[ This entry is the first in my new journal. I haven’t kept a journal in over 10 years. Back in August 1991, the world changed dramatically. A failed coup in the Soviet Union brought an end to the Soviet Empire. The Cold War ended, and the 21st Century unofficially began. I assumed I was too busy moving to college to keep a journal. I regret that decision. I would have liked to know what I was really thinking during such events as the Clearance Thomas hearings, the 1993 bombing of the WTC, and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. And in the years 1996-2000, the US experienced an economic prosperity that was so strong, it almost seemed that it would not end. However, in September 2001, the US experienced a near-cataclysmic event. Although not entirely surprising in retrospect (as contemporary international terrorism has been around since the 1970s), the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center was still the most horrifying and destructive event ever witnessed in the US since the American Civil War. It is here that I begin my journal.]
I woke up early on September 11th. Tuesday was supposed to be the day that New Yorkers would choose who will represent the Democratic ticket in November’s mayoral election. After my two cups of coffee and casual Internet surfing, I washed up, put on my best suit, and headed out around 06:30. I walked up the slope (3 blocks) and went to my local Public School to vote. I was the first to walk-in to vote within my district (as usual, it seems). Even the registration book was open to the page with my name on it. In less than 5 minutes, I was out the door.
Usually after I vote, I like to take a long walk to a subway station closer to Manhattan. So I walked from 20th Street down to 9th Street. But I was not satisfied there. It was a beautiful morning. It was the first day in months I was able to wear a suit without perspiring. The brownstones in Brooklyn looked great, the air was fresh, and the people were all out either going to vote or walking their dogs. So I walked further to Union Street, and descended into the subway there. It was a good, long walk. I just had no idea how much more walking I would do that day.
I took the N train 7 stops to Cortlandt Street / WTC. This was a 20-minute trip. What could be better than that? To live in the heart of historic, Brownstone Brooklyn, and still be close to the Wall Street area was something that I never took for granted. Again, how could I know that this proximity would also help me that day?
I ascended from the subway station and into the underground shopping plaza of the World Trade Center. From the station, the base of Tower 1 is just a little more than 150 yards straight ahead. I went to a Citibank next to Tower 1 and took out a $10 bill. I figured that’s all I would need for lunch that day. Quickly I went through the turnstiles and into my elevator bank, which serves floors 33-40. I rode alone to the top -floor 40- which was Lehman Brothers IT headquarters. I may be an Assistant Vice President, but I still had the largest cubicle of any employee on the floor. This was due more to architecture rather than politics. My cubicle was directly up a ramp to the right of the reception area. Most cubicles on this floor were lined-up in rows. However my cubicle was by itself, as it sits next to the exterior wall of a conference room, which overlooks the World Financial Center and the Hudson River. Tucked into this interior corner, I had no view of the narrow, vertical windows that dominated all four exterior walls of our space (and every floor in the WTC). Lehman built this space in January, as a means to finally reward the IT Division for their tremendous work in helping the Firm to expand. It truly was the brightest and cleanest working environment I had ever been in. It was extraordinarily conducive to work. It even had a coffee and sandwich shop tucked into the employee lounge in the middle of the floorplan. People loved being on that floor. It was heaven for IT professionals. And it was one of the more secure buildings in the city, as employees needed to have both a company ID card and a Port Authority-issued ID card to gain entry.
There were fewer people than usual for 07:30. No matter. I had much to do. By 08:00 I had gotten myself a bottle of water (with a cup full of ice) and I was busy at work. I had recently discovered that ice water tends to make me feel better and work at a more brisk pace. Before I knew it, the number of phone calls to my office had picked-up a bit, and the official start of the business day was approaching. Two of my three people had already arrived for work, and they were settling down, getting breakfast, and logging into their workstations. Around 08:45, our Vice President in charge of Networking stopped by to inform me of an urgent request from our CEO for a video conferencing unit to be installed the following week - just in time for Lehman’s quarterly earnings report. So another challenge was before me.
Then it all happened.
At 08:48, as I was sitting in my chair, I felt a tremendous jolt. My entire cubicle seemed to be bumped back. It was a violent motion, and I could actually sense that the floor was not level. Less than a second later, I heard a roar. It was a prolonged, and thunderous sound. I could hear this roar through the core of the building, which was to my right. At first, it seemed that this was an explosion at the ground level. But as the sound became clearer, I could sense that it was above our floor. Just as I was sensing where the sound came from, the building swayed back to its original position. This caused me to be thrown forward. My office chair literally rolled in one direction and then the opposite direction in about a 4-second span. Also, during the sway, I could hear the grinding of concrete and steel. The conference room next to my cubicle seemed to be torn to pieces. Through the wall next to my desk, I could hear the tables in the conference room becoming misaligned, and I could clearly hear windows breaking. The sounds in the next room were so strong that I ran out of my cube and into the main isle that runs from the north side of the floor to the south. As the sound of shattering glass continued and the first rumblings subsided, I looked both North and South, trying to see out the windows and also to gauge the reaction of my colleagues.
The reaction was unanimous. This was some sort of explosion. And it wasn’t mechanical or electrical. This was such a violent shake, that only a bomb could have caused it, I thought. My colleagues were already in shock.
"Oh my God, what was that? What’s happening?" one of our Vice Presidents shrieked.
Then it was my turn to panic. A second jolt hit as I was standing on the ramp leading down to the reception area. Again, the building leaned one way and sprang back the next. This was also accompanied by the sound of an explosion. This time, it was clearer and louder. It sounded as if something blew out of the building. I could actually sense that something had left the tower. The jolt caught me off guard, and I fell down to the carpeted floor. The building swayed at such an angle, that I was convinced that it was going to topple down. I actually got up to look out the windows - to see if the horizon was flat or not. Again, the swaying subsided. And then debris fell outside the windows. The screams on my floor became more apparent. Burning metal pieces and tons of paper were flying outside the south windows and falling to the ground below. Several people just stared out the windows, completely shocked at what they were seeing. Was this debris from the roof, or one of the floors above us? There was no way to be sure. My heart rate became fast at this point. I really thought the building was going to fall down right then and there. I was prepared to die at that moment.
Our floor’s volunteer Fire Warden quickly rounded us up. I estimate that there were about 30 people on my side of our floor (there were probably more on the other side, the East side). He ordered us to line-up against the interior wall (which surrounds one of the elevator shafts of the building). But unexpectedly, I began to panic.
I began to realize that this was not a bomb. The debris flying out the window included what appeared to be painted aluminum pieces and mechanical parts. "Something hit us," I said, out of breath. "This wasn’t a bomb. Something flew into us. A plane, a helicopter…. some sort of aircraft."
"Yes, Brendan," one of my colleagues said. "And we are going to be calm and get out of here."
"My God, there must be people upstairs and on the ground who are dead," I exclaimed. Debris was still falling outside the south windows.
"Brendan, I know and it sucks! But we’re going to be okay if we can just walk down these stairs without any problems," she responded.
I had to remain quiet. It’s not like me to panic. But then again I had never actually thought I was going to die before. I always try to emulate my British friends. Never let them see you complain; never let them see you are hurting. I began to keep that in mind. I collected myself and took a few steps back to my cubicle. I quickly grabbed my suit jacket, Blackberry (wireless e-mail device, see http://www.blackberry.net), and my shoulder bag. I had a strange feeling that we weren’t ever going to be allowed back into the building, so I wasn’t going to leave without my communication devices: my cell phone and my Blackberry.
Back into line I went. The Fire Warden gave us the go-ahead, and we began our decent down one of three emergency stairways. The emergency stairs closest to me were opposite the reception area, so everything was close by. I went into the stairwell and joined a long line of people. We slowly walked down the stairs, in single file. With the exception of a couple of impatient people, everyone was calm. There was a feeling that the worst was over. After all, there was no smoke, the building was still standing, and we were all OK. I quickly took out my cell phone and left voice messages on both my sister’s and my mother’s cell phones, informing them that I was on my out of the building, and should they see any news reports, they should know that I am OK. Again, I had no idea just how bad it was upstairs.
At 08:53, I received my first e-mail on the Blackberry device. It was Chris, a colleague of mine who was running late. I thought his message was timid. It only asked, "Is everything OK? You guys allright?" I immediately responded with, "Where are you!!" Odd, I thought. Was he being timid because this wasn’t so serious, or because it is very serious and he really didn’t know if we were OK?
We were descending at a rate of about one floor every 40 seconds or so. It was slow going. By the time we reached floor 30, it was becoming apparent that there was a lot of dust kicked-up by the explosions. People’s eyes were reddened. A minority of us was coughing. But we were making our way down. Other people were getting through to friends on their cell phones. They were reporting back that a "corporate jet" had struck our building. Just moments ago, I was discussing with some friends in the stairs about the fatal 1977 collision of a helicopter into the Pan Am Building. I was wondering just how big this "corporate jet" was. Many of us were speculating about that as we walked down the stairs. The further we walked down the stairs, the more news came in that this was a big plane. It was bigger than we first thought.
I thought more about this. A passenger jet hit us. A jet hit 1 WTC. On impulse, I typed a quick e-mail as I walked down the stairs at precisely 09:00. The e-mail was to my manager, who was in a meeting across the Hudson River in Jersey City. It read, "Do you know what hit us? We are lucky to be alive right now."
By floor 25, the dust was thicker. People began to become concerned about how bad the dust might get. At this point, we encountered the first firefighters walking up the stairs. These four men had beads of sweat on their faces and were carrying oxygen tanks, masks, and axes. We stepped aside and allowed them to pass. No words were spoken.
At 09:04, I sent a message to one of my lady friends at Lehman. She works in our Equities Division, so it might as well be a different company. I was beginning to realize just how serious this was, and I wanted to see if she was still at her desk at the World Financial Center (across the street from the WTC), watching this unfold. My message read, "A plane hit my building. I’m choking a little in here, but I’ll be OK. Do you know what hit us?"
"Brendan, read the signs. When will we have a chance to open a door here?" a manager asked me.
"Floor 16 has an unlocked door," I reported.
At floor 16, the door was already open. People were stopping off at the floor to take a break from the dust. I could see that there were a few office workers still on 16. I wondered how bad this really was. I still hadn’t heard any alarms or instructions over the building’s PA. I was tempted to walk onto the floor for a minute or so. But a manager on that floor advised me and my colleagues to keep the door to the stairwell closed, and to keep moving. He actually said that the floor still had air conditioning, and he wanted to keep it that way. He had stayed in place since the impact and was watching television! So we moved on. By this time, there were fewer people in the stairwell with me. Many took breaks on other floors. Others went to seek stairways with less dust. Me and my colleagues stuck together. And as we reached floor 10, there was a renewed sense of urgency.
At 09:16, I received a reply from Chris. "I went back to Hoboken [New Jersey]," he wrote. "Get out of the building."
"What hit us?" I replied. There was no immediate answer.
We passed another team of firefighters walking up the stairs. Again, there were about 5 of them, and they were carrying a heavy load of tools and oxygen tanks.
At 09:18, I received a reply from Chris (I had asked him "what hit us?"). He replied:
"2 planes. One hit the first one and 10 minutes later a second plane hit the other tower. Try to get out Brendan, but do not panic."
"One hit the first one what?" I asked to myself. I was in disbelief. "Was this a freak accident or some sort of mid-air collision?" I wondered.
But there was no time to lose. I was already in the single-digit floors. Beginning on the 5th floor, water was running down the stairs. The water from the sprinklers was finally getting to us. By this point, there were very few people on the stairs. Many had taken detours. I went forward, following four of my colleagues. I picked-up the pace of my decent. My colleagues were already pulling ahead of me. I held on to both railings for support, afraid that the rushing water might knock me down the stairs.
Just then, at floor 3, there was an open door. It was the mezzanine level in the main lobby. I stepped out into the bright, sunlit space, and looked out the ground-level windows. It was then I realized just how disastrous this was. There was blood splattered on the windows overlooking the plaza. People who smoke often stand directly outside the building when they have a cigarette. There were no people there. But there was much blood on the windows. Out in the plaza between the two towers, there was flaming, metal debris and dozens of dead pigeons. The fountain and sculpture between the two towers was crushed by debris. And everything was covered in dust and paper. This was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The heat from the flaming debris was intense. It was blurring the landscape outside.
Another message from Chris arrived on my device at 09:18. It read, "It must be some sort of attack. Get out of the area."
I followed my colleagues down a non-working escalator, to the lower level of the lobby. This area is the base of Tower 1 – the "ground" level. We walked past the very turnstiles I passed through earlier that morning. They were being rained-upon by sprinkler water, leaking from the ceiling above. The shopping plaza had about 1 inch of water on the floor throughout the complex. I passed through the shattered revolving doors dividing Tower 1 from the shopping plaza, and followed my co-workers through the slightly flooded area. We turned left and headed up another non-working escalator that led to Building # 5, which is the northeast corner of the World Trade Center complex. Just as I began walking up the stairs, my cell phone rang. It was my sister, returning my voice message. My sister, Alexandra, works in midtown Manhattan, for The Economist magazine. It was an odd conversation. Apparently, her colleagues were preventing her from watching the news (and for good reason, they thought I was dead!). So I told her to put the news on TV or go onto the Internet. She wouldn’t believe it unless she saw it. I told her about how a jet plane hit my building, and how there have been casualties. And when I told her about seeing more dead pigeons on the ground, she became very concerned. I told her I was OK, and that I was literally walking out of the building.
Just then, a policewoman outside the complex ordered me to turn off my cell phone. I did. My colleagues and I walked across Church Street and then turned around and looked up. We saw both towers on fire. Bother towers had similar, charred, massive holes in their sides, and bright red flames were coming out of the damaged areas. It was unbelievable. How did this happen? How could two planes hit the towers? What kind of attack was this? We didn’t even hear or feel the other tower get hit. We were too busy walking down the stairs. By this time, my colleagues were crying and looking at the towers in disbelief. They had their arms around one another. News photographers approached us and others to take shots of our emotional escape. We walked to the corner of Fulton and Broadway, and I saw something horrible. I clearly recognized a piece of a jet airliner’s front landing gear. It was the metal flap that protects the front wheels, as well as house a headlamp. It was on the street, underneath a large pool of blood. It had obviously killed someone. There was so much blood on the street. I stopped for a moment to look at that gruesome sight, and then I moved on. Parked cars were in the middle of the Fulton street, apparently abandoned by their owners. Car windshields were shattered, and there was debris everywhere. We all moved on, heading northeast, to City hall Plaza. At 09:28, I sent the following e-mail to my manager:
"We are all at City Hall Plaza. We are OK. When you are able, go home and Marie (her partner) will meet you there later."
My boss also has a Blackberry device. But there was no response. She must have been in shock to see all of this happening from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.
We weaved our way through the crowds. Many people were staying put, looking up at the burning towers. Others were even trying to get a closer look. But most people were trying to get away. From time to time, people behind us would run, stirring fears of a stampede. But many of us in the crowd were able to prevent that. We would yell at people, "Don’t run! We’re out of danger!" And that seemed to work.
"Guys," I told my female colleagues, "I think this is the end of the World Trade Center. After the fire is extinguished, they will have to dismantle the towers." They seemed to agree. From the looks of the damage, it was a total loss. The twin towers could never be repaired after sustaining such destruction. We reached the east side of City Hall, which faces the car and pedestrian ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge.
From this area, there were only two options. People could either walk to FDR drive and walk north, or they could walk east across the Brooklyn Bridge, and go to Brooklyn. Since most of us live in Brooklyn, my colleagues and I began walking towards Brooklyn Bridge. At this point we were about 1 mile from the twin towers. After avoiding emergency vehicles heading down FDR Drive and exiting the bridge, we finally made our way on to the pedestrian walkway, which spans over the center of the bridge. At 09:49, I sent an e-mail to my sister:
"I’m OK. Walking to Brooklyn via the Brooklyn Bridge."
At that point, my sister began to spread the news to the family that I was alive and well. Meanwhile, my colleagues and I, and thousands of others slowly walked across the bridge.
And then the unthinkable happened. At 09:58, there was a distant, yet giant crumbling sound. That sound became a giant roar. One friend later compared it to the sound of a sirloin steak in a frying pan. Thousands of us turned around and we saw the upper floors of Tower 2 give way, and break away from the rest of the tower. Then, almost in slow motion, the building fell straight down. Thousands of us shrieked –men and women alike. Through the haze and smoke, I could see the silhouette of the building as it seemed to become thinner and thinner, as its contents fell straight down. Finally, there was nothing left of the South Tower but a thin spine (core) of elevator shafts. And then that seemed to disintegrate. Everything shook. The Brooklyn Bridge shook, the people screamed, and the island of Manhattan seemed to quake. It was simply an awesome and terrible sight. The building seemed to peel like a banana, thin out, and then fall straight down in a massive cloud of dust and smoke. I had seen blood that morning. I had seen debris. I had felt my building sway violently to the point that I thought I was dead. But seeing Tower 2 collapse was simply the most horrifying thing I had ever seen.
The twin towers were no longer twins. There was only one tower. It was a frightening sight. So many thousands were dead, I assumed. There were so many people who couldn’t escape the tower. I tried to avoid thinking about what it must have been like to be inside or close to the building, but it was unavoidable. New York had physically changed forever. Someone on the bridge then said that the Pentagon was on fire. The sky over lower Manhattan was black. And right there, at that terrifying moment, I thought it was the end of the world. It certainly seemed like it. It was something I had read and seen in Science Fiction. But this was really happening. It was like a nightmare, and I couldn’t wake up from it.
At 10:08, I sent an e-mail to one of the best friends I have in New York. He was my first boss in NY, and originally from Southeast London. The message read:
"Jan, I saw the whole thing. We just lost Tower 2. Thousands and thousands are gone. Jan, is this the end?"
At 10:10, a message from my sister:
"All the airports are closed. They think there are 7 hijacked planes flying around right now. The Pentagon was hit too."
At 10:14, I replied:
"Oh my God. Suicide missions. Want to leave NY?"
Overhead, a fighter jet soared through the haze, against the darkened sky. It was the only aircraft in the air over Brooklyn. It seemed like we were suddenly at war. But who were we at war with?
I turned to Marie, one of my colleagues. I tried to help her walk as she suffered from her asthma. She was doing OK. I said to her, "Do you realize just how lucky we are to be alive?"
She tried to smile as she cried. "It just wasn’t our time," she said. Quite right.
Over the next two hours, my colleagues and I slowly made our way to Brooklyn, and then walked through downtown Brooklyn to the corner of Flatbush and 4th Avenue. Now I was within 30 blocks of my apartment. There were still thousands of people, so it was a slow walk through Brooklyn. Mary, one of the co-workers with us, ran into her husband by chance. It was an emotional, bittersweet rendezvous. It was then that he told us that Tower 1 had also collapsed. We didn’t hear it go down due to the crowd noise in downtown Brooklyn. With lower Manhattan clouded in blackness, we couldn’t see it either. So it was official. The twin towers were no more. I received an e-mail from a friend uptown asking for a status. At 11:22 I replied:
"M, both towers are down. This is beyond comprehension."
My colleagues and I began to split up. We reached the corner of Union and 4th Avenue, the very same corner I walked to after I voted that morning. Our senior manager decided to walk back to the Long Island Rail Road station to see if she could go home. I decided to say my goodbyes as well. Home was just blocks away. Everyone exchanged phone numbers and we made our separate ways. Everyone else was going to try to take a bus. But I was close to home, so I could walk. By 12:00, I was able to make calls on my cell phone. I called my parents home in Brockton, Massachusetts as I reached the corner of 4th Avenue and 9th Street. My father answered the phone.
"Brendan!! Am I glad to hear you," he exclaimed.
I told him about what I saw - the pieces of the second plane on Broadway; the burning towers; the collapse of Tower 2. And I told him about the thousands of people who were in sheer panic. "I am so glad you made it out," he said. "I wouldn’t believe you are OK until I heard your voice." Later, he exclaimed, "This was an act of war. You are now a war veteran. Sorry to say this, pal, but I’m afraid you may be haunted by this for the rest of your life." I agreed. My father is a history professor at a local college, so I know he tries to keep things rational and in historical perspective. But he was understandably emotional. "You just experienced something bigger and more terrifying than Pearl Harbor," he said. "But right now, I’m just glad you are alive."
I stopped short of going home. Instead I went to a bar that is owned by firefighters, called "Smokey’s." There, I met several people who worked either in the towers or in the area at the time of the disaster. One man, Charlie, who worked for the Industrial Bank of Japan (IBJ), told me that he walked down Tower 1 from the 47th Floor. He bought me a pint of Newcastle and we watched the live coverage of the news with about 20 other people.
"Did you feel two separate jolts?" I asked.
"Exactly right," he replied. "The building shook twice. I don’t know if the second shake was a shockwave or an explosion, but it was just as strong as the first. Did you see the people jumping out of the towers?"
"Oh my God, no," I replied. "I was just trying to get far away from the building."
"Same here," he answered. "We ran down the stairs from my position. But people were cracking jokes and we assumed that the worst was over."
"We walked because there were more people on the stairs in my area," I said. "But yeah, we also assumed that the worst was over. We cracked jokes as well."
On the television, we saw the replays of the second plane diving into Tower 2 (also known as the South Tower). I couldn’t believe my eyes. No wonder there was so much debris from that plane on the ground. The plane blew right through the other side of the building. It was horrifying, yet I couldn’t take my eyes away from the television. I slowly began to realize just how lucky we were to be alive.
At 12:53, I sent a message to a former colleague of mine at Lehman:
"I’m in Brooklyn having a pint of ale. I’m getting the shakes now. This is just too big to comprehend. I can smell the smoke from here. The construction workers I’m drinking with felt the ground shake in Brooklyn. This is so horrible. I won’t be able to sleep for days."
After another hour or so, I gave Charlie my business card (with my 1 World Trade Center address on it), and thanked him for the pint of ale. I needed it. I then walked home. When I entered my apartment, I got out of my suit, turned on the air conditioner, and then turned on the news. I was very jittery. I was very afraid. At 13:29, I sent my last e-mail from my handheld device. After that, I was unable to send or receive messages. The disaster recovery procedures at Lehman Brothers must have been initiated in our Jersey City offices. Already, my firm was making preparations to move its bond and equities traders to New Jersey. But for the time being, I was locked in Brooklyn. There was simply no way to get out of the borough. That was fine with me. I had phone calls to make. After adding a posting to the BBC News website around 15:00, I hit the phones.
So that’s what I did for the remainder for the day. I called everyone who had not yet known about my fate. I called my best friend of who worked in midtown. I had met him in college 10 years ago, and now we were trying to comprehend how the world might suddenly change. I called relatively recent friends who I met earlier this year. I also called my aunt and uncle in Miami. And I called an old mentor in Los Angeles. I couldn’t sit. I was too nervous to wash-up. I just couldn’t believe how I was alive. I was unable to sleep until 2am that night. I was trying to avoid sleep, assuming I would have nightmares. But I experienced no nightmares. I slept until dawn, and from there, I slowly began to put my life back together as best I could. It was the end of a day that would probably change life dramatically in the US for years to come. It could very well define how I live going forward, for the rest of my life. I was very frightened. But I was alive.