Time has its advantages. When not too much of it had passed following that mid-September day back in 2001, my mind was able to go over those darkest of times in small pieces and only from the perspective of knee jerk reactions, as if re-living each moment of crisis as they had previously occurred.
But as the years passed, my memory became able to step back and recall a bigger picture besides strictly just my immediate reactions of horror, shock, and instinctive motion. For the 10th Anniversary of September 11th in 2011 I wrote about my first 36 minutes of the day that changed both Life and History and it was more than enough.
But the time has come to recall my experience of 9/11 in its entirety.
I was on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 6th Street in New York City’s East Village when Flight 175 flew head on into the World Trade Center’s South Tower at 9:03 AM. Despite the aircraft’s course of collision moving from South to North, its impact created a most massive fireball that swirled across the sky directly in front of me. To pick up where I last left off in my piece, “September 11th – My First 36 Minutes”:
“At that point I hadn’t realized that I, too, had also gone into total shock, which translated to my psyche transforming me into a super calm, slow talking robot with manners. Commenting out loud to no one in particular how already late for work I was, I took my leave of the corner of 3rd and 6th…in as calm and orderly a fashion befitting a Stepford Husband that was smiling way, way too hard.”
I walked briskly towards Gramercy Park where I worked on 19th Street and Park Avenue. Despite heading north, I couldn’t help but turn abruptly around every 20 or so seconds to see that not only had the unnaturally black cumulonimbus cloud of smoke that spewed like an ever flowing stream of vomit from the North Tower had in no way abated, it now was merging into the lower Manhattan skyline with the South Tower’s billowing grey smoke which was newly emanating from the explosion I had just witnessed.
I may have been in shock but seeing not one but TWO fire caused stacks of smoke from not one but BOTH Twin Towers forced me to face the grim reality that the situation was dire and wouldn’t be something that the NYC Fire Department would soon enough settle and fix.
A horrifying thought then suddenly occurred to me, Are we being attacked?
As I power-walked to work, I uncontrollably looked back every 10 or so seconds I got my phone out and called the person whom any given human tries to contact whenever placed in a position of vulnerable helplessness – my mother.
“Ma, is your TV on?”
“Turn it on. If you’re seeing what I’m seeing we’re in trouble.”
(turning on television) “Oh! The World Trade Center’s on fire!”
“We’re in trouble.”
Not knowing nearly a week would pass before a phone line would be available to get through to her again, I reassured my mother I was fine and that I’d call her later in the day before quickly hanging up and entering the building where I worked.
The building where my job was located wasn’t a sky scraper but it had 25 stories and something was clearly off from the moment I entered. The lobby and main hallway had marble floors and high ceilings which meant the din and echo of sound was always unusually loud and overpowering whenever waiting for an elevator.
But not on that day.
As during every business morning, the usual stream of people were shuffling in from their commuter trains and subways but stealthily, with barely a sound. Despite the weather being utterly stellar and accompanied by clarity that was not to be believed, the air felt thick with heaviness as if the atmosphere already could foresee the unimagined horrors which were soon to befall the city.
I made it to my cubicle on the 19th floor about 40 minutes late, but no one readily noticed. Everyone put on a surface appearance of being busily productive but couldn’t focus due to the distraction of waiting.
And the wait wasn’t long.
It was exactly 10 AM when one of my co-workers ran into my work space. Her eyes were frantically large and bulging with shock but with the slowest of intensity said to me:
“One of the Towers just fell.”
I didn’t respond. I flew from my chair and sprinted towards a copier room nestled in between the lunch room and a supply closet down the opposite end of the hallway. A glorified closet unto itself, the space could only accommodate the copier and whomever was in the process of using it at any given moment. The most noteworthy aspect to this cramped alcove was its long and narrow rectangular window that faced due south providing an unhindered view of downtown and the Financial District. Upon reaching the window in record time as if I had crossed the finish line of an Olympic relay race I stopped dead in my tracks and was struck motionless.
I heard myself gasp upon seeing the ghoulish vision of horror displayed before me. A vision resembling the most perverse portrait of Hell as if it were a synthesized hybrid of Hieronymus Bosch’s and Dante Alighieri’s worst nightmares.
One Tower still stood in tact but was in its last throes by virtue of the smoke coming from it looking even more thick and profuse. Next to it was a sight so surreal, every New Yorker would never have thought it possible.
The South Tower was simply no longer there.
The only thing that remained of the awe inspiring structure was a single naked girder that etched itself across the smoke filled sky like a jagged claw about to scrape itself across a newly dried chalk board. Its height being the only hint of its former glorious self.
For roughly 12-16 minutes the girder freely stood next to the other Tower like a badly burnt giant toothpick. The last standing bone of the gargantuan building’s skeleton was gnarled as if hunched over holding its sides, mocking those who bragged that nothing could ever take down these book ended behemoths otherwise known as The Twin Towers.
My brain was still trying to comprehend what my eyes were undoubtedly seeing when a voice came over the intercom system saying:
“All personnel please repeat to the 1st floor lobby for an emergency meeting at 1030. All personnel please report the 1st floor lobby at 1030.”
By 1028 AM the lobby was filled to capacity with people overflowing the side hallways as well as standing just beyond the building’s front doors outside. The buzz of numerous hypotheses being worriedly discussed brought the lobby back to its old echoing, deafening self, once more. But silence immediately ensued when two men each stood on a chair to address the room – the company’s Vice President along with the building manager.
Strangely enough the building manager did nearly all of the talking. He confirmed that the South Tower had indeed fallen but emphasized not knowing the exact cause nor who was responsible. As he started to relay his safety and fire escape plans for the building we were currently in, I noticed through the glass entranceway a man running in a panic towards the main doors. He opened one of the glass doors and screamed aloud to the throngs of people assembled before him,
“THE SECOND TOWER HAS FALLEN!!!”
That moment in time is permanently seared in my memory since it caused something to happen I have not experienced neither before nor since.
Every person assembled in the lobby simultaneously reacted in unison by gasping in shock. The inward gulping of air made by hundreds of people at the exact same time made a sound which was utterly unique that I pray I’ll never hear again.
But the reactions of mass unison ended there. Some people began to openly weep while others held them regardless if they knew who was standing next to them or not. Others started to panic aloud stating to no one in particular how they had to get back to the Bronx/Long Island/Connecticut. In a similar vein of helpless shock, a few asked aloud “What do we do?”.
A bunch of people, myself being one of them, stood there silently stunned, wondering what would become of ourselves and our world as we formerly knew it.
Cover photo: fireengineering.com
Brad Kronen’s book “Love in the Stars” published by Llewellyn Worldwide, Inc. is available for purchase at your local book seller or online at amazon.com at the link listed below.