I worked a few blocks from the towers the morning of 9-11. I felt the towers fall. Became part of “the most photographed day in history.” You might have even seen me on the news. Not that you could have recognized me covered in dust.
I can tell you the day unfolded very differently on the ground than watching breaking news. Information was even more fractured and sporadic for us, walking home coated in the dust of what had been the World Trade Center.
When I finally made it home that afternoon
I found my email inbox clogged with people asking questions about what I saw, what I did, and what I felt.
Instead of trying to answer each question in these emails separately, I wrote one reply. A single email to my friends and family, letting them know I was alive and at home. Narrating the day as it unfolded allowed me to say everything, show what I saw, explain what I knew and when I knew it, and reveal my thoughts and feelings as they occurred while the day unfolded. Bits of what others said and did in those first few hours also find their way in. To keep the feel of the original email, I’ve only corrected distracting errors and modified or cut phrases for flow and clarity.
So, for anyone who cares to try grasping what it was like to have been on the southern tip of Manhattan on 9-11-2001, trapped inside the news, I give you
My Small Story
I am almost embarrassed to write this. It is almost dramatic, an almost narrow escape, almost important. But, it is all I have and is part of the fabric that will weave the cloth of September 11, 2001.
The day was glorious: fine, cool weather, clear skies. I had overslept, having talked to a friend until almost 1 a.m. I rushed to leave my apartment, grumbling to myself about not having enough time to fix my lunch, which I would have to pay too much at a deli.
But, I reminded myself, as I speed-walked to the 59th Street stop, that it really wasn’t that big of a deal and that I had something good to read and several symphonies on CD I was going to listen to at work. Waiting for the N train, I discovered I had already read the issue of Global City Review that was in my hands to keep me company on my subway ride. This irked me. I mean, how could I have mixed this up? I’m more organized than this, have all my books to read lined up in order so I can anticipate reading them. Just stupid.
At Dekalb Avenue,
we were told there was smoke at the Courtland World Trade Center stop and that the train would be skipping that station. Whatever—I got off two stops before that, and I continued to flip through my magazine to find something I had not read yet, thinking, if I had only known, I would have grabbed War and Peace, which I had put down several months earlier.
I left the train at Whitehall and, on the platform, passed the usual stream of office workers heading south as I walked north, glancing at the clock. It was just about 9, so I would only be a few minutes late. Nothing to worry about. But it still annoyed me that I had overslept. No lunch. And a magazine I had already read. And I needed cat food. I can’t forget that. They deserve Hill’s Science Diet, not just Alley Cat or Friskies.
I top the stairs and look up. This is the Canyon of Heroes, all tall buildings and narrow streets, where we celebrate great things, our victorious troops from Europe and Asia, Neil Armstrong, and the Yankees. The narrow slice of sky I see is not the clear perfect blue of Brooklyn but is filled with a column of smoke that glints like a beach strewn with broken glass. People around just stand and stare. This irks me—I’m going to be late for work—and after all, hadn’t all these rubberneckers ever seen a fire before? With an annoyed face, I push my way through, past the incense, fruit, coffee, and belt and tie vendors.
Then I hear, “It was a plane…”
Excuse me. “…two…” What? “…terrorists…”
I walk around Bowling Green Park, unsure what to think, feeling a growing sickness deep in my gut. I run into Rance, a co-worker, at the door of my building, 11 Broadway, just south of the Bronze sculpture of the Wall Street Bull. “You couldn’t believe it. When the plane hit, you could feel the heat. It was more spectacular than any movie….”
Still, I’m not sure what has happened. Terrorist? An accident? One plane? Two? All I am sure of is the smoke and fear surrounding me.
I ride the elevator up the 11th floor in silence, listening to two men talk about the two planes. How it had to be terrorists. “Had to be. Had to be.”
Walking into my office, everyone is scurrying around. Randi’s visibly shaking. “I know people who work there. Oh, my God.”
Yael, followed quickly by my CEO Eran, tells everyone to leave. Having just sat down, I grab my bags and head out to the hall. The elevators no longer work. I walk down the 11 flights of stairs.
Out front, there are people walking around, uncertain, worried, harried. “…the pentagon got hit…” “…he’s promised this is just the beginning…” “…Chicago…” “…LA…”
It seemed too big. Too unreal. I ask Yael, our office manager, if the day is over for us, and after being told it is, I take off walking.
The subways are closed, so I know I have to find a way home. Walk over the Brooklyn Bridge? Grab the Brooklyn Ferry? That stops only a few blocks from my new home there. I decide that I will go to Strand Books and see if I can find that copy of “Time and Freewill” by Henri Bergen I’ve been looking for the last three weeks.
I cross in front of the Bull and have made it almost to the other side of Broadway at Beaver Street when I stop. For some reason, I refuse to listen to myself. I knew I have to leave, but instead, I turn back. Why?
Some sense that this was all just absurd?
That I was here to do work, and this wasn’t going to stop me? A need to be around someone, anyone, I knew? Just not to be completely alone with my thoughts?
I stand for a few minutes with my coworkers, with Yael, Vidya, Rance, and Candice, in front of my building. Then, we decide to walk around it, right at the end of Broadway and look at the Twin Towers from over the top of the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Against a perfectly clear, light blue sky with a light refreshing breeze in my face stand the towers. Beautifully white, reaching up to the sky, strong symbols of what mankind can achieve if it wills.
In both buildings, black gashes pour out smoke. Behind the skin of the walls, flames leap and dance as if to “Night on Bald Mountain.”
Yet, everything else still seems normal.
The sky, the buildings around us, the trees behind us in Battery Park, the tree I lean against to watch these two buildings burn like just lit matches standing up from a book of matches. Papers waft out, float above the Manhattan skyline. Occasionally, things fall from the building. It seems as though this is it. We all just look up and watch, not truly believing it but having, there, in front of us, evidence that it is so. “…do you think they’ll collapse?”
Nah. Hell, a B-17 hit the Empire State Building back in the forties. Nothing happened. And, these planes, what Cessnas? A Leerjet? Nah.
“And, just think, we trained these people to do this.” The lady in front of me turns and agrees, her words thick with an Eastern European accent.
I notice that everyone I know has left me there propped against the tree.
And, I keep rolling through my mind how foolish we all are, we humans. All of us. This great folly. Playing king-maker in foreign lands… grabbing power…stupidity…stupidity…
Just then Beethoven enters me. A phrase from his 5th symphony, at the start of the 4th movement, the scherzo.
Yael walks over to me.
It seems to worst is over, and we can now go back.
At least to make calls to friends and family to see what the internet can tell us of this, which rumors are just that, rumors, which are truth. The elevators are all shut off but one. Yael and I ride up, just shaking our heads. What’s to be said?
There are a few of us in the office. I sit back down in my chair, and turn my computer on.
Right then, I feel it.
A deep, strong rumbling. My building shudders. In my gut, the rumbling continues after it has stopped around me. The lights flicker. The computer shuts off before it had finished starting.
My gut speaks. Leave, it says. Leave now. Go.
Then. Right then. No words. Just out. To the stairs. The emergency alarm blares…buzz…buzz…buzz…. There had been a break in my building on Sunday night. Stole some computers.
A cover for planting a bomb?
How stupid I was not to have left when my gut had told me before.
Is this how it ends? Bringing it upon myself? Too stupid to listen to what is most important?
The sick, sinking feeling in my gut grows strong. I want to vomit. But, can’t. Not now. Not when there is a chance. No, not now. Go. Just go. Go, and go, and go, and go…
I pass an old man walking down the stairs. Sorry old man. My gut says go. I was too stupid before. I won’t be this time. No. Just go. Go. Go. Go. Go. …and the alarms continue… I fight the thoughts—more bombs, bombs planted here Sunday, I’m so stupid, why am I so stupid, why am I not on the Brooklyn Bridge, walking home right now—go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go I land in the lobby.
It looks like a late afternoon in winter outside.
A blizzard. At twilight. People stand around in the lobby. I ask what happened. “…a tower collapsed…” “…both towers collapsed…” “…they’re gone…” “…no one can go into the streets…” “…they’re not letting any one out…”
I must leave. Must. My gut says go.
I will go. I walk first to the front of the building where the building men are holding the doors shut, then to the back, which is cordoned off. I go back and forth twice, three times, trying to decide which way to leave. I look at Yael and Candice, who have both just found me. Their faces are of…pain…no other words. The pain, not of loss, not of hurt, but of fear. I say I will leave. That I don’t feel right here.
“Don’t go. It’s safer inside.”
My gut says go. It jumps up and down, turns over on itself to get my attention—GO. I look out onto Broadway through the glass doors. Nothing but a lone man in a dark suit scurrying through the blizzard of dust and soot. I hesitate—should I convince them, Candice and Yael, to leave with me? My CEO bursts in. He wears a thick layer of white-gray dust over his whole body, shoes, pants, shirt, hands, face, hair. The only thing I can see of his natural color is the area around his eyes in the shape of where his sunglasses had been. He storms across the floor. I grab his shoulder, ask him what happened.
“The tower collapsed.”
He has no more time to speak to me and bolts up the stairway in back. I walk to the door, open it, and look back at Yael and Candice. I see only the pain.
A woman snaps, “Stay or go. Just close the door.”
And, out into the alien white landscape full of debris and footprints like those on the soft dust of the moon.
Towards the South Street Seaport.
I really don’t know where I’m going.
I had been meaning to find out how to use the ferry but had just never gotten around to doing it. How stupid of me.
I walk south and east, away.
I find people, streams of them going that way. I follow them, feeling all the while as if I can and will be struck from behind, from above. I keep my mouth shut against the dust. It covers me. Covers my glasses, gets trapped between the lenses and sunglass-clip-ons I no longer need. It’s twilight in the late morning of a beautiful September day without a cloud.
Most people are walking towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Many have masks on, those surgical masks from Duane Reade or Rite Aide. Others have bandannas across their nose and mouth. Some are bleeding. Some have bandages.
There is blood on the sidewalk.
It makes a pinkish pudding in trails of drops and globs. Sirens. More Sirens. Flashing lights.
People covered in white. All walking, just walking to the same place, to safety, to anywhere but here. Occasionally, people swallow a mouthful of water from a bottle and spit it out; others use the small spigots sticking out of buildings’ foundations. The pall feels like a new kind of air, like a new way of being, of walking, almost as if underwater. It stinks of concrete and burn. I can smell the Fulton Fish Market now.
And somehow, the sun starts breaking through, down, at the end of the street. I can see parts of the bridge and the FDR. People crowding across them, an exodus.I keep walking. There is nothing else to do. Just keep going.
Cop cars, lights flashing, creep through the streets crowded with people walking. Still, those sirens. Still twilight. But I can see the sun now. I wonder if I can find the ferry. I find a sign to South Ferry and the South Street Seaport and turn down towards what I imagine is closer to the ferry, right through the heart of the Fulton Fish Market.
On the street, we walk, the survivors.
Alongside us are the workers of the fish market, in boots, jeans, t-shirts aprons. “…we have water, ice, paper towels. Whatever you need. Water, ice, paper towels…”
In teams along the whole market, a first man gives out paper towels, a second wets it with a hose, a third hands out ice from a large plastic bag on a chair. When I get my towel wet to wipe my face, clear my eyes, I ask where the ferry is.
“Back in hell. Just turn around, and hang a left in the middle of hell.”
I keep walking towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Just keep going.
I then notice the tightness in my cheeks, in my jaw, that hard, grinding tightness of hate and anger and frustration, like giant balls in my face. Even my teeth ache. I can see the bridge above me now and rehearse what I would do if they should blow this up while I crossed—lose the bags, lose the shoes, the jacket, and swim—just keep going.
I am too far east, directly under the bridge.
There are several ramps. Some, the furthest away, those back towards what had been the Twin Towers are the obvious ramps, but there are several more, closer, and people are taking them all. Confused, I take the one that seems to be going where I had to and walk.
It is the wrong one, I think, going to the FDR. I turn around and ask a man who has just asked a police officer if this is the Brooklyn Bridge. “Yes.”
But then, in moments, people are walking back, saying it was the wrong one.
I ignore all directions now and simply walk to where I can see a ramp. The sign reads “to the Brooklyn Bridge,” and I wait for the traffic to pass in front of me to cross and finally get to the bridge, even as I walk back towards the plume of smoke.
Sirens. Hot bright sun. White dusted people. Mostly silent people. Some walk with friends, telling them, and themselves, where they had been when it all came down.
I still can’t really think. My face hurts. The sun is hot. I’m hot.
The plume of smoke billows out over the East River and Brooklyn, as far as I can see, past everything. Then Beethoven appears to me again. Those triumphant strains of the 5th, of having made it through suffering through sheer force of will and determination. This fills my mind. In my imagination, I see the bows fly across those strings to make something so beautiful. I fill myself with them, push away all other thoughts. No, Beethoven shall walk beside me.
Everything else is far, far too heavy, and threatens to drop me to my knees, make me sick, vomit down myself, and over this bridge. I have to know that, somehow, beauty can still exist. That this, at least, has not been stolen from me. It is mine, and only I can give it away. And that I refuse to do. As I walk across the bridge, I can not bring myself to turn around and look back at what had been the twin towers. I will be seeing that every day for the rest of my life, but now, I can’t bear to look.
So I keep going.
The sun glares down, hot and bright. I take off my jacket and wonder if I look the same as those around me—covered in white dust and dumbfounded, vacant, or pensive.
Nausea hits in a wave whenever I think of what has just happened, when I think of what might happen next, hoping that the Supreme Court had chosen the right man 8 months ago. At these moments, I bring the 5th symphony back—I will not let anyone steal this from me.
As I near the end of the bridge, I see a group of people looking back towards Manhattan, some taking photos. I give in. Stop. Turn. Look. A plume of smoke. Nothing else.
What do I expect? How do you see absence?
I walk, and keep walking, through downtown Brooklyn. Just keep going, sun hot in my face, cheeks knotted, eyes caked with dust, stomach sick, not thinking. Can’t do that. Can’t. It’s too big. Enormous. Just hum Beethoven. And keep on going.
Some people wait for buses. Others walk. And the sirens. And the plume of smoke overhead. Rumors of other bombings, none confirmed, scurry around me. I don’t want to know. It will swallow me if I think about it. Eat me alive. Go and keep going.
Under the hot sun, air full with the smell of concrete and burn, a thick plume still arching over Brooklyn, I walk, eventually turning left to make it to a street that looks like it goes all the way through downtown to Parkslope and beyond. I have only ever taken the subway this far, so I’m guessing. It looks right.
As long as I keep going, I know I will eventually find my way home.
Thoughts of my mother, my friends begin creeping in as I walk through Cobble Hill. A car is playing a radio, volume up, all its doors open. I stop to listen along with about a dozen or so others. Just the facts.
“We have a new skyline. Thousands feared dead. Four planes. Pentagon. Pennsylvania. No word on a response.”
Then “in an attempt to return to some normalcy, the traffic report. Bridges and tunnels closed inbound. Trains suspended, but for some in the outer boroughs, and that only perhaps because of power outages. Buses suspended. But perhaps only in Manhattan. Manhattan closed south of Canal. All airports closed.”
I start walking again. Then, I notice I’m thirsty and need to let people know I have survived. Physically.
I stop in a deli and buy a Gatorade, and see a dark-skinned, dark-haired man behind the counter. In spite of myself, it flashes through my mind that I should do something… it could be…
I push this too-heavy thought away.
He looks slightly frightened as he gives me my change. With the change, I call Sofi. Tell her I am alive, and ask her to call my mother, giving her the number. I then keep going.
After crossing a canal separating Red Hook from Park Slope, I round a corner, and there are several men with a forklift and a pallet of water.
“Here,” one man says, “here’s some more water.”
I accept with thanks and keep going.
Finding Third Avenue, I start south to 61st. In front of me, behind me, are the remnants of the exodus, a sporadic stream of men and women trudging along, all silent. But for the sirens. Still everywhere.
The sun is so hot. I feel it burning my face, my eyes itching from the dust, and the ball of tightness in my cheeks aches.
But, as I walk, I keep Beethoven there.
Reminding myself there is still beauty, and as long as I remember that, it can never be taken from me. I won’t let them win. They will not beat me. I will not permit that. It can not happen.
Then an offhand comment that Jemila, my friend from last night’s call, made, quoting Booker T. Washington: “I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.”
She used it—I can’t even remember in reference to what, but as nothing compared with now. Yet I will take that to heart—I won’t; I can’t let them steal from me what is best. I will never allow that. For I would be worse than they, as I know better, and yet I would have turned away from that.
No. They cannot win.
And so I keep going, passing cop cars blocking streets around a federal prison, where police watch, bearing shotguns, and the lines of traffic waiting to head onto the BQE, trying to get anywhere but here.
A young hip-hop kid walks towards me, someone I would never have spoken to, nor would he have ever spoken to me on a normal day.
“Man, it’s fucked up. Hits in LA. A plane in Chicago with bombs at the airport.”
I shake my head. I mean, really, what in the hell can I say? What words can convey this. I feel impotent. “Man.”
He just shakes his head. Holds his hand up. We high-five. Walk away. It’s different now.
Snippets of conversations I pass by: “They finally brought it over here…” “…fuckers…” “…blow the fuck out of them…” “…bomb them back to the stone age…”
This is still too enormous for me to think about. I simply can’t think about it. Not now. I wish not ever, but know, eventually, I must. I use those magnificent phrases from the 4th movement of the fifth to keep me going, 20 more blocks, 10, 5, 1.
I go into my building, and out of habit, thoughtlessly, I check for my mail, what bills I might get, advertisements. Nothing. Of course, the post office would have shut down.
To my apartment where my two cats are. They purr and meow, greeting me. I envy them right now. But I must keep going. If I slow down, my thoughts might catch up with me.
I have seen no footage, no image yet, though my shoes, my shirt, hair, fingers are dusted with what was, until three hours before, the Twin Towers.
Phone calls: I can’t reach my mother, but leave a message. My sister calls, no, nothing in Chicago. Nothing in LA. A flurry of emails. My friends from Mexico offering me a place to stay if I wish to leave.
More messages saying, “I’ve been trying to reach you. All the circuits are busy.”
I call Sofi for the latest news. Only New York and The Pentagon were hit. One plane went down in Pennsylvania. No word yet otherwise. Bush to address the nation at 9. I want to see it, and having no television, I invite myself over.
“Sure, whenever….” But first, I answer more emails. I scour the net for news.
And those damned sirens. Still those damned sirens. Is this some new disaster? Or still the one I escaped? I can’t tell. I have no way of telling. The plume still arches over Brooklyn.
It smells of soot, burn, and concrete.
I read all I can, still trying not to think, not really, not deeply, just trying to…I don’t even know…read and not think, fill myself, staunch the flow of thoughts too heavy for me. I cannot even think of the kindness of strangers, for I weep when I do, more than for the dead, for that is simply too big an emotion for this one small body, this one lone mind. I still have to keep going.
I’m hungry. Tired. Sunburnt. And straining under the weight of the thoughts that fill the air around me.
Then I realize I’m still covered in dust. My hair is stiff with it, eyes caked.
I shower, and this gives me a little too much time to think, and I need to leave, keep going, never stop, never stop, not until I fall asleep, and after I dress, I walk to Bay Ridge, just a few minutes away to buy some groceries. My usual vegetables, tofu. But, somehow, I can’t make up my mind about anything. Which tomatoes?
I lose track of where I am.
I keep having moments of surprise at finding myself in a corner grocery, shopping. Shopping? What am I doing shopping? Yes, to keep going. Not not allow myself too long a time to think.
Still, it takes me so much time just to select a few items, and am not even sure if that is what I want or need, but I also know it really doesn’t matter.
Then, I notice the sounds of a news cast and then the television up above. I see for the first time what it was I had just walked away from.
I feel nothing as I watch.
The plane striking. The flames I saw only a few hours ago. The dust I had walked through. The absence.
I don’t know how long I stared at the TV. But I can’t watch any more. I pay, and then, as I walk down the avenue, I remember I forgot cat food. I have to get cat food. I crisscross the street going into first one, then another grocery. Friskies, not Hills. But that matters nothing. Nothing.
Less than nothing.
I pass a street packed with Fire engines. From New Jersey. Connecticut. Long Island. The police station a block away has cars two deep parked around it. I remember hearing earlier, I think at the car in Cobble Hill, that all retired officers and firefighters had to report back to duty.
I make it back home with the images the rest of the world—those who were not there—in my head for the first time. The plume of smoke still arches across Brooklyn. The smell of concrete and burn. Sirens still wail.
I hate them now, the sirens. Hate them.
My super, a big strong man from the Dominican Republic, sits in the stairwell. His eyes are red, holds a ball of tissue in his hands. Just shakes his head. “I laid pipe in there. The columns were thick. Thick. As big as this.” He moves his hands around, indicating the whole stairwell, and shakes his head.
The front door slams behind me, and we both jump. I hate loud noises now.
At home, I have to eat.
I am nauseated but know I have to do something. After a quick sandwich, I put in Beethoven, this time the 4th movement of his 9th symphony, what I think is the most magnificent piece of music ever written—I cannot let them win. They will never take this beauty from me.
I let the music flow over me. It drowns out the sirens, masks the stench, covers my eyes to the dust that I somehow cannot yet, wipe from my shoes. Before I leave for Sofi and Krassi’s house, I take solace, if that is even the right word, from reading the words of other countries, from Russia, England, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, all countries that were once our enemies. This seems odd to me just then—that I feel better about that than anything I had yet heard today, except the calls and emails from friends and family.
For my trip to Sofi and Krassi’s
I have to pick a new book to read. The next one in line to read is War and Peace. The irony is too clumsy. Instead, I select Candide. Ironic, yes, but at least subtly.
I read it on the subway to their house, and as I read a description of Voltaire, I smile. Really smile for the first time this day as his philosophy of Deistic humanism is sketched out for me and how he wanted to be the one that undid the work of twelve…I had wanted to do this when I was younger.
I do not feel bad for smiling
For forgetting for a few moments what has just happened, because I can’t let them win, and I will not give away what I hold within me, no matter how frail or trivial it may seem. Others may give them their minds, their emotions if they choose, but I shall not.
I watch President Bush’s address
arriving just as it begins. No real comfort. Just enough to make it through this night. Nothing stupid has been done. Some loose, aimless fears are calmed. For now. Flipping through channels. More of the same. Dead bodies. Rescues. Cell phones. Repeated images of piloted missiles and buildings crumbling. Death, and more death, and still more… I have to leave.
Still, those god-damned sirens.
And that smell of burn and concrete. At home, more emails. Phone calls. Eventually, I am too tired to stay awake. I sleep. And today is such a fine, beautiful September day, like yesterday. But, this morning, I smell concrete and burn, and the sound of jet fighters fills the air.
My friend Maureen wrote me last night: “Feel blessed to be alive!”
I’m trying. Trying like hell right now.
This was initially published as the completely raw email on a friend of a friend’s website, long since taken down: ACME Cargo, I think it was. Sixty words of it made it into the October issue of Esquire Magazine “What They Saw,” and a much-edited version was published in the OSU Alumni magazine.
I adapted that for my own website, which you can find here.
Following up 1, 10, and 20 years after
Along with two follow-up pieces for the Alumni magazine.
One a year later,
Another ten years later.
I wrote one for exclusively my followers on the 20th anniversary.
It seems impossible. That it was that long ago. That it ever happened.
I know everyone who is old enough has their own story of that day. What’s yours?
Thank you for reading,
W. Lance Hunt
P.S. if you think anyone else would like to read this small story, feel free to forward it. Or send the link you can find here.