The Day

“Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose.”!
General George Washington Battle of Brooklyn 1776

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Unfathomable

On September 11th, 2001, almost eight and a half years after the ’93 bombing, I was seated at my desk with my back to the same window having my morning coffee. Chatting with Eugene and Kevin (two of my salesman), a loud, sharp boom from outside the window abruptly interrupted our conversation. Several on the desk jumped. “What the hell was that” cried out a startled Eugene. Smirking at his alarm, I teased him with a “who’s the new guy” taunt, advising him the noise is typical downtown, and that it was a construction dynamite blast from a nearby construction site. Eugene fired back a defensive, “Well, I’ve never heard it before.” I smirked again, and the conversation trailed off. The time was 8:44 am. [It took weeks for Eugene to become fully convinced the early blast was coincidental]

I started reading through a list of new bond offerings when suddenly, our building was rocked by a massive explosion. This time we all jumped… right out of our skins. I lost my smirk. As I turned my head to see the cause, I heard Liz (our office manager) scream a bone-chilling wail of, “Oh my God!” a mere split-second before I saw the devastation myself. I’m forever grateful for the warning because while the thunderous boom of the explosion alerted me I was about to see something terrible, the strident tone in Liz’s voice forewarned of unfathomable horror. I steeled my mind accordingly. Thank God! It was a scene out of Dante’s “Inferno”, jumbo-sized! A gigantic orange-black fireball spewed out from the North Tower, mushrooming exponentially to about 20 to 25 stories in size. It then receded only seconds later to about a tenth of its original size, replaced by thick cumulus black funnels of smoke pouring out of a jagged gaping hole on the south side of the tower. The sky was blotted with fiery chunks of various sizes raining down to the ground, resulting in dozens of bonfires spurting up throughout the plaza and the street. Intermingled with the falling fiery debris were globs of liquid fire (burning jet fuel) plunging their way down to earth. On impact, these fiery globs spattered,  some forming into streams of liquid fire that flowed down the sidewalk like molten lava into the gutter.

Initial outbursts aside, my group stayed basically calm. Partly, I suppose it was because of our previous exposure to the “93” bombing, but now I think it was more because we were so preoccupied trying to get a handle on things. There was much to digest. Was it a bomb, or was it an accident? What were the consequences for those in the towers? What were the implications for us across the street? Was it as lethal as it looked? Many questions, few if any answers, at least in those first early minutes. In short, we didn’t know enough yet to panic.

The sky above the tower was now aflutter with countless reams of office papers churning higher and higher on the heat-generated wind currents. The image resembled that of a ticker-tape parade, but I drew no such analogy at the time. I stood by the window, paralyzed not so much in fear as in stunned awe. There was a three-dimensionality to this pyrotechnic spectacle – the burning bonfires, the gaseous fireballs, and the shimmering heat currents, the sum of which visually assaulted my senses and dizzied my brain with sensory overload. The imagery of the explosion was as breathtaking in its beauty as it was in its shock.

10 Seconds

 

Visual aesthetics aside, what was numbingly appalling, besides the ghostly gap-tooth hole beginning to emerge from beyond the fireball inferno, was the complete lack of movement on West and Liberty streets where just moments before there had to be hundreds of busy commuters walking to their offices.

Also auspiciously absent in the people-less void were the farmers and shoppers from the Green Market (which set up shop in the footsteps of the towers every Tuesday). A few of the white canopy tents the farmers had set up still stood, two were in flames, but there wasn’t any living movement for at least the three-block radius laid out before me. What had happened to all these people? My mind staggered with the ominous implications of their disappearance. Were they all crushed under the debris or had some of them somehow, miraculously, run out of the line of danger before the firebombs reached the street?

Escape for the pedestrians on the streets and the plazas surrounding the Towers would had been a most daunting challenge, if possible at all. The only thing separating their bodies from the fiery debris bombs would be 10 seconds. 10 frantic, bewildering seconds before the deadly firebombs falling from on high would hit far below.

Precious few seconds to 1) Identify the source of the explosion, very hard given the multidirectional nature of sound ricocheting in the steel canyons, even harder considering the awkwardness of looking straight up 90 stories from the base of the tower. 2) Plot an escape route (where to go, east, west, north, south; into the tower, away from the tower). 3) The final impediment of actually physically carrying out their plotted escape (the debris scattered over a two-to-three block radius established the safety finish line at a minimum of two blocks away). That’s about a good minute’s worth of decisions and actions to perform in a span of 10 seconds.

The losses implicit in this simple arithmetic computation are as unacceptable as unacceptable can be. I still don’t know the answer to how many pedestrians lost their lives in that first hit, but I knew the entire area was void of any living movement, and that I didn’t want to acknowledge the grim reality of what that meant.

Second Verse Same as Worse Than the First.

My colleagues and I decided it must have been a bomb and we discussed among ourselves whether we should stay or evacuate. A few elected to leave, but most stayed – after all, many of us had stayed put in ‘93’ and that proved safe. I did think to myself that this looked a lot worse, and already I felt a tinge of personal danger, a dark foreboding of dread mounting which I did not feel in 1993.

Certainly Not Happy Days, But…

Within minutes we were hearing reports that it was a plane that had crashed into the tower and as the news spread you could feel a wave of relief sweep across the trading floor. I even saw some color began to reappear on the pale faces of my co-workers. It was a tragic accident. Some poor pilot had had a heart attack or something and had crashed his plane into the tower. A tragedy to be sure, but terrible accidents do happen.

Arrivals and Departures.

Down below we could see the rescue vehicles coming in, beginning a few minutes after the plane hit. Firetrucks, EMS ambulances, squad cars rushed in, parking on the parameter of the devastated area. We, of course, had witnessed a similar scene in ‘93. Back then an unbelievable armada of hundreds of rescue and emergency command vehicles had been assembled and we were seeing the beginning of this again.
At the time the first plane hit, one of my co-workers was out having a smoke. As a former FBI agent, he walked to the boundary of the burning field of debris to see if anyone needed help. No one did; all he saw within and beyond the wreckage area was a “field of hamburger.”
Meanwhile, up in my office, we could see evacuees running out of the southwest corner doors of the South Tower, from which there was a cluttered, but negotiable path leading to the area of my office building. They ran in clusters of about 20; the ebb and flow of the groups controlled by a team of spotters and restrainers monitoring the falling debris for opportune moments to make a break. Likewise, similar spurts of evacuees flowed unevenly from the Marriot Hotel complex and further east, from the Church and Liberty St. exits. I didn’t see any evacuees coming out of the North Tower exits. The danger level was so high that we now know that some of those reaching the ground floor of the South Tower were sent back to return to their offices. In hindsight, this was especially tragic, but at the time the order probably made more sense than running the gauntlet of falling debris. I saw for myself the dangers faced by the fleeing evacuees.

The Investigation Begins.

About eight minutes after the first plane hit a bomb squad truck pulled up to the corner of West and Liberty Streets and within minutes several men were suited up in full protective bomb gear and proceeded to search through the burning de-bris field across the street from us. At one point one of them seemed very excited about something and he waved over several of the others to examine his discovery. The last I saw of them they were having an animated discussion about their “find”.

Jumpy Fingers.

I looked away from the spectacle and saw my turret (a special type of trading room phone with about 50 lines on it) lit up like a Christmas tree. I started to take a few calls from concerned clients, but stopped after a few because I had more urgent matters to take care of. I called my mom to let her know I was fine.

While I was talking to her about the events she was watching the tragedy unfold on TV. As she watched live on TV the second plane crashed into the South Tower. I heard my mom gasp simultaneously as I heard and felt a second explosion outside my window, and again I turned my head to see an enormous fireball mushrooming outward, followed by a downpour of fiery debris crashing to the ground, this time right up to the footsteps of my building.

This one was close, really close. The distance from my window to the South Tower was less than half the height of the fireball erupting from it. I don’t remember what my mom said, but I do remember telling her what I was seeing and of my certainty that this had to be terrorism and that I was leaving my building immediately.

Correction: Most of this conversation never took place, or more accurately was more one-sided than I thought. I found this out after my Mom read the first draft and she told me the moment before she saw the second plane hit the South Tower her connection to me went abruptly dead. The timing of the disconnection (leaving no doubt to the cause-effect), while disconcerting to my Mom, was made fairly manageable because she saw nothing on TV that looked particularly life-threatening to the occupants of my building. Meanwhile, I continued talking, oblivious to the silence on the other end, demonstrating succinctly that perhaps I wasn’t as calm and collected as I imagined myself to be.

Who’s Next?

The second hit changed … everything. The trading floor felt like an electrical charge had pulsated through it and, while most people remained calm, it was clear we had to get out of the building. It stood to reason that since our building was the next tallest building in the area (I found out later that it wasn’t) we very well could be the next target. One of the younger guys on the desk started to freak out a bit. He kept yelling, “We’re under attack, we’re under attack.” I snapped at him to cut it out but only succeeded in prompting him to change his mantra to “this can’t be happening, my god, this can’t be happening” which he repeated three or four times before bolting for the exit.

I turned my attention to the window and took one last lingering glance at the calamity outside – long enough to notice the whole array of rescue vehicles (including the bomb squad truck) which had pulled up on West Street and Liberty Street were either burning, under debris or both. It was obvious to me there had to be a considerable number of rescue personnel casualties on the ground from the second hit. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had hoped that most of the rescuers made it to safety inside the buildings because just as after the first hit I couldn’t make out any living movement. This nightmare just kept getting worse and worse.

Up Close, Too Close.

As I was preparing to leave I saw Liz standing in front of her desk, motionless except for a slight rocking motion back and forth. Her face was ashen and her brown eyes were black as they were all pupils. She looked beyond upset. I walked over and grasped her arm, saying we would be fine, but it was best if we evacuated the building just to be on the safe side. Then, with Marie (a sales assistant evacuated from the WTC in the ‘93 bombing) and Anna (a sales assistant), we walked to the stairwell. Here we met Kevin and Eugene and the six of us joined a calm, orderly, almost leisurely paced procession that took us down to the street. Unfortunately, the exit we took (as was designated) brought us out to the east side of my building. which put us face-to-face with the burning WTC just across the street.

As frightening as the catastrophe looked from our office our apprehension intensified twofold as we stepped out of the building and took in the totality of the horror. We had now graduated from a mere visual viewpoint to a full sensory assault. We could hear the terrible crackle of the fires and the skin-tingling urgency of what sounded like hundreds of sirens racing towards us. We could smell the burning metal from the “bonfires” which ended about 20-25 feet away, and the sharp pungent smell of burning rubber tires blazing away from the cars in the parking lot and from the mixed array of burning fire trucks and rescue vehicles parked on West Street. It looked, smelled, and sounded like a war zone. I heard a very loud pop accompanied by the sound of crunching metal. A quick nervous glance to my left revealed the source: a gas tank had exploded on a car about 30 feet from us leaving the car partially disintegrated. The back of the car was shredded. I looked over my group and other nearby evacuees to see if anyone was injured by flying shrapnel Everyone appeared fine.

I started thinking that maybe this wasn’t the best evacuation route that we could have chosen, nor was it a good spot to be gawking, so without additional plodding we notched up our pace and scurried to and around the corner of my building, joining thousands of other evacuees on the streets of Battery Park City.

Did You Remember to Punch Out?

We met several other co-workers, but Liz was still very upset because she had told her husband James (an ex-marine injured in the 1983 terrorist attack on the Marine’s barracks in Beirut), who also worked in our building, that she would meet him in the lobby. I didn’t believe there would be a serious imminent danger to going back into the office so I told Liz to stay put and that I would find James and bring him to her. As I was still spooked by the carnage we witnessed during our evacuation, I stuck to the backside of my office building. After a few minutes of pushing my way back against the oncoming swarm of evacuees, I managed to work my way into the two-tiered lobby. Inside the lobby, a shrill chorus of wailing fire alarms gave the area an edgy vibe. Thankfully, I was able to quickly ascertain that James was not there because both floors were empty except for a few security guards scattered about.

I left the lobby and when I got close to where I had left Liz I was thrilled to see James and Liz together. Making my way towards them I bumped into Eddie, one of my co-workers, who was walking around with a dazed look on his face. I knew, even relative to the circumstances (everybody was pretty shell-shocked), Eddie did not look well. I asked him how he was doing? He replied that he was looking for Kyle (the head of fixed income trading for the U.S.), with whom Eddie had probably never even had a conversation. When I asked him why, he explained that he wanted to ask Kyle if we could go home for the day! “Whoa, just wait right here Eddie, I’ll be right back after I tell Liz and James that I see them together, so they will stop waiting for me and go home to Brooklyn”. I walked 20 feet and looked back, but Eddie had already disappeared into the crowd. I got word late that night that Eddie had made it home just fine, but for many hours that day I thought and worried about my shell-shocked colleague.

This is Not Right.

After saying goodbye to the Brooklyn-bound group; Eugene, Kevin, and I watched the spectacle for a while from the corner of South End Ave and Albany Street (south-west corner of my office building). At first, I couldn’t stop watching the mesmerizing scene, but then I noticed that within the steady cascade of debris breaking off from the towers were objects which seemed to fall differently. After closer examination, I realized that these “different looking,” objects were people falling to their deaths. It was terrible. Each new event of flailing bodies brought new rounds of shrieks, groans, curses, and tears from the stunned crowd. I watched for a few minutes more, I think more from being psychologically frozen in place than from morbidity, but after that, I came to my senses and turned away. In turning away, however, I now saw the mosaic of the faces of the stupefied crowd that had developed behind us, and the pained looks of twisted anguish on their faces as the calamity played on was as heart-wrenching as the vision of falling bodies. No fiery beauty here. This was raw unfiltered ugliness. I grabbed one of my buddies by the shoulder to suggest getting the hell out of there, but I didn’t have to say a word. The three of us each instinctively reached the same conclusion that we had to go, for the sake of our humanity and for the simple and basic decency of not watching people die. Somehow it seemed like a violation of their privacy and dignity to watch them fall. Thousands would continue to witness their deaths, but my companions and I were no longer among them.

As we walked away Kevin got choked up expressing his concern for his friends at Cantor, including Timmy (one of his best friends) and his certainty that they were doomed if not already dead. I tried to assure him that this was not necessarily true, that they might be able to survive, but my words sounded weak even to my ears. There’s no comfort in comforting words if the words are not believable. They were jumping for god’s sake, how survivable could the area be if the only two choices are burn or jump.

Weeks later Timmy’s body was found in a spot that indicated he was one of the jumpers (apparently they can determine such facts). Kevin was not surprised when his buddy’s body was found nor with the ramification of the body’s location. He had suspected Timmy was one of the jumpers before his body was even found. Kevin said, “Once Timmy realized that he was going to die, when all that was left was the forgone and undeniable dying a horrible death, he would not be the type to hang in until the bitter end.” He was a rational realist who once that endgame was known would have the discipline to make that final impossible decision, that no human should ever have to make,  rather than suffer through an even more hellish death shortly after.”

Footnote: Cantor is a bond “broker broker” firm. They function as a go-between between bond traders wanting to transact trades confidentially. John, a short-end specialist originally from Chicago, with whom I had always had close ties stemming from our midwestern roots, had covered me, but had the good fortune to have left Cantor some months earlier. Others in my office were tragically impacted, with several of my co-workers devastated by the loss of many good friends, some of whom they had worked and partied with for years. The hardest hit of all was Jay, yet another salesman for us, who lost his brother at Cantor. Jay’s brother George was a well-publicized hero of the 1993 bombing when a New York Times front-page photo caught his selfless act of carrying an injured female stranger down over 100 flights of stairs. The municipal bond division (which covered us) had 29 of its 30 employees show up for work that morning. All 29 were lost. The firm, as a whole, lost 658 of its’ 1,000 New York-based employees-more than any other firm or organization in percentage lost and in the raw body count.

Nike – Just Do It!

We followed the procession of the crowd west to the Hudson River. We milled around aimlessly as the crowd grew to the point of being if not crowded, at least heavily congested, and still, the evacuees flowed in. It was at this time that I noticed a young, pale-faced dark-haired woman dressed in black jogging attire trying to jog her way through the crowd. It was, of course, a total exercise in futility. I felt a flash of anger – what was wrong with her to be out running in midst of this death and chaos? Then it occurred to me, indeed, what was wrong with her? This poor woman was shell-shocked in much the same way as Eddie was. I watched as she twisted her way through the crowd with 20 turns, pass 20 people, to go 20 yards. It broke my heart, but I did not know if I should try to stop her. In the end, I let her be, to continue unhindered on her maddening tread-millish run into her personal twilight zone. Who knows, perhaps delusional denial was the refuge of the sanest among us that day.

Galbraith Wannabe

Watching her fade into the crowd I started thinking how important it was to stay focused, to pay attention to everything and everyone around me. Partly I was thinking that it would be wise to keep my wits about me for my own safety, but mostly it was about maintaining a focused effort to retain a historical memory of the events, and even more interesting to me, to note the reactions and behavior of the people I came in contact with.

Throughout the day I would remind myself to concentrate on remembering noteworthy sights and scenes. I knew that with so much happening and under such duress, much would be lost if I didn’t make a conscious effort to retain it. If I was going to be in the midst of this madness, I wanted at least to note my own historical record of it.

Innocence Dies Hard.

Even at this late stage I still hadn’t grasped that the planes that crashed into the towers had passengers in them. We had not had any TV or even radio reports since just before the second plane hit, but had inferred from a smattering of overheard conversations the planes were large commercial passenger planes. I kept running the idea through my head. It seemed preposterous the terrorists had managed to steal two jets. You can’t just hop in and fly off without being stopped at probably a dozen different points.

I asked my buddies about this, but before they could answer, the question was intercepted and answered by a man nearby, who shot me an incredulous look for my naivety and then proceeded to inform us with a pronounced stutter (I wondered later if he always stuttered or if it was event induced) that these were hijacked scheduled flights with passengers on board. I was dumbfounded! It was so much more than obvious, in fact, it was the only possible explanation, yet it never occurred to me. Such a horrific act of mass murder was beyond my comprehension. The three of us became quiet.

The Cavalry Arrives.

In a short while, we noticed a squadron of fighter jets crisscrossing the sky. I shared with my buddies my opinion that any more hijacked jets headed into our area would surely be shot down before they reached us.

.Cell phones were useless and I wanted to reach my family in Wisconsin to let them know that I was ok and for me to inquire about the safety of others. I decided that with the fighter jet’s cover (wow, that’s a line I was never meant to use in my lifetime) it would be safe to walk back to my apartment, which is located across the street from my office and is one block from the World Trade Center complex. We discussed the possibility of the towers’ collapse, but decided they could not. I remember very well in ‘93’ the many “experts” scoffing at the notion that bombers could bring the buildings down, claiming it would be next to impossible given all the support redundancies built into the structures. Made sense to me, so on we went.

Running of the Bulls Dopes

The sidewalk and street leading to my apartment was already taped off, but since we could see a few “civilians” on the other side we decided it was ok to duck under the tape. We walked almost a block when we heard an outcry from two cops 25 feet in front of us. The cops, who had been kneeling on the sidewalk examining something, suddenly sprang to their feet and started running toward us, waving their arms frantically forward, and yelling for everyone to run. They were scared, I could see it in their wild eyes and hear it in their frantic voices, and therefore so were we. We joined the stampede (about eight of us, including the cops) running away from “whatever” as fast as we could, the whole time fearing a bomb blast could flatten us at any second. I don’t know what the cops thought they saw, but until we rounded the corner we were terrified. It was the first of the two moments that day when I genuinely feared for my life.
Apparently, we had a miraculous recovery from our “bomb scare” fright because five minutes later we were back on the very street we had just been “running for our lives” on. Only this time we entered the street one block down from where we had the first time, putting us closer to the bomb scare spot than we were before we fled. In my defense, I may not have had a complete grip on my faculties at that moment since I know of this only because my buddies filled me in, weeks after the event. My memories are very muddled from the time we rounded the corner after our scare until the moment we arrived at the arched entrance to my apartment complex showing IDs to the guards to gain access.

There’s No Place Like Home

There’s a large courtyard in the middle of the Gateway complex in which there were about 50 residents standing, having chosen this spot as their safe ground. They chose this spot because while they felt unsafe staying in a high-rise apartment building (which technically was under an evacuation order), they also didn’t want to be out on the streets with the rest of the evacuees. My doorman wasn’t supposed to let me in, but when I pleaded with him a second time he consented (if you’re generous with the Christmas bonus, you’re allowed to risk life and limbs).

My apartment is on the 35th floor of the building, which is the top floor. When we got there I made a few quick phone calls, including a call to my mom to let her know that I was all right. I kept the call short, telling her I was okay and would call back shortly after the other guys called their families. I never got a second chance as it was about two minutes later the nightmare went from awful to an inconceivable and unbearable horror.

As Eugene was trying to reach his wife, I started watching the live telecast on TV when suddenly we heard and felt a deep, sustained rumble, which I imagine a mild earthquake would feel like. Eugene, in those first few seconds, hearing the roar and feeling my apartment shake, asked me tentatively, in a voice two octaves too high, “Is that your air-conditioner kicking on?” I didn’t answer for a second or two because I was trying to make sense of this “downward motion” of the top of the tower I thought I saw on television. I wasn’t sure what was happening because I saw the image for only an instant before the power went out.

The apartment remained illuminated from the sunlight for a second or two, but then as if in a solar eclipse, everything went black as dense dark clouds of debris blasted past the window (which faces south, away from the WTC). The gale-like force of the debris cloud had to be tremendous because mixed in with the black smoke, pulverized cement powder, and papers were debris objects sailing horizontally past my window. It sounded and felt like a freight train was running through my building. It was then, with a stomach-churning clarity that I realized what was happening. I shouted a warning to my friends that the towers were going down, that they could collapse on us, and to get the hell out.

We rushed out the door (leaving my door open) and started running down the stairwell. The staircase (lit up with emergency lights) was empty and we flew down them as if our lives depended on it, and of course, we thought they did. For about 15 seconds it was very frightening as we ran, my ears horrifically straining to hear those first crackling sounds of the fearfully anticipated crushing weight of the WTC crashing down on top of us. As we ran a strange question popped into my head: If it did crash on us what would those first moments of the crushing of my building sound like and what would I actually think and do at the moment I heard the sound confirming beyond doubt my imminent demise? To even write that question seems (and is) so melodramatic, but I find it astonishing (and troubling) that at the moment of our acute distress my curiosity ran a competitive race neck-to-neck with my fears

After about 15 seconds my fear lessened, even as we continued our flight down the stairs as I realized that if the towers were collapsing on my building it would have happened already, indeed before we even left the apartment.

When we got down to the 10th floor the air started getting thicker with debris dust. The smell of smoke permeated the staircase. On the 5th floor, we encountered a group of 4 people coming up. They told us the exit was blocked by rubble, that you couldn’t get out from the ground floor. After quickly discussing it among ourselves we decided that we would continue down and see for ourselves. If the smoke and the dust proved to be too much, we felt confident that we would be able to double our way back. The air got thicker and thicker as we went down the final five flights, but by using handkerchiefs to breathe we managed just fine. Arriving on the ground floor we found the exit was indeed blocked off, but I knew there was a side door somewhere leading to a hallway to the main lobby and, despite the dense haze, we were able to find it in short order.

Grey Ghosts.

The hallway air was much better than the area we had just come from, although it certainly wasn’t mountain pure. As we walked into the lobby, the sight shocked me. The lobby was filled with those who had been outside in the courtyard just minutes earlier. You would not have recognized them. They were coated with a grey dust from head to toe. The dust stuck to them as if they were electrically charged. No one was injured, but they looked like they had been through hell, and of course they had. A few of those from inside the building were in various degrees of undress, including one poor old man dressed only in boxer shorts, a white muscle shirt, and a pair of ugly, well-worn slippers.

The lobby has glass windows on each side which are two stories tall and the scene looking out on either side was that of a nuclear winter. The outside air was pea soup thick with super fine floating powder suspended in midair, its darkness punctuated with white flashes of torn bits of office paper fluttering its way to the ground. The visibility outside the windows was no more than an arm’s length. I could see the lobby’s glass doors were blocked by debris piled up to what looked to be three to four feet, but afterwards I realized it couldn’t be more than a foot or two. It’s easy to lose your perspective when your world is all in grayscale. Whatever the thickness, we were trapped because even if we did manage to pry the door open we wouldn’t be able to see where we were going and, of course, even more troubling was the probable prospect of asphyxiation in short order.

Indeed, even the lobby air was becoming increasingly contaminated and with each passing minute the sound of agitated coughing amplified proportionally. I thought that if it got much worse we would all have to seek higher ground, but thinking about the black cloud of debris roaring past my apartment window I questioned if the air quality would be any better higher up. Also, we knew at this point (someone had a radio in the lobby) the North Tower was still standing and even though it was further away from my building than the South Tower had been, it was still only a block away, and that short distance is less a quarter the length of the 1,368 foot North Tower. At this time we didn’t know the South Tower had imploded straight down upon its own footprint, but even if we had, there was no assurance the North Tower, if it fell, would do so in a comparable manner.

Finally, even if it did collapse in a different direction than my apartment building, who knew what instabilities the vibration of a second collapse could set off. [The force of the South Tower collapse was 2.1 on the Richter scale, the North Tower measured at 2.3, both the equivalent of a minor earthquake]. My apartment building is in Battery Park City, which is built on the landfill created from the construction of the World Trade Center. I remembered the San Francisco waterfront community built on a landfill was leveled in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, primarily due to a process known as liquefaction (a physical process that takes place during some earthquakes that may lead to ground failure, particularly vulnerable is buildings built on water saturated areas).

No, I was staying close to ground level for as long as I could. Of course, in reality, lobby or 35th floor wouldn’t matter one iota if the remaining tower collapsed on top of us but that remained unspoken, the 400-pound gorilla in the lobby that we were all trying to ignore. I remembered catching the doorman’s eyes at one point and seeing in his eyes the same concerns as mine, but with the suffocating air prohibiting escape there weren’t any plans to plot or places to go, so we each kept our nightmarish scenarios to ourselves and prayed for the air to clear enough to facilitate a timely evacuation.
Liquefaction ?!?!! WHat!! Oh that which a racing paranoid mind can conjure up!!

Rescued

As we waited for an opportunity to escape the lobby remained very quiet. There was little talk amongst my group or by those around us of the horror of the building’s collapse. It was a contradictory combination of accepting the losses matter-of-factly and at the same time being completely clueless as to the full implications of the collapse. Away from inquiring on each others’ physical or mental state of mind, any conversations I heard centered on the most immediate problem and that was the steady decrease of the air quality. Even these conversations, however, were brief and spoken in a quiet, almost conspiratorial tone. As in so many of the other extraordinary moments of this day my general perception here was how quiet it was.

After about 20 minutes, rescue came from a group of five soot-covered grim-faced firemen who broke into the building from a restaurant located on the west side of my building (right on the Hudson River). As the lead fireman started barking out instructions I noticed that he had an intensely fierce look in his eyes that reminded me of the Life Magazine cover of Charlie Manson that had spooked me as a child. It caused me to wonder what horrors he had just witnessed, how many buddies he feared lost.

The evacuation began immediately, but I was one of the last ones out because I was helping an old woman who was using a walker and her very heavyset daughter. Not that I wouldn’t have helped anyway, but I remember feeling somewhat stupid and guilty about the needlessness of being evacuated a second time and deciding it was time to become part of the solution (in my own small way) and not part of the problem.

Papers, Shoes, & Strollers

We were handed tablecloths (to breathe through) from the restaurant we were cutting through, but there was a good stiff breeze coming off the Hudson which made breathing immediately better. It was amazing the difference those 100 yards of separation from my lobby made. I took a deep breath of air and began to feel better with our improved predicament.

The feeling was short-lived. Being with the woman using a walker made my progress slow, so slow that I began to notice the small details – like discarded shoes, which were littered everywhere. At first, I feared the shoes were blown off their owner’s feet in the explosion, but then I realized they were all woman’s shoes and that they must had been kicked off by women needing to run faster when the rolling cloud of debris closed in. Shoes weren’t the only items abandoned in the rush to outrun the debris cloud. I saw many baby strollers, some knocked over, all baby-less; presumably left by mothers and nannies grabbing their babies to run faster.

The ground (covered in grey dust) constantly slipped beneath us as we walked making our progress even slower. This “ground” was really a vast pile of business reports, photos, resumes; papers that just minutes earlier were in some-one’s office in the WTC complex, and were now beneath my feet perhaps 2-3 blocks away by this time. Everyone there had their worse moments at some point during their respective ordeal; for me this was it. These papers, these snippets of people’s lives we trampled across, triggered an acute awareness of the days’ horridness. It shook me to the bones and I felt myself getting choked up and feeling overwhelmed by it all, but on we walked.

After we went a few more blocks the air was almost clear and we came to a point where a long line was forming for a small ferryboat. At their request I left the old woman and her daughter waiting in this line surrounded by police and EMS per-sonnel. I caught up to my buddies who were waiting nearby for me.
(If you’re in a group in an emergency, you have a dilemma if you encounter someone who might need assistance. If you delay or slow down your escape to help someone, you’re subjecting your friends to the same added risk [be it small or large] you unilaterally decided to take on. During the evacuation, up to this point, we were still very much in the danger zone of the not yet collapsed North Tower. Now either of my buddies would have taken the same action as I did, and upon our re-grouping they congratulated me with a hearty slap on the back and a heartfelt “Well-Done, Jeff;” but the undisputed fact remains that when I unilaterally decided to help this old woman, I made their decision for them.)

Together again, we eyed up the ferry service as our ticket out of the burning metropolis, but the line was long and we decided injured, elderly, woman and children first. It was not like a Titanic type of decision, nothing like it at all. Apprehensive as we may have been, we knew deep inside that our eventual safe passage out was most assured.

Surrounded

We continued our march southward (to head north towards Greenwich Village and Midtown would have been the direction to true safety, but that was an alternative lost to us with the collapse of the South Tower). We walked for a few minutes more, when suddenly we heard and felt a deep rumbling reverberation again. I looked back. Instead of seeing the remaining tower, I saw a 30-35 storied dark volcanic cloud of debris menacingly rolling down the esplanade towards us.. I thought of the old woman and her daughter and hoped that they were safely on the ferry before the debris cloud hit (I found out weeks later they were).

I yelled to my buddies to run. We knew we weren’t running for our lives, but we also knew we wanted to try to avoid getting caught up in the choking air. We ran fast and hard to avoid the cloud of debris, but there was no outrunning it. It caught up to us in seconds so we ended up walking our way through the thick air for a few minutes (running was impossible due to poor visibility). Coughing as we went, we gradually worked our way through and soon the air, with the help of that brisk breeze coming off the Hudson, was adequately breathable. But breathable as the air was, we quickly saw that we had, in fact, lost our last evacuation option. Looking north the air remained thick with dust and debris and most frightening of all with dense smoke.

After the collapses, the smoke was no longer blowing from a fire 80 to 100 stories in the air, but rather from immense fires burning on the ground. Making matters even worse was that the smoke was now jet-black and I knew the blacker the smoke the higher its toxicity. This black smoke was much more dangerous than the more visually frightening debris clouds. Looking south (toward Battery Park) the smoke was getting even thicker than it was to the north, while to the east we had the collapsed towers blocking our path. The only conceivable way out was to the west, but it was a questionable alternative at best since it would put us in the river. The Hudson River is about one-half mile wide at this point as it empties into New York Bay, with its strong tidal currents capable of sweeping away even the best of swimmers at the wrong time. The “swim the Hudson” option was clearly one to exercise only in a life-threatening situation, which clearly was not our predicament. Instead, our problem became that of being trapped yet again. So, without any place to go, we stayed put, and gradually a small crowd gathered in the clearing.

Dumb and Dumber.

In the crowd, we meet up with Miller, one of our salesmen. After hearing his story we convinced him to stay with us as it was unanimously agreed that his decision-making abilities made him a perfect fit with our group. Many people that day had to make personal decisions. What to do, where to go, and when to do it. Some of those decisions had potentially life-and-death implications. There were good decisions, bad decisions, good decisions that turned out bad, and bad decisions that turned out good. Miller, exercising his free will, made the decision to stay in our office even after the second plane dive-bombed the South Tower. He thought it was safer to stay inside our office building than to risk the falling debris and possibly panicked crowds outside. So he stayed, the only person in a trading room about the size of a football field, surrounded by hundreds of empty desks.

He was still in the office when the South Tower collapsed just across the street. His desk was about 20 feet from my window, which in turn is about 40 unobstructed yards from the South Tower. He said that as soon as he heard and felt our building beginning to rumble and shake he made a beehive dash for the emergency stairs, which took about five seconds. From behind, he heard breaking glass and then a thunderous roar from inside the building that sounded like a giant wind tunnel, accompanied by the sound of general mayhem, as things shattered and smashed. Waiting until he reached the doorway leading to the stairs before he looked back, he was taken aghast by what he saw through the din of dust and debris.

The flying debris had shattered all the windows and the resulting pressure funneled the debris across the trading floor much like giant high-pressured water-cannons dispersing water. In the bond trading section, there’s about 20 windows facing the towers, all through which the debris was being projectiled horizontally 50 to 60 feet into the room. He ran into the staircase and was held up in the staircase for about 30 minutes before making his way unharmed to the streets where he was escorted to the safety of the riverfront. Welcome aboard, Miller, you surely belong with us.

Footnote: All of our personal and work belongings were destroyed. The trading floor was sealed off as an FBI crime scene for months because human remains were found amidst the debris. Even one year later I heard from a security guard that our shattered desks and smashed computers continued to litter our former trading floor.

Lemmings.

As long as the west to east winds held we felt safe in our clearing – at least we could more or less breathe, and we were in a spot where there weren’t any tall buildings to tumble down on us. We plotted out a river escape if things got bad again, but it was starting to feel as though the personal nightmare was dissipating.

From our grass perch, we could see many small rescue and police craft patrolling New York Bay and the Hudson River. Some of the evacuees were trying to wave the boats over to rescue them, but the vessels were of too small a size to pull off anything more than a minuscule rescue effort. Besides, I was sure their mission was more to patrol than to rescue. I heard later that about 15 people had jumped in the water as the first debris cloud closed in on them and were rescued by these small crafts.

Days later, I gained a fuller understanding of the confusion and chaos leading to this lemming(ish) behavior from a conversation I had with Larry (another co-worker), who was on the promenade when the first debris cloud approached. He explained, “First of all we didn’t even know the cause of the roar. For all we knew it was another plane crash or explosion in a different building. Second, we didn’t know what to do as the threatening debris cloud bore down on us. Were there deadly objects, like sharp shrapnel whizzing around in it? Did it contain toxic air, or for that matter was there a fireball or superheated air burning inside its dark recesses? It may sound silly now, but at the time, man, all we knew was that it looked very, very threatening. In the end, when I realized I couldn’t outrun it I jumped over the railing, sticking my butt over water, ready to drop into the water if the circumstances called for it.”
Apparently, Larry had plenty of company; some of who took that extra step. It was just south of him where most of the river jumpers plunged into the Hudson. It was a river jumping “en masse”, a chain reaction if you will, of one person jumping at the last moment, and, in the heat of the moment, others following suit, thinking the jumper knew something that they didn’t about the deadly composition of the debris cloud.

Da Little Tugboat That Could.

We sat in the grass for about 20 minutes. Then on the horizon, coming in from NY Harbor, we saw an astonishing sight. It was a group of nine or ten tugboats, running full steam ahead, blaring their horns as they got closer to us. For the apprehensive crowd, it was an affecting moment. Some of the tugs veered off to Battery Park while others continued northward to our section of Battery Park City. In short order, the captains had nosed their vessels against the sea wall of the esplanade, and immediately began a rescue operation.

Procedurally, the operation was complicated by the esplanade’s four-foot railing (which curves toward the body at the top to hinder climbing), but the problem was quickly resolved when the tug’s crew formed into an assembly team of human cranes to handle the evacuees’ embarkment onto their ship. The lift over the railing was handled by two heavyset guys (one on each side) with Brooklyn accents as thick as their enormous tattooed arms. They were hoisting a group of some well-fed Wall Street trader types over the railing as though they were sacks of potatoes. The really remarkable part was their tireless efficiency, handling person after person. They didn’t look healthy enough to run 50 yards without stopping for a Marlboro and a bag of donuts, but their real-life stamina was unbelievable.

Once over the railing, two more crew members lowered the evacuees about five feet onto a makeshift platform set up in the bow of the boat, from which the third and final set of crew members lowered them the last three feet onto the surface of the tug. It was a slightly perilous operation, but it didn’t seem so at the time. It looked like a cakewalk after everything the evacuees had seen.

Band of Brothers.

I didn’t want to go to New Jersey: I already had an escape route mentally mapped out heading north up a bike path I regularly rode. It was 15 miles to my friend Noreen’s home in the northern Riverdale section of the Bronx. I figured I could walk it in about three hours. All I wanted at the end of this most nightmarish of days was to get home, but with my home quarantined off, my friend’s home (Noreen’s) would make for a very comforting substitute. The tricky part would be surmounting the frightening smoke conditions directly north of us, but I felt confident that, alone, I would be able to make a successful dash through it.

In the end, however, despite the appeal of a solo run, I decided I would see it through to the end with my group. When I casually mentioned the possibility of staying behind, Kevin and Eugene looked very unhappy and protested vehemently against my hare-brained scheme. Miller meanwhile started talking about joining me in my proposed dash, thereby reinforcing in my mind the validity of Kevin/Eugene’s argument against. Besides, the smoke north of us was growing thicker and blacker by the minute, and, having already been rescued from my apartment building when I shouldn’t have been there, I realized that I had a responsibility to not get in the way. The four of us made our way to the tugboats.

Well Said

The combined capacity of the tugboats was greater than the number of potential evacuees so there wasn’t any question of women and children first. It was walk up to the railing, get hoisted over it, and then jump down onto the boat. And so began our own journey away from harm’s way, standing in four inches of seawater in the back of the tug, silently, with teary eyes fixated in stunned disbelief at the horrific panorama of the burning city’s altered skyline seen through a hazy shroud of smoke and debris.

Of all the images from that day, this is the vision that epitomizes September 11th for me. I remembered thinking this could not be happening, but there was no denying the awful reality of the devastation laid out so vividly before us.

Kevin, perhaps thinking of his friends at Cantor, looked at me with his face contorted in anguish and hoarsely cried out: “The bastards, the f—king bastards!”

If the measure of a phrase is the intensity and breadth of emotion it suggests, Kevin’s statement was downright Churchillian. I looked him straight in the eye and, with a curt nod of my head, agreed. Some weeks later I asked Kevin if he had spoken more in hurt or more anger? He replied “yes”.

Wire-Cutter Hero

The tugboat dropped us off at a makeshift pier in Jersey City. This pier had been fenced off for years but a fast-thinking New Jersey carpenter, armed with a pair of industrial-grade wire snippers and knowledge of the pier’s existence from kayaking in the area single-handedly opened this decrepit pier, thus providing additional docking for the growing flotilla of mismatched rescue vessels. This pier, as well as two official working piers about 100 yards south were teeming with volunteer rescue people from throughout New Jersey who had rushed in to help. We asked if we could assist, but were told it was more than covered. We could help, we were politely, but firmly told by getting out of the way, to keep on moving.

We walked through a giant gap in the chain-link fence (compliments of the “wire-cutter” hero) and kept walking west. A huge crowd had gathered here to view the worst disaster in America’s history, to bear witness not through the TVcamera’s eyes, but with their own. My group, however, had had our fill of bearing witness. I felt the stares of the crowd as we walked past them.

At one point I looked up and caught the eye of an elderly woman who, although she had tears brimming in her eyes, gave me a strange little empathic smile that was melancholic, yet oddly reassuring at the same time. I smiled back appreciatively, comforted for a moment. Today, we were all in it together.

Aimlessly Wandering.

We walked aimlessly through the streets of Jersey City, not knowing where to go or even where we were. We went to a restaurant where we were offered the use of their phones, but all any of us got was either a busy signal or a “phone lines are down because of the tornado” recording. What?!

I heard one group talk of buses transporting people to a makeshift shelter in Bayonne, but I wanted nothing to do with that. Someone remembered that Kurt, another of our salesmen, lived in Jersey City, and Miller, having hung out at the trading desk, had made the most of his bad decision and obtained the department’s employee address list. Coincidently we were on his street at the time and within minutes we arrived at Kurt’s apartment complex.

Up in Kurt’s place, we saw for the first time the televised images of the attack and its aftermath. It was the worse thing I had ever seen, including my eyewitness images from earlier. This was much worse, the multi-angled slowed down sequences, the up-close detail. I had no idea when I was in the midst of it just how horrific it really was. There was also more time, now, for the magnitude of the human tragedy to sink in since we were no longer distracted by the task of keeping ourselves safe.
Kevin, especially, seemed particularly shaken by the day’s event. I was certain it wasn’t just the loss of Timmy and his other Cantor buddies that shook him so, but that it was also Kevin’s realization that a twist of life’s fork-in-the-road had fortuitously saved his son from being one of the victims. Kevin had gotten Timmy to hire his son for a broker position at Cantor about a year earlier. Fortunately, his son was a bit of a slacker on the job and had left Cantor after about four months. Kevin’s son is a good kid but some kids that age need to do a bit more growing-up before they’re ready for some challenges. Ironically (and thankfully), because Kevin’s son needed to do some growing up, he would have the chance to do so.

The Anguish of Not Knowing.

We couldn’t stand to watch the broadcast, but we couldn’t tear ourselves away either. We took turns trying to make our phone calls; sometimes we got through, most of the time we could not. Finally, after about 40 minutes, I was able to reach home. It was about 2:00 or 3:00 P.M. I walked out to the balcony (as we all did) for privacy in case I lost my composure, which I did keep for a while but when I heard about their heart-wrenching ordeal back home as they waited for word on my fate, I got choked up. My earlier call from my apartment, designed to assure their fears, actually fanned the flames of worry and family anguish to an unbearable level.

The call marked my location well inside the danger zone as well as the time. Two minutes after I called them from my apartment, the South Tower went down. The nearness of my apartment to the tower was well known to them and, therefore, totally unacceptable. I’m the oldest of 6 children in a very close-knit and loving family and the phone wires were burning with anguished calls between them.

They watched the replays of the collapse of the towers time and time again, but from those earlier network tapes, it was hard to detect the direction of the collapse. They were praying for me while simultaneously cursing me. “Why would he do that, Mom? Why would he go up into his apartment with the towers under attack and burning right next door? If he’s so damn smart, how could he be so stupid?”

I talked with my mom for only about 10 minutes because I wanted her to get word of my safety out to the rest of the family.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

Gradually, the ordeal tapered off to its finish. My friends and I borrowed Kurt’s SUV and proceeded to make our way to Riverdale and then to Long Island by way of New Jersey and Connecticut. This circuitous route was about 50 miles, but it took 3 to 4 hours to get to Riverdale, which is only across the Hudson and about 10 miles north of Jersey City.

The only noteworthy moment occurred when we dropped Miller off at a pre-arranged location just off the interstate about 20 miles from his home where his wife would be waiting to pick him up. Well, the whole damn clan was there, his wife, daughters, sons-in-law, and even a neighbor. As we pulled up to where they waited they broke into spirited applause, followed by hugs and tears as they welcomed home their loved one. The image touches me still. Whatever trauma Miller may have experienced, alone, as the debris came crashing in, we were surely leaving him in the hands of some good therapists. It was an uplifting ending to this most horrific of days. Comparable homecomings were being played out throughout the metropolitan area.

The three of us spent that night in differing ways. Kevin went home, and got his flag out, and unfurled it at full-mast. The next day he would put it out at half-mast, but that night he wanted its colors running at unbridled strength. Eugene, a terminal night owl, went home, hugged his wife and daughters, assuring them that he was all right and that all would be all right. Then he crawled into bed where he crashed out until the next day. When I got to Noreen’s place in Riverdale (she was taking care of her sick aunt at her aunt’s midtown apartment) I spent hours on the phone calling and talking to various relatives and friends, consoling one another, telling them about my ordeal and, in the case of fellow New Yorkers, inquiring of their safety. It was an emotional and trying night for me as it was for all in our nation.