9/11 The day 22 Friends died

I was at a large table in the deli, discussing over bagels and coffee the Yankees as a future symbol of civilization, a museum of the history of New York. About 8:45, we heard a boom. It was not a ferocious boom, but the sort too common in a city where construction jobs are a constant. A few made nervous jokes and the meeting went on. We heard sirens now. Then, just before 9, a man came in and told us that an American Airlines jetliner had slammed into one of the twin towers.

I grabbed my coat and ran down street, passing construction workers, and hurried onto Chambers St. Sirens were now splitting the air and there were police lines being set up on Broadway. Several hundred New Yorkers were on the north side of the street gazing up at the World Trade Center. A great gray cloud billowed in slow motion, growing larger and larger, like some evil genie released into the cloudless sky. Twisted hunks of metal were falling off the ruined facade. Sheets of paper fluttered against the grayness like ghostly snowflakes.

Then, at 9:03, there was another boom, and now an immense ball of orange flame exploded out of a high floor of the second tower.

“Oh, —, man, oh, —, oh, wow,” a man said, backing away, eyes wide with fear and awe, while a few others began running toward the Municipal Building. “No way!” shouted another man. “You believe this?” While a fourth said: “They gotta be dyin’ up there.”

None of us on that street had seen the second plane coming from the west. Through the clouds of smoke, we couldn’t see it smash into the immense tower, loaded with fuel. But there was this expanding, fearful, insidious orange ball: about seven stories high, full of dumb, blind power. For one heart-stopping moment it seemed capable of rolling all the way to where we were standing, charring everything in its path. And then it seemed to sigh and contract, retreating into the building, to burn whatever human beings might still be alive.

The odd thing on the street was that so few New Yorkers panicked. The photographs of weeping women and distraught men were exceptions, not the rule. Some stoic New York cool took over. People walked north on Broadway, but few ran. All looked back to see the smoke flowing darkly to the east, toward Brooklyn.

“Go, go, go, go,” a police sergeant was shouting, pointing east. And people followed his orders, but didn’t grow runny with fear. Now the sky was dark with blacker clouds. Near the corner of Duane St., two women called to a policewoman: “Officer, officer, where can we go to give blood?” The policewoman said, “I don’t know, ma’am, but please keep moving north.”

The great stream moved steadily north. I walked south, gazing up at the beautiful facade of the Woolworth Building, all white and ornate against the clouds of smoke. By now we all knew that this was terrorism; one plane hitting a tower could be an accident, but two were part of a plan. On Vesey St., outside the Jean Louis David hair salon on the corner of Church St., we could see a wheel rim from an airplane, guarded by a man in an FBI jacket. Another anonymous hunk of scorched metal was lying on the ground across Vesey St. from St. Paul’s, where George Washington once kneeled in prayer.

Near the curb beside the police lines, I could see a puddle of blood already darkening, a woman’s black shoe now sticky with blood, an unopened bottle of V-8 Splash, a cheese danish still wrapped in cellophane. Someone had been hurt here, on her way to breakfast at an office desk.

But when I looked up, the fires and smoke shifted from ghastly spectacle to specific human horror. It was 9:40. From the north facade of the uptown tower, just below the floor that was spewing orange flame, a human being came flying into the air. A man. Shirtless. Tumbling head over heels at first, until the weight of his torso carried him face-first, story after story, hundreds of feet, in the last terrifying seconds of his life. From my vantage point I realized that the first plane hit where my cousin worked and if it had come 30 minutes later I would have been on that floor and died that day also.

We did not see him smash into the ground. He just vanished.

“That’s 14 by my count,” a cop said. “These poor bastards. …”

He didn’t finish the sentence. He turned away, talked on a cell phone, hung up, turned to another cop. “Believe this? My mother says they crashed a plane into the — Pentagon!”

For above us, at 9:55, the first of the towers began to collapse. We heard snapping sounds, pops, little explosions, and then the walls bulged out, and we heard a sound like an avalanche, and here it came.

Everything then happened in fragments, scribble. I yell to this woman “Run!” And we start together, and this immense cloud, perhaps 25 stories high, is rolling at us.

We’re in the building, deep in the lobby, behind walls, and the clear glass doors are gray-brown, locked tight, but the dust whooshes into the lobby. “Don’t open that door!” someone says. “Get away from that — door!” . We look for a back door. There is none. We are told by a building employee there might be an exit in the basement. A half-dozen of us go down narrow stairs. There is no exit. But there is a water cooler, and we rinse the dust from our mouths.

I’m desperate now to get out, to find my sister, my niece, my cousin , to be sure their alive, to hug them. But I’m sealed with these others inside in the tomblike basement of an office building. “Come on, come up here!” a voice calls, and we start climbing narrow stairs. Back in the lobby, police emergency workers are caked with white powder, coughing, hacking, spitting, like figures from a horror movie. Then there’s a sound of splintering glass. One of the emergency workers has smashed open the glass doors. I feel as if I’ve been there for an hour; only 14 minutes have passed.

“Get going!” a cop yells. “But don’t run!”

The street before us is now a pale gray wilderness. There is powdery white dust on gutter and sidewalk, and dust on the roofs of cars, and dust on the tombstones of St. Paul’s. Dust coats all the walking human beings, the police and the civilians, white people and black, men and women. It’s like an assembly of ghosts. Dust has covered the drying puddle of blood and the lone woman’s shoe and the uneaten cheese danish. To the right, the dust cloud is still rising and falling, undulating in a sinister way, billowing out and then falling in upon itself. The tower is gone.

I start running toward Broadway, through dust 2 inches deep. Park Row is white. City Hall Park is white. Sheets of paper are scattered everywhere, orders for stocks, waybills, purchase orders, the pulverized confetti of capitalism. Sirens blare, klaxons wail. I see a black woman with dazed eyes, her hair coated with dust, and an Asian woman masked with powder. I don’t see anybody I know. I look into store windows. I peer into an ambulance. I ask a cop if there’s an emergency center.

“Yeah,” he says. “Everywhere.”

Then we’re all walking north, streams of New Yorkers, thousands of us, holding handkerchiefs to noses, coughing, a few in tears. Many are searching for friends or lovers, husbands or wives. I try a pay phone. Not working. Another. Dead. At Chambers St., when I look back, City Hall is covered with white powder. So is the dome of the Potter Building on Park Row.

A few more blocks and I’m at my sisters home, my own face and clothes a ghastly white, and she is coming out the door, after checking telephone messages, about to race back into the death-stained city to search for me.

We hug each other for a long time. I tell her I have to go back and see if I could help, see if our cousin is still alive.

All around us, the fine powder of death is falling, put into the New York air by lunatics. Religious war, filled with the melodrama of martyrdom, had come to New York. Almost certainly, it was welded to visions of paradise. And in some ways, on the day of the worst single disaster in New York history, there was a feeling that the dying had only begun. One month later I was in the Middle East.

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