Preface – I was living in Manhattan during 9/11 and had just come back into town that morning. Below is my journal entry that was written the night of 9/11. I know it’s long and personal (and parts are raw), but for those that are interested, I wanted to share. I hope this helps you not forget that day, it certainly helps me. John
September 11, 2001
At 11:30 pm Sep 10, 2001 I went to the SLC airport to catch my redeye flight to JFK to find out that it had been delayed until 2:30 am (a 2.5 hour move). The only reason I was going to NY was due to an 8:30 am meeting with a board member of the company I was working for (RichFX), otherwise I would have gone directly to Atlanta for a tradeshow from SLC. Because of this late departure, I would certainly miss this meeting but, for whatever reason, I determined that I’ld just stick to my planned itinerary and do my time in NY. The flight was almost empty and I had an exit row completely to myself so I slept great and arrived pretty fresh. I arrived at JFK at 8:30 am and got directly into a taxi to go to my apartment. At 8:45 am a news flash came on the radio claiming that an airplane had crashed into the North tower of the World Trade Center about two thirds of the way up. They were interviewing a lady who said she heard it pass overhead and was now on her roof looking at the hole in the WTC and watching the fire and smoke billow out. The general thought was that it was probably some freak accident by a small time thrill seeker flying a little Cessna. Of course news helicopters had swarmed onto the scene and were beginning to follow the story. Then about 18 minutes later, the radio announcer yelled out that there had been an explosion in the lower mid-section of the South tower of the WTC. Then someone said it was another airplane that had crashed into the South tower. Then the dots started to connect that this was probably not a freak accident, but a planned attack. Those words made me shiver and it seemed surreal to think of that sort of thing here, in Manhattan, in buildings that I used to walk through every day on my way to work. However, it made some sick kind of sense since these buildings are icons of capitalism.
I called Mom, on my Blackberry, because I knew she would be worried and I wanted her to know I was safe. After a brief conversation with her, I received a call from my sister Ann. She wanted to know if I was ok. By now I was coming towards Manhattan island and the news started to come in that bridges and tunnels were closing. Luckily my driver got us on to the Queens Borough Bridge. While we were crossing the bridge, I was talking with Ann and I could see the two towers of the WTC just billowing smoke into the air and I could see the flames inside. It looked like they were smoke stacks, not office buildings. Ann said “you are witnessing one of the most memorable moments of history”. Somehow it felt less glamorous. Once in the city, the traffic was terrible and I ended up getting out of the cab at 72nd and 2nd Avenue. I walked 36 blocks, with my bags, to get to the apartment on 36th and 1st.
On the way to the apartment I was listening to the radio on my MP3/radio player and heard someone say that the building had collapsed. Actually the only radio station that I could find quickly had been Howard Stern. He isn’t known as the most objective source of information so I thought he was exaggerating or making a joke. Then he and his cohost Robin started to express how they just couldn’t believe that something as huge as the WTC could just fall down. Then I picked up the pace towards my apartment. I arrived at about 9:45 to replayed images on CNN of the tower collapsing. I just couldn’t believe it. It was only now that I saw what had been going on over the past hour. I had heard it in vivid detail, but to see the images gave a whole new feeling. It was like a special effects movie, the reality of it just didn’t compute.
During all of this I was trying to contact people in the office, but the cell service was not working. I decided to use my apartment phone, which I never had used before, and it worked. I got ahold of two colleagues that had rented a car and were heading to one of their houses in Chappaqua about 20 miles outside the city. They strongly encouraged me to come with them, but for some reason I wanted to stay in the city. I had some feeling of loyalty and arrogance that made me want to stand up to whoever this was. I wanted to help, to somehow be a part of “America”. Plus the news was so riveting that I didn’t want to tear myself away. I watched the news and continued to be amazed. At 10:30 am I was sitting on my couch watching the news and the South Tower collapsed. A huge pit formed in my stomach as the reality of the first building’s collapse suddenly became more real by the second one falling also. To see the skyline without either building felt so unreal.
At this point I wanted to be in the thick of the action. I put on my gym clothes and decided to take my MP3 player and head down to the WTC and see how close I could get. It is about a 3-mile jog and it went by very quickly. I was in the thick of the action by noon. I was listening to the radio on my MP3 player the whole time so it was like I was getting commentary and being there at the same time – pretty interesting. By this time, the police and fire departments had closed most of the streets below 10th or so and there was very little vehicle traffic. However, there were quite a few people. I went down 1st Ave as far as I could before Police stopped me. I would guess I was within 3 blocks of the WTC. The thick smoke filled the sky, the streets were covered with debris and papers. Business people were walking out of the area with their brief cases holding particulate masks over their faces and their suits covered in debris and dust. The look on everyone’s face was emotionless. Policemen and firemen had the look on their faces that they were just going through the motions of their job. They weren’t letting any feeling come through, because they didn’t know what to feel. At this point no one knew how many were dead, injured, trapped. I heard numbers like “hundreds” and thought, that “hundreds” would be a rounding error to the final count. When I lived in Battery Park, I walked through the WTC every morning at 8:30 on my way to work. 40,000 people work in those buildings and thousands more catch PATH trains and thousands more shop in the huge mall on the ground floor. Sure a lot of them evacuated but, like the Titanic, I am sure no one thought it would actually collapse. There were huge auditorium sized rooms far underground where people catch trains. Even if they weren’t killed in the collapse, how in the world would we get to them in time to save them from starvation? Compressing 110 floors into 7 will make for a horrendous clean up task. I tried to analyze what my own actions would have been if I had been in building 2 when building 1 got hit. I probably would have run to get my camera and been taking pictures and calling friends to say “you’ll never believe what I am looking at”. I would easily have been one of those that ignored evacuation warnings. I think that the public officials were just trying to not alarm people by stating only numbers of “confirmed” missing not what was speculated.
As I watched people come out of the roped off area, I sat down and tried to soak in the situation. Reporters were walking around trying to talk to anyone that had an insider’s perspective, policemen were trying to do their jobs and civilians were trying to get home. I decided to pick up some of the debris that was lying around. I filled up two water bottles with the dust and debris that covered the streets and carried them with me the rest of the day. I’ll keep them as a remembrance of the event.
Now I just wanted to help somehow. I heard on the radio that they needed blood donations so I decided to go to St. Vincent’s hospital up the street. I got there and began standing in line. The line was huge – 500 people at least. After about 20 minutes, someone came out and said “if you are O- go here, if O+ go there, any other type go there”. I had no idea what blood type I was so I decided I would come back later. The scene at St. Vincent’s was eerie. Out on the street, there were dozens of gurneys and wheelchairs covered in white sheets waiting for ambulances to arrive. Dozens of doctors and nurses dressed in their green outfits were waiting. I stood there for about 30 minutes and during the whole time I didn’t see one ambulance arrive at the hospital.
At this point I decided to buy a disposable camera. I started taking pictures to try and remember the feelings that existed. I went back down to the WTC area but security had gotten even tighter and they weren’t letting people anywhere below Canal Street. I got around a few blockades but not near as close as I was before. As I walked down Canal, I saw hordes of people heading over the Brooklyn Bridge on foot. Apparently this was the case on all of the bridges since they were closed (as well as the tunnels) to vehicular traffic. There was no other way for the people to get to their homes so they walked.
I stopped by a deli for takeout and went back to the apartment about 4:00 pm to eat and wash up. I left again about 5:30. This time I went to my office in Times Square to get a friend’s digital camera (I wish I had thought of this earlier) and walked back down to the WTC area. The creepy thing was that there were no cars on the roads. At 6:00 pm I was walking down the middle of 7th Avenue (in the middle lane) and there was not a single car on the road. Usually this place is packed at that time of day. There were a few people meandering down the street, but no real activity. I called one of my coworkers and said “do you hear that?” and he said “hear what?”. I explained that I felt like I was walking in a ghost town and he could relate to how odd it was for 7th Avenue to be silent. As I got closer to the WTC it was clear that a lot of people had the same idea I had – take pictures. Tons of people were there with their cameras trying to get close. The police were fairly impatient since I am sure they had been dealing with this all day as well as all of the other stress they were under. People would stand in the middle of the street taking pictures while the cops were trying to clear the way for emergency vehicles to pass. Then in one case I found an aspiring artist who had planted his easel on the side of the street looking down towards the plume of smoke and was painting the scene. That was true New York. Since I couldn’t get any closer to the WTC I decided to just walk around and try to get a sense for what people were feeling. I spent a lot of time down in Tribeca area. All of the street side restaurants were full of people. Most of the restaurants and bars had signs outside that said “Feel free to use our bathrooms or phones. Free water and lemonade.” I was shocked to see such a soft side of New York since I was used to the grumpy, grouchy tone most of the time. People would ride their bikes down the street calling out that they needed more blood donations at such and such hospital. It felt kind of “small town”, not like Manhattan. In one of the parks there was a group of 15 – 20 people all holding hands in a circle singing some religious song about love and brotherhood, etc.. Then in Union Square they had taped a bunch of cardboard onto the sidewalk and people were writing thoughts on it. Mainly they were expressions of grief and disbelief.
I decided to finish my walk by going up 1st Avenue toward my apartment. There are 3 hospitals on this Avenue and ambulances were passing me all the way as I walked. As I neared 32nd street I could see it was blocked off to relieve congestion at Bellevue hospital where most of the ambulances were heading. I walked up to the barricades and heard a young man and woman explaining to the officer that her sister worked in one of the surrounding buildings of the WTC and they were told that the sister had probably been brought to this hospital. They wanted the policeman to let them by to go and see if they could find her. The policeman, certainly worn down by a very long day, listened and then said “you know this hospital isn’t being used as a hospital, it is being used only for fatalities.” He turned and pointed to the building next door to the hospital and said “you see, the morgue is right next door”. The sign on the building read “County Coroners Office”. The young girl burst into hysterical tears as she hugged the man she was with.
This was a difficult way to end the day. For the most part I had been emotionally insulated from what was going on. I didn’t directly know anyone at the WTC and didn’t feel like I was in any personal danger. I was just a spectator. However, to see such personal pain was very hard. I know people at work will be deeply affected by this and that will no doubt cause some reaction in myself. I am sure the disbelief will transition into anger. It will be difficult to not project that anger onto those I come in contact with everyday. I know that is wrong, Mayor Gulianni specifically warned the city against this. I just feel so mad that some foreigners can live in our country, enjoy our freedoms, be protected by our police and then participate in something like this. My challenge will be to work in the center of the melting pot of America and not blame people for this – for under appreciating what people like my father have worked so hard to create and protect. Logically I understand I mustn’t judge, but it is hard to let logic guide you when there is no logic at all in what just happened.