit. Again. Again,” she instructed me. She was incredibly efficient and I felt much better. Her partner stood by, captivated by the forcefulness of her authority.
Scott’s interview lasted a few minutes. The reporter approached me, “How old are you?” “Fifty-four, four days ago,” I answered. “Where do you live?” “Newton, Massachusetts.” “What do you do,” he asked. Feeling the chip pop onto my shoulder, “Who cares what I do? So, never mind; leave me alone,” I walked away in a huff.
“Scott, you take Avis, I’ll see Hertz.” Both agencies had handwritten Magic Marker placards in the window, “No Cars”. The Avis clerk read the sign to Scott, “No cars,” like he can’t read. Moments later Scott joined me in the Hertz line. Getting to the front of the counter after everyone ahead had been turned away, we held out little hope for a Hertz car. Smelling like chimneysweeps, I began begging for a car in my most dramatic, and pathetic, way. The girl behind the counter put down the phone. She would have nothing to do with me. She looked to Scott, “Where are you guys coming from? Down there?”
“Yes. 200 Liberty. Do you have a car? We need to get to Boston”. “You were down there?” she double-checked. “Yes, we were,” said Scott. She took a breath, sized us up again and she said, “I’m from the City.”
There was a very long pause, “Here,” she reached out and handed Scott a set of car keys, “Yeah, I have a car for you. Take it. When you get to where you’re going call the 800 number on this, handing him a card, and let us know where it is.”
“Come back here”, we stepped behind the counter and out the employee’s entrance into the parking area. A red Mercury was the only car there. The girl accompanied us and only when she removed some personal things from the back seat did we realize it was her ride.
I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t see so Scott began our trip to Boston in the red Mercury. We headed up I 95 to New Haven, then on to I 91 north to Hartford. There were processions of heavy construction equipment; flatbeds loaded with Ingersoll generators and mobile flood lights making their way south to the City. Periodically, the police were flying past in the opposite direction, southbound, lights flashing but no sirens.
We got on I 84 in Hartford and connected to the Mass Pike in Sturbridge. Scott stopped at the automated gate to get the toll ticket. We waited. Waited. There was no one there. We waited. Then someone waved us through the tollgate without a ticket. “Great,” I thought, “What will we do at the other end, get a citation?”
Northbound had very little traffic. In Auburn, I called home to give our arrival time of about 11:00 P.M. “Where’s the car?” Dawn asked, referring to the Toyota 4 Runner I had taken to the airport that morning. “At Logan, Terminal B Parking,” I said. “Well,” she informed me, “it won’t be there for long, they’re towing, it was on the news. The airport has been shut down, all flights are grounded and security is heavy; it was on all the stations. The terrorists left from Logan and the police are looking for their car.” With this news flash, Scott and I changed plans and rather than go home, he drove me to Logan airport where I would try to pick up the Toyota.
There were no collectors in Weston or in Cambridge tolls and we drove right through the old tunnel to the airport’s entrance. No cops, no security anywhere along our path. None on the Turnpike, none by the tolls, nothing at the tunnel and no one at the Route 1A turnoff to Logan. Scott drove to the entrance of Terminal B parking lot. No cops on the access road. He pulled up adjacent to collection booth at the parking garage and I got out.
There was one cashier in a booth and a maintenance worker standing by a yellow MassPort pick-up truck. I asked the fellow how I could get my car from Section 5G. Without blinking, he told me to get into his truck; he would drive me there. I said a fast good-bye to Scott and climbed into the pick-up for a ride to the roof.
I looked from the parking garage roof to the US Air terminal where I began my day sixteen hours earlier. The scene was still, nothing was moving. Planes were staged in normal positions by gates. No State Troopers, no Boston cops. I found my car and a long yellow crime scene tape around it and about 12 others surrounding it. The MassPort worker told me not to worry, he would move the tape so I could continue home. It seems that the police believed they found a rental car used by the terrorists by mine.
I got into the Toyota, he stood on the tape and I headed down to the cashier. With great difficulty, not exceeding 10 miles an hour I made it, handed over my Visa card, got an $18 receipt and drove home.
On September 13, Dawn made arrangements for me to see Dr. Holzman. We talked a long while. I tried going to work but couldn’t accomplish anything. Maybe I was in shock. I headed out alone for our summer cottage on Martha’s Vineyard at Cape Poge. Holzman’s thinking was I should get away from the in your face, 24 x 7 media coverage, and once on MV, memorialize the 9-11 events in a journal, the results of which you have just read.
Getting the last boat from Woods Hole and making my way to Chappaquiddick was uneventful. I got to the Dike Bridge and spied Laurie Vanderlaske emerging from the shadows with, presumably, a fly fishing client. It was after 11:00 p.m., and she was hunting bass in the pool behind the Trustee’s guard shack at East Beach. Laurie was unmistakable by her silhouette, signature gloves, and the long grace of her fly rod.
I stopped my Jeep, got out and waited until she approached, "How's the fishing?” I asked. After first name introductions to her female client, she replied that they hooked a few schoolie bass and were heading out to Cape Poge Gut for bigger fish on the tide change. As her companion walked toward their truck, Laurie nudged me away into the darkness out of ear-shot of her pal to tell me that the other angler, her friend of 30 years, was from Manhattan and came to fish Cape Poge for a few days to be away from it all and to begin a long healing process.
"So what are you doing here," she asked me.