Remembering My Day in NYC, September 11th, 2001

The recent news of the bombing in Boston had me thinking about my experience in New York on September 11th. At the time I somehow managed to write down my experience which is in many ways unremarkable – I wasn’t hurt and I didn’t lose anyone on that day. The news of Boston made me dig it up and I thought I’d post it.


This is what happened to me on the day of the terrorist attacks on NYC and the Pentagon. I have a few disclaimers first. What happened to me was really nothing in comparison to others not too far from me. The story of those affected by this turn of events, who lost their lives in the attack or trying to save the lives of others, who lost loved ones and co-workers, and the people who are the permanent residents of New York City have undergone and still are dealing with the atrocity that struck there. I just happened to be there and the effect on me is still lasting even though I never got closer to ground zero than a mile or so. I can’t make it through the first section of the paper without getting choked up, even being the cynic that I am. This whole experience for me was surreal and only became a source of pain days after it occurred.

These photos were taken with a Nikon digital camera (coolpix 900). It’s a nice camera, but nothing compared to a 35mm one. Most of these photos are blurry and feel like they’re miles away. In some cases I was miles away. On top of that, it didn’t seem like the time or place to get in someone’s face with a camera, so almost all of these are lacking any intimacy. I feel I only took 6 decent photos of the whole bunch and if you do nothing else where you’re here, I would hope you would see these six:

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who wrote or called me to see if I was ok. I was never anywhere near the danger but your concern was comforting. I’d especially like to thank everyone I know or met in New York. Your hospitality helped make a stranger feel less strange.

A bit of explanation: I live and work in San Francisco. The company that I work for is based in NYC. Starting the week of Sept. 10th, I’m supposed to go to New York about every other week for the next six months — one week there, one week here. This is why I have an apartment in both Brooklyn and San Francisco. The Cast: Rebecca – girlfriend, Jess & Josh – Rebecca’s sister and brother-in-law, Tom – one of my bosses, David – the other boss.

Tuesday, September 11th, 2001

My day seems to be coming to an end and I’m still feeling, well, weird. I’m at Joshua and Jessica’s house (Rebecca’s sister and brother and law — we’ve hung out together often and they’re probably the closest friends I have here) in Queens. I made it out of Manhattan just fine. Here’s the story of my day for those that might care.

I wake up this morning and get ready for work. I have an apartment in Brooklyn and my roommate comes downstairs from the roof just as I am ready to leave — I thought she was still asleep. She tells me that the world trade center towers are on fire. She just saw a plane crash into the second one. We go back to the roof and sure enough, there they stand, 10 miles away and very clearly on fire. Billowing smoke like two 100 story smokestacks. I marvel at it and think it’s surreal. She tells me that the plane she saw looked like a small plane. I guess from 10 miles away, they all look small.

The Towers as seen from Brooklyn

Then, get this, I head to work (which is in Manhattan). Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why on earth would you go towards this? But this is the info I had: two planes have hit the world trade center and they are on fire. My job is on 26th street. The world trade center is almost 30 blocks south of there. This is New York, right? The city stops for nothing.

People stop and watch

On the way to work from the subway I passed people staring at the sky in wonder. They were still typical New Yorkers. They were walking around and chatting and looking south. I expected to hear someone say “fahget about it” or something. I see a man carrying a guitar inexplicably screaming at a man with a radio. I saw kids running to and fro. I just kept going to work, taking pictures here and there. I turned left onto 26th street and started down an avenue block — avenue blocks are very wide — and someone ran by me saying that tower #1 had fallen down. This is the first time it sunk into me that things weren’t going to get better as the day wore on. It fell down. They’re HUGE. Gone. How can something that big fall down? Later I’m told by an acquaintance who was within a few blocks of the buildings as they fell that people watching all raised their hands as it started to go down as if they could hold the buildings up by their own will.

Looking South at the towers at 23rd and 8th (In Manhattan)

I continue to walk. I see two men holding each other and weeping. I get to our building. People are standing outside in droves in a futile effort to use their cellphones. I check my voicemail. I have 6 messages. 1 from friend since 3rd grade David. 4 from Mother. 1 from Becca. I try calling them all and manage to get through to Dave. Tell him I’m fine and tell him to call the others for me.

1 remaining tower burns

I get upstairs. The office is empty. I wander out to the balcony to look. The entire south part of the city is smoke. Only one tower stands but it’s burning. I take a few pictures and then it dawns on me that people are worried about me. I step away and try to make a phone call. No dice.

Both towers gone, ambulances line the west side highway

I try to get online and have troubles. I walk back to the balcony.¬†Tower number 2 has just fallen seconds before I returned. Where the smoke was creeping out from the first tower’s fall now there is smoke all the way out to the water. Smoke dominates the sky. A huge Navy cruiser comes down the river just to our right. USAF jets fly through the sky and circle the city several times. There is a big thoroughfare down the west of the city called the West Side Highway. It is empty one moment (and I mean empty – not one car), full of firetrucks and police cars moving EXTREMELY RAPIDLY, bumper to bumper for 10 or 12 blocks, then suddenly full of ambulances. These all stop along the roadside. They set up a triage along the chelsea st. piers. I go back to the computer. I manage to get online. I instant message with becca and manage to get her on the phone for a brief moment. We continued to chat a little longer. I hear now that the planes were hi-jacked jet liners. The pentagon is on fire. THE PENTAGON.

two hours after the attack

You know, in every film that there’s some war thing happening they always show the pentagon as this impenetrable fortress. It’s burning. David, my boss, is talking to someone in London. 4 more planes are missing, or is it 6? Jets fly over the city again but I can’t see them — are they the air force or another jumbo jet? I hear about the jet that went down in Penn. Tom, my other boss, leaves for his house which is 3 blocks from the towers, or I should say, from where the towers were. His wife was at home and he can’t get in touch with her. I wish him luck. I go take some more pictures. I send an email to everyone. I AIM a little more and then decide it’s time to get somewhere that’s more safe and comfortable than the office.

David (boss #1) and I decide to walk to his apartment. It’s a big place near union square – this is on the eastern side of town at around 15th st. We leave the building and there are cops around our building. Most of them have big guns. They are checking everyone’s IDs. I later find out that there’s an FBI office on the 2nd floor of our building.

no cars, but thousands of people

We walk west and the streets are surreal. There are people EVERYWHERE. Hundreds of thousands. There no cars or trucks except for cops and ambulances. I take some more pictures. Everyone has this stunned look. Where there’s a radio or a tv there are crowds. Those walking, aimlessly it seems, look like someone who has just survived a car crash. They’re ok, but they’re in shock. Every other person is shaking their heads in disbelief. It’s a sunny day. It’s quite nice out actually. David, my boss, and I discuss the subject and he says something mid-sentence like “this is the worst act of terrorism in history” and I interrupt him and say “and it’s happening today, right now, right here.” I really starts to sink in.

We get to David’s apartment on 15th street and there are a few other of our co-workers there. The tv is on and we start to get our first real picture of the whole thing. Tom shows up with his wife. She is obviously still in shock. They have suit and ashes all over them. Tom’s lips are grey.

My cellphone is working a bit better. I call a few people and return all my new voicemail. I eat some soup and some fruit (I have a nectarine and 2 peaches that I’d brought to eat for lunch and, for some reason, I kept them in my bag and a bit of a secret until then not knowing if I’d need them, which is kind of stupid I guess).

I decide to head for Queens to stay with Joshua and Jess for the night. I don’t particularly feel like staying at my place in Brooklyn by myself (I don’t really know my roommate). Besides, there’s no TV and there’s no computer there. But my cellphone is getting low and that’s how everyone is getting to me, so I go to Brooklyn, get my charger and some clothes, take some pictures, then head to Queens. This takes about 2 hours or so, but it’s relatively uneventful. I get back to my place in Brooklyn and go back on the roof. No towers. The smoke spans the horizon from due west to due south. Big thick black greasy smoke.

manhattan from brooklyn at the end of the day

I get to Queens and meet up with Jessica who has walked half way to the bus stop (which is about 20 blocks from their apt.) and she gives me a much needed hug. I get to their place and get home made pizza (with some amazing home made crust) and some ben & jerry’s ice cream. Who knows what tomorrow will be like. I might go to work, it depends on how the city is running and if anything else is on fire. Downtown is still burning right now, but they think they have it contained.

It’s been a long day. My nerves are shot and I’m all jittery. I’m very tired. My mind is slowly churning through things as they sink in and I think tomorrow I’ll probably feel less in shock and more… whatever it is that comes after shock. I wish I were in san francisco. I will say this, though: the citizens of NYC, though in shock, behaved stellarly today. I never saw any panic or terror. I saw disbelief but that was about it. Strangers stopped and talked to each other. People helped each other. I asked someone how to get into the Union Square subway station because the one entrance I tried was locked and 12 people all interrupted each other to tell me to go one block south.

Wednesday, September 12th, 2001

Today is an odd day. I wake to my mother ringing my cellphone. She needs confirmation that I am still alive, despite the fact that I wasn’t really near the danger and nothing else has happened since.

Jess and Josh are up and we eat a king’s breakfast thanks to Josh. We tool around their apartment for a few hours and write emails to friends. Check the news. It’s depressing.

We saddle up and go for a bike ride over to Asotria (Queens) to meet some friends. It’s a beautiful day out. I see the Worlds Fair site. Today feels like an extra day. A leap year. Like the day after yesterday won’t be until tomorrow. Everything is on mute and we just ride through it.

We have lunch with an old friend of mine and talk about a number of things. The attacks of yesterday come up, and they’re on everyone’s mind. Unlike yesterday where groups of people would cry or discuss it all openly and loudly, today the subject seems almost taboo. There are many people out on the street and it’s on all their tongues, but you can only hear a word of it here and there.

We meet up with some of Jess and Josh’s friends. One of them, Erin, has a list of 10 things that she would go buy and cook and eat if it were her last day on earth and yesterday we went and bought them all and made a feast for dinner. I don’t remember them all, but I remember butter, lobster, asparagus, some sort of biscuit or something and some nice sounding jam. Some of us go to a batting cage to “work out some aggression” and others go to the park.

Alex, one of the friends we’ve met up with, and I discuss things that have been going through our heads. They range from things that seem important like how the economy is going to react and if we’ll actually end up in some very stupid conflict destroying some 3rd world country that bears the blame for this (no doubt creating a thousand more terrorists than we already have) to the mundane. I mention that I keep hearing, for some inexplicable reason, “When the Levy Breaks” by Led Zeplin in my head. He says he keeps thinking of that line in Star Wards where Obi Wan says, “I feel a great disturbance in the force. It’s as if thousands of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced…” I tell him the band Einsturzende Neubauten keeps cropping up in my thoughts — their name is german for “The destruction of new buildings.” Everything seems inappropriate. While standing by the batting cage the radio is blasting. They play this cheesy Enya song with a medley of sound clips from the news casts over the past 2 days — our culture has already put this thing in shrink wrap and labeled it – “Attack on America”…

I plan to go back to Brooklyn but there’s a bomb scare in the subways and I change my mind and head for Jess and Josh’s place. We catch a cab and the driver has the news on. It makes me cry and depresses me.

Throughout all of this the Mayor comes on the radio what seems to be every half hour. He has a little good news and a little more bad news each time. He answers every single question asked of him, even if it’s to say that he doesn’t know the answer. Every time I hear him I feel better and safer though I don’t know why.

There were some funny things that we heard those two days. On Tuesday we’d here someone come on and beg for something only to recant 20 minutes later. “Give blood. Go give blood.” … 20 minutes later … “If you’re going to give blood, go home. If you have O+, come on in, otherwise, we don’t need any more.” “We need some fresh clean socks down here at ground zero…” … 20 minutes later the same person comes back on the radio … “No more socks. We don’t need any more socks. NO MORE SOCKS!” “We’re trying to make sandwiches for all these good rescue workers, but we need more peanut butter…” … an hour later the radio announcer comes on and says, “We’re getting reports that most of Manhattan is sold out of peanut butter and people are buying peanuts and making their own to donate.” When I was at my boss’s apartment on Tuesday watching TV the newscaster says “…and now they’ve evacuated the leaders of congress… both parties.” As if we’d just leave all the Democrats behind or something. I read in the paper about the passengers of the plane that went down in Penn. and their plans to take the plane back. They joked amongst themselves that they would use the butter knives from their breakfast and this thought makes me laugh a little. At one point were sitting around listening to the radio and talking and I ask, “Where is Bruce Willis when you need him?” A few minutes later someone on the radio says the exact same thing.

For the most part, Wednesday was like a day that didn’t happen.

Thursday, September 13th, 2001

I get up and go to work. I walk the same route I did on Tuesday and stop and take some of the same pictures. The skyline is empty. As I get off the subway and start my walk. The city seems… a little slower. There aren’t as many cars and there doesn’t seem to be as much noise. I’m hoofing it from the subway to the office and I put on my headphones. The MP3 CD I have on has a bunch of acoustic music (around 250 songs) and I’m walking on this sunny day, under the haze that covers the city, listening to whatever comes on next as I have it on random.

I here first Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” with the lyrics:

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Next random song comes on and it’s Godspeed You Black Emperor‘s “The Dead Flag Blues”. I couldn’t have written a better song to sum up what this city is going through.

The car is on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel
And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides
And a dark wind blows

The government is corrupt
And we’re on so many drugs
With the radio on and the curtains drawn

We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
And the machine is bleeding to death

The sun has fallen down
And the billboards are all leering
And the flags are all dead at the top of their poles

It went like this:

The buildings tumbled in on themselves
Mothers clutching babies
Picked through the rubble
And pulled out their hair

The skyline was beautiful on fire
All twisted metal stretching upwards
Everything washed in a thin orange haze

I said, “Kiss me, you’re beautiful –
These are truly the last days”

You grabbed my hand
And we fell into it
Like a daydream
Or a fever

We woke up one morning and fell a little further down
For sure it’s the valley of death

I open up my wallet
And it’s full of blood

Next up on my random playlist is another Dylan Song: The Times They Are a Changin’ which include the lyrics:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

I get to the office — it’s still surrounded by cops and FBI agents. Big orange dump trucks block the roads on either side of the building. There are sharp shooters on the roof of the parking garage to my left. I go up to the 11th floor and take some pictures of downtown, still burning. Chelsea piers are still lined with ambulances. The air in Manhattan reminds me of LA.

along the pier, the rescue efforts are present

Nothing gets done in the office. Everything seems trivial. Around lunch time I go walking down the West Side highway all the way to 14th st where the city is suddenly blocked by highway patrol, nypd, and the national guard. As I walk down WS highway I see provisions, ambulances, picnic tables where volunteers make food for rescue workers. I pass by tired ambulance drivers, rescue workers walking home or perhaps to the nearest bar, tons of bottled water, and random New Yorkers still in a daze from Tuesday but more resolute. Citizens line the streets with American flags and applaud whenever an ambulance or police car goes by. An ambulance driver cries out as I pass him. I ask him what’s happened and he says another building has fallen. Most of the ambulances take off for downtown. They pass an army of FedEx trucks headed north.

the city is blocked at 14th st. to all but the rescue workers

I turn left on 14th st. since I can’t go any further south. Every block there’s a few cops or highway patrol officers diverting traffic. Pedestrians walk by them and just say thank you or offer them food or a drink. They just smile and say thank you, now move along. I see signs for donations on buildings.¬†People making food for the rescue workers work diligently in Chelsea market. I pass a piece of graffiti that makes me stop in my tracks. It’s old — scraped and scuffed, dusty with things leaning against the wall — but the image appears to be two sky scrapers above the NYC skyline. They’ve had their tops ripped off and one of the buildings is screaming.

donations, volunteers, and graffiti

Ambulance drivers wait in front of a collateral damage billboard. There are missing persons signs all over the place. Every telephone pole and empty wall has them. Almost all of them say that the person worked in the WTC. These people aren’t “missing” and wandering the streets and everyone knows it. Still, their loved ones hope for their safe return, and their fliers serve as a sad reminder of the aftermath of all this.

downtown still smokes

I go back to work and take a few more pictures of downtown.

Friday, September 14th, 2001

I end up at Josh and Jess’s place again. We get up and eat another king’s breakfast thanks to Josh (and he made salmon the night before…). I tell him that when he visits me in San Francisco that I hope there’s a big earthquake so I can repay the favors and hospitality. I had a flight out for 7am but it’s canceled due to all the craziness at JFK. The rumors tell us that another group of terrorists were captured. They had knives and fake pilot’s licenses. I find out later that almost all of this is false, and don’t really believe the news until I hear the Mayor tell it. I’m on the next flight that leaves at 7pm or so. I catch a cab back to Brooklyn. My cab driver tells me how Tuesday when he went over this bridge in the middle of Brooklyn he got a full view of downtown he pulled over and cried.

I pack up and go to the airport exceptionally early. They won’t let passengers board with so much as a nail file in their purse. Everyone waits for a few hours for their flight and is peaceful and quiet. I get my ID and boarding pass checked 3 times, but other than that, it’s the same as any other flight except that when we fly over Manhattan on our way out, the city is lit as normal except the southern tip, which is black except for ground zero. From 10,000 feet it’s as bright as the sun it seems. I get on my plane and fly to San Francisco. When the plane touches down, everyone applauds. I’m tired and glad to be done with it all.


Epilogue

There’s one other story I would like to get down in writing lest I forget it. One of the more touching things that happened over that day happened back in San Francisco. My dear friend Kathleen was on the Bart (the subway in SF) headed to work when she heard the news. All she knew was that planes were flying into buildings in Manhattan and that the buildings were falling down. She knew I was working in Manhattan that day. She got off her train and headed back in the other direction and went to our apartment and rang the bell. Becca, not expecting her, opened the door and Kathleen burst into tears. Becca told her that I was ok and it settled her down. When I heard that story it warmed my heart.

Looking back on it now, I don’t really remember most of what is written up above. I’m glad I dug it up. I remember, more than anything, getting home. I got off the plane and Becca, Kathleen and her husband Michael – an close friend from high school – were all there. The hugs I got when I saw them made me cry.

My gratitude to Josh and Jessica for those few days continues to resonate now. We’re family now but we weren’t then, but they treated me like we were.

My, though how the world did change on that day.